Review: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

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Not many games have left as much of an impact on me as the Castlevania series. Super Castlevania IV is a personal favorite with its gothic horror atmosphere, and Symphony of the Night was such an incredible design that it spawned an entire genre. Many titles have risen to prominence in that genre since Konami chose to abdicate their command of it, but at last the progenitor has returned. Koji Igarashi, the man who made Symphony of the Night and the many similarly-styled Castlevania sequels a reality, is back with another title that is Castlevania in all but name. It’s a fantastic return to form and a clear passion project with how much detail is crammed into the game, but its held back by technical issues and an unevenness that plagued some of his weaker projects before.

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Before the Industrial Revolution seized Europe with smokestacks and child labor, a horde of demons descended upon the continent. They were summoned by an order of alchemists responsible for Shardbinders, people infused with demonic crystals that could command incredible powers. Only two Shardbinders survived the invasion and subsequent purge by the church, a boy named Gebel and a woman named Miriam. Decades later, as the crystals consume their bodies, Gebel has summoned a castle of demons to threaten the entire world, and Miriam has set out to stop him. Many interested parties, alchemists and clergy and vampires among them, are caught up in this conflict, and before peace can be assured, some hard truths about the alchemists and Shardbinders must be brought to light.

We’ll get the obvious out of the way first: Bloodstained is very much an amalgamation of the last few Castlevanias to come out. Playing as Miriam, you’ll have access to shard powers which are dropped by every enemy in the game and perform all kinds of diverse functions. You’ll have shards that summon monsters, fire projectiles, can be aimed to shoot water or lasers or heads, offer you passive boosts, or grant new mobility options. These powers, along with your weapons, armors, and other items, will help you explore the vast castle and surrounding areas which include caves, towers, a town, a train, and a sailing ship. In addition to your main quest to stop Gebel (which may not be as straight-forward as it sounds), you’ll be offered tasks by survivors in town to take revenge on monsters, find specific items, and more.

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All of this makes for a wide-open platformer with boatloads of options. Miriam controls with flourish and precision, allowing for careful weapon strikes, back dashes, and all kinds of aerial maneuvers. Exploring the castle is just as gratifying as it ever was, with towering cathedral halls and menacing libraries to traverse and comb for secrets. There’s a higher volume of special set pieces than in previous games, neat little interactables that open up secret passages if you have the right shard power to use on them. Really there’s more to search for in general, between the shards and weapons and armors and accessories and consumables and ingredients and upgrades. There are even bookshelves to seek out which contain bits of lore or hints at the massive special move system that exists for just about every weapon in the game.

If there’s one thing I truly adore about Bloodstained, it’s the level of loving detail that’s gone into every one of its systems. The cooking system is a prime example, because it’s something that’s often included in games as a nearly pointless afterthought. Sandwiched between synthesizing new gear and upgrading shards in your alchemy menu is the option to prepare dozens if not hundreds of dishes, from rice balls and corn soup to the finest steaks and souffles. Ingredients can be found from enemies, bought from another NPC, or literally farmed in town in the case of crops. These can be turned into more advanced ingredients like sauces and toppings, which are then combined to produce the final dish. But instead of just getting a fancy healing item for your trouble, you get a small permanent stat boost the first time you eat a new creation. And in addition to THAT, there’s an NPC on a quest to taste all kinds of rare delicacies that will reward you for fulfilling her requests.

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Every system in the game has this kind of care and attention put into them. There are chairs all over the castle you can sit in, and when you do, if you have a familiar out it will go into a unique idle animation with you. If you hold up on the d-pad long enough, Miriam will start striking poses for you. All of Miriam’s gear is visible on her character except her armor, including cat ears, gas masks, and pirate hats. Every time you sit down to play, you’re likely to find another detail or reference that warms your heart. One of the big ones for me was discovering that they actually brought back the original voice actor for Alucard in Symphony of the Night for a role, one that calls back to another Symphony character in great detail. Of course, it’s also worth mentioning here that the rest of the voice cast is excellent, particularly Miriam who manages to be one of the more pleasant and interesting metroidvania protagonists in some time thanks to her performance.

Unfortunately, this level of polish does not extend to the entire experience. A lot was made of the early prototypes of the game, and how much the graphics have improved since then, but there are still areas of the castle that are mostly drab brown or lacking in detail. Navigation can be a bit of a chore as well, with the castle sprawling far further than any before it and having lots of drops and remote areas that are not easy to get back to. One key point of progression actually requires you to grind a shard from a common enemy, which is a surprising departure from the normal metroidvania flow of locating new powers from specific bosses or discoveries. And I have to bring up the crashes, because I encountered three by the halfway point of the game, one of which cost me almost 20 minutes of progress.

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The truth is that I love Bloodstained, I love the exploration and combat and details, but there are definite flaws that keep it from topping my lists. I can see that Iga finally got to make the game he really wanted to, full of references and homages and pure fun, and a few things went wrong along the way. I can understand not every area popping or the layout being a little weird, but the stability issues really hurt what’s an otherwise amazing game. Fans of metroidvanias… well, you already have this and finished this but for any stragglers, you can’t miss this one. And for everyone else, this could be one that helps you fall in love with the genre, if the few rough edges don’t put you off.

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