Castlevania fans have had to wait a long time for something that tickles their fancy from Koji Igarashi and team, with 2010 feeling like a long time ago. Igarashi left Konami in 2014 after being moved into mobile game development, where he wanted to make games that still played like console games. Now as co-founder of his own company, his Kickstarted game Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is here to fulfil those Metroidvania cravings.
You play as Miriam, a girl who slept while the world fell into chaos. Alchemists fused crystals with your body and you were to be sacrificed, but your odd slumber caused them to pause. Now the alchemists need your help, as your abilities as a Shardbinder and combat training give you an edge over the demons. But Miriam is more interested in why her friend, another Shardbinder named Gebel, is involved with the arrival of a massive castle with demons pouring out of it.
Familiar stomping grounds
As you can imagine with Igarashi involved, this is a Castlevania game in everything but name. Miriam is a master of all types of weapons, from daggers and spears to greatswords and whips, each with their advantages and disadvantages, from damage type to attack speed and recovery time. Get ready to explore a vast castle, find abilities to traverse to new areas that were inaccessible before as you hunt down the truth of what is happening in the castle.
Almost every demon you face can drop a shard, which will give you access to a new ability. These shards can be new traversal skills, attacks, stat improvements or familiars to help you in combat. You can only equip one of each type of shard, so you will end up switching around as the situation demands it. Some enemies will resist certain damage types, making your favourite spell and weapon a lot less effective. Luckily Miriam can carry a veritable arsenal around with her, meaning you should eventually amass all the tools you might want or need for fighting enemies. That is, if you can find them.
Iga is up to his normal tricks and if you enjoy the formula of backtracking with new abilities, searching out corners you might have left unexplored or doorways and chests you just couldn’t access before, you will feel right at home. Similarly, you can reach the boss early on and get a bad ending by fighting them far too early. You better learn the full story so you can go in prepared! Sometimes an NPC will offer vague advice on how to progress, but often you are just left combing the map for missed chests and unexplored areas, scratching your head hoping that you will fight an enemy or open a chest that gives you what you need to progress. I often wished I had other coloured markers I could drop on the map to remind myself of a chest or door I couldn’t reach, because after a while my markers were everywhere. Even the few NPCs in the castle don’t get marked, so make sure to take note of where they are in this sprawling labyrinth.
Re-learning the ropes
Very early on, the game teaches you that while this has RPG elements, you need to be quick, clever and defensive as you play. Even with the best armour, some enemies will shave a nasty chunk off your health, so you better get your pattern-recognition glasses on. Ducking, weaving, backstepping during a melee attack to deliver another blow and using your magical abilities to maximum effect is critical to surviving as you explore the castle, hunting for save rooms that will heal you back up, or fast travel rooms to head back and enhance your gear or perhaps buy some restorative items.
Boss fights will push you to learn their patterns, safe spaces to stand or spells to use to get an advantage. Running around and levelling up can help if you need a buffer to bash through the boss, but in general, you are going to have to learn the fight and equip properly for it if you want to win. Pushing through and learning the fight, or returning with a slightly better weapon and loadout later is almost always rewarding, with some area now accessible thanks to the boss departing.
A change of face
Bloodstained, rather late in development, was looking rather bland and washed out. The team took this criticism to heart and worked hard to turn the game into a thing of beauty. The castle’s many areas look amazing, from elaborate halls with filled with paintings and gold filigree to the green glow of pipes in a secret laboratory. Miriam moves with easy grace, brought to life by the voice talent of Erica Lindbeck. The game features a pretty stellar voice cast, though at times I felt like they could have had more dialogue or segued between elements better. Ray Chase, Fryda Wolff, Kari Wahlgren and David Hayter fill out the cast and at times I feel like they could have been given a little more material to work with. Still, the story serves its purpose in getting you from point A to B to C and back to A again, with enough explanation of the stakes and why you have such amazing powers.
The castle’s many areas look amazing, from elaborate halls with filled with paintings and gold filigree to the green glow of pipes in a secret laboratory.
It isn’t all roses though, as sometimes sound bytes would loop, treasures would drop and the bag would stay on screen, only for you to get the loot on the next screen and Miriam could really use a few more barks for the various spells she casts. At one point my wife came in to ask what she was saying because I had been using a spell to beat the boss and that was all she could hear, again and again, as I summoned a circle of floating paintings to act as a damaging barrier to enemies. There are also frame rate dips at the most inopportune moments, like when fighting a devilish boss.
If you enjoy playing Metroidvania games, you owe it to yourself to play Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Its beauty, grace and systems far outshine all frustrations, making for a welcome return to castles full of vampires and demons. This is old school Castlevania, with a few modern sensibilities tossed in.
Thank you to GOG.com for the code for this review.