Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night bears the significant weight of expectation on its shoulders, both from its high profile Kickstarter campaign and the legacy of gaming that it follows. The idea of a return to the old school origins of Castlevania conventions, albeit without the trademark held by Konami, and designed by the man generally considered to be the godfather of the genre, Koji Igarashi, had thousands of fans salivating at the fangs.
Now, following some controversy over visual styles and a surprisingly excellent 8-bit taster game (Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon), we finally get to venture forth and explore the intricacies of a castle that is clearly not Dracula’s. Most players will have very clear expectations of how Bloodstained should play, so does it hold up to scrutiny from a long-time fan of the ‘Iga-vania’?
You play as Miriam, an orphan who has awoken from years of slumber following alchemic experiments, and follow her on her quest to save or defeat her friend, Gebel, a fellow victim of the experiments who has seemingly lost any hold on his humanity. This setup allows for the trademark philosophical discussions of the nature of humanity alongside some wonderfully banal dialogue about recipes and planting crops. Here, Bloodstained felt like a true successor to the Castlevania games, with the village hub working well as a home base. In effect, this hub is a place to meet quest givers, but the process is streamlined enough that it doesn’t become frustrating. The logic behind these quests is suitably weird as well. Quests to find particular objects, kill a certain number of named beasts, or prepare a specific dish are framed in a way that is arbitrary at best, but fit well within Bloodstained’s world.
Bloodstained looks and sounds suitably Gothic. Everything drips in blood, candle-lit rooms abound, and the action is backed up by some impressively appropriate music. The art style is far more palatable than early images indicated and, on the whole, it is a beautifully designed game. I did find the animation a little clunky at times, and some of the enemies were too dependent on Igarashi’s previous titles, but there was nothing gamebreaking here.
The music, ably scored by Castlevania veteran, Michiru Yamane, is mostly great, but doesn’t stick in the mind in the way that iconic tracks like Vampire Killer do. Voice acting is suitably ripe, with some regional accents that have to be heard to be believed, but all of this fits in nicely with genre expectations. The English dub has some pretty stellar names involved too, with Solid Snake himself, David Hayter, voicing an enigmatic samurai warrior, and Robert Belgrade, the original voice actor for Alucard in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, appearing as a mysterious man whose fate seems intertwined with your own. Relying on such familiar voices occasionally risks new characters losing their identity and I struggled not to picture Snake when Hayter was acting.
Aside from the occasionally clunky animation, Bloodstained plays pretty smoothly. In order to make your way through the castle and complete your objective you must fight, platform, and puzzle your way through hundreds of rooms. The map system is lifted wholesale from Castlevania titles, but has the added feature of letting you place note points to remind you of areas to which you may wish to return. I spent too long neglecting to do this, which led to a great deal of aimless wandering.
Jumping is fairly responsive but the timing on the edge of platforms felt a little too woolly, with a number of frustrating falls that didn’t feel like I was to blame. Combat, on the other hand, is surprisingly deep, with an impressive range of weapons that all offer a different style with requisite advantages and drawbacks. I mainly resorted to the slow and powerful great swords, but made sure that I had effective alternatives for certain bosses or enemy types. The levelling and crafting system does make it possible to become overpowered fairly early on (playing on Normal difficulty), but new areas contain more dangerous beasts so it never becomes too easy.
Alongside the weapon-based combat, you have various spells and abilities gained by absorbing crystal shards that are dropped by your enemies. The randomised nature of this will feel familiar to players of the GBA Castlevania games in particular and there is potential for frustration when a particular power is not dropping for you. As is traditional, the best approach here is to increase your luck stat.
As the game progresses, you unlock Shortcuts for different armour and weapon setups, so you can actually have a luck boosting outfit for exploration, and attack or defence boosting ones for boss fights. This layer of strategy will surely be vital when playing on the forthcoming harder difficultly settings and boss rush modes. There are a couple of setups that seemed ludicrously powerful, but these did make backtracking and looking for the next area quicker so this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The bosses are particular highlights in Bloodstained. One early battle sees you taking on a two headed dragon-wolf hybrid racing around a tower. The threats from both sides, combined with the rotating background, made for a thrilling encounter that seemed unfair at first, before I grasped its rhythm and started reacting to the attack tells. In these moments, Bloodstained feels like pure Castlevania.
Less positive, however, were the bugs that were still present in the released version. Specific gamebreaking bugs, such as key items not spawning, were addressed by the launch day patch. Unfortunately I still encountered game crashes, Miriam being unable to pick up dropped items, and a weird bug when trying to jump in water that stopped Miriam from jumping or attacking. Given the randomised nature of drops and the save room mechanic, lost progress from these issues was frustrating to say the least.