Say what you want about Castlevania: Symphony of the Night’s protagonist Alucard, but he’d never be seen in Kung Fu shoes and a pirate hat. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night answers an important question: what if Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, except anime? That’s how you would describe this game to your friend.
That’s why this spiritual successor to the beloved classic, development led by Castlevania series producer Koji Igarashi, stars your main character as an orphan in a short skirt, dealing with the after effects of an alchemist’s curse while accessorising with a variety of different hats and scarves.
Spiritual successor is a term with certain connotations, and can tether the game to those that have come before. Sometimes, this can work well: Bioshock is a spiritual successor to System Shock 2, but both games are beloved and Bioshock has a lot of its own ideas and polish. Unfortunately, several other games have used the term as a way to try and monetise nostalgia by producing a game that hews close to a nostalgic favourite without offering up many of its own ideas.
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When “spiritual successor” is used, it’s not immediately apparent where the finished game will slot into the Spiritual Successor Spectrum (a Trusted Reviews original invention.)
With a host of delays and changes that riled up the fanbase, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night was starting to look like a disappointment. However, it gives a good account of itself. It succeeds not just as a decent imitation of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but it also instills a lot of the same wonder that its spiritual predecessor did all those years ago. In a few key ways, it even manages to offer up improvements to the Metroidvania formula, although it suffers across the board from a lack of polish, and some extraneous systems that don’t really have the heft the developer was hoping for.
Bloodstained, for those of you that haven’t yet played the 22 year old Castlevania title that I’ve been wanging on about for the past few paragraphs, is a wonderfully realised 2D platformer. It has you adventuring your way through a castle, leathering enemies and slowly growing in power as you use a series of unique tools to overcome the challenges posed by the environment and those within it that would do you harm.
It manages this with aplomb. The story is nonsensical, with you starring as a young Shardbinder named Miriam, who wakes up from a ten year nap to find out that everything is messed up now, and she has to go and trounce some demons, unveiled by her old pal Gebel, while exploring a mysterious old castle.
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It’s that fact she’s a young girl that makes her perfect anime fodder for the variety of customisation options in the game. These can see Miriam doffing a fancy hat, a stone mask or even elven ears, but it’s her role as a Shardbinder that shapes the game the most.
Generally, combat involves picking a weapon with the highest damage numbers, with an attack animation that’s fast and works for you. Then, you’ll plow into enemies head on, hitting them with your chosen sword/whip/shoes/firearm/spear/whatever while trying to avoid being hit by enemies at the same time.
It works, but it’s the addition of these magical shards to gameplay that takes Bloodstained furthest away from Castlevania, and also adds its own layers of depth to combat. You collect these shards after killing different enemy types, and they unlock powerful abilities ranging from shooting a handful of arrows, to conjuring up an ice lance or even summoning a sword-wielding pal to do your fighting for you.
The combination of weapon types and shards means that your combat experience is constantly changing, and the wide mix of wonderful enemy designs keeps you consistently on your toes, too. It’s not as good as say, Dead Cells – a game that lives and dies on the strength of its combat – but I enjoyed the constant skirmishes enough to keep playing, even when I had to backtrack through the castle several times while trying to open up new routes.
The boss fights are memorable, although the lack of a visible health bar makes it difficult to have a sense of whether you’re actually getting anywhere. Excellently, one such fight with a demon hunter saw me repeatedly schooled with no idea if I was close to victory or flailing ineffectually. However, the fact he was voiced by David Hayter – the voice of Metal Gear Solid’s Snake – did help with the pain somewhat.
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These fights can be a pain, but they do serve as a useful progression blocker to ensure you’ve got the skills, stats and gear to survive at the next level. The encounters are a great spectacle, which kept me coming back despite the numerous butt-kickings, and much like the run-of-the-mill foes, they’re similarly well designed.
Talking of things that are smartly designed, it might be tempting to focus on the foreground of this 2D whack-’em-up, but the background details are incredible. At a base level the environments work; you trash candles and statues in the background for mana pick-ups, but there’s a wonderfully grotesque quality to most of the backgrounds that kept drawing my eye, including an early segment that has you sloshing around in a fountain overflowing with blood.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night could be one of the biggest surprises this year. For Castlevania fans, this represents the best chance you’ll ever have to experience that franchise’s golden days. For everyone else, this game is a tightly paced and engaging explore-’em-up that will devour your attention span and reward you appropriately.
If you can forgive the lack of polish, it’s hard not to recommend this, especially when it feels so satisfying to play.