As a long-time fan of the Castlevania franchise, you better believe I’ve had my eye on Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Produced by the legendary Koji Igarashi, the side-scroller was originally funded through a massively successful Kickstarter. The campaign kicked off shortly after Igarashi departed Konami in 2014 — free from the binds of his long-time home, fans were excited to see what the eccentric producer had up his sleeves. Now, after four long years, we can finally see what he’s been working on.
In Bloodstained you play as Miriam, a young girl imbued with demonic powers. Having been spared from sacrifice due to an untimely nap, our heroine wakes up a decade later to a drastically different world. One of the last Shardbinders — a group of people who were unwillingly bonded with deadly, but powerful, Shards — she’s all that stands in the way of unfathomable destruction. A fellow Shardbinder, Gebel, has taken control of a demon army and is intent on wiping out humanity. With Johannes, a young alchemist, and Dominique, a church associated exorcist, by her side, Miriam is tasked with saving a world she has long been absent from.
Even in the best of times, storytelling was never a strength of the Castlevania formula, and that holds true for this spiritual successor. There’s a lot going on, but for how crazy it all is, it’s kind of uninteresting. The characters are flat, and the frequent interruptions from side-players such as swordsman Zangetsu and older alchemist Alfred often made me groan. With a lot of background detail hidden around the castle, it can be difficult to find context for most of the plot, as well. This lack of explanation, combined with bad dialogue, make a vast majority of the cutscenes skippable.
Thankfully the bread and butter of Iga’s former franchise are alive and well in Bloodstained. A Metroidvania through and through, the title is heavy on exploration. The demonic castle Hellhold and its surrounding world are filled with crafty puzzles and secrets abound. It’s possible to just get lost for hours on end as you try to fill out the map or — since you often get little explanation of what to do next — simply trying to figure out what to do next. While some may find this obnoxious, there’s something to be said for a game that refuses to hold your hand. There’s much to be done in order for Miriam to fully purge the demonic presence, but only the truly dedicated will see that quest through to the end.
While the exploration stands as my favorite aspect, the combat in Ritual of the Night is just as great. Despite her 10-year coma, Miriam is surprisingly proficient with a variety of different weapons. From gigantic swords to specialty rifles, there is no shortage of tools for her to use. Each one has different stats and speed, so it’s important to constantly play around with what you are using. The items she can wear also have stat-boosting effects to pay attention to, and depending on the situation, you could conceivably switch between a handful of different items in one section. You may need to boost your strength in order to topple a frustrating boss or increase your luck in order to find a certain item. There’s rarely a wrong way to approach a problem, so experimentation is welcome.
The part of Miriam that separates her from others, though, are the demonic Shards that course through her body. The bad news about them is that they are slowly corrupting you. The good news, though, is that the powers they grant you are kicking rad. The Shards come in five different categories, and most of them can be acquired by killing a specific enemy a certain amount of times. A majority are focused on attacking, such as conjuring lightning or spawning a helpful ally, but there are also passive Shards as well. Only a handful of them are necessary in order to complete the story, so you could theoretically go through the game without touching half of them. I wouldn’t personally recommend that path, but to each their own.
I touched upon this before, but ultimately what makes Bloodstained stand out is just how open it feels. From the world Miriam inhabits to the seemingly limitless amount of loadouts you can work with, there’s an abundance of fun and interesting content packed in here. With a campaign that lasts around 12 hours, I never once got bored with what was going on around me. Whether it was stumbling into a new area, or trying out a new ability, the game always felt fresh. It feels like Igarashi took all of the lessons he learned over the past couple of decades and brought them together for this singular experience.
Despite being in development for around four years, Ritual of the Night seems like it could have used some extra time in the oven. At least on the standard PlayStation 4, the technical performance is rough, to say the least. Slowdown occurs anytime there are too many enemies on-screen, and completely wrecks one of the final boss battles. Pieces of character models (Miriam, in particular) have a tendency to clip through parts of the environment. It just feels very rough around the edges, which I can understand, considering ArtPlay is a new studio. That doesn’t mean I can excuse it, though.
Any extra time spent polishing could also have been focused on the visuals. The style is very reminiscent of what you have seen from Iga in the past — gothic, but with a twist. In some areas, it absolutely works. The backgrounds are beautiful, and most of the bosses boast excellent designs. However, I think the main character models are a little too busy. Miriam has a lot going on visually, and the same goes for most of the side characters. It’s a style that used to work for me, but my feelings on it aren’t as strong now. If you’re into the flashiness of it all, you’ll probably get a kick out of it. Personally, it’s all a little too busy and chaotic for my taste.
Although the Metroidvania genre has flourished over the years, no title has truly managed to nail down that intangible Castlevania flavor. That is, until now. Leave it up to one of the main men behind that classic series to bring it back to life with the mostly-excellent Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. For those that have been waiting since 2014 — or longer for a non-3D entry — this is what you’ve been longing for. The gameplay is excellent, with a surprising level of depth to it. It will keep you engaged, even if its other aspects don’t exactly stick the landing. I’m excited to see what ArtPlay can do now that they got their first big project out. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait another four years, though.
This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided by 505 Games.
Although certainly rough around the edges, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a solid adventure that will please Castlevania fans who have been longing for a new game to sink their teeth into.