With Kickstarters, you’re never sure what you’ll get. A project can sound and look promising, only to find that it was all smoke and mirrors and that the finished product is actually just garbage. Thankfully, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is the Castlevania successor we’ve been waiting for, mostly.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a Castlevania title in basically every way other than the name. In fact, there will surely be times playing this where that line will surely blur as your brain tries to process that what you’re playing actually isn’t involved with the Castlevania series at all. That isn’t a bad thing, and actually, it’s refreshing playing a title that is so sure of itself, even if it’s boasting its inspiration on its sleeve.
You play the character Miriam, an enchanted woman who just woke up from a decade long nap which unknowingly was the only thing that saved her from a ritual sacrifice. Miriam is one of the last “Shardbinders”, a clan of mystics that can adsorb demonic power via shards which bestow said powers upon them. These shards are a focal point of the game, and function by embedding themselves into your skin. Miriam finds out that she is the last of her kind, aside from Gebel, who has gone on a shard-absorbing spree which in turn has led to all hell breaking loose, literally.
Shard management is an important part of Bloodstain’s design. Every demon ultimately lends you their power once enough of that type have been slain. What’s nice is their shard drop rates are revealed in your Archives tab after you’ve cataloged them! These shards grant you abilities from passive skills like faster attacks, to demonic abilities like a giant flail that slams into enemies, Cthulu tentacles that emerge from the void to smash your foes, even the Mario fireball makes its appearance. Other shards let you summon familiars to aid you either offensively or defensively. There are a ton of shards, all with their own unique abilities, the catch is that having too many of these can actually be detrimental to Miriam. This leads to a constant ebb and flow item management situation were hanging on to only those shards that you like/use is a smarter choice than treating shards like Pokemon.
Bloodstained’s environments are gorgeous. It’s nice seeing a game benefit so much from taking additional time to rework its art, and this title certainly proves that our time was worth the wait. There is a polished look and feel to the game’s environments that make it truly stand out for a 2D-platformer. Each screen has layers of depth built into its foregrounds and backgrounds that makes everything feel dense and lived in. This layer of depth doesn’t affect the game-play at all, but aids in the overall aesthetic.
The biggest issue, for me, with how the areas are glued together is the random placement of these “connecting rooms”. When the game needs to transition you from one area to the next, there are a handful of rooms that are used as the connecting piece. The issue is that these rooms feel noticeably disjointed from the rest of the area, or have nothing to do with the area you’re transitioning into. So while you’re moving through the game’s first area, you’ll randomly walk through a large cavernous room with giant marble pillars and torches; the game’s first area is a wooden ship. It’s a large wooden ship, but still a ship nonetheless. A room that looks like it belongs in a castle has no place here, and it can pull you from your immersion at times.
Other times I’d be moving through the castle and there would be 1 or 3 of these “transition rooms”, we’ll call them, which would have me traveling across what felt like a bridge or adjoining walkway with a moon following Miriam in the background. While that sounds fine, the issue is that each of these outside areas would have different moons and lighting, when I surely had only ventured a few screens over. Again, they don’t affect the gameplay at all, but they don’t help tie everything together in a cohesive way either.
What’s nice about exploring these environments though is the number of hidden items or rooms you can find for those willing to take the time to attack every external wall. From weapons to stat upgrades to healing items, the game consistently rewards those willing to take the time to fully explore their surroundings.
Bloodstained’s gameplay is where things will get divisive for players. On the one hand, it’s very similar to its Symphony of the Night counterpart; spamming the attack button lets Miriam spray enemies coming directly at her with attacks from whatever weapon she has equipped. The gameplay is responsive and feels like a very polished 90’s Castlevania title, which is how it should feel given that this is a Koji Igarashi title. The problem for some will be that this feels like a polished 90’s Castlevania title, which will surely make some of its design choices or mechanics feel dated. For those expecting the spiritual successor to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, you’ll be overly pleased with how this game looks and feels. For those expecting maybe a more streamlined, modern Metroidvania, you might be disappointed with what you get.
There are combos and special attacks for specific weapons, which let you expand your moveset further than spamming the light attack button. These generally consist of different half or quarter turns of the left stick and button input. Thankfully these can be found along your journey within the game’s many bookcases; after finding one, they can be found readily available in the game’s journal. However, most of your combat will come down to switching between the light attack button and your magic. The shard system is how you customize Miriam to your playstyle in this title though.
There are a ton of RPG mechanics to take advantage of here as well. The consistent drop/discovery rate of items in this game forces you to constantly analyze your loadouts and leave you always wanting to experiment. Weapons, armor, accessories, items, and upgrades are overly abundant in this game and let you flex your creative muscles when customizing Miriam to your liking. Most of what you equip has a noticeable physical change to her character as well, which isn’t necessary, but appreciated. Oh, and you can change her physical appearance yourself as well, thanks to a scissor-handed Demon named Todd. Yes, you read that correctly. While this NPC is strictly here to appease our cosmetic needs, they wasted no time giving him his own backstory that fits him nicely into the over-arching story… I mean, not really, but they tried.
If that wasn’t enough RPG mechanics for you, there is a deep crafting section as well. Items drop from enemies and breakable objects organically throughout your adventure, and there is typically little extra grinding required in order to get the materials you need. While this might feel like a dated game at times, there are noticeable modern features that were included here that would’ve never been given breath on their own back in the day. These quality of life inclusions are small in the grand scheme of things but make the game more enjoyable to play because of it. “Create and Equip” is one such feature that helps you spend less time item managing and more time killing.
In terms of difficulty, the game’s lack of an easy mode might be alarming to some, but normal mode offers a fair experience for most newcomers. For those looking for more of a challenge right out of the gate, selecting New Game offers Normal, Hard, and Nightmare mode all at the start of the game, so you masochists don’t need to waste time with the “easier” difficulties. That being said, some of the bosses are a decent challenge, especially for those still getting used to the controls. I don’t agree with the game making your character take damage from just running into an enemy, but maybe that’s just me. Most bosses have extremely telegraphed moves that make them easy to dodge after a few minutes of analysis.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night isn’t without its fair share of issues. There is a bug, which should’ve been patched by now, that prevents you from accessing your save file, forcing a reset. Frame rate issues plague the game heavily when there is too much going on on screen, or when the game is just firing up. There were a few times where the screen would freeze if I tried jumping between things too quickly. There are quite a few typos and some audio glitches. The biggest issue for me was the game’s voice acting. I get that this was a smaller project made by a smaller team, but man, some of those actors could’ve tried more to earn that paycheck. Some of the voice work is so bad, I muted the cutscene and read the conversation on my own.
All that being said, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a Kickstarter project that ultimately came out on top. While its flaws are clearly visible, this is more due to how polished the rest of the game is, than it is due to a lazy development cycle. Those looking for a true Castlevania experience really can’t get any closer to that than Bloodstained. I can see it’s dated gameplay turning some off, but this is the full package and a truly enjoyable one at that. Koji Igarashi has outdone himself and I can’t wait to see what he gives us next.