Fear The Old Blood
HIGH The return of Aria of Sorrow’s soul system.
LOW A dreadful final boss.
WTF That stretch goal should have been to remove David Hayter.
When Koji Igarashi first pitched Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night as a spiritual successor to Castlevania, he claimed that he’d taken to Kickstarter because publishers believe that we “no longer care for this style of game.” They’re being ridiculous, of course – if anything, the question hanging over Bloodstained is how it’d stand out in a market that’s flooded with this sort of thing, even in the miraculous event that his work turned out well.
First things first – yes, Bloodstained is good, and yes, it is a minor miracle, given that the corpses of Mighty No. 9 and Yooka-Laylee have been hung out to warn yesteryear’s design masters about the risks of would-be comebacks. Bloodstained adapts the best attributes of Igarashi’s catalog, affirming that beyond simply being hugely influential, his work has an aura and personality that still feel wholly distinct, even when the subgenre itself overruns the landscape.
That subgenre, of course, is the Metroidvania, which draws the back half of its name from Igarashi’s own Symphony of the Night. He went on to helm a series of similarly exploration-based Castlevania games on Nintendo’s handhelds, and following a hiatus as Konami became whatever the hell it is today, Bloodstained picks up right where he left off.
To be clear, this is Castlevania in everything but name, which isn’t merely the right decision – it’s what people paid for. Familiar enemies like wargs and bone pillars get reskins and new names. The sprawling, 18th-century castle in which Bloodstained is set contains at least two separate areas that could qualify as classic clock towers where players navigate massive spinning gears and avoid flying monsters that might as well be called Shmedusa Shmeads. Even minor details, like breakable torches that drop magic refills, make the experience feel like home.
Then there’s the tone, which sees Western tropes interpreted through a distinctly Japanese lens. The setting is appropriately gothic – all stained glass windows and full moons – but Igarashi leans more in the direction of goofy than moody, where enemies play electric guitars (in the late 1700s, no less) and the cast includes a demonic barber whose curse won’t be lifted until he cuts 666 different hairstyles. Regular Castlevania composer Michiru Yamane returns, delivering a hook-happy mix of classical and metal that remains catchy well after a dozen hours. It’s all just so colorful and high-energy.
Most importantly, although Bloodstained flaunts adequately pretty 3D graphics, it remains a side-scroller, wisely sticking to the dimension in which Castlevania has consistently found the most success.
I note with just a tinge of disappointment that Bloodstained adds very little to the formula, and what new inclusions exist feel the slightest bit like bloat. Crafting and cooking are barely worth engaging in, and I’d say the same for the quest system, which almost universally involves either fetching items or hunting down certain enemy types.
The real meat of Bloodstained, however, pulls from the strongest aspects of its predecessors. In particular, the popular soul-collecting mechanic from Aria of Sorrow has returned — our protagonist Miriam can harness the powers of demons. Whenever the player defeats an enemy, there’s a chance that its “shard” will imbue itself in Miriam (violently impaling her in an animation that’s consistently terrifying).
While a few of these shards are required to progress, the majority of them are random drops, providing active and passive abilities that expand Miriam’s combat prowess. They can manifest as attack spells, buffs, or even familiars who fight alongside the player. There’s an addictive, almost Pokémon-esque pull to collect, upgrade and master the shards, morphing Miriam into a fighting machine unique to each person’s experience.
The sheer number of available weapons is also staggering, and each has a special technique, many of them requiring a rolling motion on the d-pad that will feel instantly familiar to Castlevania fans. Players will have plenty of opportunity to master them, as well – the number of enemy types exceeds a hundred, and some of the bosses rank among the most exciting of Igarashi’s career, with a face-off against a pair of dragons on a spiraling 3D tower getting special acknowledgement.
Unfortunately, Igarashi has yet to shake off a few bad habits. Miriam’s ever-expanding set of moves is sometimes a joy to experiment with – there’s a wonderful inversion mechanic that pays tribute to Symphony without turning the entire second half into a retread – but critical paths are often hidden behind obscure solutions, usually involving shards that we had no way of knowing were mandatory. At one point, I had to use a drain spell to empty a pool of blood, but the shard’s description only mentions enemy blood, so it never occurred to me that it would also have an environmental effect. Having to occasionally consult guides rips me out of an experience that otherwise goes down smoothly.
My only other major complaint is that the final boss is dreadful. Maybe this is penance for my two-plus decades of claiming that Symphony was too easy, but Bloodstained concludes with a marathon encounter that I can only describe as five minutes of being stuck in a tumble dryer that occasionally fills with lava. It’s only a miniscule portion of the campaign, but it always frustrates me when an otherwise-solid game ends on its worst note.
Igarashi stated in his Kickstarter pitch that he wanted to continue refining this genre. I’m not convinced that he’s done that here, so much as he’s stuck to his greatest hits. Should Bloodstained become a franchise, I hope to see more risks taken in the future. For now, though, Bloodstained “simply” being pretty damn good is more than enough, like being reacquainted with an old friend. I’d love to see the rest of Konami’s classic franchises get similar treatment.
Disclosures: This game is developed by ArtPlay and published by 505 Games.It is currently available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 24 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There were no multiplayer modes as of press time, though they’ll purportedly be added in the future.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Teen and contains Blood, Violence and Partial Nudity. It’s a nonstop parade of fantasy violence, and although it’s extremely cartoonish, there’s quite a bit of blood being splashed about. There’s also a scene in which a naked woman climbs out of a bathtub full of blood, though strategic camera angles prevent anything explicit from being visible.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Subtitles are available for all story-related dialogue. There’s some very occasional in-game dialogue that isn’t subtitled, though it’s all just battle barks. I didn’t pick up on the sound affecting the game’s playability in any way. I’d say this game is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.
He was born and raised in Amish country and has yet to escape, despite a brief stint in Philadelphia, where he attended Temple University. He took a one-credit course there called "Career Opportunities for English Majors," which painted a bleak picture for prospective writers. Mike remains steadfast in his ongoing role as a video game critic, however, and has recently written for GamesRadar. Most of his work can be found on HonestGamers, where he has contributed over 200 reviews to date.
When not playing games or writing about them, Mike is a rabid indie music fan and ardent concertgoer. He doesn't read as much as he probably should, but his current favorite author is Alastair Reynolds.