Well I’ll be damned, it’s finally here. After its release was pushed back enough times, I was beginning to wonder if this game would be another one of those Kickstarter casualties, unable to deliver on its promises due to the minefield of mismanagement, problematic staff members, and over- or underestimation of costs and deadlines that crowdfunded projects have to negotiate to reach fruition.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a long-awaited metroidvania game from Koji Igarashi, one of the game designers behind Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997), an amazing action platformer that was the impetus behind the creation of the genre name “metroidvania” in the first place. Obviously Igarashi wasn’t the only person who worked on the game, but he’s certainly given a huge amount of credit for it, and when he left Konami to do his own project, we wondered if he’d be able to bring the goods on his own. So did he? Simply put, yes, a thousand times yes. This game is everything a fan of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night could want – and plenty more besides.
I think I need to back up a bit here to provide a bit of necessary context. The metroidvania genre, really quick for anyone who doesn’t know, are games – usually 2D platformers, but they can be fully 3D games also – in which the player can freely explore, fighting enemies, finding items, and defeating bosses. Their progress will occasionally be hindered by things like locked doors, unreachable areas, or impassable obstacles they’ll need to find means to bypass, thereby increasing their character’s abilities and opening up more of the game. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night set this formula in stone and was the first game in the franchise I liked – I never cared for the older, linear Castlevania games.
A slew of imitators implementing the metroidvania formula, to varying degrees, have come and gone over the years. The Castlevania franchise itself adopted the formula as its signature for most of its 2D and even 3D iterations to follow. Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia on the Nintendo DS was a great 2D example and Castlevania: Curse of Darkness on the PS2 was a great 3D example. More recent examples include titles such as the awesome Axiom Verge, which I’ve reviewed before; Hollow Knight, one of the most beautiful 2D games I’ve ever seen which is also hella challenging; Salt and Sanctuary, which adds a heavy dose of Dark Souls into the 2D metroidvania formula; Iconoclasts, a very cinematic and story-driven platform adventure; and the Shantae franchise featuring the adorable booty-shaking half-genie whose progress is usually blocked until she can find new animal forms to morph into.
My point is, metroidvania games aren’t exactly rare and most of them are pretty good – so surely Igarashi couldn’t hope to impress by simply churning out a Symphony of the Night clone and calling it a day. The genre has evolved since then and he’d really have to bring his A-game as the father of the genre. Luckily, it seems that’s exactly what he did, and all the extra development time was, in fact, put towards tweaking and fine-tuning the game and not clawing his way out of a crowdfunded crater.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is set in the industrial revolution era, a time when people were turning away from religion and mysticism toward science and technology. A cabal of alchemists worried that his would mean the end of their livelihood and performed a secret ritual to summon a plague of demons – intending to pass off the plague as a punishment for people’s spurning of spirituality and prove that their alchemical arts are still needed. Unfortunately, the alchemists bit off more than they could chew, and a young woman named Miriam, with the powers to absorb demonic abilities, is sent in to put a stop to it. That’s the gist of it, but the story gets more convoluted, tying Miriam’s past and powers into the whole mess.
The game starts as Miriam arrives at a mysterious castle that suddenly appeared from nowhere and is assumed to be the source of the demonic invasion – write what you know, eh Igarashi? After a short, scene-setting run-around, in which you’re introduced to the several characters who populate your home base and the services they provide (shopkeeper, crafting guy, several quest-givers), you’re pretty much left to your own devices. The initial path is quite linear, although you’ll easily see there are jumps you can’t reach, doors you can’t open, and other obstacles you’ll raise an eyebrow at. So you’ll follow the only available path, beat some bosses, earn some abilities, and begin the long process of accessing more and more of the map as you acquire the means to do so – classic metroidvania, right there.
The comparisons to Symphony of the Night are many, coming as it does from Igarashi. There are hundreds and hundreds of weapons, armour pieces, rings, accessories, consumables, food and cosmetic items in the game, some dropped by enemies, some found in chests, some sold by NPCs, and some of which must be crafted by finding the necessary ingredients. Every weapon in the game not only allows Miriam to attack, but also has a selection of Street Fighter-esque special attacks you can perform after learning the correct command sequence.
But Miriam’s main strength is her ability to use shards, which are crystals acquired from enemies that grant her all kinds of special abilities, such as fireball spells, summoned familiars, dozens of different buffs, and even a few key ones offering traversal options for progressing in the game, such as a jet stream of bubbles that allows her to move under water. There are five slots for shards, one for attack shards, one for directed shards which you must aim yourself using the right stick, one for utility shards that allow Miriam to manipulate her environment, one for passive buffs, and one for familiars. You can have a shard equipped in each slot and, given that every enemy type in the game drops a unique type of shard – every single one of them, and there are hundreds – the character build possibilities are endless.
I decided to focus on magic, myself, tooling up Miriam with shards and equipment that would boost her magic stats. By the late game, I was filling entire halls with columns of fire, insta-killing even powerful enemies while cackling like a maniac – but I never felt overpowered. I spent around 20 hours acquiring this godlike power, and by gum I was going to use it! And while it made getting around safely a non-issue, it didn’t make the bosses any easier. A metroidvania game is only as good as its bosses, the targets against which you bring all of your acquired weapons and skills to bear – and Bloodstained has some good ones. They’re not the hardest I’ve ever fought, I think Hollow Knight speed-bags your sack a lot harder with its vicious and unrelenting bosses, but Bloodstained’s ones still don’t make it easy for you. You have to learn their attack patterns, and many of them start altering their attacks and spells once you start winning. The fights against Zangetsu were my favourite by a long shot – where I couldn’t help but equip a katana on Miriam and fight Zangetsu toe-to-toe, parrying, quick-drawing, dodging… it was great. Of course, in a game with such as huge variety weapons, spells and abilities, I’m almost certain exploits will be found. Look for them on YouTube, if you’re stuck.
Another thing I love about this game is that there’s no hand-holding at all here. The first time I got stuck, it lasted for hours as I wandered around trying to find areas I hadn’t been to or bosses I hadn’t beaten – eventually realising I forgot that Miriam can manipulate certain magical items with the right stick… like, for instance, the huge, obvious, colourful gems on the shelves in the library. Oy… Have you ever despaired at your own idiocy? The second time I got stuck was after beating a boss, after which I expected to find a new traversal ability, or door key, or something, but instead all I found was a wrap-around room to an area I’d already been to. Okay? I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go, but, in a surprising moment of clarity, I thought, hey, the attack shard I got from that boss said something about X, and there was a room full of X… what if? And sure enough, it worked. Using an attack ability to progress in the game, with no precursor to suggest such a thing might be possible. Touché, Bloodstained, touché.
So yes, I love the non-hand-holding gameplay, the hundreds of weapons, items and spells, and the plethora of silly hats, scarves, and hairdos you can dress Miriam up in, but the game is not perfect. It has a few niggles. The first one is that, with so much gear, you’d expect some kind of quick-select option to access different weapons and spells and so on – and there is one, but it’s a bit of train wreck. It’s hard to explain, but the big problem is that you can only select entire equipment sets at once, meaning that, if you have an item in every set you want to keep, when you eventually change it to a new one, you have to edit each individual set to update them with your new item. It’s less tedious to jump into the menu and equip new stuff whenever you need it. The second, believe it or not, is the performance. I played the PS4 version, standard not Pro, and it was fine most of the time, but, in some areas, particularly the ones where the camera zooms out to show a wider area, the game suffers from noticeable slowdown. Um, why? The game looks great, sure, but it’s nowhere near the best looking game on the system. If a game like, say, Red Dead Redemption 2 can run flawlessly on a standard PS4, in a full 3D environment, with the most beautiful visuals ever to grace mankind – how the hell does a simple 2D platformer, with a fixed camera, offering untold potential for optimisation, suffer from slowdown?
Surprisingly, I can’t think of anything else to write, so I’d better end the review here before I do. In my opinion, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night was well worth the agonising wait and delivers the Symphony of the Night experience we’d hoped for, and then some. If you like its spiritual predecessor, or metroidvania games in general, you’ll probably be quite happy with this.
It was a long time coming, but Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night was worth the wait, especially for gamers who wanted something similar to Symphony of the Night. The variety of enemies, weapons, items and bosses, coupled with the depth of crafting and character customisation it allows make it one of the most deeply engrossing games I've played in years. It's just a pity about the odd performance issues in some areas.
Great visuals, with each area of the castle having a distinct feel
Dressing up Myriam with different hairdos, hats, boots, funny nose glasses and voice-changing accessories that make her sound like a chipmunk, even in cutscenes, is endlessly entertaining
Wonder why you didn't get a good ending simply heading the final boss and kicking his ass? You didn't think it was going to be that easy, did you?
Inexplicable and unjustifiable slowdown in some areas
Quick-select system for gear sets somehow manages to be more tedious than simply swapping gear from the menu
I'm sure lots of effort was put into the music and I appreciate that, but I can't remember a single track from this game, whereas Castlevania: Symphony of the Night's (and other Castlevania games) various tracks play in my head unbidden to this day – which is a bit disappointing considering Bloodstained's legacy