Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Review

From the dusk-basked Symphony, the lingering Circle in the sky receded.  Harmony was soon established, giving away to a brilliant Aria that accompanied the Dawn.  Yet upon establishing this new world in a glorious Portrait and bringing Order to the wilds, it all abruptly receded into Shadow, where it languished only to be brought back to life through a most unprecedented Ritual.

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, Switch
Developers: ArtPlay, Dico, WayForward, Disruptive Games, Neo Future Labs, Inti Creates
Publisher: 505 Games

Bloodstained marks something of the trail end for what has commonly been referred to as the Kickstarter Renaissance, where a plethora of developers and consumers were reminded that game development is an intensive and time consuming practice where high promises can swiftly be dashed if the developers’ resources are insufficient.  But more narrowly, it marks the next title from former Castlevania series producer Koji Igarashi, who sought to continue the septology of games ranging from Symphony of the Night to Order of Ecclesia with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

It was an announcement that I, being a lover of these games, especially Symphony of the Night, was naturally quite excited for, inspiring me to spend far too much money on this title and promptly wait until it was done.  Now that it has and I am sitting on a 100% save file with a play time exceeding 30 hours, I can safely say that it lives up to the legacy established by its spiritual predecessors, but… it has quite a few issues.

Starting from the top, Bloodstained follows Miriam, a magically acute young woman capable of wielding the powers of demons as her own.  She awakens from a decade-long coma to discover that the world is being invaded by raging demons summoned by her childhood friend Gebel, who had fallen into maddening corrupted and erected the demon castle Hellhold from the recesses of the Earth.  Electing to play the role of the hero and stop Gebel, as you do when you have magical powers, Miriam sets off to Hellhold accompanied by a scattering of colorful colleagues and allies, resolute to save the world from this terrible fate, and jump kick Gebel in the face of being a nasty little bellend whose actions probably resulted in the deaths of thousands of people. 

As to be expected, the story takes the backseat in most respects, only popping up at opportune moments, giving its cast a fair amount of personality and history, offering some diary entries to give the setting a bit more history, and including several driving forces to help motivate the characters throughout this winding demonic castle.  It’s all fairly standard, but does go to give some meaning beyond Miriam’s trek through the winding hell-castle and the mythos are certainly compelling enough. It’s fairly light, but well spaced, and does contain more than a few cool moments throughout this gameplay driven affair.

An affair that incidentally picks right up after the 11 year hiatus between the last Igavania game, and winds up being about as close to earlier entries, most notably Symphony of the Night, as you could without fear of legal repercussions.  So it’s not just the equipment system, Aria and Dawn of Sorrow inspired Shard system, map system, generalized game feel, or the action platformer exploration lite-RPG fixings that have been popularized amongst independent developers.  The inspirations can be seen in everything from the menus, weapon animations, layout of certain rooms, the map color scheme, fighting game-esque technique system, inclusion of familiars, and the themes of certain areas proportional to their placement in the castle.  Especially that one waterfall area. The developers’ priorities and fixations are very apparent, but it certainly never feels derivative or devoid of original ideas or concepts, which are scattered out to give this game a subtly different flavor than its spiritual predecessors, and is able to stand as its own distinct entity.

But shifting away from the comparisons to the actual experience of the game, Bloodstained possesses a very relaxing and appealing gameplay flow where the player is continuously moving, and receiving small rewards.  Between experience, gold, map completion, enemy drops, or treasure chests, the player is constantly getting things as they play, and in doing so are making steady steps towards turning Miriam into an optimized avatar of destruction capable of discriminating any obstacle in her path.  

This gradual development that culminates into a resounding power fantasy, that turns a basic and lightly equipped character into one that is above every challenge they previously encountered and is able to decimate their way not only through all foes, but the environment itself, is one of the core facets that I love about this genre.  And given how endgame fully optimized Miriam is a character who can soar through the air indefinitely, move at supersonic speeds, and strike down formerly imposing foes in a single blow of their endgame weapon of choice, I would argue that few games evoke this feeling better than Bloodstained.

The whole weapon of choice angle is also accentuated by offering players a downright absurd number of unique weapon types from the first hour, and regularly offering players with the opportunity to experiment after that with whatever items they found or shards they get from downed enemies.  All of which will likely result in most players’ endgame Miriam varying dramatically based on their preferences. This element of choice is further expressed in Miriam’s very appearance, which can be altered with certain accessories or equipment, and further fiddled with in a simplistic character modifier where her default color scheme, skin tone, hair color, and hairstyle can all be changed.  However, given the amount of ample time and work invested into the unique outfits, cool and silly hats, accessories and unique weapons, I am a bit surprised that the game lacks any sort of transmogrification or cosmetic equipment slots. It asks the player to choose between aesthetic appeal and gameplay versatility. A minor issue at the end of the day, but one of many shortcomings that linger throughout the experience.

For example, Bloodstained also features a quest system that offer extra rewards for returning items, killing demons, or preparing a nice meal for a nice old lady.  They’re all serviceable little divergences that feed back into the core gameplay loop, but I would have liked to see more story-driven questlines in order to further flesh out the characters and world offered here, instead of just the one, and for there to not be arbitrary restrictions dictating how what quests can be taken on at once. 

The game’s crafting system evokes shades of what I call materials bloat, encouraging players to frequently grind for a large number of rare enemy drops, farming them in order to complete their collection or obtain one particularly enticing item, a stat boosting dish, or something needed for a quest.  Material farming can be a very time consuming process that can easily add an extra 5 or 10 hours to the game, but there thankfully is another farming alternative, as once the player crafts something, they can also dismantle it in order to reuse materials, and buy items they already crafted. Which in turn replaces the materials farming with regular old gold farming.  A route that I elected to take after a while, but considering I was playing on PC I had… more efficient methods of making numbers go up than dashing from room to room, picking up fat sacks of cash.

Part of this reason why this process can be such a lengthy time investment stems from the in-game resources for tracking enemy drops, the Archive, which does not link from category to category.  To give an example of how this works in practice, I was looking at what enemies dropped G-Bone Steak and find that they come from two demons. I remember the names, scour through the numerical enemy list for them, find out that they are two harpy enemies, who incidentally drop my favorite shards in the game, look up their locations, try and remember what rooms they are in, determine which one is best for farming, as there is a good farming location for every enemy, warp there, and then go and grind.  If the game could link from the items to the enemies and vice versa, and allow me to mark what rooms a given enemy is in, a feature seen in the quest system, the process would be significantly more expedient and streamlined. Because as it is, it’s just easier to reference a fan wiki.

Then there’s the matter of difficulty.  I played the game on Normal, the lowest available difficulty mode, and while I had little issue getting past the majority of threats, something about the numbers attached to the attacks of certain enemies or bosses did strike me as a surprisingly high, with it not being uncommon to encounter bosses that, with a single regular hit, could shave off 10% of Miriam’s HP.  This necessitated more than a few retries for certain bosses, and the occasional dip into Miriam’s metaphysical pantry of pizza, pasta, curry, steak, and beef bowls when I was feeling cheap. So yes, t was all perfectly doable, but the overall difficulty curve is more sporadic than anything else, often indulging in sharp inclines with little rhyme or reason, with some bosses requiring a couple attempts, others being a good done in one fight, and more than a few are simple chodes who lasted maybe 40 seconds.

This was a particular bugbear of mine during the early game, which followed up a surprisingly difficult second boss with a dire castle section rife with aggressive enemies, only to be met with a dirt easy third boss who I cheesed with little difficulty, only to then receive a piece of armor that boosted Miriam’s defense significantly, and be met with a long string of moderate difficulty that lasted until the final few areas, which are naturally the most perilous.  Well, perilous assuming the player has not already started learning just how much they could cheese, belittle, or generally trivialize, if not outright break the game with the right build, upgraded shards, permanent rank 9 passive abilities, and a little bit of level grinding. Also, speaking of bosses, you know how when you defeat a boss in Castlevania, or most games for that matter, the player characters’ health is restored?  Well, Bloodstained doesn’t work that way for some bizarre reason, so you need to head to a save room after battling the boss to heal.

None of these things are a deal breaker, but they all struck me as fairly obvious omissions while I was playing the game, and seeing as how some of my other criticisms were actually patched out (oh the joys of playing a game at launch), I’m hoping that the developers are able to address these concerns in the intervening years of support this game is going to receive.  This, after monetary considerations, is the primary reason why I am inclined to wait until a game is old and sufficiently and wholly complete before diving in. But for Bloodstained, I certainly cannot say that I regretted my decision to jump in ‘early,’ as Bloodstained does ultimately offer a well devised and enjoyable gameplay experience evocative of what made me love its spiritual predecessors, and what makes me love its greater genre so dearly.

Moving onto the presentational aspects before offering my conclusion, Bloodstained had a somewhat messy and fragmented development history handled by a multitude of different studios around the world, contributing a massive assortment of assets, and trying to make the game look as good as possible.  This led to a visual overhaul prior to launch, and a presentation that while lavish, polished, and genuinely beautiful in spots, can look limited or rough in other instances.  It’s all quite detailed and none of it is necessarily bad, but the variance seen in the asset quality and overall art design in some spots is fairly noticeable, and I do think that the title would have benefited from either another visual update, or a more deliberate and consistent art style. 

Looking through the digital artbook, and pondering how they transferred these concepts into the third dimension, I do feel that a more painterly art style that utilized custom shaders, as opposed to the fairly standard looking ones seen in the final one, could have been something truly spectacular to behold.  But focusing on the final game, it flows quite well in motion, and I did grow to acclimate and appreciate what the developers were able to achieve here. However, in the not-so unlikely event that this game does get a successor, I’m hoping for a more cleanly structured visual identity.

This same apparent challenge was not in effect when it came to the soundtrack for Bloodstained, which I listened to in full while writing this review, and in doing so I really did gain a greater appreciation for it.  Each track carries with it a strong emotion, implanting a great deal of personality onto various scenes, characters, and most especially environments, helping to make the world itself feel more well rounded than it would with a less detailed and creative score.  Being headed by long-standing Castlevania series composer Michiru Yamane, there is naturally a lot of familiar overlap on display here, with many of the core qualities that went to define the series, shifting between classical, rock, and more experimental tracks.  It’s all quite memorable, catchy, generally pleasant, and I’ll probably keep listening to it for years to come.

Large scale Kickstarters, spiritual successors, and returns from big-name developers accompanied by a new team are all very real causes for concerns with any game’s development, and have resulted in some lackluster efforts in the past.  But Bloodstained managed to house enough resistance to undermine that terrible curse and while the end result is not the most polished or highly refined affair, being a game housing a number of minor shortcomings, it puts in the effort where it counts.  All of which culminates in an incredibly enjoyable action exploration romp that pays tribute to what came before.

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