Games review: Bloodstained: Ritual Of The Night is Castlevania in all but name
Castlevania’s most acclaimed creator returns with a spiritual sequel that is – almost – everything fans could’ve wished for.
When Konami released the recent Castlevania Anniversary Collection we pointed out that, thanks to the Netflix animated series and cameos in Super Smash Bros., Castlevania has never been more high profile – despite the fact that a new game in the series hasn’t been released since 2014. There’s no hint that one is planned in the future either, so instead the creator of the PlayStation era of games has taken matters into his own hands and crowdfunded a spiritual sequel via Kickstarter.
Koji ‘Iga’ Igarashi was co-director on the seminal Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night and worked on almost every subsequent Castlevania until 2010 reboot Lords Of Shadow. Disillusioned with Konami’s move away from traditional video games, Iga left the company a few years later and helped form developer ArtPlay to work on what would become Bloodstained: Ritual Of The Night. With over $5.5 million in pledges it became the second most successful video game Kickstarter ever, behind only Shenmue III.
But raising money has never been the problem with Kickstarter projects. Most of the time it only helps to increase the sense of disappointment when the final product turns out to be a rushed, anaemic release that just about fulfils its pledges but is absolutely not the game that everyone imagined when it was first promoted. We’re happy to say that Ritual Of The Night is an exception to that rule.
Although Ritual Of The Night doesn’t officially have anything to do with Castlevania everything, from the plot to the gameplay to the art design, is as close as is legally sensible. The story doesn’t have anything to do with vampires, even though the bad guy dresses up as one, and is instead involves a more complicated, and instantly uninteresting, tale of a partially thwarted demonic invasion that somehow still revolves around infiltrating a monster-filled castle. Konami clearly weren’t holding back Iga’s storytelling talents, and it’s a shame protagonist Miriam is so dull, but all the talking head cut scenes can thankfully be sent packing with just the press of a button.
What matters much more is that this is a rare attempt at a big (well, medium) budget Metroidvania and while the gameplay is 2D the graphics are polygonal and there’s clearly been a fair amount of money put into them, the music, and the presentation in general. We have to admit we’re not big fans of the semi-cel-shaded visuals, particularly the ugly black lines around each character, but there’s some fun monster designs and impressively large-scale boss battles.
As you would expect, this takes a very similar approach to Symphony Of The Night in terms of being a fully-fledged action role-player. There’s no skill tree but Miriam has stats that level up as you collect experience and there’s a huge range of weapons, armour, and accessories to collect and buy. Even in the opening section you’ll come across knives, swords, whips, kung fu slippers and more – all offering very different attacks in terms of power, range, and speed. All this is in addition to magic abilities, the equivalent of sub-weapons from Castlevania, whose power can be topped up by destroying candles and other light sources.
With any other game Ritual Of The Night’s similarity to Symphony Of The Night would count against it, but in this case that’s exactly what fans not only wanted but paid for. There are some differences though, with the most obvious being that almost every monster has its own special ability you can steal – although whether you do so or not is down to random chance. Aria Of Sorrow on the DS used a similar concept but the idea is greatly expanded upon here, with powers that range from simple stat buffs to fireballs, animal familiars, and new movement options – many of which can suddenly open up areas of the map that were previously inaccessible.
There’s so much variety on offer that you’re able to set up specific loadouts and switch between them at will, emphasising speed, attack, defence, and other specialities as you need it – with many of the weapons having special moves activated by Street Fighter style combos.
There’s also a crafting system using resources you collect from defeated monsters, which can be used to either upgrade your equipment or make special food dishes. But again, the chances of having the right items is all down to chance, which leads to you trying to farm rare monsters just to get the items they drop only 1 in 100 times.
One of our longest standing complaints about Iga’s Castlevania games is that combat quickly becomes trivial as you level up and gain new weapons. That’s still an issue here to a degree, but the balance is better and while the game is by no means overly difficult there is a more consistent challenge, with a regular stream of monsters and mini-bosses which at first seem unbeatable but become much less so as your repartee expands.
One of the most common issues with Kickstarter games is a lack of content, but while a basic run-through to the bad ending will take around five hours you’re looking at four or five times that to see everything in Ritual Of The Night. New playable characters, on and offline co-op, and a bunch of other new modes are planned for the future but the priority is hopefully a bug-fixing patch, as there’s currently the odd bout of slowdown and some semi-regular graphical glitches.
Overall though this is a great success, in terms of a Kickstarter making good on its promises and being an enjoyable game in its own right. It does very little that is new, as an unofficial part of a franchise that has remained largely unchanged for over 20 years, but in this specific instance that’s excusable. Ritual Of The Night does nothing to point the way forward for Castlevania but it does an awful lot to prove that the games are still enjoyable and relevant today.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
In Short: The best Castlevania game never made and while it adds relatively little to the formula it is the best example of its use in many years.
Pros: A fun recreation of the best of 2D Castlevania, with just enough innovation and variation to keep things interesting. Huge range of enemies, weapons, and abilities. Expansive crafting system.
Cons: Very few new ideas, for either Castlevania or Metroidvania games in general. Slightly bland art style and some bugs. Overreliance on random chance for new abilities and resources.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC
Publisher: 505 Games
Release Date: 18th June 2019 (25/6 on Switch)
Age Rating: 12
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