One might be right to be hesitant about Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. The term ‘spiritual successor’ is one that often leaves me a skeptic. How often have we seen a developer make a “spiritual successor” to a beloved video game series, yet ultimately left us incredibly disappointed? One only needs to point to Mighty No. 9 and Yooka-Laylee and you’ll catch my drift.
Part of the problem is that fans of the original franchise often expect too much, thus imbuing a game with certain unrealistic — or at least unfair — expectations. Another problem, however, is that sometimes it is hard to recapture the magic that made a gaming franchise so beloved in the first place, thus making the homage feel like nothing more than a soulless knockoff.
In case you didn’t know, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is the long-awaited spiritual successor to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Developed by ArtPlay and published by 505 Games, the game’s development was overseen by former Castlevania series producer Koji Igarashi, who conceived the game after his departure from Konami in 2014. He used the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter and successfully raised more than $5.5 million from backers, making it one of the most successful video game campaigns on the platform. However, after some Kickstarter troubles, numerous delays, and a long wait, fans were concerned that Bloodstained would not live up to the hype.
I always say that if you keep your expectations low, you are less likely to be disappointed, and so when I loaded Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, I expected a mediocre game that would entertain me for a few hours and nothing more.
Here’s the thing though: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is an atmospheric piece of arthouse horror that’s full of curious details, gorgeous gothic environments, a meaty campaign, satisfying combat, and an absolutely stunning score. The game is a near-perfect blend of contemporary and old-school design, and for those willing to follow along and vibe along with it, its rewards are plentiful. Needless to say, I really love this game, and anyone even remotely interested in the world of the side-scrolling Castlevania series should pick this up.
Weapons, magical powers, crafting and more…
At first, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night feels a bit too familiar. Even though there are no appearances from any of the Belmonts, nor Dracula himself, there are plenty of other similar-looking demons and demon hunters — not to mention a big gothic castle (not so dissimilar from Dracula’s abode), a glob of platforming, and exploration which follows closely in its ancestor’s footsteps. Thankfully, it doesn’t take long before this spiritual successor finds its footing by shaking up the formula that helped define and popularise Symphony of the Night.
From the start, protagonist Miriam has access to a variety of armor, weapons, and other accessories including knives, katanas, short swords, greatswords, maces, whips, spears, and even guns. Every weapon handles differently, and they each have their advantages and disadvantages in terms of speed, range, and damage, giving players plenty of options to experiment with. The main hook, however, is that Miriam is a shardbinder who can absorb the magical power of the enemies she slays by equipping shards. The various shards you collect are not always necessary for progression, but they do offer a number of creative ways to approach combat. Some shards, for example, come in the form of projectiles, while others allow you to summon various ghastly beasts to fight alongside you.
Meanwhile, Miriam can acquire certain skills, such as a double-jump to reach higher ledges, or a rapid slide kick to slip under barriers. Eventually, Miriam will also gain various familiars — floating spirits that follow you around and aid in battle. It doesn’t take long before Miriam becomes a deadly and proficient warrior, able to blend these skills together in order to reach more distant areas. The more shards she carries with her, however, the more Miriam stands to harm herself, as she can only lug a certain amount at a time — thus forcing the player to decide what to hold on to and what to trade in.
In addition to the various items and powers you collect, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night also features a RPG menu system packed with adjustable stats, items, clothing, weapons, and more. The sheer variety of options available to you can be overwhelming at first, but it is well worth experimenting with since the best equipment is often locked behind extensive crafting, and those items can surely help you on your journey when traveling through tough areas or fighting tougher bosses. There are plenty of other fun features as well that separate Bloodstained from other Metroidvania games, including a cursed demon hairdresser named Todd who helps you customize Miriam’s hairstyle and cosmetic look, as well as a handful of sidequests and optional endgame boss fights which decide which of the three different endings you will get. And did I mention that Bloodstained features a speed run, several cheats, a new game plus, local/online play, a boss rush mode, and an additional playable character?
The Level Design in Bloodstained is Top-Notch
The level design and serpentine map is the true highlight here. Metroidvania veterans will immediately fall in love with the focus on non-linear progression, since plenty of areas featuring narrow gaps, high platforms, and other roadblocks require specific tools and abilities to traverse. Exploration remains key, as each section contains a myriad of paths to take that more often than not feature hidden rooms with lost treasure and/or amusing Easter eggs. Bloodstained also comes with a much-appreciated fast-travel system, which makes exploring the map all the more enjoyable. Despite the gargantuan map size, Bloodstained never feels overwhelming, and like any good Metroidvania game, it feels incredibly rewarding each time you advance to a previously unreachable area.
Of course, it helps that Bloodstained is also gorgeous. The level design is quite clever, with incredible attention to detail and a color palette combined with a lighting scheme that quickly calls to mind Dario Argento’s Suspiria. As with Symphony of the Night, the variety of enemies and monsters are all beautifully animated, and the boss battles are truly spectacular (I especially love Bael, the gigantic three-headed serpentine-like demon). The soundtrack, composed by Castlevania veteran Michiru Yamane and Mega Man composer Ippo Yamada, also deserves praise for its grandiose pipe organs, haunting choir, and howling electric guitar. While I wasn’t fond of the writing or the British voice acting, the inclusion of Solid Snake voice actor David Hayter at least earned the game some pre-launch attention. That said, I do recommend trying the Japanese voice tracks instead. All in all, the game accomplishes so much simply through image and sound — which goes a long way to compensate for the stilted dialogue and awkward character interactions. Bloodstained is a stunning combination of menacing Grand Guignol atmosphere, dazzling colours, gory violence, lush decor, and a pounding soundtrack. Koji Igarashi’s use of space, lighting, vivid colors, and impressive set pieces surely overshadows the few missteps along the way.
There is no shortage of good Metroidvanias these days, but Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is well worth your time, especially if you’re a fan of classic Castlevania games from yesteryear. Bloodstained is indeed a rare spiritual successor that actually lives up to the hype, mostly because it plays and feels almost exactly like the legendary Castlevania: Symphony of the Night — which is its raison d’être. It’s meticulously crafted, incredibly fun, brimming with imagination, and brings together all the things Koji Igarashi should be famous for. From the stormy start to a fiery finish, it’s a stylish, phantasmagoric adventure which grabs players from their seats, sucks them into the experience, and brings back fond memories just by the way it looks and feels. Bloodstained is everything you could want from a modern Castlevania, and more.
– Ricky D