Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is indeed deserving of the epithet, spiritual successor.
June 2019 is a great time for us long-time Castlevania fans. In May, Konami released a 50th Anniversary Castlevania Collection. On June 18th, the long-awaited Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night finally hit the shelves too.
In case you’re unfamiliar, “Bloodstained” is the latest masterpiece of Koji Igarashi, who was the lead producer for most Castlevania games between 1999 and 2011. Without going into all the complaints, controversies, and fan angst involved, Igarashi “abruptly” left the Japanese developer in 2014. Thereafter, he launched a Kickstarter campaign for a new game, a project he termed as a Castlevania spiritual successor. The campaign went on to break funding records, so much so that 8-bit homage was created to thank backers.
All these are now just background stories, though, and with the game fully released three days ago, the question is currently, does Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night live up to expectations? While no one doubts the abilities of Igarashi or his assembled team, there are still the questions of, err, copyright *, and whether the Metroidvania formula would still entertain in this day and age.
The following is my highly personalized review of Bloodstained, using criteria I evaluated Castlevania games with throughout my 33 years of playing the series. In advance, let me acknowledge that I know some of these criteria would feel absurd. But, well, this is a fanboy review. Let’s be honest too. Given the history involved, which CV player wouldn’t be comparing?
* As in, how much can be mimicked without Konami going ape shit?
All screenshots belong to the creators of the game.
Stage Design (5/5)
When playing Castlevania games in the late 80s and 90s, I was absolutely spellbound by the stage designs, to the extent I developed a lifelong fascination with European castles. Without going into too many details, let me just say that what captivated me was the majestic, decaying beauty of each CV area and the fact that every CV castle is like a miniature open-world. A vast realm with dance halls, libraries, alchemist labs, dungeons, and so on.
As far as this aspect is concerned, Bloodstained does a superb job of replicating that trademark macabre and exotic feel. The quiet beauty of the areas I’ve been to did not immediately blow me away, but as I explored, the aesthetics increasingly appealed. I also deeply appreciated the effort to include distinctive key features within each area. Features such as a huge font of blood, a moonlit garden gazebo, an entrance guardhouse, and so on.
I should mention too that the areas connect and play like a true Metroidvania game. Walls hide a variety of power-ups and secrets. A stroll down a quiet corridor abruptly returns you from the Garden to the Castle Entrance. It might not be Dracula’s castle but IMO, this is about as close as it can get. In some ways, with the game powered by the latest technologies, Bloodstained’s castle feels even “lovelier” than all previous CV ones.
The Music (4/5)
This is very, VERY IMPORTANT to me, as Castlevania was the series that got me hooked on video game music. When playing any new episode, the first thing I’d evaluate would be the music. Whether I like what I hear would then dominate my opinions toward that entry.
With Bloodstained’s music, I’d say, hmm, it’s good but not exactly awesome. Michiru Yamane’s responsible for the soundtrack, so needless to say, there’s that baroque, stirring, rondo-like signature CV feel.
On the other hand, what I’ve “walked into” so far has yet to immediately impress me. Not like what happened with The Tragic Prince, Cordova Town, or An Empty Tome. But, I acknowledge it might be too early to finalise judgement. I’m but a fifth into the castle. Listening to the soundtrack on YouTube is also quite a different experience from gaming with it.
Sample Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Music
The Story (6/5)
6 out of 5? Is that a typo? No, what I mean is, I feel Bloodstained’s story is actually better than most CV entries.
Particularly the dialogue.
It’s no secret. Castlevania stories are known for their … simplicity. For newer episodes, there was a marked effort to include plot twists and to inject life into protagonists. Few of these efforts enjoyed real success, though. In some case, they even messed up the timeline badly.
Bloodstained follows the same story formula. World-threatening crisis with a lone hero, ambiguous arch-villain, etc. What makes the plot developments intriguing, though, is the quality of dialogue. Other than superb voiceovers, the conversations steadily establish the complexity of the protagonists, particularly Miriam. Quickly, you realise she’s not your typical grim-face, determined world saviour. In spite of her background, she has a biting dry humour. She’s also pretty quick with her comebacks.
Regarding the screenshot above, this was unexpected! A cameo by Sweeney Todd himself?!? Humour like this is hidden throughout the areas I’ve visited. Some, might I add, feel to be deliberate digs at classic Castlevania titles too. (You get quests to avenge Simon, Lisa, Annette, etc)
The Gameplay (5/5)
Regarding this, there’s so much on my mind, I’ll run into three articles if I’m not careful.
So I’ll just state what I look for in a “good Metroidvania” game.
- A deliciously bewildering selection of armaments and armour. Exotic gear, in other words.
- A complex yet manageable magic system. One that doesn’t require too much grinding. (I didn’t like Dawn of Sorrow for this reason)
- Lots of juicy secrets, hidden places, Easter Eggs, etc.
- Colourful, memorable enemies that aren’t just recolouring of sprites.
With reference to these, I’d say Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night fares as follows:
- I’m just 20 % into the castle, and already I’m flustered over gear! What to use, when to use, how to use!! My only regret in this area is that Miriam’s main clothes do not always change with armour swaps. But I acknowledge that might be asking too much.
- The Shard system has five sub-classes, each with its own unique characteristics and usage pattern. Ashamed to say this but, OMG, I’m still struggling not to activate the wrong magic during boss fights. As far as magic complexity is concerned, I have no complaints. At all.
- As mentioned, lots of drinks, power-ups, perhaps even chicken, to find in walls. Lots of hidden chambers, special moves for certain weapons too.
- The naming system for trash mobs is somewhat … unusual. But visually, I have no issue with designs. As for attack patterns, Igarashi! Some of your beasties have too many powers! How many attacks do those demons have?!?!
In addition, there’s a quest system; the standard must-have for games nowadays. There’s also crafting, cooking and farming. Goodness! I’m spending more time out of the castle than in it!
Before I end, let me announce that certain beloved darlings are back too.
- Medusa’s probably tied up by copyright, or whatever. But in replacement we have FLYING DULLAHAN HEADS. (Celty would be aghast)
- When playing the 8-bit CV games, ever mistook the hunchbacks to be toads? Well, they are toads now. And apes.
- Axe Armour has a truly, truly annoying cousin! Shovel Armour!
The short of it, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night to me is the Metroidvania game I’ve been waiting for since Order of Ecclesia. In certain ways, I’d say it’s even more than a “spiritual successor.” Is this going to be the start of a glorious new series?