Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night: Not Castlevania, expect yes sort of
Updated: Jul 21
One of the many IPs held hostage by Komani, is the Carstlevania series. The series that provided one part of Metroidvania name, the genre that is responsible for many beloved titles, such as, but not limited to: Hollow Knight, Ori and the Blind Forest, Alwa's Awakening and Dead Cells (among others). Carstlevania sadly faded into God of War rip-offs (Lords of Shadow 1 and 2) and, whatever....this thing is... Granted; the IP has seen some success, with the excellent Netflix series and the Anniversary Collection.
But, fans have been nostalgic for old times, and it seems that Koji Igarashi (creator of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night) agrees with the fans in this regard.
Koji Igarashi successfully pitched and kick started, a spiritual successor to Symphony of the Night: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. The IP became one of the most successful Kickstarter products, as well as receiving great critical reviews (Switch version notwithstanding). I have to confess, that I have never played any of the Castlevania games until now. As a result, I have no nostalgic ties to the original series through Bloodstained. That being said, Bloodstained is a great game, flawed, but quite engaging none the less.
Fearing irrelevance in the face of the Industrial revelation (18th century), the Alchemy Guild tried maintaining financial support through a drastic measure. By conducting in forbidden rituals, the Alchemy Guild was able to create the Shardbinders. People who had their bodies infused with demonic power crystals, the attempt (by the Alchemy Guild) was to scare backers into loyalty, by summoning demons through Shardbinder sacrifice. This goes about as well as you expect, and demons over ran the world. Ten years after these events, a strange castle appears, overrun by demons who start terrorising the country side. The savour, a young woman by the name of Miriam (one of the last Shardbinders) has awaken from her slumber, with hopes to save her brother from Shard corruption, and the world from demons.
The story is surprisingly complex, with twisting alliances and gray shaded characters. It’s earnestly told, (if clumsily delivered more on that later) and occupied with some interesting characters. I want to keep the spoilers to a minimum, but I will commend David Hayter and Erica Lindbeck’s performances, as Zangetsu and Miriam. Hayter brings the gruff, stoic charm of Solid Snake, but with an undercurrent of vulnerability and damage, not present with Snake (at least until later interactions). Zangetsu’s secrecy and mysterious past, make him all the more intriguing, one moment he is helping Miriam, the other moment, he is challenging her to a boss fight.
Miriam too, is quite compelling a character, as well an enjoyable protagonist. Even though she is, by all accounts an overpowered character. She constantly is unsure if she is doing the right thing, her immense power leads to a lot of self doubt, and all that responsibility can weigh on the best of people. Miriam’s self doubt, willingness to do the right thing, make her an interesting character. An identifiable character, she does get angry, she does lose her temper. Even though she is the chosen one, Miriam is still a human subjected to human emotions. Consequently, Miriam avoids being a boring character, by having her be subjected human flaws.
The villain monolog blabbers on: Telling instead of showing
When the grand villain reveals her dastardly plan for world domination, she decides to explain her entire life story to Miriam, in a long rambling back and forth. Bloodstained has a tell don’t show problem, people sort of just; explain their motivations to Miriam. It’s not particularly good storytelling, Zangetsu blabbers through his reasons for coming to England, after an intense boss fight. Instead of just showing the back story/ motivation, through a cut scene or a gameplay section (playing as Zangetsu would have been awesome). We are just told about the tragic back story. Consequently, the story can be clunky and awkward, maybe there were budget constraints?
Bloodstained is a mixture of 2d platforming, crafting, hack and slashing, looting and also; grinding. As a result, there is quite a lot to unpack here. I hope to give a decent examination at least four aspects, but please keep in mind that none of these systems are bad. If anything, they are rather well designed and implemented (with the exception of one).
Exploring the castle
Hellhold is Dracula’s castle, but under a different name. Please note, there is nothing wrong with this. The castle is a massive monolith of a map, filled with smaller maps, rich with secrets and short cuts. In traditional Carstlevania fashion, the map opens up organically as you explore. The more gear you gain and the higher your level, the more of the map gets unlocked. As one might expect, it is very rewarding and satisfying to go back to an area, which you know is not 100% combed every nook and cranny; and discover another amount of cool stuff.
Hunting down the progression
Exploration is key to playing Bloodstained effectively; the game provides little guidance to the player as to where they are supposed to go. This can at times be a little frustrating, when you have run into a brick wall because of multiple requirements needed to progress. A guide might be required, if you find yourself stuck (also don’t play this game when you are tired). This is not necessarily a good thing, but then again, there is a good deal of enjoyment to be had, figuring out where to go.
This game rewards problem solving and paying attention. Consequently, it feels all the more rewarding when you do figure it out. When you do find that boss fight and defeat it. Bloodstained could do with slightly better signposting. Maybe if Miriam openly wondered if something useful could be gained from the squid monsters, so I could try grinding them.
Weapons flow through Bloodstained like water. You can buy weapons from the shop, craft them, and find them by exploring and killing monsters. You get inundated with weapons-slow, fast, magic and also; whips. This is not really a bad thing, as it allows you a wide range of different play styles and approaches. As they cannot be levelled up, the player can chose whatever weapon they want, to match whatever is being fought.
There is a problem with certain weapons and amour becoming outdated (weaker stats). However, all items with weak stats can be sold, more powerful items drop all the time. The problem cancels itself out. Bloodstained rewards player experimentation by providing them with enough items, so they can discover their ideal set.
Enemies have a chance to drop a shard, these act as your magic system, much like the weapon drops, you will get a lot of them. At first, there is no much of a problem here. The sheer variety (much like the weapons) allow for extermination, in each individual play style and adaptability for boss fights. Any excess shards can be sold off for a large amount of gold, making them perfect farming material.
The problem comes in with fact that shards (unlike weapons), you have to upgrade them through crafting (more on that later). This results in the problem that you are forced to invest a select few shards (unless you want to take in hours of grinding), this sort of forces you to find and stick to the ideal few.
However that does not sound so bad, you sell off the shards that you don’t need and keep going. The problem is that you might need some to defeat a boss. And if you invested all your shards into a select few, and they all are useless for the current boss. You have to stop progressing and grind, hoping and praying that you would only have to waste an hour on the random number generator, until you have enough to upgrade the shard/s. I do get the fact that grind in these types of games is part of the charm, and you can just go in and out of the room until you have everything that you need. But it does grind the pacing (lol) to a halt, and goes against the exploring nature of the level design.
Bloodstained is a good little indie, meaning that, crafting is a key component of Bloodstain’s progression. Monsters can drop crafting materials when killed (or found chests), which can be collected and used for crafting new items/upgrading existing ones. On its own, the crafting system is not bad; there is an undeniable satisfaction to working towards that upgrade. For example, when you craft food, Miriam performs a little jump after it is done. Once the item is crafted, you can buy it again without having to repeat it again. I like that, rewarding and satisfying, and only needs to be done once.
However, when it comes to shard enhancing however can be very tedious. Weapon crafting to me was useless, as looted weapons suited me just fine. To clarify, drops required for upgrades are percentage based; meaning that, the item you want, has an 8 % chance to drop while another item (dropped by the same creature mind you) has a 10% chance. You might be stuck in a situation, where you need a particular item, but have to put up with a 2% likelier chance, that something else will drop.
When the combat is not particularly difficult, and the enemies, not that intimidating, it gets rather tedious, repeating the motions without the risk of failure. But having no control of what you get, is annoying (outside two items that boost drops and increase the number). It’s annoying to waste an hour (or two) of your time, collecting three items from foes that are not dangerous. It is like we are doing things in the most inefficient way possible.
Graphics and art style:
I am in two minds about the graphical and visual style of Bloodstained. On one hand, the use of colour is fantastic, the over the top gothic inspirations are worn proudly on its sleeve. But at the same time, things look rather plastic and lifeless. For example, please look at some of the concept art and the final product.
I will leave you to decide which looks better. Please note, that this is not a deal breaker, Bloodstained is not ugly, but it could have looked so much better, it could have been more stylized then it is. The lip sync is also terrible, character mouths move like drunk ventriloquist dummies. It was unsettling to say the least. I kind of wished that 505 games didn’t bother with lip sync, and just stylized the interactions (Fromsoftware style baby).
Bloodstained suffers from some glitches (most of them visual) but they are never the less, distracting. One boss got stuck in the floor multiple times; insect enemies would have their models stretch and contort after death (bone physics issue). In an otherwise polished game, these sorts of glitches show some uncomfortable rough patches.
Bloodstained, is quite an enjoyable romp. Exploring the castle never stops being fun, the classic Metroidvania design is testament to that. Consequently, I was always looking forward to playing it, despite the glitches and underwhelming graphical direction. If you are hungering for an enjoyable Metroidvania (or just wanting to reminisce about the good old days) then consider grabbing this one.