When you say Castlevania, most people will know what you're talking about. We’ve seen a large uptick of games in the same ilk as Castlevania in the last few years, as it's a relatively simple formula to follow. Don’t get me wrong, games like Hollow Knight and other Metroidvania games are still good, but they’re just another variation of a similar theme than can become a bit bland over time. Bloodstained, however, isn’t like that at all. While it was meant to come out back in March 2017, its Kickstarter campaign ended with more than $5.5 million to play with. So, naturally, more money meant more features for ArtPlay to think up. This led to fears that it could be an overstuffed mess, an issue that plagues many games within this subgenre. As it turns out, Bloodstained shapes up to be a fine homage to the Castlevania games of old.
This is a very combat-heavy game, which is understandable, but it manages to strike the right balance between combat and exploration, in true Castlevania style. Enemies aren’t too hard to deal with, and as they respawn, it becomes more fun the more you kill them, as you will always find new ways and techniques to use as your arsenal of weapons grows. As a result, you end up finding all sorts of weapons to play with: knives, swords and whips to name a few. Each come with its own unique ability and animation, making every weapon useful for a variety of situations. Blunt weapons like clubs are better for armored enemies, whereas spears have more reach and are better against flying enemies.
The shards that you collect throughout the game are definitely one of the most fun aspects. Shards drop randomly from defeated enemies, while some are guaranteed one-time drops from boss encounters, with a small number only obtainable via crafting. They come in the form of special attacks, projectiles and summons. You also pick up various spirits that aid you in battle. This game is just brimming with so many special abilities. I found 67 of the demon powers out of a possible 125. I’ve been itching to go back and find the rest just so I know what they do as well.
One of the shards you acquire is the Invert ability, which I had so much fun with. It turns the entire map upside down, keeping enemies, loot and other map elements on the now-upturned ground and Miriam on the ceiling, which can help give you an extra edge in battles. There’s also an ability that makes paintings float around as shields (think Kreia’s floating lightsabers in Star Wars: KotOR II), an ability that sends blasts of flames towards your enemies that’s rather humorously called "Upbeat Heat,’" as well as the more generic shards that bolster your skill stats like strength or luck. While there is a lot of variety with the items, weapons and powers, there isn't the same sort of variety with the monsters. This is a shame, but then I feel like ArtPlay can be given a pass on this, as it takes a lot of work to come up with so much stuff.
There’s also the extensive crafting mechanic in Bloodstained, which forms a central part of the game. Crafting is done using the loot you get from the various enemies you encounter, and each drop is random so you never really know what you’re going to get. The recipes are found in the various treasure chests dotted throughout the map, giving you instructions for everything from consumable potions, full-on meals, weapons, armor or even shards themselves!
Good things aside, the main part I had trouble with in Bloodstained were the boss fights. The relative ease I had with the other enemies lulled me into a false sense of security. There’s also the issue that Bloodstained is a game that has an incredibly nice, natural flow. This flow gets broken by the incredibly clunky-feeling boss fights that make you feel as though you’ve gone from a natural, breezy jog straight into a brick wall, because they're so hard to defeat. Another more negative aspect is the storyline. By all means it is a strong storyline, but the way it’s presented to you—mostly by the talking characters—makes it feel a bit stagnant. Most storylines of such a convoluted nature require exposition, but with a game that was released two years behind schedule amassing as much as it did on Kickstarter, one would have thought they could have afforded to make the game a bit longer. A general rule of thumb when it comes to writing in any medium is “show, don’t tell." This game does more telling than it does showing. That being said, each character is very capably voiced.
And the side quests are a bit of a drag as well. They just require you to fetch things and at the end of the day amount to not much more than a grind exercise. On the plus side, however, it does get you more items to craft with, which is nice. The lady who gives you these sidequests telling to kill 'X' amount of creatures becomes incredibly annoying after a while, as it just feels a bit unoriginal.
The music was also only fine. The sort of stuff you’d expect with this sort of game, just don’t expect it to stick with you in the same way as the masterpiece that was the soundtrack for the first Castlevania. Composed by Castlevania’s Michiru Yamane and Mega Man composer Ippo Yamada, it is still a very nice score, but part of me feels like it's just a bit generic. I’m mostly a sucker for a good video game soundtrack and will find myself whistling random tracks with no idea why—like the other day when I annoyed my partner by whistling the PokéMart theme—but the Bloodstained soundtrack just hasn’t had the same impact on me.
At the end of the day, though, this game is sure to please both those who are relative newcomers to the genre, like myself, or seasoned veterans who long for nostalgia of the Castlevania games of old, which this game is a perfect homage to. The crafting mechanic gives you plenty to do, the storyline is great and complex, if overly expositional, and while the sidequests do drag on a bit, it does give you a lot more stuff to play with.
HK reviewed Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night on PC with a code provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.