After four years in development, Tokyo-based ArtPlay’s Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night arrives on the scene bearing more of a resemblance to Sonic Mania or Mega Man 11 than to Mighty No. 9. It’s an immense joy to have a true current-generation side-scrolling Castlevania out there in the world, and more than a little embarrassing for Konami that this game, which can stand proudly alongside Symphony of the Night in terms of quality and creativity, could’ve been theirs had they not been, well, Konami for the past decade.
And make no mistake: This is a Koji Igarashi Castlevania title through and through. This could have been a 20-hour game full of creative cheap shots—and, indeed, it isn’t above thumbing its nose at its spiritual predecessor with reckless abandon, with one particular NPC and his voice actor essentially walking right up to the line of blatant copyright infringement, which would be egregious if Igarashi hadn’t essentially created that character. But Bloodstained still has its own envelope-pushing identity. This is a game that feels like the sum total of lessons learned across Igarashi’s storied history as a series director and producer, while also a promising look toward a potential future for the whole Metroidvania genre.
Bloodstained distances itself from Castlevania most in its characters and narrative. The story involves alchemists rebelling against forced obsolescence due to the Industrial Revolution by unleashing arcane horrors upon the world using demonic crystal shards. Gebel, an orphan, was supposed to be a ritual sacrifice to Hell itself, but he survives and, in his rage, leads the charge from an eldritch castle. The world’s only hope is Miriam, another orphan whose mysterious childhood coma prevented her from being sacrificed but who’s still able to wield the demonic shards on behalf of a thinly veiled take on the Vatican until the day the crystals consume her. It’s such a fertile little story that it’s almost a shame the game doesn’t do more with it. Fortunately, what largely takes its place is enthralling in its own right.
There are a few moments of pure old-school gothic horror in Bloodstained—one particular boss is essentially Elizabeth Bathory taken to the utter extreme—and Michiru Yamane’s score spectacularly sets the stage for it all, but it’s by and large operating on a very different wavelength than grim moonlit vampirism. Perhaps informed by cel shading, the game displays a command for strange colors, aesthetic mash-ups, and lighting schemes that consistently unsettle the player at tense moments, making it seem less like Bram Stoker’s Dracula than Dario Argento’s Suspiria. And it does that without every losing its sense of play. It’s incredible how often one is legitimately surprised by what’s waiting in the next room. This is the type of game that will stun you by throwing indescribable behemoths at you in one room, then have you chuckling at the flying pigs puttering their way around the next.
As varied and intriguing as the game can get on a conceptual level, it outdoes itself in the minutiae of traversal and combat. The game’s opening hours feel instantly familiar. The castle is wide open for players to explore until they come across dead ends requiring as-yet-discovered abilities. The only new aspect early on is that Miriam is able to wield guns. Before long, it becomes clear that the player has never had more freedom to choose how to play this type of game. The initial Kickstarter campaign had Igarashi asking his audience via a website whether players preferred to use a sword or a whip in their Castlevania games, cleverly concealing the enormous number of options available to them in the final game. There are physical weapons above and beyond what’s ever been available in one of Igarashi’s Castlevania titles—everything from machetes, to shotguns, to lightsabers are options here—but it’s the shards that open up the player’s imagination, a mechanic that gives Miriam additional powers to equip and swap at will after defeating certain enemies, and the options seem just endless.
At one point, while fighting a two-headed dragon, each head wrapped around the outside of a clocktower, I ended up pausing the game just to marvel at the sheer lunacy that had just been playing out on screen. Miriam was calling up columns of hellfire against the dragon with one hand, slicing at it with a steam-powered greatsword with the other, while occasionally turning into a bunny woman devastating the beast with lightning fast kung-fu kicks. All these things are slotted to shortcuts in a shoulder-trigger menu, accessible at the push of a button.
There’s a freedom to how Bloodstained allows you to tackle any obstacle that many MMOs would kill to be able to replicate. But that freedom comes at a price. There’s quite a bit of random chance involved with collecting many of those crazy powers and weapons, with progression still working off of RPG-lite principles, this time with a bit of item crafting involved. But the system is forgiving and highly versatile, and it encourages experimentation, both through the ease of accessibility and a tough-but-fair difficulty curve that has no intention of letting players simply traipse through as unscathed as quite a few Igavania titles have in the past. There will be walls of difficulty here, and they’re quite welcome.
Less welcome is a certain lack of technical finesse that riddles the game with performance stutters, stops, occasional tanking framerates and unexpected load times. It’s nothing that breaks the game—though a treasure issue caused by the most recent patch at the time of this review came frighteningly close—but often enough to make itself noticeable, even on a PS4 Pro. Sadly, the poor Switch is even less capable of plowing through the problems, and coupled with the drastic visual downgrade, it’s a much less enjoyable experience than on PC or the other consoles. (Editor’s Note: 505 Games has since issued a statement that says these issues will be addressed in upcoming patches.) Still, those hitches feel like the cost of freedom for Igarashi and his ArtPlay team. It’s not hard to imagine a Bloodstained—or, more accurately, a Castlevania—made by Konami that ran flawlessly but was released in compromised form in the way so many of their titles have been. That is, compromised in the way that weak-sauce multiplayer experiment Harmony of Despair felt compromised. The occasional two-second load screen is a paltry price for experiencing a near-masterwork.
This game was reviewed using a retail PlayStation 4 copy purchased by the reviewer.
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