As Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is produced by Koji Igarashi and is considered a spiritual successor to the Castlevania series, I think it’s important to give a brief history to my experience of the Castlevania games. It’s a short and sweet experience which started with Super Castlevania 4 on the SNES when I was incredibly young and pretty useless at playing games. For me, it was ridiculously hard; Super Ghost and Ghouls hard. I sucked at it and soon gave up within hours of frustration and swapped it for another game with a close friend. I even tried it again recently on the SNES Mini and the frustration soon flooded back so I calmly exited the game to never play it again.
Now to my teenage years and it wasn’t until when the same friend that I swapped Castlevania 4 with, brought round Castlevania: Symphony of the Night to play on my shiny new PlayStation that I truly respected what the series had to offer. Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series had also just aired for the first time and my thirst for vampires was at an all-time high. Castlevania: SOTN wasn’t just a 2D hack and slash platformer, it introduced a wide variety of weapons, spells and RPG elements through being able to level up and assign points to different attributes, that I hadn’t experienced in a game before. I wanted to be the game’s protagonist, Alucard. It’s a little sad to admit but I may have even written up a bit of fan-fic having Alucard team up with Buffy to fight vampires in Sunnydale (the town in which Buffy the Vampire Slayer is set). Castlevania: SOTN is up there with one of the finest PlayStation games that I have played. I haven’t ever gone back to playing it since my teenage years as I never wanted to tarnish my memories of it.
Back to the present day, well a few years back when Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night was first announced in 2015 as a Kickstarter project, my ears pricked upon hearing its announcement and that it was being produced by Castlevania series legend Koji Igarashi. Initial anticipation and excitement were soon followed with trepidation on remembering how Igarashi’s spiritual successor to Mega Man – Mighty No.9 – turned out. Could he really disappoint again and could a Castlevania, specifically Castlevania: SOTN inspired game, hold up to today’s standards influx of more modernised games within the genre, such as Hollow Knight and Guacamelee?
I was fortunate enough to play a build of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night at EGX Rezzed in April of this year and I have to admit, I was fairly underwhelmed by what I experienced. The 2.5D visual presentation looked bland and uninspiring and the game’s protagonist, Miriam, felt way too sluggish in her movements. For the sheer volume of funds raised through the Kickstarter I was expecting more, but I had to remember it was only a demo build of the game. Now, having been able to play the final product, I can put aside practically all of my initial fears.
Let’s start with the premise of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, since the gothic setting and excellent cast of Castlevania: SOTN was such a draw for me, would this game excel in this department too? Simple answer, yes it certainly does. I don’t think many characters can top that of the sheer elegance and beautifully-styled look of Alucard from Castlevania: SOTN. Honestly, his character design is exceptional, and therefore Miriam from Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night had a lot to live up to and while she resembles past Castlevania characters, her design is nowhere near as memorable. Miriam’s body is adorned with crystal shards within her skin to be reminiscent of stained glass, which you would think would look pretty edgy, but unfortunately just looks like she has some colourful tattoos on her body. It’s only when you see the rose on her back while crafting does the shard look more like glass protruding from her skin.
Miriam’s outfit is a slick corset styled dress garment and what I like most is that as you find accessories to equip, these actually change Miriam’s character model with headwear and scarves. Also, after a few hours into the game, you come across an NPC demon barber (a clever nod to Sweeney Todd) that will allow you to completely change Miriam’s features. This includes her hairstyle and colour, eye and skin colour, and the colour of your outfit too, which is a really nice touch.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is set in 18th Century England during the industrial revolution. Miriam is known as a Shardbinder, who are humans forcibly fused with demonically-charged crystals that attune them to their powers. Shardbinders were created by the Alchemy Guild to be used as a sacrifice to summon demons from Hell and was originally meant to be used as a scare tactic to show the wealthy leaders of England that the Guild still had power. Things didn’t quite go exactly to plan as it resulted in uncontrollable destruction that wiped out the Guild and much of England until the Church was able to banish them. Miriam, however, was never sacrificed like the other Shardbinders after falling into an unnatural slumber and only one other Shardbinder, known as Gebel, survived the onslaught.
Gebel is our main antagonist, out for revenge against the Guild. Over the 10 years that Miriam is asleep, Gebel sets about summoning demons to attack the Guild and cause destruction across England. It, of course, wouldn’t be a Castlevania game without a castle and Gebel resides in his own called Hellhold (with a name like that I would stay well clear of it!). When Miriam eventually awakens, she is accompanied by Johannes, a former member of the Guild, who watched over and protected her while she slept. Miriam then sets out to confront Gebel, as she promised him that if he ever succumbed to his demonic powers she would be there to stop him.
The premise is really interesting and the rest of the story doesn’t disappoint with twists and turns throughout. You’ll come across a number of intriguing characters and my personal favourite is Zangetsu, a demon hunter from the Far East and is a pretty awesome samurai that initially holds a grudge against Miriam due to her demonic nature. He was the main protagonist in the tie-in title Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon that released in May of last year as part of the Kickstarter campaign. Zangestsu is also voiced none other than by the legendary Solid Snake voice actor – David Hayter, which instantly adds extra coolness to him!
Aside from the main cast, there are some NPCs that offer a number of side quests, which pretty much result in you having to kill a certain number of enemies and collect or craft materials and food. These characters, unlike the main cast, have incredibly bland character models and the quality of the voice acting is pretty rough. A young girl you meet very early on has the most irritating cockney accent and is better-suited being in an Oliver Twist theatrical production rather than in this game.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night’s art style and presentation is still a little underwhelming, however, on a positive note, there is a vast improvement over the earlier build that I played, putting much more detail into character models and the environments, and giving it all a bold and bright lick of paint rather than the drab filter it previously looked like it had on it. There is, however, something still amiss with how some of the characters and enemies move and look when traversing the levels. I think it’s the fact that the scenery is fully 3D rendered whereas character models are cel-shaded. Also, the animation of Miriam is perfectly fine but for some of the other characters, there is a level of jerkiness to it. You only have to look at the animation of Johannes running, which looks like he has shat himself, to make you groan out loud. (Rob – I guess the game should be called “Poopstained: Ritual of the toilet”?!)
If Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night could have gone down the fully cel-shaded route, then it would have made it a much more interesting game to look at. That’s not saying that the game is ugly, far from it. Some of the scenery is gorgeous, such as seeing the blood moon in the sky as you traverse through the Garden of Silence and the stain-glassed windows within the cathedral level.
The most important aspect of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is its gameplay. It’s ridiculously addictive and I could simply state if you’ve played Castlevania: SOTN you will know exactly what to expect. To say it plays identically to Castlevania: SOTN is doing the game an injustice. It does introduce some new ideas but essentially there is no getting away from the fact that it is like playing a game from a bygone era. A game that should feel stuck in the past, but actually, with the recent surge of games within the Metroidvania genre, it feels well and truly at home, cemented in the foundation of the formula itself and therefore even surpassing those that have tried to recreate it.
The variety in the gameplay is where the game excels. There is an abundance of weapons to find in chests or create, which directly change up your play style. Dagger and short swords are very quick and nimble while larger swords make your swings much slower but you do hit harder. You can even use guns and of course, it wouldn’t be Castlevania inspired without there being whips to use. Combat and platforming felt much more fluid than the demo version I played, and most importantly it’s a whole lot of fun. When you’re not attacking you can guard but I struggled to get this to work effectively, instead, you can avoid attacks by either jumping, doing a back step or even a slide.
Aside from weapon attacks you also have magic skills which come in the form of ‘Shards’. These demonic abilities come directly from killing enemies. This is an excellent system where you generally receive a power reflecting the essence of the monster it came from. Some of these Shard skills are attack-based, like having an elemental fireball or summoning a form of the monster to aid you in battle, whereas Manipulative Shards are used to directly interact with the environment to open new pathways for you to explore and progress. By using one of these skills it will drain your Magic Point (MP) bar which does slowly replenish over time or through items or drops from the enemies. There are Familiar Shard skills too that do not use MP, such as having a fairy that will support you at all times by doing the odd attack to a monster or healing you at times, and lastly Passive Shards which will give you a boost to weapons or your stats.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night has a vast quantity of different enemies (well over 100), some of which you would come to expect such as bats, gargoyles, skeleton knights and general large beastly demons, however, there are some pretty crazy ones too, most noticeably flying pigs and massive chained heads of dogs. I’m all for weird and wonderful and I guess anything could turn up as a demon. I did enjoy that there is a monster called Shovel Armour which looks identical to the gaming character Shovel Knight, which is a very clever little homage to include.
Generally, I found enemies to not pose too much of a threat if you have levelled well and keep on top of crafting more powerful weapons and equipment, but there is definitely a steep and jarring rise in difficulty when it comes to the game’s bosses. Quickly learning their attack patterns is a must as they take an awful lot of hits to go down and I found Miriam doesn’t always have the quickness to avoid fast-paced boss attacks. I would definitely advise stocking up on potions and food and trying not to use too many of them as you progress through the levels. If you run out before a boss you will most definitely struggle and while a potion may drop from any enemy, you will likely have to travel back to Arvantville to visit Johannes or Dominique to replenish your stock.
Thankfully, in typical Metroidvania fashion, there are shortcuts between the different stages as well as stain-glass mirrored murals that act as portals in which you can travel to the other portals that you have come across in the game world, this drastically helps to save time. Alternatively, if you are struggling with a boss it might be worth grinding a few levels to make yourself more powerful, but for the most part, I didn’t have to do any grinding really except for the hidden bosses.
As you progress through the game, you unlock new abilities which allow you to open up new areas, find hidden items and discover secret bosses. These abilities include being able to double jump, sinking in water, inverting the game’s map and even stopping time (which is a very late game, almost hidden feature). There’s one area that you can unlock, which I won’t go into detail about, but is an excellent little ‘easter egg’ to the classic Castlevania games thrown in for good measure.
I had some minor performance issues with some stuttering when transitioning from a cutscene to gameplay and a late-game boss generated a fair bit of slow-down. Also, at times, item drops from enemies would get stuck on the scenery. These little things aren’t game-breaking and didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the game, but I would have expected to have had these resolved before release and even though the game was delayed numerous times, it really could have done with a few more months of polish. I’ve also heard that the Nintendo Switch version of the game suffers from some framerate issues but I’m not aware if these have been patched at the time of this review going live.
Something that I can’t fault whatsoever is Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night’s soundtrack. Upon loading the game for the first time I sat at the beautiful water-coloured scene of the Hellhold Castle, featured on the title screen, and listened to the eerily impressive piano score, which had me completely mesmerised. You could clearly tell from the offset that Michiru Yamane, a former Konami composer who worked on the music for several Castlevania games, was on-board for this project and so very grateful I was for this. I can’t tell you the number of times I stood still with Miriam and just soaked up the melodies playing in the background. It’s been a while since a game’s soundtrack has had me so entranced and I’ve been listening to it endlessly on repeat ever since first starting the game.
For trophy hunters, the Platinum trophy is fairly easy to achieve but it will take a fair bit of grinding and patience. The story took me just over 13 hours to complete and then there is plenty more on offer to ensure 100% completion. This includes unlocking every area of the map, completing side quests, finding and defeating all of the enemies to fill the bestiary, having to collect all the items through chests, purchasing and alchemy; and lastly collecting one of each of the shards available. If you have the drive to do all this, expect to plough another 10-15 hours into the game.
Whilst Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a terrific game and will keep you entertained for a number of hours, I don’t think the game is worth the £34.99 price tag and I would recommend waiting for a price drop before you buy. When you think that you can purchase Hollow Knight for half that price, it’s more impressive visually and you can easily plough 60+ hours into the game, then I feel that Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, with its lack of polish, should have therefore been priced much more reasonably at no more than £25. I’m minded to say that you are paying more for the fact that the game is produced by Igarashi than its true worth.
I’ll conclude by saying that, quite simply, for fans of the Castlevania series or classic Metroidvania games, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is an essential purchase. It may resemble Castlevania: SOTN a little too closely, but it manages to set itself apart with an interesting story and cast. It also couldn’t be called a spiritual successor to Castlevania: SOTN without at least a couple of vampires making an appearance. It’s a great game for newcomers to the genre, those who want to experience a Metroidvania game with a very retro feel, however, those more used to modern-day Metroidvania games might find it a little too stagnant and old fashioned for their liking.
I think it might be time that I pick up the Castlevania Requiem collection so I can once again play Castlevania: SOTN. It’s been a long time coming!
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night£34.99
- - Return to a style of a bygone era
- - Addictive and satisfying gameplay
- - Soundtrack is phenomenal
- - Interesting cast of characters and story
- - Wide variety of weapons and shards keeps gameplay fresh
- - Some visual style and presentation issues
- - Inconsistent voice acting
- - Price tag is too steep