It has been interesting to watch the culmination of video game Kickstarter projects over the years. From titles such as the infamous Mighty No. 9 to smaller success stories, like Terrible Toybox’s Thimbleweed Park, it’s easy to get caught up in the failures of highly successful Kickstarter projects, but realistically, it seems that for every blunder there are just as many success stories, a likely result of the infancy of video game crowdfunding. One of the last remaining games to hit store shelves following the Kickstarter boom has finally released with ArtPlay’s Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, spearheaded by ex-Castlevania producer Koji Igarashi in an attempt to create a ‘spiritual successor’ to Konami’s highly important and influential series. The term ‘spiritual successor’ is one that crowdfunded titles have seemingly mangled when it comes to titles such as Playtonic’s Yooka-Laylee and the aforementioned Mighty No. 9, and following the release of those titles, it was believed Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night may end up being an underwhelming release as well.
Unlike the intent of other crowdfunding projects like Yooka-Laylee or Shenmue III, which intend to revive a certain series or genre of game, in this time of Castlevania’s absence, 2D Metroidvania titles are in no short supply. Terrific indie releases, such as Hollow Knight and Guacamelee, and even some higher budget releases, such as Xbox’s Ori and the Blind Forest and Nintendo’s Metroid revival with Metroid: Samus Returns, have helped to keep the genre from growing stale, which left me inevitably wanting one thing and one thing only from Bloodstained…more Castlevania. Despite the enduring relevance of this genre, there is still nothing like Castlevania, especially the likes of Symphony of the Night. In this regard, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night lives up to its namesake entirely.
Bloodstained centers around Miriam, an orphan taken in by an alchemist guild at a very young age alongside a boy named Gebel. The two were subjected to experimentation with crystals called ‘shards’ and thus have become ‘Shardbinders’, allowing them to take advantage of the shards. Miriam, however, mysteriously falls into a coma at a young age, and when she awakens at the beginning of the game’s story, she discovers that while she was asleep, Gebel was used by the alchemists to summon demons from hell, and now Gebel commands them from his ‘Hellhold’ castle. Miriam teams up with Johannes, an ex-guild member, Dominique, an exorcist, and Zangetsu, an edgy, David Hayter-voiced samurai, as she attempts to take down Gebel. Despite the game’s hold on the Castlevania callbacks, it’s actually quite refreshing to see a thoroughly original story instead of the safe bet, which would have been creating its own version of the Belmonts and going from there. Unfortunately, the actual story told here isn’t anything worth noting, and I found myself downright bored for a majority of it, and the major twist about halfway through the game also came across as completely predictable.
Thankfully, the story is just a means to bring us to the real meat of Bloodstained, which is undoubtedly its gameplay. The game follows Miriam making her way through the castle with the old non-linear Metroidvania design principal of exploring, finding a new ability and backtracking to use said ability to reach new areas in the castle; it’s what makes the genre so enticing, and having played so many of these titles, it can be easy to tell when they are testing the player’s patience. Thankfully, Bloodstained’s inspiration is one of the very best, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which hasn’t aged a day since its release in 1997, and through an excellent understanding of what made that game so beloved, combined with some new refreshing mechanics, Bloodstained is a joy to experience. The opening hours in particular had me constantly excited to see what each new room brought and what new shards I would acquire.
Of course, on top of being a Shardbinder for narrative reasons, Miriam can actually obtain new shards through defeating enemies and bosses too, and these can range from providing stat buffs, allowing the player to summon one of the enemy demons to fight alongside Miriam, and allowing Miriam to teleport a short distance to make it through short gaps, opening up whole new areas of the map. These, along with the RPG mechanics of leveling up, finding and equipping armour and cooking food back at the base for temporary stat boosts make Bloodstained feel like the gift that never stops giving, a constantly progressing adventure of wonder. The bosses mostly live up to this too. Some of the mid-level bosses can range from very easy to ridiculously difficult at a moment’s notice, and near the end of the game, they begin to take over in a way that grows obnoxious; however, they are a great way to test new shards and abilities that Miriam acquires along the way.
Another asset of the game many were doubtful about before launch that was excellently shot down by Iga in a pre-launch trailer was the art style and visuals, and despite its relatively low budget, Bloodstained is a great looking game with especially beautifully designed backgrounds and characters, feeding one of the most important features in a Metroidvania, the atmosphere. This is topped wonderfully by Symphony of the Night composer Michiru Yamane’s soundtrack, which recreates the feel of that title excellently with a soundtrack that would be right at home with the highest tier Castlevania titles. The voice acting also serves the game favourably, with some performances working better than others, and ex-Solid Snake voice actor David Hayter steals the show as Zangetsu.
While the game’s performance is usually a solid 60 frames-per-second, certain areas, especially open ones such as a high tower Miriam climbs on the way to a boss, can drop the performance to a ridiculously slow rate. This, alongside a myriad of hitches along the way, leaves the game feeling unpolished, and this isn’t even mentioning the amount of small glitches and text errors I found along the way.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night proves once again that a creator can leave their brainchild and breathe new life into them even without the direct connection. Bloodstained does not contain a single Belmont nor any appearance from Alucard or Dracula, instead what we have is similar enough that every Castlevania fan will love it, but it is also fresh enough that I am excited to see the future of what ArtPlay and Koji Igarashi have to offer with Miriam and the world of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night.
Publisher: 505 Games
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC, Switch
Release Date: 18th June 2019