Released: June 2019
Also Available For: PlayStation 4, PC, and Nintendo Switch
Developed by Koji Igarashi, famous for his role in producing the Castlevania (Konami/Various, 1986 to present), Bloodstained was funded by Igarashi through Kickstarter with the intention to make a spiritual successor to his popular gothic/horror series, specifically Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo, 1997). After raising over $5 million, Igarashi also developed an 8-bit style companion game, Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon (Inti Creates, 2018), which was more a spiritual successor to another popular Castlevania title, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (Konami, 1989). While my experience and exposure to Castlevania is a bit limited, I had a good time with both Symphony of the Night and Curse of the Moon; both games required a lot of skill and patience to master their mechanics and, once Ritual of the Night was available on Xbox Game Pass, I decided to give it a whirl.
Back in the 18th century, the Alchemy Guild began summoning demons by forcibly infusing humans with demonic crystals to create Shardbinders. One such Shardbinder, Gebel, has begun summoning demons to destroy England and it’s up to another Shardbinder, Miriam, to confront him and put a stop to his efforts.
Ritual of the Night plays pretty much exactly like Symphony of the Night in that it is a 2.5D action/adventure game in which the player guides Miriam through a number of gothic, Victorian locations making copious use of backtracking, exploration, and item management to uncover new areas, confront new enemies, and upgrade her weapons and equipment.
When you start the game, Miriam is capable of dodging enemy attacks with a backstep, jumping, attacking with a slide kick, and dispatching monsters with her sword. As you progress, you can expand upon these moves and also acquire and equip other weapons, like a pistol and, of course, the classic Castlevania whip. Miriam is also capable of using magic to move objects and attack enemies; her magic meter slowly replenishes over time but can be refilled faster by smashing candle sticks and similar background item as you explore the massive, maze-like castle and collecting magic orbs. When you destroy enemies, you may also absorb a magic Shard, which will allow you to assign a new ability to Miriam, allowing her to make use of Familiars, throw axes or spears, teleport short distances, or increase her stats.
These Shards make up an essential component to Ritual of the Night’s gameplay as you will need to acquire certain abilities in order to progress further through the castle; they will enable you to backtrack to previous areas and access new locations, overcome certain environmental hazards, and increase your ability to dispatch enemies and bosses. However, you can only equip four different types of Shards at a time; luckily, you cans witch these on the fly by assigning shortcuts but you’ll still find yourself jumping back and forth between menus to equip the right Shard.
Miriam will level up as she destroys enemies and gains experience points but, while she is tough, she will die if she takes too much damage. You won’t find any chicken or meat in the walls of this castle, unfortunately; instead, you replenish health by drinking Potions, eating certain foods, or using various Shards. The game also uses exactly the same save and fast travel system as Symphony of the Night in that you’ll find save rooms (which will fully replenish your health and magic) and mirrors (which allow you to fast travel across the map) dotted throughout the game; but this system is maybe something I could have seen dropped as it creates a massive amount of undue tension when you’re in desperate need of a save room, with no Potions, and die at a critical part and have to replay a difficult section all over again. Also coming over from Symphony of the Night, and Castlevania in general, is the ability to smash through walls to reach new areas or pick up items that increase Miriam’s health or magic bar. You can also chat to non-playable characters in a nearby village; they will sell you goods and wears, ask you to perform tasks (generally just destroying certain monsters) for additional items, and, of course, give you access to the game’s crafting system. You can craft better items, increase the power and ability of your Shards, cook up new foods to increase your stats, or dismantle weapons for extra gear.
On the whole, Ritual of the Night controls extremely well; Miriam can’t dash forwards or dodge through enemy attacks (or, at least, I was never able to get her to) but she can utilise special moves with each of her weapons to parry or counterattack enemies. There are a lot of options available for players to change Miriam’s look, upgrade her abilities, and equip gear and weapons and these are all reflected in Miriam’s appearance. In addition, while there are some platforming elements involved, Ritual of the Night is more about exploration but if you wander too far too fast you may jump right into an environment you aren’t ready for and be set upon by enemies you’re too weak to properly battle, which can result in some frustrating deaths. The only way to properly navigate through the game is to master Miriam’s abilities, equip the best gear, and learn the best ways of taking out monsters and crossing the game’s various environments.
Graphics and Sound:
Ritual of the Night closely apes the graphical presentation of Symphony of the Night but expands upon it greatly; the game has a number of environments, each one packed with details and impressive effects in the background.
Miriam will scale a massive spiralling tower, wade through underground passageways, battle through both a hellish landscape and a frozen tomb, and trudge through a desert as well as explore a dilapidated ship, among other areas. Each section of the game has new enemies and obstacles to overcome, new secret areas to find, and can be connected to other areas through the warp mirrors or hidden passageways.
Miriam and other characters and enemies are rendered using smooth 2.5D graphics; the game’s cutscenes use a mixture of static images and text with voice acting to fully-animated movies, though these are used sparingly. Voice acting is suitable enough; all the characters have an English accent or an exotic twang to their speech and do a serviceable job; there’s nothing quite as over the top as in Symphony of the Night, but Igarashi, thankfully, doesn’t completely shy away from the corny dialogue that made Symphony of the Night so enjoyable. As for music, there are a lot of tunes here that will be more than familiar with Castlevania/Symphony of the Night fans; there’s also some remixed and upgraded versions of tunes from Curse of the Moon, which was an inspired move considering how fitting and catchy those tracks were. Each one conveys the ominous presence of the area you’re in and brings yet more life to this gothic, nightmarish world.
Enemies and Bosses:
Miriam will battle a myriad of enemies more than familiar with any Castlevania fan: we’ve got everything from globby monsters, floating heads, possessed portraits, shrieking spirits, deadly toads, annoying bats, and fire-breathing dragons!
Enemies increase in number and danger as you progress through the castle; go from beheading monsters with relative ease to dodging over bigger, armour-plated knights with spiked shields, drill-like swords, or familiar-looking shovels as well as giant werewolves, magic-spewing demons, and skeletal dragons.
The game not only beautifully renders its environments but produces some impressive bosses; you’ll battle titanic beasts such as a two-headed dragon that covers the entire background, a spider-like creature comprised of stained glass, and a giant, demonic mermaid creature. These massive bosses will test your endurance but they’re nothing compared to the more spritely, human-like bosses you’ll encounter; you’ll duel with a blood-spewing vampire, go sword-to-sword with the rogue swordsman Zangetsu, and battle against sorcerers in encounters that will test you reaction times, skill, and patience as you dodge their attacks, learn their patterns, and unleash your most powerful attacks to attain victory.
The game’s final boss combines both of these elements, pitting you against a demented sorceress who leaps about he screen attacking with her whip-like hair and various elemental magic attacks. Once you finally overcome her, she’ll spawn in a screen-covered, three-headed demon and launch a variety of energy and elemental attacks at you while you leap and dodge around the screen desperately trying to attack her and whittle down her insane health bar.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
While you’ll upgrade your stats when you level up, as you explore your environment, you may uncover goblets that will increase your health bar, potions that increase your magic bar, and special pistols that increase how many bullets your guns can carry and fire. You’ll also obtain items and weapons from downed enemies and bosses and from a variety of chests hidden throughout the castle; when you equip a weapon or gear, it will have positive and negative effects on Miriam’s stats. You might increase her attack power, for example, but lose your resistance to fire damage, so you will have to use trial and error and a combination of gear to keep her stats in optimal condition.
You can also check out magic books from a shady librarian, which will increase your stats further but the game’s main source of empowering Miriam come from the Shards you will obtain from enemies and bosses. These will eventually allow Miriam to move obstacles out of the way, use a double jump, teleport through narrow gaps or walls, and to breathe and manoeuvre underwater in order to reach new areas.
The game has three different endings, two of which are considered bad endings. To reach the game’s true ending, you’ll have to backtrack to old areas, visit new areas, and battle through the game’s toughest enemies to acquire the items and weapons necessary to confront the true final boss of the game.
Whichever ending you get, you’ll gain access to a Boss Rush mode to test you skills against each of the game’s bosses in turn. If you pursue the game’s true, good ending, you’ll eventually find hidden keys to battle three optional bosses and visit an 8-bit area for some classic Castlevania action. Obtaining the game’s true, good ending open up a Sound Test and allows you to play through again on New Game+, where you keep all your weapons and upgrades. If you’re a sadist and in need of an additional challenge, you can try the game in “Nightmare” mode to face much tougher enemies; there’s also a few codes you can enter when naming your game file to access different accessories, weapons, and amusing gameplay modes (like big head mode). To keep you playing and give you an incentive to playthrough the game again, the developers have been planning some free downloadable content that will not only allow access to other game modes and Zangetsu as a playable character, but it doesn’t seem to be available just yet. As you might expect, there are also a fair amount of Achievements available here, ranging from defeating certain bosses and completing a number of side missions, to completing the game’s extensive map and finishing the game on higher difficulties.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is an absolutely gorgeous game; for a Kickstarter-funded project, the controls and graphics and features available are impressive, to say the least, and ambitious. This is, in every way, a spiritual successor to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, offering as much of the same challenge and reward as that game while also birthing an entirely new franchise and offering an entirely new experience for Castlevania fans. I imagine die hard Castlevania fans will get even more enjoyment out of this title but I’d argue that you don’t have to have played those games to enjoy this one, though it would probably help to be somewhat familiar with the concept or else you’ll struggle with the game’s massive amounts of backtracking. There are some aspects that I found frustrating; the save system, for one, the sharp spike in difficulty in certain areas, and the two-stage final boss but, honestly, there is nothing here that cannot be overcome without investing the time to master Miriam’s abilities, find better weapons and gear to increase her stats, and just learning how to overcome the challenges ahead of you.
What did you think of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night? Have you played Castlevania: Symphony of the Night before? What is your favourite Castlevania, or Castlevania-inspired videogame? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.
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