As a huge fan of Metroidvanias, I obviously have a lot of love for the work of Koji Igarashi. The mind behind a lot of the best titles and wildest evolutions in the genre. With a veritable stable of classics to his name, I’d be foolish not to. But when he took to Kickstarter to fund Bloodstained, I hesitated. Kickstarter hadn’t yet proven to be the crapshoot it has become now, but a few million in pledges didn’t seem enough to craft a game that would live up to Igarashi’s legacy. It turned out I was half-right, with the road to release being paved with secret investors and surprise publishers hopping aboard over the five years Bloodstained has taken to be made – but was the wait, and the myriad of speedbumps, finally worth it?
Bloodstained is instantly familiar to anyone who grew up besting Dracula in the Castlevania games that helped not only refine, but name, the Metroidvania genre. The gothic, Victorian-England alternate reality look and feel to the world of Bloodstained is pure Iga, and it helps sell the piece as something worthy of his name almost instantly.
You play as Miriam, a tattooed, superpowered alchemist known as a Shardbinder. Essentially this means she has the power to harness the powers of the monsters and demons she defeats, though as these powers grow they threaten to consume her humanity. Her goal is to take down Gebel – once Miriam’s friend who has succumbed to a similar power. The telling of this tale follows where Igarashi left off in the DS Castlevania games – mostly short bursts of dialogue here and there to keep the action flowing towards a natural conclusion. There are some decent twists and turns along the way, but the story isn’t what will keep gamers coming back to the title.
The addictive gameplay loop that has proven so successful before will do that instead. The proceedings may be 2.5D now and everything might seem, at first blush, to be a much more complicated affair than Symphony of the Night – this game’s unmistakable spiritual predecessor – but the title plays out satisfyingly similarly.
Sidescrolling your way through an impressively large castle on the hunt for power-ups that will help you ascend to the final confrontation is the bread and butter of this game, and it’s as engaging now as it was in 1997. It’s buffeted by a slew of systems, most notably the ability to hoover up an enemy’s soul and claim their power for your own. This means that every big bad beasty that gets in your way promises a bump in power and adaptability for your burgeoning avatar. A pesky knight in armour is using a ferocious drill to try and take you down? Should you best them in battle you have a chance to claim that ability and start using massive drills against your foes.
With multiple types of souls – some providing passive buffs, whilst others provide ranged or melee abilities – combined with abilities from bosses that often allow new means of traversal, and armour and weapon loadouts that you can find hidden all over the castle, this all adds up to a massive amount of customization. Choosing from a near endless combination of souls and weapons means that the way you will likely tackle the castle will be completely different to my own, and playing around with these builds (and grinding against the bestiary for new or more powerful versions of souls) becomes the wonderfully intricate heart to Bloodstained.
In one of my favourite features from the game, you can unlock easy-access slots to craft varied loadouts in, and switch on the fly as you make your way through the castle. By the midgame I’d already prepared combinations for my most serious fights, boosting my luck for when I’m grinding for souls, an exploration mode that had all my varied traversal powers loaded in and a jack-of-all-trades option. It was truly a joy to pour over these builds and craft truly unique ones for every situation.
Balance might prove to be an issue with such variety, and indeed it did for a time. The majority of my midgame struggled to truly challenge me, with some seriously overpowered souls I’d put a lot of resources and time into levelling up doing most of the heavy lifting, but by the end the jump in difficulty was such that even my beastly loadouts finally began to buckle. This problem is compounded by the lacklustre roster of bosses – few of them are particularly memorable, which is a real shame as the titles predecessors boast some of the most incredible, often terrifyingly oversized foes in the genre.
I blitzed through the game in two red-eye sessions, clocking in at about 15 hours to 100% the castle on my first playthrough. During that time I enjoyed most of the pathfinding until a couple of really obtuse sections towards the end that didn’t tell me nearly enough to proceed naturally. I would say that as you near the finale yourself don’t be afraid to look online for a tip on where to go next, as the hours I spent banging my head against a wall and scouring the map for forward progress that wasn’t there dampened my overall enjoyment of the title.
Bloodstained’s presentation is… complicated. I think this is where you can see that worried premonition of mine from five years ago bear fruit. With only so much money behind this game – a game that is by all accounts an indie title now, divorced from the bankroll of Konami – the look and sound of the title can feel a little amateur at times.
The artistry itself is top notch, with some truly killer locales and memorable room design making sure places pop in your memory when you’re backtracking to certain places – but there’s just something off about the aesthetics that go beyond the fact that it all looks a little too wet. This shortcoming is especially apparent when you look at the beautiful sprite work that made up Castlevania titles of yore – games that will age gracefully, whereas this title already feels about a generation behind.
The music is pretty great, however, and has that same kind of hummable quality that modern games are seriously missing. The voice acting isn’t quite as good, and whilst there are some interesting turns by the likes of David Hayter of Solid Snake fame, the production feels a little wonky – with some characters being uncomfortably hilarious with how they deliver their lines.
Despite this uneven quality, Bloodstained was an absolute treat from start to finish. It’s a quality game in a long line of quality games, and it can comfortably sit up with Igarashi’s best – a little too comfortably, if anything. Truly, the worst thing I can say about Ritual of the Night is it’s too familiar, paying homage (and outright ripping off) the Castlevania series at every opportunity. It was, of course, Iga’s series for the longest time, so this adherence to his own formula makes sense, but it’s not his series anymore. Since leaving Konami, these design philosophies might get Igarashi in some hot water going forwards, which would be a shame as I’m desperate to play more games of this ilk. Hopefully Konami plays nice – because I don’t care how familiar this all feels at times: it’s a familiarity I’ve been pining after for far too long.