At least some good came from the whole Konami debacle – namely some of their top developers jumping ship to found their own studios and work on their own new games. One of them was Koji Igarashi, one of the prominent developers of the seminal 1997 platformer Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The first game by his new studio, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, looks very similar to his 1997 hit and is due out some time this year. I can’t wait.
In the meantime, Igarashi hired the studio Inti Creates to develop a small, retro-themed prequel game to tide us over – a direct result of his crowd-funding campaign doing really well. It’s called Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, and it’s pretty good if you like really old school gameplay. If Ritual of the Night comes out and is also good, it will be a rare Kickstarter success story, so let’s hope.
But I digress. Upon starting Curse of the Moon, you get a little a text crawl detailing the story: you play a swordsman named Zangetsu who has a real hard-on for killing demons, so when a great demon appears, he sets out to slay it. That’s it. Not much to work with, but that’s about as much story as you’d get back in 8-bit days, so I guess it’s in the spirit.
After this brief intro, you’re dumped in the game and left to it. It’s very Castlevania, with eerie visuals, a memorable chiptune sountrack, and a stage you traverse left to right, slaying enemies along the way until fight a powerful boss with several sets of attack patterns you need to learn. Along the way, Zangetsu will meet three other characters he can recruit: the whip-wielding Miriam (who also happens to be the star of the upcoming Ritual of the Night), the frail mage Alfred, and the shape-shifting Gebel. Once you’ve recruited these three, you can switch between all four characters at will – even in the middle of a jump.
If you’ve ever played Castlevania III on the NES, this should be familiar to you. Each character has a unique set of abilities, making some of them better suited to fighting certain enemies than others. For instance, Miriam jumps the highest and has the longest-reaching weapon, but her attacks are slow and not particularly powerful. Alfred has the most pathetic melee attack of all, and he has the least hitpoints, but the various magic spells he can acquire are powerful and have some great tactical applications. Gebel can turn into a bat, which is used mostly for exploring and finding hidden areas, but may have some combat applications too.
Another Castlevania trope that found its way into Curse of the Moon is the idea of sub-weapons. Each character has a couple of sub-weapons they can acquire by smashing wall-mounted lamps. These sub-weapons require weapon points to use, which you also acquire by smashing wall-mounted lamps. Zangetsu can acquire a talisman that creates a small damage-over-time sphere where ever it’s thrown, or an aura that powers up his sword attacks for a short time. Miriam gets several types of projectiles and a highly damaging but slow axe. Alfred gets several spells, including the ability to freeze enemies, create a shield of flames, or make a clone of himself. Gebel, unlike his companions, doesn’t get different abilities – instead, the sub-weapon button always turn him into a bat and back. On the plus side, Gebel always gets a big weapon point refill from the purple weapon-dropping lamps, so keep that in mind.
With four unique characters and several different types of sub-weapons, there are all kinds of tactical approaches to fighting the enemies and bosses, but there are a few old-school inclusions that annoy me. The worst by far has to be the fact that your character flies backwards whenever they take a hit – an inclusion from the old Castlevania games I could have done without – often causing your character to fall into death drops. And once a character is dead, they’re dead for good. This can really screw up your strategy for some of the harder stages.
On the plus side again, though, although the game is fairly linear, the stages do have alternate routes and hidden areas, which could hide special items that permanently increase your characters’ life bars and weapon points – well worth looking for. The game also has several endings. How would you acquire those? Well, perhaps instead of having Zangetsu recruit the other characters, you could have him say no. If you’re feeling particularly nasty, you might even try killing them.