Review: Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon
This game was selected as our February 2019 Reader’s Choice Review. Learn more on our Patreon page.
Let me preface this by saying I’m a huge Castlevania fan. From the originals on NES to the advent of Symphony of the Night and all the way through the many handheld ones, I’ve loved the mix of platforming, exploration, and Gothic horror. I was saddened to see the force behind the series, Koji Igarashi, part ways with Konami and the Castlevania franchise, but it turns out that may have been for the best. His new Bloodstained series is looking every bit like the best parts of his previous one, and Curse of the Moon is proof positive. If you’ve been yearning for a new title in the vein of classic Castlevania, you can hardly get closer or better than this.
Grim swordsman Zangetsu was cursed long ago by demons, and now spends his life ridding the world of them. He’s on the trail of a particularly nasty one, holed up in a particularly ominous castle, protected by particularly strong guardians. That’s not about to stop him though, especially as he begins gathering allies in his quest. Joined by the nimble Miriam, the mystical Alfred, and the dark Gebel, Zangetsu will battle through abandoned train stations, crumbling towers, haunted ships, and the castle of his nemesis to put an end to this particular spread of evil.
If you’ve somehow gotten this far without ever playing a Castlevania, accept my deepest sympathies as I break down the gameplay for you. As a platformer this is a slightly slower, more methodical one where you need to measure and commit to your moves. Attacks lock you in place and there’s no air control on jumps, and while this may sound like hell for folks coming to this from Hollow Knight or Dead Cells, be aware that the entire game is balanced around this. You’ll need to make careful jumps over pits and time your attacks against foes carefully, but the extremely precise controls and predictable enemy behavior make it an entirely surmountable challenge.
The variety of attacks and abilities at your disposal will help you as well. In addition to his sword attacks, Zangetsu can gain subweapon attacks like burning charms on the ground or upward whip swings. Once your allies join you, you can switch to characters like Miriam who has a long whip attack, throwing weapons, a slide, and a higher jump. Alfred can learn spells that have a frankly outsized effect on the game, like his ice attack that freezes and shatters any enemy and even freezes bosses, too. And Gebel can transform into a bat and fly around, allowing you to bypass certain platforming challenges entirely. These skills are also used to reach alternate paths through levels, which can sometimes contain permanent upgrades to your life, subweapon reserves, or even stats.
Even with seemingly overpowered attacks and skills, you may have a rough road ahead of you. Bloodstained doesn’t just ape the characters and abilities of classic Castlevania games, it also borrows from the difficulty. You’ll find stiff platforming challenges across narrow platforms or moving surfaces, enemies perched in just the right places to knock you into pits, and some terrifying level features that can kill you outright if you’re too slow to avoid them. It may take you many tries to master these challenges, but you’ll have them thanks to the clever way lives and continues are handled. When you lose all your health or fall in a pit, only your active character dies, leaving you to carry on with the others from the same room. This will cut you off from certain paths and hamstring you against some foes, but you’ll still have a fighting chance. Once all four characters are defeated, you lose a life and start back at a level checkpoint with everyone back.
Bloodstained is a tough game, but one designed with enough modern sensibilities and style that you can (and should) get through it eventually. If nothing else the retro pixel art is absolutely on point, and features some incredibly unique enemy and boss designs. The sound design is solid as well, though nowhere near as memorable as the classics that inspired it. That’s about the only place the game doesn’t measure up though, and there’s plenty of it if you need more challenges to overcome. There are several modes to tackle in the game, including some based on choices you make and others that expand the story along with the difficulty. Really it’s everything long-time Castlevania fans could have hoped for in a spiritual sequel, like a mirror world Castlevania 4 that had continued from 3 on the NES. Not only does Curse of the Moon leave me excited for Ritual of the Night, it’s hooked me as a magnificent retro title itself.