Release Date: June 18, 2019
Platform: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, Switch, PC
Publisher: 505 Games
Genre: Metroidvania Platformer
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is such a beloved game that it, along with strange bedfellow Super Metroid, inspired a whole subgenre of platformers focused on exploration and backtracking. Today, Metroidvania games are as relevant and popular as ever, but one of the OGs of the genre, former Castlevania producer Koji Igarashi, takes it back to its roots with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, a spiritual successor to SotN that he conceived when he left Konami five years ago, launching an extremely successful, $5.5 million Kickstarter campaign.
Bloodstained is Castlevania through and through, as you battle through hordes of monsters in a sprawling, Gothic castle replete with creepy portraits (of generous Kickstarter backers, presumably), delightfully destructible chandeliers, and inexplicably deadly floor plans. Who the hell lines their floors and ceilings with wall-to-wall spikes?
Turns out a guy named Gebel does. He’s a Shardbinder, a product of the Alchemist’s Guild, who subjected him to experiments involving demonic crystals (Shards) that imbue him with power but have slowly stripped away his humanity over time. He was part of a grand experiment gone wrong, in which the Alchemist’s Guild summoned demons from hell using the Shardbinders’ powers. Gebel was the sole survivor and now commands an army of demons from his evil-ass castle.
You play as Shardbinder Miriam, an old friend of Gebel’s who fell into a coma of sorts before the Alchemist’s Guild’s botched ritual went down. She wakes up ten years later and is now out to bring her old partner—who has decided to wage war on all humankind—to justice while trying to cling onto her own humanity as she absorbs the Shards (powers) of the demons she vanquishes.
The side-scrolling action is—as it was in Symphony of the Night—tight, fast, and challenging, requiring quick reflexes and good timing to survive in between the map’s sparsely scattered save rooms. Enemies follow distinct movement and attack patterns and are quite formidable if you don’t get those patterns down, as they do major damage if they touch you, let alone land an attack. It’s imperative to be equally adept offensively and defensively since, when you die, you restart from your last save point. Which is to say, if you die during a tough boss battle and you haven’t saved recently, you’re going to lose A LOT of progress, which can sting pretty bad. There are certainly tougher titles on the market, but for those new to Metroidvanias or who are thirsting for a throwback to the early days of the genre, the challenge level is just right.
As you explore the castle, you’ll collect different Shards (one for each monster type) that grant you powers. Some are passive, giving you extra damage with certain types of weapons, for example. Others allow you to summon demons to attack enemies for you, or shoot fiery projectiles, or beam yourself up to previously unreachable areas of the castle (arguably the most compelling and enjoyable aspect of any Metroidvania game). You can collect familiars, little floating creatures who follow you around, aid you in combat, and sometimes alert you to hidden passageways.
The Shard system is as deep as it gets, at least volume-wise. There are a ton of powers at your disposal, and while most of them aren’t all that essential (there are some that are clearly just meant to look cool and add visual variety), it’s nice to have such a deep selection of abilities to choose from. There are a ton of weapons, armor, and accessories to find as well, and equipping the rarest items is particularly empowering, especially when their unique properties suit your play style.
The campaign took me about 17 hours to complete, though there are multiple endings to uncover depending on how you approach eliminating Gebel’s threat. It’s a fun ride from start to finish, though there’s nothing new or innovative to speak of gameplay-wise, which may be a turn-off for those who have played these kinds of games to death. The forthcoming versus and roguelike modes should add extra layers of intrigue, though.
It’s hard to complain about the core gameplay since it’s so simple and well designed, though one could make the argument that it isn’t ambitious enough. What I do find somewhat lacking is the game’s presentation, especially since the game so heavily invokes Symphony of the Night, one of the most darkly beautiful and atmospheric games of all time, from the different abilities and weapons, to the industrial-gothic aesthetic, down to the nostalgia-inducing 32-bit menus.
SotN’s pixel art was so captivating because the graphical limitations of the time resulted in a visual presentation that engaged the imagination, the low-detail sprites and backgrounds acting as a sort of artistic suggestion that we the players filled in with our own personal interpretations and perspectives. Bloodstained fails to capture that unique quality with its polygonal 2.5D graphics and borderline cartoonish art style. The character and enemy designs are interesting enough, but nothing about the presentation evokes fear or intimidation or isolation, which I definitely missed throughout my experience with the game.
All that said, Bloodstained is a thoroughly enjoyable, loving ode to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night that will most certainly scratch the itch of those who miss the purity of the days when the Metroidvania concept felt fresh and revolutionary. Is it the start of a new revolution for the genre? No. Is it better than its predecessor? No. But it is very well made, and there is great value to the nostalgia it does bring to the table.
Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.