At the outset of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night I could see the castle that would be the major setting for the game. In the distance, even just the sight, I knew there would be an immensity to this game. The quest that Miriam, our protagonist, was on would be daunting and hard fought. Most of all, I could tell a great amount of passion and care went into the creation of Bloodstained.
Hailing from legendary producer and game designer Koji Igarashi and his studio Artplay, it is no wonder that Bloodstained feels like a worthy successor to his work on the previous partial namesake of Metroidvania, the Castlevania series post-Symphony of the Night. Unlike the fall of Mighty Number 9, where another well-known game designer is trying to capture the glory of the series they worked on, hoping to bring about a spiritual inheritor. Where Mighty Number 9 flounders, Bloodstained rises to the top. Igarashi wanted to make Castlevania, but Konami didn’t have the interest to let him, and here we are. And that services the main point of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night: it is Castlevania in everything but name.
This includes a classic journey through a victorian era castle, fighting hideous demons, a story with heavy influences from classic horror and fantasy, e.g. Dracula (not that the character used in Castlevania appears here.) These themes and design are elevated by excellent art direction, and while the game can feel a little muddled at times visually, overall it is a delight. Plenty of times exploring the castle I found myself wondering what surprises lay around the corner. Often enough finding a new item or ability added a new layer to gameplay, and the sense of adventure as I explored the castle rarely if ever lost its luster. This adventurous spirit is blown open by the music, with the theme of Gebel being particularly memorable, if not one of many. The sights don’t quite hold up as much and seem slightly stilted at times, but they still shine as well as they can.
Unfortunately, some diamonds can be a little rough. While there was never anything game breaking, the few bugs encountered were annoyances. There was a stuttering audio effect that played over my ending cutscene that was clearly not supposed to be there, and a handful of times I had the game freeze on me (thankfully it was always after a save completed.) As frustrating as these can be, I wasn’t too bothered by these bugs and can see the dedication from Igarashi and his team.
This game was made on a budget afforded to it by Kickstarter, and delayed time and time again, because they didn’t want to disappoint. With the release, it was announced Bloodstained would receive over a dozen free downloadable content additions because they clearly want this to be the best game it can be. The developers of Bloodstained understood exactly what this was supposed to be and the expectations behind it. Despite some scuffs, it is a major success.
Bloodstained follows Miriam, a Shardbinder (people cursed with their bodies destined to slowly crystalize until they cease to live, but gifted with the ability to harness the power of demons.) Miriam is on a quest to kill her former friend Geleb, another Shardbinder who has summoned the castle and demons to their fictional version of Europe. There is more to the story, with twists you’ll encounter around the many corners you’ll turn in Gebel’s castle.
The character arcs (at least for the main cast) largely work. These are primarily in part due to the voice performances (with an especially marvelous performance from David Hayter of Metal Gear Solid fame as Zangetsu) and the character designs. With the minor characters, it is evident they didn’t care to put too much work into them because it’s obvious they weren’t important, and their in-game models suffer a bit for it.
The writing on the other hand (other than a handful of lines of cheesy dialogue) is affecting for the most part. I could feel the struggle for Miriam in a world that despises and fears her, let alone forced with a quest to kill her best friend. Additionally, the stories of Zangetsu and Alfred are also interesting, though garner less focus due to the focus always staying on Miriam, who is quite the jack-of-all-trades.
Within her trades are more than fifty plus monster abilities, and while not all are winners, the mere countless combinations of abilities you can choose from should be able to please most players even if — like me — they stuck to the same abilities the majority of the game. With the abilities are also dozens of weapon types and plenty of weapons within those types to choose from. These can range from swords, katanas, guns, axes, etc. There is also the ability to customize Miriam herself (hair, skin, eyes, and the color of her clothes) and that is a rare feature for authored characters in games, much less one that isn’t an RPG. I appreciated this feature because it made the Miriam in my playthrough feel unique to me, allowing a greater emotional attachment to her character.
And on her journey through the castle, I fought through varied monsters belonging to a bevy of environments (ice, desert, labs, etc.) One of these environments, in particular, bogged down the experience quite a lot for me, as it killed the momentum of the game while also taking away a lot of player control. It’s a plague that affects a lot of games, one that is tried time and time again: water levels.
And while this would just be more of a bump in the road rather than a mistake, progression through the water areas of the map are locked to a random drop ability from a specific enemy type. It baffles me the developers thought this was a good idea because it is hardly, if ever, hinted at in-game. This isn’t the only area where it is unclear how to advance, but that somehow gives the game more of that classic old school feel. Essentially players will have to either look up a guide or find the ability to traverse water by mere luck.
What luck won’t assist you in is the challenging, incredibly exciting boss fights. If there is one thing Bloodstained doesn’t hold it’s cards on, it would be the boss fights. I had to employ multiple different strategies for separate boss fights, and rather than feel dread at having to do another I was excited to see just what I was up against each time. The bread and butter of Metroidvania games is exploration and boss battles. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night has these in spades.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a return to the genre by Igarashi, taking nearly five years to make. The work is surely felt and most assuredly appreciated. And while the game isn’t revolutionary in the genre, it is an outstanding comeback for one of the fathers of it. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is like a beautiful harvest moon on a cloudy night. The clouds obscure it some, but what you do see of the moon shines brilliantly.