Hey! Game reviews are a thing I do sometimes, when the stars align just right.
So, after many years of development, another big Kickstarter success has finally been released. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is directed by Koji Igarashi, affectionately referred to by fans as IGA. It is, essentially, a new Castlevania game, in the style of those that were directed by IGA back at Konami, when they were interested in making video games.
There have been many kickstarter projects that aim to recapture the glory of some old niche video game series or another. Perhaps the most famous is very similar to this one, when Keiji Inafune struck out on his own to make his own Mega Man game if Capcom wouldn’t, called Mighty No. 9. And that was an unmitigated disaster, largely because what the developers wanted to make and what backers of the kickstarter expected turned out to be wildly different.
It’s not easy to grasp the fundamental appeal of a game, even an older, simpler one. Oftentimes even the original creators have changed and grown so much in the intervening years that they’re not interested in recreating their old work. Everyone wants to make their mark, to innovate and put out something new that changes the whole way everyone sees games. To breathe new life into a dead genre, the logic goes, radical changes are necessary, to adapt to the taste of modern consumers.
However, that is fundamentally misguided, I think. All of those old game players didn’t die out, the industry has not been around that long! When people want a game that is like one from ten or twenty years ago, they want exactly that, maybe with a few modern quality-of-life enhancements. Faster load times, clearer UI, things like that.
This is all a roundabout way of saying that IGA has succeeded where many developers have failed: he made a game exactly like the old ones. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a direct continuation of the IGAvanias that made him famous back on the GBA and DS. Not story-wise, of course, but in terms of design and aesthetic. IGA didn’t lose focus, he promised a new one of those in the kickstarter, and that is just what he has delivered.
Okay, that’s all well and good, you may say, but is the game actually decent? Does this old design hold up after all these years?
Absolutely, it 100% does.
In recent years, we have been deluged in new Metroidvania games from indie developers. Your Hollow Knights and Timespinners and Dusts and whatnot. Many of them take the genre in a bold new direction, focusing on challenging combat or new interesting gimmicks. Hollow Knight is, perhaps, the best of this newer style, very tightly designed and presenting a wonderful aesthetic along with a punishing challenge.
Bloodstained is different. This is not a difficult game, unless you set it to the highest mode. It is not designed to challenge your fast-twitch platforming skills, it is not going to push you to memorize boss patterns unless you really want to. Just like the old IGAvanias, it’s more of an exploration playground, where the fun is in wandering around and crafting the experience to meet your own needs and interests.
What’s interesting about this game is how it differs from some older RPGs. Often, in order to succeed, you would have to figure out through trial and error (or read up online) about a particular set of abilities and weapons to seek out that were necessary to succeed. There was a distinct lack of balance, some abilities were so overwhelmingly powerful that nothing else felt worth using. Or, the challenge was so great, that some things were necessary to even stand a chance.
The success of Bloodstained is that everything is overpowered. When balancing abilities in an RPG, it is possible to tune them up or down, meaning making them more powerful or less. Everything in Bloodstained has been tuned up. There is no possible wrong choice to make, every weapon and spell is capable of becoming incredibly powerful, and carrying you comfortably through the game.
On the one hand, this may seem like a boring choice. There’s no challenge there, if everything is too strong then how could you extract any interest out of the game? But really, this means that the whole game is wide open for every player. It is a buffet of delights, not an obstacle course. You don’t need any specialized knowledge or secret tips to get through it.
So, if the combat is basically trivialized, what meat is there in this game? Besides throwing different graphical effects at enemies or hitting them with different weapons, what could possibly be interesting here?
Well, it’s all about exploration… of a sort. The basic state of this game is just sort of wandering around, poking here and there, trying out different passages, going through old ones to see if there’s anything you forgot. It is a game you are meant to sit in, to be comfortable in, like an old easy chair. The halls of the castle are replete with things to do, in the moment. Enemies to kill, chandeliers to jump of, wall sconces to break open for money or mystical roses (which regenerate a chunk of MP, natch).
The gameplay takes on a kind of rhythm. You just move from point to point, jumping and slashing, leaping from place to place, dealing with every minor obstacle in more and more fun and easy ways. Slowly gathering up materials for crafting, shards from enemies to add to your repertoire of spells, and experience levels to make you all-around stronger. The slow, gradual progress upwards of the RPG has rarely been so smooth and relaxing.
Now, there are some tricky points. A couple of instances where it is difficult to know what you’re actually supposed to do to advance the plot and get to the next area. This is another element that is definitely carried over from the old IGAvanias, but I think it’s intentional rather than a design oversight. It plays into the exploratory nature, you see.
Let me use an example: at one point, after defeating a boss, all you find is an item called “silver bromide”. This doesn’t give you any new ability to navigate the environment or destroy obstacles. But, back at your home base, you may have noticed a primitive camera set up off to the side. You can ask an NPC about it, and they’ll say they need a silver bromide to take a picture.
This is clear enough, but why would you need a photo of yourself? Well, you can also wander to a lower level of the castle and find a gate that refuses to open without identification. If you go and talk to Aluca- err, I mean, OD the librarian, he’ll tell you it requires a photo ID to get past. So, what you have to do is first talk to the shopkeeper to have your photo taken, then go talk to the librarian to have the photo made into a proper ID, and then you can board the train and advance.
I’ve seen many players frustrated by this. The path is not obvious, if you’re eager to advance in a direct manner. But if you’re just wandering around, talking to NPCs, poking at different corners, you will inevitably find this solution. It’s only if you’re rushing to the end that it’s a frustrating roadblock. If you want to have the answer right in front of you, immediately.
Honestly, it is nowhere near as bad as the thing that always trips me up in Symphony of the Night, the revered classic that kicked off the whole IGAvania series. At one point, in order to enter some subterranean caverns, you have to goad a skeleton ape enemy into tossing an explosive barrel at a wooden bridge. These are enemies that pose basically no threat, who will never survive against your character for more than a single second. But you have to allow one to live, and walk forward a ways before attacking you, then dodge its attack.
What IGA has learned, over the years, is to play into the way that people actually engage with these games with his design. People like to wander around, they like to grind and make numbers go up, they like to break systems. This game allows you to do all three of those in a very fun and easy way.
The grind is present, but not too harsh. In fact, you get many tools to mitigate it, and it takes place across several sort of axes at the same time. You grind experience as a matter of course, there’s never a time where you have to stop and kill enemies just to get levels. You get materials from enemies and chests, which you can use both to craft equipment, and also to enhance the effect of your spells. Also, you can get rare ingredients for cooking, which gives you a permanent boost to your stats.
Thus, just by killing enemies and opening chests as you wander around, you are building your power in many different ways at the same time. You can enhance this by seeking out certain enemies and killing them, specifically, over and over. The game is purposefully designed with some enemies right next to doorways, so you can easily go in and out and kill them over and over for a better chance at their rewards.
The game rewards both a blunt approach, and also a more nuanced one. If you really engage with the system, grinding the right enemies for the right boosts to your stats and spells, you can become powerful more quickly. You can also enhance your chanced, boosting your luck specifically or wearing rings that make it more likely to get items or shards.
The sidequests even lean into this. They take a very simple form, asking you to either bring an item, a food dish, or to kill a certain number of a certain enemy. Many of them are able to be solved simply in the course of playing the game normally, but they also inevitably push you to engage with the crafting system, the cooking system, and thorough exploration of the castle.
Every element of this game comes together to create a cozy, relaxing experience which you can engage on whatever level you please. If you want to set the difficulty to nightmare and dodge every attack bosses throw at you, have at it. If you want to just listen to podcasts and zone out, you’ll have just as much fun.
I would say that the only real problems with the game are technical and aesthetic. While the graphics were improved significantly over the extra year or so of polishing, they are still a bit muddy and inconsistent. It doesn’t have as strong of a sense of style as the past IGAvania games.
The transition to 3D graphics has not been kind. In addition, it seems that the team wanted to stay away from some of the more iconic Castlevania enemies, in an attempt to forge a new identity. But they haven’t really come up with good replacements, at least not yet. The sprites in those old games were wonderful, and while these new 3D models have more animations they can’t really compete.
Technical problems abound, particularly in the console versions. I played on PC, but even then it felt a bit slipshod at times. Especially in the areas where the 2D play area wrapped around in 3D space. These felt gimmicky and unnecessary, and didn’t really add much besides frustration, either with the slowness of the scrolling or with making the map useless.
Ultimately, I absolutely loved Bloodstained: Ritual of the night. I think it is most rewarding if you go in expecting to take some time with it. Don’t rush through it, trying to get all the meat off the bones as quickly as possible. Just enjoy the scenery.
There’s something to be said for iteration over innovation, I think. It’s understandable that many developers are interested into creating new ideas, that have never been seen before, and thus making their mark on the world of video games. But if you’re always innovating, it’s much harder to make something that’s actually good in a deeper way.
Mechanics that stand the test of time are worth taking a closer look at. They are worth revisiting, taking the time to piece together their appeal, making them even better. Video games are still a young medium, their canon is still in the making.