Oh what a night
Bloodstained will probably live forever in the memory of those who backed it on Kickstarter. It was part of the “actually creators can rebuke publishers and do their own thing” era of the crowdfunding platform, alongside of projects like Mighty No. 9 and Shenmue III.
That was back in 2015, and the project has made many twists and turns to get to the point where it is today, no matter how many platforms it left dead, dying, and bloodied along the way (RIP Vita and Wii U). Multiple developers have been involved in its creation at this point, and a new art style was unveiled just several months ago: which likely had a lot to do with the myriad delays the project has dealt with since its announcement.
Now, it’s finally here.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Switch, Xbox One)
Developer: ArtPlay, DICO, WayForward Technologies
Publisher: 505 Games
Released: June 18, 2019 / June 25, 2019 (Switch)
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night really reminds me of Yooka-Laylee to a degree. If you enjoyed Symphony of the Night and DS-era Castlevania games (similar to how Yooka was built on the back of Banjo Kazooie, jank and all), you will probably dig it. If you don’t, the improvements are mostly marginal and probably won’t sway you to the occult side. The good news is that there are myriad ways at this point to test whether or not you’ll like Bloodstained before you plunk $40 down on it.
Again, to be clear, all of the Metroidvania Castlevania staples are present. There’s teleport and save rooms, subweapons, a map that has nearly the same exact color scheme as Castlevania producer IGA’s work on the series, item shops, similar locomotion to how Alucard operated in Symphony, and a soundtrack that sounds like an homage to the series. Man does that map system still work too, as it teases out exploration in this fairly sprawling overworld. After searching for over an hour with no avail, it’s always heartening to see that little tiny connected map piece and seek it out (only to find that it’s a dead end and you actually need to spend another hour wandering around).
I think I actually appreciate combat the most though. What I appreciate about Bloodstained is that there’s a formidable foe nearly every few minutes that grants worthwhile gear and upgrades. Minibosses are a frequent occurrence when running around randomly, and bosses come at a decent cadence. Although screens aren’t filled with as many normal enemies as I’d like until near the end, there’s rarely a dull moment as you’re constantly gaining new abilities, Blue Mage style, for kills (so you’re saying it’s “skills for kills?”).
Allowing more versatile build options is one arena where Bloodstained might surpass its predecessors. With shortcuts you can swap to entirely different loadouts, like a super quick “enhanced movement speed power boots” build that allows you to zip around lightning fast and hop on enemy heads like Mario. Or if you’re feeling bulky, a min-maxed high strength glass cannon build with a greatsword that can slice regular enemies in half in one hit that’s also resistant to fire. I usually find myself comfortably sticking to what I know, but unlocking a new ability every 15-20 minutes or so screams “experimentation.” Crafting scratches that same itch.
Sequence breaking is still present, as are esoteric puzzle and progression solutions. Although most of them are intuitive, one in particular is pretty nasty and will stump a lot of people. Really, you’re still going to be spending a lot of time just goofing around having no clear idea of where to go. My first run (with the bad ending) took me around 10 hours or so, at which point I was allowed to immediately continue right before I triggered it. The subsequent run (good ending) took another five hours to hit, and I estimate that a 100% clear will take around 20 hours total on the first try.
I’m surprised at how well the new visual style works in-game and how far the aesthetics have come from the early Kickstarter development days. While some of the character models (mostly NPCs) are a bit raw and lack character; Miriam, the majority of the boss fights, and nearly all of the locales are stunning. The stained glass motif serves Bloodstained very well, and I’m happy IGA and his team found a way to bake it into the entire narrative of the game. Rarely do Gothic themes come together like this.
It’s not all dour and dark though, as Bloodstained is also pretty out-there. There’s a demon barber named Todd (that does not reside on Fleet Street) who helps you customize your hairstyle and cosmetic look. There’s a bunch of weird NPCs scattered across the map and a handful of optional endgame boss fights to find (including a retro-tinted one). If you sit at a piano long enough, Miriam will play a little ditty on it. There’s a lot of character that you need to see in-game to believe.
Amid all of the delays, Bloodstained actually shipped with a decent amount of content and there’s more on the way. When it just comes to the campaign, it’s roughly comparable to an IGAvania, if not bulkier, as I described just a moment ago. Coming with the launch is a speed run gametype, cheats, new game plus, an additional difficulty, and a boss rush mode. On the way: two more characters, local/online play (for co-op and versus in “certain modes”), chaos mode, “boss revenge,” a roguelike toggle, a classic (old school style Castlevania controls) mode, and more. Not bad!
After all this time though it is a little rough around the edges, and some of that roughness directly impacted gameplay. Although I haven’t encountered a gamebreaking bug so far per se on PS4, I have witnessed several areas where the game slows down quite a bit, and have seen countless visual flair-ups (mostly pop-in) and a few instances where the AI is acting suspiciously sluggish. There was also a major bug I encountered against a boss with a countdown timer (being vague to avoid spoilers) where I whittled it down until it froze and I couldn’t actually finish the fight.
Come to find out I had a summon (a familiar) equipped that was damaging it after it was already dead, preventing it from entering a transitional cutscene-like state for the killing blow (after realizing this following three attempts, I turned the familiar off and it allowed me to progress). This is on top of one case where I glitched through the ceiling and entered an area I shouldn’t have (a quick wayward stone took me back to base unharmed).
Bloodstained is occasionally frustrating, refreshingly open, and as promised, wholly Castlevania. Hopefully some polish is on the way for Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night as to not alienate folks who are new to the genre, but as any Castlevania fan knows, partial jank comes with the territory.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. The reviewer also backed the game.]