This decade kicked off with the lofty promise of crowd-funded video game projects. Creators like Tim Schafer and Keiji Inafune raised millions of dollars from supporters by promising them a return to the type of games that made them household names in the industry. These projects rarely turned out how fans expected them to, but that didn’t stop Koji “IGA” Igarashi, the man credited with bringing out the classic Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, from whipping up a frenzy when he similarly went to Kickstarter to raise funds for a spiritual successor to the “Metroidvania” genre he helped coin. Now, five years divorced from the Kickstarter announcement, IGA’s Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is finally in the hands of players after numerous delays and setbacks.
Ritual of the Night is one of the rare crowd-funded success stories by playing it relatively safe in terms of scope, but while far from the disaster that something like Mighty No.9 was, a few technical hiccups plague what is otherwise a respectable return to form from Igarashi.
In Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, you play as Miriam, a Shardbinder who is embedded with magical crystals that allow her to absorb the powers of demons. She awakens after a 10 year slumber to find that a fellow Shardbinder, Gebel, has unearthed an ancient, demonic castle, and it’s up to her to venture into its haunted halls to vanquish its demonic residences and stop whatever Gebel is planning.
Ritual of the Night kicks off with a lore dump explaining its world, and it can be a lot to take in, but essentially this is just Castlevania. Monsters and characters have designs that dance a fine line between homage and ripoff. One character in particular will make you say “no, they actually got them back?!” when you hear their voice, and we’re not referring to David “Solid Snake” Hayter.
As far as the narrative driving you through the castle though, expect to click through dialogue pretty fast to get back to what everyone’s here for: exploring and killing monsters.
When Symphony of the Night was released back in 1997, there were few games like it, but that’s not the case in 2019. The 2D, exploration-heavy “Metroidvania” design has been wholly embraced by the indie scene, and there was a worry that Igarashi’s return to a well worn design template would come across as quaint.
While Ritual of the Night doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, its gothic-horror aesthetic helps Bloodstained stand out in a saturated market of similar titles.
You’ll be doing a lot of the same things you have perhaps done to death lately in games like Dead Cells or The Messenger, but all these years later, it’s still somehow fresh exploring the rooms of an expansive, well-crafted castle.
The musical themes won’t resonate quite like those from the series Bloodstained was spun-off from, but they do the job nicely, and the whole package feels like finding out that one of your favorite shirts still fits.
That being said, Ritual of the Night also feels far too safe, especially when you go back and watch the original Kickstarter video where IGA boasts about refining the genre. The themes of the areas you explore and the way that map is laid out at times make this feel less like an evolution of Igarashi’s older games and more like a remake of Symphony of the Night.
Igarashi’s games never had the highest budget when he was at Konami, thus you noticed a lot more recycled assets as the games came out in greater frequency, but they, at the very least, came with their own unique hook.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night at times uses the tools afforded by the technology of today to great affect, like an outer castle wall that spirals as you move around it, but too often the game feels content with just retreading the same areas as the game that defined IGA’s career.
A lot was made of the look of Ritual of the Night, so much so that Igarashi himself starred in a trailer that got ahead of the negative comments to show off Bloodstained’s new aesthetic. Though it’s disappointing that Bloodstained didn’t retain the 2D sprite work of the PlayStation classic and its Game Boy Advance siblings, its 2.5D look still manages to very much feel in line with those games thanks in parts to support studios like WayForward.
Enemies and environments come to life far better than the flat look the game was sporting when it was shown in past trailers and at events. This is due in large part to better lighting, though this does come at a disadvantage in some of the later parts of the game. There’s a fire area for example where you have red enemies coming out of lava against a red background and it’s a chore to navigate.
The environments for the most part strike a good balance between exploration and combat, but areas toward the endgame lean far too much toward frustration. Rooms are cramped with fast-moving enemies that you can’t get around and will eat away your health.
There’s also a trend in the back half of the game where you’ll venture deep into a new area, only to not find a save point until you’re about to come up against a boss. It’s far too easy to desperately look for a save point, die, and have to retread whole areas over again, losing any map progress and experience you gathered between.
Normally you’ll at the very least find a fast-travel space so you can save at a safer area, but that still means you have to tediously get back to where you just uncovered. It diminishes the thrill of exploring, which was something that was hardly the case in other games of this type from the same designer. Symphony of the Night was not easy, but its challenge never felt overwhelming, even as you ventured into the flipped castle but the same could not be said of Bloodstained.
Luckily none of the frustration comes from controlling Miriam, who is an absolute joy to play as. Controls in Bloodstained are tight, and everything from jumping, hitting enemies and back-dashing out of reach feels exactly as you remember it. There’s a lot of choice in how you choose to build up Miriam and it ultimately comes down to what you most feel comfortable with. You can wield swords, whips, clubs, axes and more, and they come in one and two-handed variety.
When foes are defeated, Miriam at times will absorb their abilities through shards similar to how you gathered souls in the Nintendo DS Sorrow games or the last proper IGAvania title, Order of Ecclesia. You can summon enemies and shoot projectiles with the triangle button, and a whole other set of abilities you can aim with the right stick and fire with the R2 trigger. Passive abilities can also be set, and a whole slew of traversal powers are at your disposal too, from turning into a laser and reflecting off panels to eventually teleporting through areas like Nightcrawler from the X-Men.
Armor, weapons, accessories, and shards can be upgraded via crafting, and the castle is filled with treasure chests filled to the brim with so much stuff that you don’t know what to do with. Your mileage will vary depending on how deep you like to dive into crafting mechanics, but it starts to feel like busy work that kills the pace of the adventure.
On top of crafting, you can also gather materials to cook meals which give stat boosts and provide a whole other set of trinkets to keep track of. Having to keep returning back to the starting area to check on crops, turn in side-quests and check to see what you can craft gets old, and it’s something that you absolutely cannot ignore as you need all the help you can get, especially in the later hours which can be brutally tough.
There’s already plenty to do in Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night from the main quest, exploring, optional bosses and hidden areas that the various sub-systems start to feel like busy work.
Unfortunately various bugs and other performance issues found within Bloodstained can’t be ignored. At the game’s launch, a bug that had to be patched forced players to restart their games if they had progressed to a certain point. Thankfully that has been patched out, but other problems still remain.
During our play through, Miriam fell through a platform during a boss fight, allowing us to defeat it in a way that assuredly was not intended by the developers. Words would sometimes go missing from subtitles, and the frame rate dipped hilariously low during one of the later bosses. Load times, especially after dying, went upwards of over a minute, leading me to think that the game had crashed when it hadn’t.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night isn’t the evolution of the genre that Koji Igarashi had once promised, however it still manages to be an enjoyable game overall. This is largely due to how it manages to remind us why we fell in love with these games to begin with.
There’s plenty of flexibility in how you can engage in combat with Miriam and plenty of secrets to uncover through double-jumps and other fun to play around with traversal tools. Bloodstained can at times feel too familiar, and the challenge might be too high for some, but it offers an enjoyable dozen or so hours of exploring a castle with a lot to do in it.
Hopefully the bugs that plague Ritual of the Night can be ironed out, as there’s plenty of extras down the pipeline to keep players engaged with it once they role credits.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is available now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. It launches on June 25, 2019, for Nintendo Switch. This review is based on a PS4 copy of the game provided by the publisher. Purchases are available here.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
- A large castle to explore
- Great controls
- Plenty of character customization options
- It's just like Symphony of the Night...
- ...it's just like Symphony of the Night
- Performance issues, bugs and glitches
- Poorly placed save points within environments
- Frustrating difficulty at times