There was a lot riding on Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, more than I think many people realise. Kickstarted back in 2015 and being helmed by Koji Igarashi, creative director of one of the greatest games of all time (Ever heard of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night?) expectations for this game’s release…well, I can imagine how daunting it must have been for the developers. This was to be a return to the Castlevania formula fans of the franchise were begging for but Konami wasn’t interested in providing. Thousands of Igarashi’s dedicated fans and supporters donating money to the spiritual successor of his magnum opus, despite Kickstarter projects not exactly having the greatest track record for quality post-release. Look, all I’m saying is Bloodstained is an important game to a lot of people, and that collective will be so pleased to know that it is a fantastic experience…if you lower your standards a touch.
First off, this game couldn’t be closer to Symphony of the Night if you sprinkled a couple of Draculas into its metaphorical salad. It’s scary how much Bloodstained lifts from the old PS1 game, so much so that I’m surprised Konami hasn’t slapped a big ol’ lawsuit on Igarashi’s desk. The massive interconnected world, a slew of upgrades to unlock new locations and routes and the ever-present feeling of a painting with eyes that seem like they follow you through the room, Bloodstained takes everything that SotN did so incredibly well 20 years ago and refines it until it glitters in the blood red moonlight. The level design is simply exceptional, with different stages bleeding into one another and crossing over in ways you could have never predicted, the paths become more entwined the more traversal abilities you unlock. There’s always something new to look forward to, every room hiding some kind of unique challenge or secret you’d miss on your first run through, Bloodstained’s map is easily the most impressive thing the game has to offer.
Hey, did you order a side of gameplay? Well, patron, it seems like there’s been a mix up in the kitchen. Are you sure you didn’t order this whopping platter of steamed gameplay? So says Bloodstained, standing over your table, holding out a sparkling plate of options for you to play around with. While exploring the ever-expanding map, you’ll be unlocking spells by killing just so many demons, each one having a unique ability that can be equipped as usable spells or as passive bonuses. Combine this with dozens of weapons such as swords, guns, spears and whips you’ll quickly find a playstyle that best suits your demon-slaying needs. Whether it’s pouring all your available resources into crafting the best weapons early in the game or instead placing an emphasis on the sorts of spells you want to focus on, Bloodstained wants to help you find something that feels customisable, even if it is a little too easy to always have the best equipment on offer. Also, just as a side note, I thought it was kinda weird that nearly all the equipment physically appears on Miriam, the playable character, except for her body armour? Not a fault, just a bizarre inconsistency.
Which I suppose can also be said for the game’s presentation which somehow manages to be hauntingly beautiful yet outdated in the same breath. The environments, backdrops, characters and enemies are so immaculately designed I found myself analysing each one’s in-game model upon discovery just to appreciate the efforts of the artists who clearly poured a great deal of love into Bloodstained. Same goes for the environments, with many just begging to be soaked in like the magnificent vistas they are. Whether it’s a spooky moon that’s both unnaturally large and bloody or a walkway littered with spectating ravens, the gothic is obviously at the core of Bloodstained, as it well should be. What would a spiritual successor to ye olde Castlevania games be without werewolves, skeletons and all manner of colourful pixies? Hollow Knight, that’s what.
Ugh, I’ll admit I’ve been stalling. I’ve been dreading this part of the review, but there’s no avoiding that as wonderful an experience as Bloodstained is, it does a lot of things wrong. Playing the game feels a lot like playing SotN which sure, is the very feeling it’s trying to evoke. But a lot of improvements have been made to the formula that was established back on the PS1, and Bloodstained feels almost outdated at times due to how closely it’s trying to pay homage to the past.
Combat feels bland and uninspired, with Miriam only being able to attack horizontally. There’s some potential for stylish combos to be pulled off, but the inputs are janky and feel too cumbersome to have any kind of real impact on effective combat. The game does players a disservice by forcing them to first play the game on the easiest difficulty; enemies are a pushover and boss battles, while incredibly stylish and fun to look at, are far too simple with many going down after a few seconds of using one of the first unlockable spells in the game.
And as good as the overall experience looks from a design perspective, I can’t help but feel that some corners were cut by the animation department. Despite the abundance of weapons in the game (arguably too many, as the vast majority feature as clutter rather than viable tools) all weapon types have the same singular animation when attacking. Kinda takes away the feeling of growing more powerful when the spear that does +10 more damage attacks in exactly the same way as the last four spears you used, ya know? Besides this, cutscenes are janky as all hell, with many animations seemingly cut short or left out altogether. Clipping through walls, poor lip-syncing and a general lack of polish make for some moments that just didn’t feel right given how impressive so many other aspects of Bloodstained are.
There’re other issues as well that I don’t think are worth going too deeply into but still bothered me. The story is clichéd but fine; it was never the reason I wanted to progress things forward but it at the very least provided some much-needed context. Many of the game’s side-quests follow the same formula of killing a certain amount of enemies or finding a particular item that felt more like busy work than actual quests to track down and complete. Miriam’s default movement feels just a touch too slow and clunky for the space she’s expected to navigate. There’s…well, there’s just a lot of little things that could be overlooked but still add up after a while with the game. The sort of things that don’t seem like they would have been difficult to fix but still made it into the final release, so maybe they’re intentional, but they didn’t mesh well with me.
I’m not ending this review on a negative though, I refuse. Because you should play Bloodstained. If you’re a fan of traditional SotN style Castlevania titles or just the broader genre of metroidvania you will undoubtedly enjoy this game. Just bear in mind that a lot of time has passed since your initial trip into Koji Igarashi’s particular brand of action game and some things haven’t aged as well as you thought. If you aren’t tied down to the past and go into this game expecting an enjoyable explorative experience with lots of unlockables and some gorgeous views, you’ll enjoy every second if you can put up with repetitive combat and underdeveloped animations.
Last Updated: June 25, 2019