The beginning of a new era
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is the latest game from Koji Igarashi, assistant director and writer of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Igarashi was a lead on many fan-favorite Castlevania games, and his departure from Konami meant the end of an era for the series. When he kickstarted Ritual of the Night in 2015, it broke records and became the game to receive the most funding on the platform up to that point. Fortunately, the title’s success story didn’t end there. Four years later, Ritual of the Night has finally been released, and it brings back the exploration and tight combat that made Symphony of the Night a cult classic while being better paced and balanced.
Story- and setting-wise, Bloodstained is as close as you can be to Castlevania without committing copyright infringement. It’s the late 1700s, and you play as Miriam, a “shardbinder” who can wield the power of demons through crystals stuck into her skin. She’s the result of experiments by a group called the Alchemists who bound the crystals to children and sacrificed them to allow demons to enter the mortal realm. They did this because when the industrial revolution started, people turned away from the arcane teachings of the Alchemists in favor of science. With their power waning, the Alchemists meant to strike fear into the leaders of the world but ended up bathing the world in a living hell.
Two people survived the Alchemists’ experiments: Miriam, who fell into a coma before she could be sacrificed, and Gebel, a boy who suffered grave injury but didn’t die. Humanity was able to defeat the demonic threat, but 10 years later, when Ritual of the Night begins, a castle has appeared, and its halls belch forth demons that threaten humanity again. Miriam finds early on in the game that Gebel is the one who summoned the castle and he plans to use its power to take revenge on the Alchemists that survived the war and humanity in general.
Castle Not-Dracula is full of winding passages that are split into different regions. Each region has its own motif and difficulty. Even early on you’ll find the Entrance area of the castle pretty straightforward, but later parts will put even the best-equipped player to the test.
Like in most Metroidvania games, there’s a lot of backtracking, but it strikes a better balance in Ritual of the Night than in most titles in the genre. There are plenty of teleports throughout the castle, and a liberal amount of save points, so once you get that new double jump ability, for example, you can make your way back to regions you’ve already passed through pretty quickly and access areas you couldn’t the first time.
In addition to new movement abilities, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night gives you a ton of customization options to build Miriam’s power. There are a plethora of different weapon types—each with their own quirks and hidden abilities—to choose from. You also get standard RPG fare like armor, accessories, hats, and the like. The most significant and unique aspect of Bloodstained‘s equipment system is the ability to collect demon shards.
Each enemy in the game has a chance to drop a shard when you defeat them. Every one of these shards gives you a different ability or stat boost, and there are more than 100 enemies in the game. Some shards give you attacks or let you summon familiars while others allow you to do mundane but useful stuff like boosting luck or strength stats.
Making the shard and equipment systems even deeper is the fact that you can craft food, weapons, armor accessories, items, and more, and you can use the same process to strengthen shards. By finding crafting items, most of which are dropped by enemies, you can forge new weapons or make the shards even more powerful. If you really get into this system, Miriam can become an unstoppable powerhouse by the end of the game.
However, if you just want to use whatever weapons and equipment you find, you’re not really penalized for not buying into the crafting system. The difficulty in Bloodstained is balanced so that you can complete the game on normal without a ridiculous amount of grinding. It’s a tough but fair game, and if you feel like adding challenge you can play on greater difficulties. This makes Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night much more approachable than many games in the genre. Even Symphony of the Night, one of the best of the Metroidvanias, has some pretty tough difficulty spikes, which have been ironed out into a much smoother experience in Bloodstained.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is one of my favorite games of the year so far. It channels all the things that made Symphony of the Night such a perennial favorite while adding some modern conventions to spice things up. Additionally, the gameplay experience is one of the most balanced and approachable I’ve seen in the Metroidvania genre and is equally enticing for longtime Castlevania fans or those who have never played a game of this style.
Publisher: 505 Games
Developer: Inti Creates
System(s): PS4, Switch, Xbox One, PC