Within seconds of firing up the product of a four and a half year campaign to reinstate Koji Igarashi‘s tried and true vision for the action-platformer Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night confronts its audience with a timely mirror upon our times through the ‘death of spirituality’ felt within the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century. The narration makes clear that the war between destructive progress and the captivity of tradition cannot be avoided and there are dire consequences for both sides along the way. Alchemists incant great magical power, bestowing it upon chosen shardbinders who are imbued with a living cryst in their body that cannot yet fully control. They do so to please the wealthy and keep their mystical science alive but the cost of these human experiments is mass human death and the conjuration of a great castle that’d spawn swarms of malevolent beasts. We’re given control of the protagonist Miriam on a ship in transit and with very moderate foreshadowing as to how this will all play out in the end. There can be no heroic triumph without equally dire sacrifice in the world of Bloodstained but you’ll likely be too wrapped up in satisfying systemic loop of the game before you even consider the story much more than scant world-building gibberish that strongly resembles Igarashi‘s prior ‘return’ to the sub-genre in 2008 with Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia. Though a parade of minor flaws make for a relatively average video game as we zoom out from the experience the thrill of discovery and level of customization available for various ‘builds’ finds Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night living up to its 2015 Kickstarter promise and providing an acceptable amount of fan service along the way.
If you’ve not tasked yourself with reading every interview and piece of information about a video game before you pick it up and play it and, like me, just played through both Bloodstained games (Curse of the Moon, Ritual of the Night) thinking they were part of the same continuum story-wise this will be a confounding plot. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon was intended as a Kickstarter goal handled by Inti Creates that’d act as a prequel to this game but setting it while Miriam was sleeping for the decade prior to Ritual of the Night meant not being able to play as her. It was essentially an alternate telling of a similar story that focused more on Zangetsu and played out almost entirely different excepting the main villain reveal (and ‘secret’ final boss) at the end. You don’t need to play Curse of the Moon to understand the world of Bloodstained but I would recommend playing it after you finish Ritual of the Night because the characters and story beats are much more interesting after they’ve been fleshed out in the main event. Is the lore worthwhile? No, all of it is in service to the metroidvania formula established across seven (largely handheld) Castlevania games starting with Symphony of the Night in 1997. The point of this whole project is to revive this style in the hands of Igarashi and create a product that aims for the quality and feeling of those prior games, a spiritual successor that is not at all a distant cousin but a true sister to where Igarashi left the series with Order of Ecclesia. If anything it might be too similar to those old games for my liking though I understand that is the entire point.
It’ll sound conceited but, I couldn’t be more qualified to have a game like Bloodstained in my hands. Since the release of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night I’d wanted more of that game for years prior to the release of the Game Boy Advance with Castlevania: Curse of the Moon‘s offering of just that, an original take on that ‘metroidvania’ formula. Here the seeds for Bloodstained‘s shard system were planted in the sense that enemies would drop DSS cards and the player could mix and match these cards for various effects, from what I remember more cards meant more powerful magic and other effects. Shards offer a much more intensive version of this system that takes cues from Order of Ecclesia in the sense that every enemy drops an item (glyphs in the cas of Order of Ecclesia) that allow for some form of action. Miriam initially gains shards that grant attack spells and the game briefly explains that this game is all about farming and leveling up these abilities as their effects become stronger as you collect duplicate shards (Ranking up) as well. You can also transmute specific items to Level up shards to a maximum of nine levels, granting their highest efficiency as well as providing extra bonuses. Some of this is incredibly powerful such as the Optimize shard which grants extra attack speed with each level and a huge boost to damage stats. As you can imagine this becomes very convoluted around the fourth hour into the game because you’re able to not only equip a full set of gear as in Symphony of the Night but there are six types of shards (passive, conjurer, manipulative, directional, familiar, skill) that you’re allowed to equip at once… Quickly necessitating the need to create separate builds as you gain Skill shards (and directional shards, too) which often provide traversal abilities. As you explore and gain new abilities the game provides more than enough ‘build’ slots (equipment and shard loadouts) that you can cycle through instantly. Is there enough game for this, the first of many systems? Well, they’ve had to pad things out a bit.
In creation of a build considering weapon/equipment synergy with chosen shards is key but you’ll have to begin creating building loadouts based upon different goals the game presents you with. A luck focused build will become necessary for farming ingredients for the robust alchemical crafting and… cooking systems the game offers; Both are absolutely vital for success and each system is encouraged by various quest givers. The hungry old woman sends you off to cook, the farmer provides staple ingredients, and the weeping church lady provides reasons to craft equipment. Each quest giver provides rewards that can be early boons to success with the exception of the “Kill those murderers dead!” woman who provides bounty hunter quests for a certain number of kills with vengeance for dead villagers; The exploration necessary to complete these quests means you’ll often have better equipment than the rewards provided in every case. I did as many of these quests as I could eventually completing everything but the cooking quests due to the amount of time investment involved in farming items from enemies and re-traversing areas over and over to get things like eggs and black pepper. So, there is plenty to do and you could busy yourself for hours on end toying with loadouts (I had an exploration/luck one for item discovery, a damage build, a defense build, a sword/club build, a spear build, etc.) and finding strong skill combinations but if you’re an old pro all of these completionist tendencies you’ve got going on will make the game far, far too easy on Normal difficulty.
There are definitely areas that’ll spank you early on alongside a couple of boss fights that require some light pattern observation but a few early skills/items are available that make short work of the majority of tough enemies and bosses. The game ceased being difficult for me personally when I’d gotten the True Arrow shard from the Barbatos enemy in the Entrance area which deals a fast spread of physical damage that is more/less effective based on range. If ranked and leveled up quickly to at least level 4-5 this becomes a major damage dealer that scales through to the end, making short work of the multi-tiered last boss in a couple of minutes. There are more powerful variants along the way but I never felt the need to try most of them because the cost of materials was prohibitive and True Arrow worked incredible well. Even if you are struggling your way through a completionist playthrough getting to the ‘final boss’, your fellow shardbinder Gebel, takes maybe 10-15 hours if you’re not too focused on the side-quests or many secret areas. Completing the games story arc becomes completely inconsequential when faced with the fun of exploration, transmutation, and interesting combinations. So, much like Timespinner and Symphony of the Night there isn’t enough directed gameplay here to call for the amount of customization the game allows. The metroidvania addict will have to choose between one bout of mastering the crafting systems for a hundred hours, or doing multiple playthroughs only bothering with very specific builds until you’ve seen it all. I found these options interesting but largely worthless within a Normal difficult playthrough.
As it turns out Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night has three endings just as Curse of the Moon did and the first two possible ones are horrendous, entirely unsatisfying to the point that you almost know there is another way, as is tradition in this style of game. The second ending requires discovery of 2-3 new areas and the true final ending is achieved through 2-3 additional areas of the map beyond that. Is the gigantic version of Garden of Silence a cheesy cop out? Sure, but the random appearance of a boss you’ll recognize from the early part of Curse of the Moon will make up for that laziness. Before I got any deeper into the experience of playing the game and begin to suggest it is an addictive and fun playthrough I have to remark on those ‘minor flaws’ mentioned previously. To start there were major performance issues throughout including four full crashes out of the game, slowdown during three bosses, and an issue where loot that would drop wouldn’t become available to pick up as it sat there. Beyond those issues Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is ugly. Like, really ugly for 2019.
The art style is splattered with a gaudy plastic sheen and a color palette that relies heavily upon grays, reds and purples which only seems to apply mud to the “Dreamcast classic remastered for 4K widescreen” look of the games graphics, complete with stiff and often goofy animations from the human characters in the game. It all feels horrendously cheap and ugly to start, particularly when you’re on the ship at the start of the game and realize how poorly the monsters you’re fighting gel with the rudimentary backgrounds. From the goofy anime squids to the big legged chickens and a Dullahan that swings a sea urchin at you it couldn’t be a more godawful plastic mess of a diorama. This after they’ve made major revisions to the art style several times, landing a far cry from the concept art they’d sold the Kickstarter with early on. Backgrounds are simply rendered 3D pieces that scroll nicely on a fixed 2D perspective though some boss fights allow enemy attacks to break that third wall a la Street Fighter IV. Things do smooth over once you’ve seen the majority of the game but at no point did I ever think Bloodstained was a good looking video game, the results are dated and grotesque. It is a fun game, though.
All of the things I loved about Symphony of the Night, its handheld successors, and the indie games influenced by them since are here at the core of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. In that sense it is, again, a success as fan service and a new iteration on an old still-satisfying formula. Is it any better or worse than recent highs provided by Hollow Knight and uh.. Guacamelee (I guess)? This is something else entirely due to its nostalgic worth and referential lineage. If Hollow Knight were to reach its tenth game and find a new spiritual successor then any comparison would be warranted beyond mechanical similarities. Ritual of the Night is simply ‘one of those’ and from my perspective ‘those’ are the best kind of 2D platformers and the appeal of Super Metroid lives on through this Castlevania-like eighth generation of indie resuscitation since. Coming off of the nutty rye bread of The Messenger into the plain-ass doughy potato bread of Bloodstained I am satisfied, comforted, and reasonably entertained to the point of feeling that old metroidvania addiction ignite a bit more. As much as they’ve given me to do, I tore through this game in less than a week– I rarely spend more than 2-3 hours sitting with a game these last several years so, it hooked me quickly. Therein lies the recommendation, yes it is ugly and totally more of the same but wow, was it fun as hell for the 24 hours it took me to get 99.80% of the map covered. Ritual of the Night lives up to expectations on a basal level, especially if you go back and replay any of the games it is inspired by.
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