by Jason Parker (Ragachak)
“What is a man? A miserable little pile of pachinko machines!” – someone at Konami, likely.
Seriously, Konami has just made mistake after mistake over the years, and I’m going to add “Not having Bloodstained in their library” as one of them. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is an Igavania (roguelite/exploration ARPG) by the creator of the Castlevania franchise himself, Koji Igarashi. It saw setback after setback, and there was a lot of fear that it would wind up like Mighty No. 9: which is to say an utter, soul-crushing disappointment. Those fears were ultimately unfounded, because their team did it all right, and it’s easily the best Iga/Metroidvania I’ve played this year.
But what is an Iga/Metroidvania? It combines the styles of Metroid and Castlevania into one place. You have a huge map, tons of power-ups to find, and a story that goes in order, but you have to figure out how to get from one story point to the next. It doesn’t hold your hand or show you the way. The best example of this is Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and there are plenty of loving tributes to his earlier creation, without it feeling like SOTN Jr.
The tutorial area for Bloodstained is nice and brief. You learn a few things, without having your hand held other than to introduce the Shard system, which is the major power system for the whole of this game. As you’ll find in my companion piece, found here (New Players tips for Bloodstained), every Demon in the game has a Shard attached to them, and killing them has a chance to drop whatever shard they have. This is separate from their loot table as well. You have a set of Shards to equip, each paired to a color. The more you have of them (up to 9), the stronger they are, and you can also enhance them with a separate level, using crafting materials that drop from enemies. That sounds a little complicated, but once you’ve done it once or twice, it’s very clear how it all works. One of the biggest pieces of advice I have is if you have a shard you actively use, POWER IT UP.
- Conjure (Red) – These are treated like magical spells. The button press shoots the ability.
- Manipulative (Blue) – These manipulate you or the world around you. Defensive barriers, transformation, and healing.
- Directional (Purple) – These are skills that you aim with the right stick, and fire with a button press. Some of these are movement based, but most are offensive, with the odd defensive thrown in.
- Enchant (Yellow) – These are passive abilities. The best part about them is capping them at level 9 turns them into a White Shard, which is automatically active at all times, unless you disable them.
- Familiar (Green) – These are spirits or demons that hang out with you and fight. Some have healing abilities, but most are very offensively oriented. It takes a while for them to come online, but they’re fierce when they do.
The actual gameplay is pretty standard Metroidvania fair. You have a primary objective, where the game does nothing to tell you exactly where to go. At best, you get cryptic hints teasing somewhere you haven’t been or where you missed something. When all else fails, look in an area for a boss you haven’t killed, because most of the major bosses give you some kind of movement power that you’ll need to progress with. There are also the green teleporter rooms (marked in the game with beautiful stained glass windows). This is your primary method of getting around in a hurry, so you’ll want to find the one for every area (except Den of Behemoths). Instead of using spells that have hidden button commands, like in SOTN, most of the weapons in the game have a special technique. You can learn these by doing them, or by reading every bookshelf in the castle. These bookshelves always stand out, and either has lore or a cool technique in them.
The actual gameplay is easy to get into though – the controls are standard fare for a platforming side-scroller, and they are solid. The only problem I had was my fault. It wasn’t clear to me that with one of the Directional Powers, I needed to press a trigger button after lining up the shot, and spent close to an afternoon trying to figure out what I did wrong. There are minor issues with hit detection it seems though – that’s my only complaint in terms of the controls. This hit detection only really seems to apply to lanterns/lamps, which you break open for money/mana. Some weapons just whiff right by unless you are 100% spot on. It’s not a deal breaker, but it can be a little vexing to turn around and swing again. When I’m actively breaking lamps, I tend to use the Spiked Breastplate, so I can just jump into them. This is a very exploration heavy game though, and the only way to know where to go, other than Google, is through exploration and reading hints. The NPCs won’t tell you a hint twice. So if nothing else, take a screenshot so you can reference something again.
There aren’t any real mini-games in Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. It’s all action, all the time, unless you count the side-quests. There are a few NPCs in the main town that ask for your help – finding mementos for the townspeople, cooking dishes for an older woman, and getting revenge by murdering demons. You have to find the demons yourself, and the cooking side-quests do not tell you what the food IS. You have to guess, or rather, look at the icon for it, then go back to Johannes, and look through the recipes you’ve unlocked. Johannes is the NPC that cooks, crafts items, and enhances shards. Dominique is the other merchant-style character: she buys your shards, sells you items, and buys your items. I said this in my companion article, but do NOT sell your shards to her unless you absolutely are desperate for cash. These side-quests take up a few hours of gameplay at best and are 100% worth doing. The items you get for them are all very high-power. The final memento quest item, for example, increases your chances of getting Shards (Solomon’s Ring). So, while there aren’t tons of side-quests, there are more than enough secrets, optional bosses, secret bosses, and one paid DLC boss – Iga himself! However, this was free for backers of a certain level, but they decided to sell it to everyone else, so they don’t miss out. That fight felt like a souped-up Dracula (SOTN). Which does lead me to one of my only serious complaints.
The actual story is different from Symphony of the Night, but it still had that same Castlevania feel to it. I know there were lots of tributes to the previous games he created, but other than a spoiler point I can’t talk about, and the magical MacGuffins (Shards), the story did not blow me away. To be fair though, story has never been the major talking point of an Igavania. Several points surprised me, but the story did not blow my mind. But you know what did? Everything else. Visually, this game is a treat, and the soundtrack was absolutely damn gorgeous. The gameplay, exploration, and challenging boss fights (at least in the beginning) made me incredibly happy. The longer the game went on, the easier the bosses got though, except for one recurring boss.
The optional bosses were overwhelmingly easy, and even Iga himself, I demolished with superior firepower. Those minor qualms aside, it’s still a fun game. I don’t hate the story, mind. I’m hoping the future DLC will expand on this already massive area, and include more background to these characters though. Speaking of difficulty though, the difficulty curve is incredibly weird for Bloodstained. I died more times in random fights out in the world than I did to bosses. For much of the game, I had virtually no defense and was taking tons of damage from the simplest of encounters. Save Points do full restore you, but they are few and far between in the most critical of times. It was a little cliche, but I can’t go into details without spoiling much of it. I will say that while the story didn’t blow me away, it was still enjoyable. I didn’t get tired of reading/listening to any of it.
Caution: This is the optional Iga fight in its entirety.
It Was Worth The Wait: 4.5/5 (Great)
Iga delivered when Bloodstained was released. Even the parts that frustrated me, made my blood boil with anger, or felt unwinnable (they were). It was always a matter of learning a pattern, or going back to level grind or try a new set of Shards. There’s plenty of replay value was well, with NG+, two extra difficulties (with more of them on the way), and there will be another character to play. That’s without mentioning there will be online/offline co-op for Bloodstained. Iga stated there will be 12 free DLC content drops for Bloodstained, so there is going to be plenty of different ways to play and approach this game. There are different builds, weapon styles, and approaches to Bloodstained, and there really isn’t a wrong way. Bloodstained is virtually all I’ve played for days, and I’ve sincerely loved every minute of it. The “Inverted” movement pattern does make me a bit ill after a while, and I still have yet to unlock the final movement power, but I’m just bad at the stupid race to unlock it. Bloodstained was unequivocally worth the wait. It’s a beautiful experience, with plenty of challenge and tons of secrets to uncover.
Thank you, Iga. Bloodstained is a masterpiece in a genre you made famous. It easily tops every other Igavania/Metroidvania I’ve experienced so far.
A game key was provided for review purposes.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Screenshots