As I was playing Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, I found myself humming one of composer Michiru Yamane's songs. Yamane has a gift for music that's both catchy and atmospheric; she's soundtracked many a Castlevania game in her time, so she knows what she's doing. The music in Bloodstained is another top-notch set of work from her, but the piece I was humming was not a piece from Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. It did, however, sound very much like one that was. In many ways, that's representative of the game as a whole. Bloodstained isn't a Castlevania game, but it plays, looks, and sounds like it really wants to be. Sometimes it succeeds - mostly it succeeds - but sometimes it stumbles.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is clearly a labor of love for its creator Koji Igarashi. That goofy release date announcement trailer from a while back was effectively PR 101, but it also showcased Iga's fun personality and dedication to the game. It's clear that this Metroidvania style is where Iga's heart lies; before giving up the Castlevania series in 2011, Iga worked on every major Metroidvania installment in the franchise. From 1997's Symphony of the Night through to 2008's Order of Ecclesia, every non-linear Castlevania game has Iga's vampiric touch. For a while, Iga was the only place you could go to get this sort of game at his characteristic level of quality.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is Classic Metroidvania
Things have changed since then, though. Games like Hollow Knight, Dead Cells, and Yoku's Island Express show just how high-quality (and how crowded) the Metroidvania market is right now. There was a time when Iga wouldn't have to work hard to deliver a solid product with a clear niche. Now, however, there's an entire overpopulated landscape of explorative 2D platformers with maps that gradually open up. Many of these games have unique selling points. Hollow Knight takes influence from Dark Souls. Dead Cells is a roguelike. Yoku's Island Express is a quirky pinball-'em-up. So what does Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night bring to the table? Well...
Bloodstained casts you as Miriam, a "Shardbinder" who's able to use demon powers. Miriam awakens from a ten-year coma to find that fellow Shardbinder Gebel is running amok and summoning demons. Miriam sets out to put a stop to Gebel and also to explore a castle. If that sounds flippant, that's because the game doesn't give much more consideration to its setup than I did. The opening screed essentially just says "there is also a castle", and that's it. The story of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night takes place in a castle because Symphony of the Night did. Its characters are rough analogs to those of Symphony of the Night, and the plot plays out in a not dissimilar fashion. You won't get your money's worth from narrative alone here.
Deja Vu In Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
Of course, Symphony of the Night wasn't exactly rich in thematic detail. Alucard turns up at his dad's castle and kills his way through the thing before reaching Dracula. Iga's design doesn't emphasize story (although some of the later DS games have potential in this area); it's all about the gameplay with this man. In this area, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night feels instinctively like SotN. If you've got a well-worn copy of that game on PS1, you'll find yourself slipping back into old habits. Combat and exploration, the twin focuses of SotN, feel almost identical in Bloodstained. From weapon variation to traversal powers, there's very little Miriam can do that Alucard couldn't.
That similarity extends to the design of the castle itself. There's an alchemy laboratory. You'll explore a cathedral area that looks uncannily like the one in Symphony of the Night. There's an underground waterway. I don't begrudge Iga for wanting to revisit past glories, but a little innovation in terms of castle design might have been nice. When games like Hollow Knight can craft intriguing worlds with nary a castle in sight, it's difficult to return to the relatively stale settings of the Castlevania series. It doesn't help that the game's visual style is odd. Iga's opted for a 2.5D look here, but Symphony of the Night's painterly 2D aesthetic looks better even now. There is some variation on display in the environment design, but the visuals are a bit muddy and ugly.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Is A Triumphant Return For Iga
So far, it might sound like I'm pretty down on Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Honestly, though, it's one of the best-designed Metroidvania games I've played in a while. That's probably because it's almost literally Symphony of the Night, but nobody does this stuff quite like Iga. The castle's design might feel a touch over-familiar, but it's still a blast to explore. Enemies are varied and have interesting move sets. The gameplay has a fluidity and grace to it that's just as fun to engage with now as it was in 1997. The central gameplay loop of exploring the castle, finding save points, and battling bosses still feels immensely rewarding. Iga might be returning to a crowded marketplace, but he's still got it.
There is, however, an undeniable vein of ramshackle amateurism running through the game. It's identifiable in the game's several bugs and glitches. Sometimes I'd walk into a room only for it to be completely dark. Other times walls trapped my enemies and made them invincible to my attacks. None of the nastier potential bugs happened for me, but they're unacceptable in a game this high-profile on release. Subtitles are missing and voice acting is inconsistent. After hearing Miriam's loud, incessant screams echoing throughout the castle time and time again, you'll rush to mute the voices. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night feels like a game that could perhaps have done with just a few extra months for polish. As it stands, the game is more than playable (for most), but it's lacking a touch of finesse.
An Embarrassment of Riches in Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
Thankfully, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night does more than enough to compensate for its roughness. There's a frankly embarrassing amount of content in this game. Iga says this is his biggest title yet, and he's probably right. Each area contains plenty of nooks, crannies, and secrets, many of which are classic Iga. There's a portrait whose single bloodshot eye follows Miriam but can't immediately be interacted with. There's a fountain full of blood which the minimap shows to be hiding a passageway. There are plenty of doors that aren't immediately accessible, prompting players to return later with secrets learned and items gained.
In the end, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night's unique selling point might be that it doesn't have one. In a gaming world overstuffed with Metroidvania games eager to carve out their niche, Bloodstained is content to call back to the classics. There aren't any gimmicks (beyond a crafting system and a weirdly token appearance-changing feature). You won't be firing pinballs around, exploring long-dead bug kingdoms, or poking around procedurally-generated environments here. Instead, you'll simply be playing through a meticulously-crafted Metroidvania with no bells and whistles. If you're tired of these games, Bloodstained won't win you over. If, like me, this genre is your comfort food, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night represents a feast made with love, care, and attention.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Review | Final Thoughts
It's far too common for Kickstarter projects to fall flat on their face. Unsung Story, Mighty No. 9, Yooka-Laylee - these are all projects that have been met with their fair share of derision. Many feared that Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night would meet the same fate, but I'm happy to report this is not the case. Iga's latest outing doesn't quite hit the highs of the best Castlevania games, nor does it stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Hollow Knight. It is, however, a rollicking good time. The game's engaging combat, varied weapon systems, and massive castle make it more than worth your while if you're a fan of Metroidvania games. This isn't where to start with the genre, but it's an excellent continuation of Iga's best design quirks. Let's hope the man continues his reign of undeath beyond this single act of unholy resurrection.
TechRaptor reviewed Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the developer.
- Classic Metroidvania From Iga
- Satisfying Exploration
- Varied, Stylish Combat
- Massive Amount Of Content
- Glitchy And Buggy In Places
- Visually Inferior To Symphony Of The Night
- Uninspired In Places