Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
Review by Mike Finkelstein
Finally, after four years of waiting, the big game has arrived. Kickstarted back in 2015, it's been a long wait for Metroidvania fans to get the game they were promised: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Sure, we had a bit of an amuse bouche to tide us over, the fantastic retro-prequel Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, but that wasn't the game we were really waiting for (even if it was fantastic in its own right). No, we wanted the big, Igarashi-produced game to take up the mantle of all his classics of old and now, after all these years, we have it. But was it worth the wait?
I'll be honest, I'm going to get pretty nit-picky with this review. There are a number of things I think we need to discuss, items that hold this game back from being truly glorious. But I do want it made clear, right at the start, that I really enjoyed this game. I've already done a full play-through of the title and, aside from a few frustrating sections (that we'll get to in a bit), I loved my time in it. It's not perfect by any means, but it's a very solid entry in the Metroidvania genre. It's also exactly the game you'd expect from something billed as a "spiritual successor to Castlevania", but it's' also exactly the game you'd expect. For good or ill, this game is a very traditional Castlevania game, and that's where some of the problems start to arise.
From the outset this game is going to feel like exactly what you expect from a Iga-made Metroidvania title. The heroine, Miriam, starts on a ghost ship outside of the town of Arantville and, once the ship runs aground (after fighting a nasty ocean boss), is free to explore the town and then the castle that lays beyond it. The castle is a Gothic edifice like you'd expect, populated with bats, hellhounds, dullahan heads (read: medusa heads), armors, and just about all the other basic fantasy creatures you'd expect. As she explores, Miriam will gain new powers that allow her greater access to the castle, new areas to explore, until finally she'll be able to take on the big boss, Gebel, with the right win conditions to open up the back half of the game. She'll progress further, find the true end boss, and defeat the demons, leaving the castle to crumble into ruins.
From that description I'm sure you're already imagining the game on offer. It's your standard Castlevania romp and, despite the fact that it's been 11 years since we had a proper Metroidvania entry in the series, essentially nothing has changed about the formula. That is a big concern although, admittedly, it wasn't something that bothered me as much as if this game had come out in 2009 (following the yearly release schedule Castlevania followed during the height the Game Boy Advance/DS era), and while this game didn't feel fresh, hewing so closely to the Castlevania games that came before, at least enough time has passed that I didn't hate how "same-y" it felt (something I held against Portrait of Ruin and Order of Ecclesia).
And yes, this game plays out exactly the way you'd expect just about every time you'd expect it. Do you see those ledges just out of reach? Don't worry, you'll get double jump soon. Need to reach even more out of the way areas? Well you're bound to find a way to fly up there before too long. Sure, some things are tweaked to feel a little different -- I really liked the "Invert" command you earn later which literally turns the castle 180 degrees but keeps your gravity the same, even if it did remind me of the Inverted Castle from Symphony of the Night -- but none of it felt truly original. So much of this game plays like a "Greatest Hits" of the Iga-vania era that there really doesn't seem to be room for anything new. It's a love letter to everything that came before in the Castlevania series without it ever once realizing that 11 years have passed and a lot of other games have come along since.
Take for instance the main mechanic of the game: shards. When you fight enemies you sometimes gain shards representing that enemies abilities. The shards are broken up into five different types, from primary attacks to buffs to latent, always-on abilities. As you collect more shards you'll get more abilities, and you can even collect more of the same shards (and then enhance them via alchemy) to make the abilities even stronger. I plays out exactly like the soul collecting from Dawn of Sorrow that this game feels like a direct sequel to that DS title. And, admittedly, that game was the height of the Iga-vania era, so if you're going to ape game from that era, this was a good one to pick. What it isn't, though, is new in any way shape or form.
Compare this to the Shantae games, which have been running for years now while Iga-vania has been dormant. In those games you can transform into different animals to gain all kinds of new abilities and explore new areas. Sure, Alucard was transforming in a bats and wolfs and mist before Shantae even existed, but her series created new animals, new abilities, and new ways to play and explore. Or take The Mummy Demastered which not only used the Castlevania aesthetic but managed to add new mechanics, like semi-permanent death and shooter-style action, to the base formula. There are so many games in the Metroidvania genre (a number of which we've covered), that Ritual now just feels quaint by comparison.
The lack of innovation is my big issue, but it's not the only knock against the game. There's also the fact that the game feels rushed and uneven. TO be fair, certain parts of the game show a level of polish you'd expect from the master of the genre. As I explored the game I found new areas that were blocked off to me but instead of just saying, "nope, you have to backtrack all the way," there were side routes for me to explore, new things for me to do that didn't really progress me but did at least reward me for taking my time to check out everything. The game is very linear, very gated (you won't be doing any sequence breaks in a casual play-through), but it does at least give you the freedom to poke around and, in the process, find some new shards and new gear to make the previous sections easier.
And you're going to want to explore a lot, even in areas you've been before (whether or not there's proper progress to be had) because, at times, the difficulty will spike out of nowhere. This is usually on the bosses -- the first boss on the galleon, and then the fight with Zangetsu near the opening of the game and, later, a battle with your doppelganger -- where the game effectively says, "okay, the gloves are off. I hope you leveled up enough because I'm out for blood." Some of these sections were frustrating, as were a few of the later sections -- I really hated the lava-filled Inferno Cave as the enemies combo'd me over and over before dunking me in the near-lethal lava repeatedly -- and compared to the sections that came before, these difficulty spikes feel mean and uneven. It's like the game wasn't completely tested before it was released, surprising considering it took four years to come out from when it was announced.
This lack of polish also extends to much of the castle itself. Namely it's in the fact that so many of the enemies are just pallet-swapped versions of enemies that came earlier in the game. Demons lead to Arch Demons which lead to Demon Lords, Assassins beget Ninjas, while fairies and armors come in all colors throughout the game. And then, right when you're reaching the end game, you hit the Hall of Behemoths which features the exact same enemies you saw at the start of the game, just scaled up larger (because this is a game made of polygons, not pixels, so giant versions just require the artists to click "300%" and call it a day). The game has a distractingly small number of enemies it loves to use over and over again and it leads me to think that the designers had to scramble to populate a huge castle and they only had so much time to design and A.I. coding so they made due with the small selection they created at the start.
The castle, too, doesn't feel as original as anything that came before. Most of the levels line up one-to-one with stages we've seen in previous Iga-vania games. While the castle is huge there aren't that many areas to it and, for a good portion of the game, you'll be making loops back and forth across the same three or so areas (seriously, you'll see the main cathedral area a lot). There are only two areas I'd consider really new for a Iga-vania game, the Oriental Mysteries Lab and the 8-bit dungeon, and only the Asian-themed lab feels truly new. In all other cases you'll explore an "alchemy lab", a "cathedral", a "garden" and see all the similarities between these new levels and stages that came before.
Is it unfair of me to complain about a game that feels like the Greatest Hits of Castlevania? I mean, sure, this is exactly what we were promised. Igarashi wanted to make a game just like what he made in the past and that's what he delivered. For many fans of the producer they're going to be happy they got exactly what was promised. And for a single play-through I even enjoyed it for what it was. Sure, it felt like what came before but I'd had 11 years since then which was enough time to enjoy the game for what it was. I really liked my time in Bloodstained and, for a game that wants to be nothing more that Castlevania with the brand name obscured under some black tape, it does it beautifully.
But that's the issue: it's been 11 years and Iga's ideas of what make a great Metroidvania game haven't evolved with. I'm not saying I want him to make the next Shantae or the next Mummy Demastered game. I just want him find a way to evolve a touch, to find new flair he can add to his formula to make the games feel fresh again.
It is possible to take the basic Castlevania formula and make it fresh. The prequel for this game, Curse of the Moon, did just that. On it's face the retro-prequel felt like Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, with its 8-bit-inspired graphics and four-character party composition. It had all the old school touches that fans of the classic, NES titles, would feel at home. And yet it found ways to innovate, adding in new abilities, new things you could do, along with enough options that any player, casual or veteran, could play the game and enjoy everything on offer. It was a blend of old and new that felt really good and surprisingly fresh. Of course, it was also made by a different company, Inti Creates, under license, and not main studio ArtPlay.
Maybe what Iga needs now is to go out and consult with other Metroidvania creators, see what kinds of new ideas are out there and get his own creative juices flowing. Right now he's given us exactly what he promised. Assuming this game is successful (which, from the buzz its getting Online, it should be), it will likely get a true sequel. When that happens it's time for Iga to deliver what he really should have been promising: the next step for the Castlevania series. Now that he's shown he can still make these games, I want to see what he can do with all the freedom he desires and no expectations of what comes next.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a good game just steps away from greatness. It's a solid entry in the Iga-vania franchise that's held back only by its own desire to revisit past glories instead of looking ahead to what's next. It's the game fans were promised but maybe not what they really wanted. It is everything we expected and nothing more. I enjoy it, I like it, at times I even love it, but I don't know if, even a year from now, I'll play it again.