Creating a spiritual successor to an iconic game franchise, in hopes of pleasing both old school fans and brand new audiences, is no easy feat. Arguably one of the most infamous examples would be the Mega Man-inspired Mighty No. 9. Sure, it was made by the head honcho who created the series, but it was just a colossal mess. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, a tribute to the beloved side-scroller Castlevania: Symphony of the Night created by its former producer, Koji Igarashi. Despite a lengthy amount of time in development, what’s on offer is bound to please everyone.
Set in the Industrial Revolution, a squad of alchemists began experimenting with magical shards. Those who are able to tap into their power, much like our protagonist Miriam, are known as ‘shardbinders’. After awakening from a coma, Miriam discovers that a fellow binder has decided to wage war on humanity from inside a demonic castle known as the Hellhold, and is after a special tome to aid him in his nefarious quest. Your job is to track him down and stop him. As dramatic as the plot is, reading and listening to the dull dialogue and numerous boxes of cheesy dialogue and lengthy exposition gets boring quickly.
While storytelling isn’t worth much praise, the visuals and music certainly are. The game’s cel-shaded characters clash with the gothic, spooky environments, and the enemy design is nothing short of imaginative. Some of the NPCs have some stiff animations, especially during the dialogue exchanges, but at least the voice acting is pretty good across the board. That is, with exception to a few cheesy pseudo-Brit accents. The soundtrack is composed by video game OST legend Masami Ueda, and it’s a cracking listen.
Of course, what matters on the whole is the gameplay, and it’s bloody good stuff. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a non-linear title, made up of spacious rooms and lengthy corridors interconnected with save points, fast travel zones and a few secret areas holding bonus loot and easter eggs referencing Igarashi’s previous works. Progressing requires specific items or special abilities, meaning you’ll need to backtrack. All of this sound familiar yet? There’s also a handy crafting mechanic, where you can put ingredients and loot to good use, as well as some simplistic side-quests to keep you distracted (and occasionally amused). The whole thing feels like the flesh and blood of Castlevania mixed into a few contemporary features, with the end result being a potent potion of amusement.
Weapons and spells are in abundance here. There are so many blades, whips, guns and such that’ll cater to whatever combat style you prefer. Shards offer special abilities, and collecting multiple versions will make them more powerful than before. Some of these shards will allow you to dish out special attacks, beef up your stats, offer resistance to certain damage types, or even summon a familiar to fight alongside you. Others can be manually activated at the cost of mana, of which slowly regenerates (unlike health – potions, food and save points are the only way you can keep yourself topped up here). As you progress, you’ll find more abilities that’ll let you summon creatures, spew projectiles, and more. While mashing the attack button is an option, doesn’t tossing bouncy water-balls and summoning flying pigs before swinging a chainsaw-sword like mad sound more appealing?
The numerous demons you’re up against will certainly put up a fight. Their attack patterns and behaviour in combat are usually quite varied, so having to take on different types of demons and monsters at once will keep you on your toes. Defeating them earn you XP, craftables and shards. The boss battles are laborious but enjoyable, so long as you memorize their attack patterns and stock up on goodies beforehand. Shame that there aren’t any boss health bars to peruse at; you’ll be slapping them thinking ‘are they gonna die yet?’ a fair bit, as a result.
The stakes were high with this one, but Igarashi and his team at ArtPlay took a swing and scored themselves a critical hit with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Sure, the dull story and overwhelming dialogue may be a bit lackluster, but the mix of retro and temporary video game features combined with numerous, creative weapons, spells and enemies make it all a damn fine experience. Top that off with some good voice work and a lovely soundtrack, and what you have to beheld is a love letter to the beloved Metroidvania subgenre that’ll captivate you like magic.