Four years after its debut on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, the long-awaited spiritual successor to the style of Castlevania first seen in the iconic Castlevania: Symphony of the Night – released for the original PlayStation in 1997 - has finally arrived. It’s been quite the journey for Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, which of course didn’t meet its planned 2017 release window. Or anything close to it. After a lukewarm response following its first official unveiling in 2016, the ensuing years saw several visual upgrades given to the Unreal Engie 4 powered endeavour based on backer and community feedback.
Plus, there was the sizable boost given to the original design scope thanks to the project setting a record for crowdfunded games during its 2015 run. A little window into how long we’ve been waiting for this one - Wii U and PS Vita ports were listed as stretch goals. Still, prior to its June 2019 release there have been some lingering concerns as to whether designer and writer Koji Igarashi and his team could live up to the lofty goals of creating the ultimate Metroidvania-style game. Another delayed and high-profile Konami franchise spiritual successor, Mighty No. 9, which employed a similar 2.5D presentation for its Mega Man-inspired action, fell flat after its long-awaited debut. Which is putting it lightly.
They say that first impressions last, but in the case of a Metroidvania game, specifically Castlevania, that often isn’t the case at all. The best titles not only surprise at regular intervals, but the backtracking never feels like a chore or a simple progression puzzle to solve. Secrets are hidden throughout, and you’re never tied to a single way to approach combat. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night nails all the above, whilst managing to present a dense and layered approach to the genre that has all the hallmarks of an instant classic. By that token you could say the first hour or so with Bloodstained is somewhat rough, mechanically fine but not all that spectacular on the visual front. In other words, like the many candles featured within, it’s a slow burn.
"The long-awaited spiritual successor to the style of Castlevania first seen in the iconic Castlevania: Symphony of the Night – released for the original PlayStation in 1997 - has finally arrived."
Castlevania through and through, in both style and presentation, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night packs in as many tools, spells, abilities, and weapons as there are creatures of the night to kill. And it’s the complex nature of the Shard abilities and weapons and RPG progression that continually surprises, alongside the creative enemy design that has you fighting what look like giant common house cats with horns and devilish halos one minute to punk rockers that smash their electric guitars in one final attack as part of their death animation the next. Although you’re exploring a castle, there are underground cave systems, train stations, towers, cathedrals, Japanese gardens, and even what we assume is an indoor lava world.
Outside of the usual, “Oh hey, I’ll come back to that ledge after I learn how to double jump”, which can be found here – the joy of exploration in Bloodstained is mostly made up of having no clear idea what you’ll need to reach a particular location. How you might deal with water exactly. Will it be via swimming or draining a lake. And what exactly, are those shiny reflective surfaces for. In addition to equipping armour and weapons in the form of daggers, swords, two handed axes, whips, and spears, all spells and key abilities are part of a Shard system. Which can be though of as the crystallised essence of the enemies you defeat. This extends to the key abilities like double-jump.
It’s an inventive approach and one that’s rich in creativity. For every flame breath spell learned from defeating a multi-headed dragon, there’s a fairy you can summon as a familial healer because that winged thing you just thwacked out of the air looks like a twisted version of the creatures Link loves to bottle. And preserve. Freak that he is. Shards are mostly random drops too, number in the ‘seemingly endless’, can be sold if you get a duplicate, and even upgraded alongside a crafting system that – weirdly at first – is more focused on food than it is creating new weapons and gear.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is as dense and layered mechanically as the castle you need to explore. It’s not perfect, the system in which you store and switch various builds doesn’t feel necessary or integral until you’re well into the second half of the game. Also, it’s a little clunky and takes time to get used to. In fact, one criticism might be that once you find the weapon and set of spells you like, there’s no real reason to switch things up – which can make the dozens and dozens of items and abilities on offer feel superfluous. Same goes for the Street Fighter like moves you can learn for each weapon type whenever you come across a bookshelf.
"Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is as dense and layered mechanically as the castle you need to explore."
In the end, the joy to be found in Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night builds into a crescendo as the end of the adventure draw near. A slow burn that turns into the warmest of genre embraces. Its dedication to and the evolution of the formula that people fell in love with across several Castlevania games is commendable. Does this mean that the game’s appeal to those not all that enamoured by the classical Metroidvania is somewhat diminished as a result? Probably. But, then again you could say that this is a prime example of a spiritual successor done right.