IGAvania is back, and better than ever
I’ve been a little leery of Kickstarters ever since the Mighty No. 9 debacle, which turned into a fiasco almost from the get-go. Looking at the number of projects that never came to be despite tons of money donated was worrisome as well, and made me apprehensive about wanting to donate to any project on the platform. Then, along came Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. It was almost too good to be true. Koji Igarashi making the game he wants to make with no Konami interference, Michiru Yamane composing, Ayami Kojima lending her artwork talents to the game, David Hayter lending his voice for a character, a heap of free DLC updates and awesome stretch goals, an entire 8-bit styled prequel side game to tide players over while the game was in development – there was just so much here I found backing the campaign hard to resist.
I don’t consider myself a gambling man, but something about this project just seemed so RIGHT to me. With a slight wind of caution, I put in a hefty (for me, at least) $150 to the project, and quietly watched the whole thing go down with bated breath. I watched the Kickstarter raise an overall $5.5 million USD, the highest at the time for a Kickstarter video game project until Shenmue III topped it. Numerous stretch goals were added, I played the backer demos, and watched the whole development cycle go down through consistent and plentiful team updates on Kickstarter over the course of 4 long years. I’m pleased to say that my money ended up being well placed with this project. Bloodstained is easily the best Metroidvania style game I have played in a long, long time.
Lovely Leading Lady
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night utilizes a unique art style and characters while still feeling familiar to longtime Castlevania fans
To say Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a straight-up copy of Symphony of the Night isn’t quite the right way to put it. It shares many similarities and even has some pretty obvious homages (though some can be argued to be straight up jabs at Konami – which isn’t so bad in my opinion) to the Castlevania franchise. Nonetheless, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night has been built from the ground up to be a unique experience, and it’s been remarkably well crafted.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night follows the story of Miriam, one of the last of the “Shardbinders” and her quest to stop her old friend Gebel – who is also a Shardbinder – who has seemingly gone mad. Gebel appears to have been consumed by his Shardbinder power, summoning a demonic castle to wipe out humanity for their sins. Gebel and Miriam were once humans who were subjected to alchemic experiments, embedding crystals filled with demonic essence into their bodies in order to wield said demons’ power. The experiment ended up summoning demons to the earth and almost all the previously made Shardbinders were wiped out fighting them off. The experiment left Miriam in a deep slumber for 10 years, and Gebel was consumed with a desire for revenge. The Shardbinder power is also a curse, where the subject’s body is consumed by demonic corruption, eventually driving them mad and turning their body to crystal. Upon waking up from her 10-year nap, Miriam and her alchemist assistant Johannes set out on a ship to stop Gebel, get rid of the castle, and get back the alchemist’s book The Liber Logaeth, before Gebel can use it to summon the demon lord Bael and wipe humanity off the face of the earth.
Though it’s a little cliché and fairly predictable, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night has a very serviceable and well-written narrative. Some of the dialogue segments can tend to drag on a bit, especially when you’re talking with the local shopkeeps and just want to get into buying items or crafting some goods, but the voice cast does a great job of delivering their lines and adding to the overall atmosphere of the game. Having the likes of David Hayter and other well-established voice actors lending their talents helps as well.
That’s No Moon
Bloodstained has plenty of gothic, horror atmosphere to go around – along with plenty of secrets and hidden areas to find.
Speaking of which, the game just oozes atmosphere. While the character and monster models are decent; the real meat and potatoes of the graphical presentation lie in the backgrounds of each of the rooms of the castle, as well as the other areas you visit in the game. The gothic architecture is astoundingly well done, with plenty of real-time shadows (with the exception of the Nintendo Switch version – more on that later) being cast, weather effects, and plenty of depth is shown. The game is made in Unreal Engine 4, and the graphics engine is fully utilized here. The lighting, weather, and particle effects are all used to great effect here. The way the castle is designed and assembled is masterfully done as well, with each area almost seamlessly integrating into the next. A lot of thought was put into the overall flow of the game and it shows.
In regards to the flow of the game, Metroidvanias have always been built on progression and finding secrets. With the exception of a couple of bumps in the road, the progression in Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is very well thought out. Plenty of secrets are waiting inside the castle, and most aren’t so obscure enough that you’ll miss them unless you look closely. There are also plenty of abilities you’ll get that make exploration easier and some, like the Invert ability, are clever ways to help you get around the castle that I haven’t seen before in a game like this. Not only are there hidden rooms in the castle, but there are also hidden bosses and even a certain extremely unique hidden area for you to find. If you love clever little throwbacks, you’ll be grinning ear to ear like I was when you find it. All the little nods to the past like this are a big part of what made me fall in love with this game.
Adding another layer of atmosphere is Michiru Yamane’s masterful musical composition work. You can clearly hear the Symphony of the Night overtones play through in the Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night’s soundtrack, and that’s definitely not a bad thing. Pipe organs playing in the background in the cathedral, the pulse-pounding energy of the Twin Dragon Towers (which almost sounds like a song right out of a Ys game, I might add), the shredding metal guitar riffs of an underground lava lake, and the soft flute and piano of an underground cave system add to the overall ambience of the game. Music has always been one of the biggest staples of Castlevania games and this is a glorious return to form awaiting your ears here. For the soundtrack alone, I would heartily recommend Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night to you.
Metroidvania titles bill themselves on being able to explore and combat the monsters you encounter fluidly, and fortunately Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night has very tight controls and plenty of options for combat. Jumping and attacking feels exactly how I remember Castlevania: Symphony of the Night playing, and that’s not a bad thing. The menus and user interfaces are easy to navigate, and platforming feels pretty good for the most part. There are times where judging jumps can be a little tricky, and with the default zoomed out perspective seeing some projectiles can be a little difficult, making them harder to dodge. The controls are easy to grasp though, and you get a feel for how the game plays after spending a short time with it, so the issue lessens as you play.
Is this a Jojo Reference?
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night has heaps of different shards, such as the Silver Knight Familiar, for Miriam to utilize.
There are also tons of options for you to utilize in how you want to play. Much like the Nintendo DS Castlevania games, enemies drop shards that give Miriam a plethora of different abilities. Melee and ranged attacks, passive abilities, familiars, and permanent techniques and abilities are all dropped at varying degrees by the enemies you encounter. There are only a few enemies, mostly bosses, that don’t drop any shards, so there are plenty of customization options for you to play with. You can also equip Miriam with an arsenal’s worth of weaponry. Swords, daggers, even guns and kicking boots are available to either make or buy from the village shops. Though the better versions will have to be made via increasingly difficult to make recipes at Johannes’ alchemy lab. For the very dedicated and familiar with Symphony of the Night, there are some absurdly powerful weapons that make plowing through enemies a blast. If the Crissaegrim rings any bells, be prepared thoroughly break the game if you don’t mind spending the time hunting for materials to make said weapon type. Even minor things like Miriam’s hairstyle and even skin color are fully customizable if you want. Accessories you equip also change Miriam’s appearance often. It’s little details like this that really set Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night apart from the rest.
Additionally, there are heaps of recipes to find and make food items. Not only do these recipes yield dishes that heal Miriam far more than your standard potions do, but they also provide a host of permanent stat bonuses for her, the first time you eat them anyway. Core stats such as HP, MP, strength, and defense can all be boosted as can experience boosts and MP recharge rates. The latter is extremely important if you want to use your shard skills effectively. Finding ingredients can be very tricky, as some enemies drop ingredients rarely, and some can only be found in blue chests that get refilled only when you exit an area, and even then they may or may not contain what you’re looking for. If you’re going to do farming for ingredients to make dishes, expect to spend a lot of time doing so and make sure you have a pretty high Luck stat. Fortunately, the dishes you make are available for purchase at the main shop once you make them, but they do cost a bit of coin, so you’ll want to have plenty of money as well depending on what you’re buying. There is plenty of incentive to make each food dish for the stat boosts alone, and I had a pretty good time looking for new recipes to make.
Though I’m absolutely enamored with this game (as in, at the time of this article I have cleared the game, completed all quests and only have a couple more rooms to find in the castle before I get 100% completion) there are a couple of issues that should definitely be noted. The biggest issue is the varying differences between each platform. PC is obviously the best graphical experience simply because of the ability for upgrades being on PC affords. That being said, the PC version doesn’t have a physical version available, so if that’s important to you then consoles will be the way to go.
Bloodstained looks and plays great, though each version has its ups and downs.
The Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions are primarily the same. If you have an Xbox One X the visuals are presented in native 4k resolution, with the average framerate taking a slight hit from the increased visual fidelity. If you have a standard PS4 or Xbox One S the game runs primarily the same, with visuals close to 1080p and some slight dips in framerate here and there. If you have a PS4 Pro (which is what I played on), the game is locked at 1080p with a mostly stable 60 fps. There are a couple of areas where the framerate dips significantly; the two main culprits being the outside areas of the Twin Dragon Towers and the Valefar boss fight where the game slows to a crawl when he gets out his stacks of poker chips to attack you. Aside from that, the game is pretty stable (with the exception of a slight chance of a random crash when reading books).
And then, there’s the Nintendo Switch version. Now, I have to preface this by noting that Iga and his teams did NOT initially plan on making the game on this platform when it initially went to Kickstarter. The Nintendo Switch wasn’t even a thing when the Kickstarter happened. The game was meant to be released on both PS Vita and Wii U. Those versions were dropped though, as support for those consoles waned, and this version was made as a good compromise. Being the Switch isn’t anywhere near as powerful as the other consoles the game has been released on, the Nintendo Switch version does a pretty good job at still being playable.
However, there are many concessions that had to be made in order to make the game stable and there are still some issues plaguing it currently. Most of the weather and lighting effects have been dropped, the resolution has been lowered, the frame rate is locked at 30fps, and there are many more frame drops compared to the other versions of the game. There are also significantly longer loading times between rooms, some taking up to 15-20 seconds depending on the size of the room. This can be very annoying if you, say, mess up a jump and fall back down to where you came from and the game has to load the room all over again.
On top of this, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night does have some bugs that are present in all versions of the game. If you started playing on version 1.01 and you continued playing after version 1.02 dropped, the chests and collectibles were essentially reversed in your game. Meaning, chests that you had opened were closed again, and chests you haven’t opened were now opened. This effectively broke the game and stopped your progression dead in its tracks. The current remedy is to just start a new game on version 1.02 or newer, but for players like me that were at 80% exploration or higher when the update dropped, that kind of sucked.
There are also some other minor issues that I have with the Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, namely with getting to exploring the underwater segments of the game. The game does a good job at hinting where to go up until this point of the game, but once you reach this point the ONLY hint you get is a quest that you get from a villager that has you kill multiples of an enemy that does end up dropping the shard you need to swim underwater. It’s still pretty vague as the game doesn’t directly tell you that you need that shard to swim underwater, so if it doesn’t drop while you’re hunting them then you’ll get pretty lost as I did. I spent a good three hours wondering where to go until I eventually just gave in and looked up what to do online. Speaking of swimming underwater, the overall water movement is fairly clunky and until you get some abilities to move underwater more freely, it feels janky and slow. Miriam’s animation for swimming is also hilariously stiff and could have been implemented a little better in my opinion.
Nostalgia Done Right
Aside from some other minor issues like some of the NPC’s such as Johannes having weird shaders on their faces, slight loading times on certain enemies when they drop items or shards, and item drops getting stuck in platforms, the game does have an overall extreme amount of care put into it. IGA and the teams behind this game really wanted to give players the feel of playing classic games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for the first time again and I got that feeling straight away when I first started this game up. They also did what was arguably the most important part of making a successful Kickstarter – they made the game they wanted to, but they also listened to fan feedback to give players what THEY wanted as well. Despite said minor issues, which I’m sure will be fixed in the near future (depending on which platform you’re playing on that is) this is most definitely a concrete example of a Kickstarter done right. Seeing how dedicated the teams behind this game were, and still are, to making this as enjoyable an experience it can be makes me relieved that I dedicated my money to the right project. To Koji Igarashi and all the other overtly talented folks behind this game – I just want to say thank you for making this game. You guys nailed it, and I can’t recommend it enough. If you love Castlevania games you owe it to yourself to give this one a shot.
Final Verdict: 4.5 / 5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC ; Publisher: 505 Games; Developer: ArtPlay, Inti Creates, Wayforward, Monobit, Dico Co. Ltd. ; Release Date: June 18th, 2019 (PS4, Xbox One, PC) June 25th, 2019 (Nintendo Switch); ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review was written based on a retail copy received by the reviewer by backing the Kickstarter campaign.