How Metroidvania is it? Perfect Fit. It’s a game made by Koji Igarashi specifically to recall the feeling of Symphony of the Night. I probably didn’t even need to write that sentence.
Primary Challenge: Melee Combat
Time to beat: ~18 hours
Review Info: This game was played on Steam
Buy Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night if you like…
- Any of the ''Metroidvania'' Castlevania games
- Deep Crafting Systems with a wide range of options
- Castlevania Aria/Dawn of Sorrow's Tactical Soul system
- New and interesting Lore on par with the Castlevania series
- Visually changing the appearance of your protagonist
▼ Review continues below ▼
With all of the concerns arising from its rocky development and growing distrust of Kickstarter projects, Bloodstained arrives and delivers on all of its promises – though it’s not without a few hiccups. Comparing Ritual to Symphony, and all of the other Igavania games where Koji Igarashi was specifically involved, I think that if you liked those games you won’t be disappointed. However, there are some key features in the current build that are missing, and some aspects definitely need a little more polish. If I were to sum up this long-winded review, I would say that this game is fantastic, above average, and in many ways everything everyone had hoped for. The best is here, and if all you have ever tasted of the old games was the main course – no New Game + or additional characters – then there’s nothing to lose from buying the game now. If however you’re bothered by some presentation issues like wonky cutscenes or just general bugs, and you think the initial price-point is too high at launch, perhaps waiting until some of the 13 upcoming “DLC”s are complete is the better choice.
I’m not going to attempt to summarize my thoughts much more than in the above paragraph, this review’s conclusion, and my normal review summary – I’m pulling the brakes off this review train and am going to ride the stream of conscious all the way. Because of that I think it would be better for me to divide this review into sections.
In addition, I have a sneaky suspicion that my final score and overall evaluation of this game may change once all of the content is finally released. I don’t do this normally, but it’s a good enough game that I feel like it deserves it. Once all the DLC is released, I plan on revisiting game in its completed state and will post a SECOND review updating this one.
Exploration and Puzzles
Let’s start with the best of the best first. The Nintendo DS Castlevania games progressively introduced new mechanics that added flavor to the formula and improved monster encounters, but they also started getting a little shakey on the whole “Castle” thing. While Bloodstained retains that evolution of game mechanics, it drops the modular “explorative level” idea that Portrait of Ruin and Order of Ecclesia had with its portraits and travel motifs. As I mention in my Order of Ecclesia review, there are advantages to doing it that way, but it does degrade the absolute best part of Symphony of the Night – which is the enjoyment of having a vast open castle to explore. As advertised, Bloodstained’s castle is VERY vast, and VERY fun to explore.
The general quality of the castle is perhaps the highest it’s been since Symphony of the Night. There is still the wide variety of enemies that we enjoyed in the previous Castlevania games, and the verticality of the castle provides constant variety. There are a few areas that feel less strong, however. As always the ”Cave” sections of the castle aren’t as interesting as the gaudy hallways of its upper floors. Unfortunately two of the game’s least interesting areas are the last two areas you will see – which is an unusual choice given how creative a majority of the game is.
Even at its worst though, there are many mechanics that make traversing the castle at least rewarding. Thanks to the shard system, killing enemies as you backtrack through areas could get you new powers or upgrades to your existing powers – not to mention the plethora of body parts you’ll need to craft food and equipment. Even if you ignore the enemies, the random blue treasure chests from Order of Ecclessia are back, which restock themselves every time you leave and return to an area.
Progression through the castle is exactly what you would expect from an Igavania. You’ll run into cliffs that you can’t quite reach, statues blocking your path, and other obstacles that suggest the need for a special upgrade. Some of the game’s progression points are very creative, keeping Bloodstained fresh from its spiritual predecessors. For better or worse though a lot of Metroidivania upgrades are only used a couple of times before they’re discarded and forgotten. This can either be because a new upgrade makes the old obsolete – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing since you have to equip a lot of the powers – but in some cases it’s almost like the level designers forgot you had the power, or didn’t realize there was still untapped potential. The strongest powers are as always the ones you can also use in combat, and unfortunately in Bloodstained it gets boiled down to the usual suspects like the double jump – which doesn’t make it much different than the previous Igavania games, but perhaps it’s a bit of a missed opportunity.
There are two points in the game that I’m willing to bet that you’ll be reaching for a guide or asking around on forums to figure out what you’re supposed to do next. One of them is more similar to the Clock room in Symphony where there are hints in the game, but they’re not necessarily easy to catch on to. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad piece of design, when I finally figured it out it had me smiling and slapping my forehead for being so dense. The second pace-breaking progression point however is completely obtuse – requiring you to have an almost obsessive compulsive need to fill in every square of your map to even give you a chance of discovering its location. It’s bad enough that I really considered whether it alone affects my overall evaluation of this game, but once you know where it is it’s never going to be a problem for you again – it just puts a black mark on that first blind play through. Plus, if you are the type of person who does go for that 100% map completion, you’ll likely have no issues finding it.
Even with some hiccups, Bloodstained’s castle may be my favorite of the entire Igavania series, or at the very least I put it on roughly the same level as Symphony of the Night and Aria of Sorrow.
The Shard System and the Crafting System
In speaking of Aria of Sorrow, if you enjoyed the Tactical Soul system then you’re in for a treat, because it’s back. Just about every enemy in the game can drop a Shard providing you with a power of some kind. Just like Aria/Dawn of Sorrow you can find active spells, passive powers, and powers that activate while you hold down one of the shoulder buttons, but now you have two more shard slots; a Directional spell that uses the right analog stick, and a Familiar Shard slot.
The Shard system suffers from some of the same problems that the Tactical Soul system did. If you want to get 100%, you’ll be walking back and forth between screens killing the same monster over and over, which isn’t exactly a fun activity. Since all powers use the same mana pool you’ll need to find a balance between which powers can be used with each other, but as you progress through the game your mana pool gets more forgiving, and at its worst it means you can equip two situational powers that you aren’t meant to use all the time.
I will make the same argument for the Shard System that I made for the Tactical Soul system though – if you ignore the grind it adds variety to each playthrough. Being forced to adapt to what powers you are given can be very fun and novel, and if you don’t like that you always have the option of putting on a bunch of luck gear and shooting for the powers you actually want, which actually feels a lot less unforgiving in this game compared to Dawn of Sorrow. Plus as I mentioned before, backtracking through the castle feels more rewarding since killing the same old enemies could get you more of their livers and feathers and shards as you play normally.
It’s really tempting to grind however, because not only does getting more of the same shard increase the power level of the ability it provides, but the crafting system has an almost dizzying depth and a lot of benefit for catching ‘em all. Thankfully unlike Dawn of Sorrow’s synthesis system, you don’t have to trade shards to upgrade weapons – you use completely separate drops for that now. In fact, the shards can be upgraded using those crafting materials, which almost always provides a greater benefit than just stacking multiples of the same shard. For instance, if you have a shard that casts a fire spell, getting more of that shard increases the damage of the fire spell, but upgrading it through the crafting system will increase the size of the fire, changing the way you play with it. Since raising your intelligence also increases the damage, you’re given a lot of options for how you much you want to get sucked into the crafting system. Crafting is also used to make new weapons – but you can also find great weapons in the wild too, so it doesn’t circumvent finding new toys in the same way it did in Dawn (though the best weapons are still locked behind crafting.)
Perhaps the most rewarding crafting item is interestingly making food for yourself. Every food item you can create gives you a permanent bonus to your stats the first time you eat it. Getting extra luck for more drops of course is always good, but the best food for any player is the permanent boost to how fast your mana regenerates, which enables you to cast spells more regularly. For how important that is it makes it very hard to ignore the crafting system if you really don’t like gathering items.
I think that if you really hate crafting in games, Bloodstained might rub you the wrong way compared to the simpler approaches of Aria of Sorrow and Symphony of the Night. With that said, the breadth of choice the player is given is great, and rewards are extremely frequent in Bloodstained. If nothing else the skinner-box dopamine rush of grinding out items is addictive, and doesn’t make for a bad pastime if you’re also listening to a podcast or something. Or you can challenge yourself and ignore it entirely, though you may have a bit of a hard time if you do…
Combat in the Igavania games has always been a bit stiff, especially compared to more modern games like Hollow Knight. In Symphony of the Night, entering a room with a strategy was more important than reacting to telegraphs and dueling with your foe. This gradually changed as the Igavania series progressed, capping out with Order of Ecclesia being almost comparable to the best of Metroidvania Combat. Bloodstained has its shining moments, but for the most part I feel like it’s fallen back to Symphony’s standard.
Some bosses have excellent patterns you can adapt to, making them a fun dance of trying to face them with no damage. Other bosses have seemingly unfair attacks – at least, unless you have a power that let’s you deal with it more easily. Then like in Symphony, there are a few bosses that are a complete joke, where it seems like no matter how much grinding you’ve done they just kind of roll over and expose their belly for excessive stabbing. Order of Ecclesia had a distinctive advantage in the series because of how linear it was. The developers could design bosses around what powers the player must have by the point they reach them. In Bloodstained you could be entering the boss room with some piddly fireball spells and a rapier you scrapped together, or you could be a tactical nuke that spams arrows like a shotgun and slaps everything with a whirling tornado of portraits. In other words it’s back to the RPG style combat where your build is more important than your skill.
I’m not trying to imply that combat isn’t fun – on the contrary, it would be kind of pointless to gather in all of the resources that you do to get equipment and spells if you had nothing to use it on. The point I’m making is that if your preference is to have boss fights where it’s always about skin-of-your-teeth prediction and reflexes, Bloodstained isn’t a strong example of this. I will say though that the combat never feels stupidly easy, unless you’ve taken a lot of time to upgrade yourself as you go. You aren’t given a ton of healing items as you progress, so unless you intentionally go make them yourself you may find yourself in a situation where you’re at a save point next to a boss you can’t quite defeat with your build, so you’ll have to decide between git gud or get out and level up some more. The tension that comes from being a little under leveled for a new area can be very exciting, just as it can also be fun to have discovered a seemingly overpowered ability that you use to destroy everything.
As far as Igavanias go, I’ll still prefer Order of Ecclesia if I want to get a combat fix, but Bloodstained has its merits even if its quality is a bit inconsistent.
Graphics, Music, and General Presentation
One of the contributing factors to the inconsistent combat quality is the inconsistency of the game’s graphical presentation. For the most part, I have nothing but positive things to say about the game’s graphics. I’m definitely in the boat where I prefer the pixel art direction of the DS Castlevania games, but the polygonal approach has some clear advantages that are utilized in great ways for Bloodstained. I think one of the important factors for a lot of people is that for the first time in the Igavania History – Alucard’s Cape aside – you can change the appearance of your protagonist with the gear you find. Technically this could be done with pixel art, it’s just not as feasible from a cost perspective. Furthermore backgrounds often contain a lot of moving parts, and some scenes are simply breathtaking for how the camera is utilized to provide dramatic effect. Like with all the previous Igavanias, every scene is packed with details that add flavor and personality to the castle (the exception being maybe the cave areas I mentioned earlier.) In terms of actual gameplay, exploring around the castle is as good as it’s ever been.
That praise drops off completely though when the game tries to do cutscenes. The movie direction is basically terrible, with the edits jumping around in a confusing way, and characters popping around unrealistically. Sadly they also tried to do some visceral attacks in some of the boss fights, where when a boss hits you it zooms in for dramatic effect. It might have been dramatic if there wasn’t a rock or something in front of the camera obscuring the moment. The game’s story sequences are a buggy mess, while the voice acting is great and the story is okay, it breaks the immersion when the glitches happen.
The exploration portions of the game aren’t completely immune to the bugs either. Some enemies that like to float around the screen can drop their crafting materials inside the wall where it’ll get stuck – a problem I haven’t really seen since the old NES days. If you wait 10-20 seconds the game will give you the material as a fail-safe, but that’s a long time to wait for something that should have been shunted out of the wall anyway.
Thankfully the music direction is still superb, and surprisingly silence is actually used in great ways too. The village leading up to the castle is dead silent, with only the sound of your footsteps to accompany your journey. It had me questioning whether it was actually an Igavania, since kitschy music was always part of the experience, but when the castle music kicks in at last the juxtaposition against the silence made my hairs stand on end. The music is catchy as always, and I feel like it was always appropriate.
Even with the bugs, between the music and the moments where the graphics do work, I’d say that Bloodstained is a great looking and a great sounding game. Besides potential balancing of the game’s encounters, the graphical presentation – particularly in the cutscenes – is at the top of my list for what I hope they polish in future patches.
The Castlevania games have always had interesting lore, and not having that history was going to be a challenge Bloodstained would have to overcome. In my opinion, they do a great job establishing an interesting world that you would want to learn more about, and I think that the characters are likeable enough that I’d want to learn more about them too. But, like all the other Igavanias, Bloodstained comes really close to having something great and profound to say with its actual story, but it falls into the trap of using too many clichés to really have any meaningful impact.
One of the greatest missed opportunities is with the game’s quests given to you by the villagers. It’s just better in Order of Ecclesia, where every character had a personality and a beginning, middle, and end to their story arc. In Bloodstained, the quest givers are basically just task masters. You have an extremely vengeful woman who just wants you to kill X of Y monster, and doesn’t even have a line of dialog for gratitude once you’ve finished her tasks. There’s a lady who asks for random equipment that does have a line of gratitude, but nothing to give her any personality besides that. The farmer guy is helpful early on but becomes completely obsolete – it’s like the designers completely forgot about him since you’re never given any new seeds he can plant to keep him useful. The most interesting quest giver is an old lady where you have to fulfill her gluttonous desire for food, but even though she’s got that endearing grandma persona you still don’t learn much about her.
Only the game’s main actors get any meaningful development, but who’s your enemy and who’s your friend is pretty obvious if you’re familiar with any of the tropes that the Igavania games have followed before. Zangetsu is an interesting character – though it’s appropriate that he’s played by David Hayter since his personality is basically the same as Naked Snake from Metal Gear Solid 3 (or at least, similar to some of the bosses from that game.)
Just like before with Aria and Dawn of Sorrow, there’s a lot of potential for being one of the great video game stories of its time, but neither those games nor Bloodstained ever cross that line into greatness. Story doesn’t really matter a TON with these Metroidvania games, and Bloodstained’s story is good enough to drive the player to its ending, but I still can’t help but be a little disappointed that after 11 years since the last game a better narrative couldn’t have been constructed.
I’ve brought up a lot of criticism in this review, but even with its flaws it was still really tempting to give Bloodstained a 5 out of 5. Its best features far outshine its faults. But comparing it to other Metroidvanias with more polish, even within the Igavania category, I think in its current state it falls just a little short of that perfect score. Most of its biggest problems are patchable, and based on what they’ve promised things can only look up from here. I think by the time all of its content is released, Bloodstained will be a force to be reckoned with and worthy of being considered a standard of the genre. With its high initial price point and those future promises, there’s a good argument for waiting a while before diving into its world. But as-is it’s good enough that you probably will have little regret taking the plunge right now.
About on Par with SOTN but a step back from the games that followed it. Some great bosses, a few disappointing ones
Liike with all the Igavania games, Platforming is not a huge focus
Still has one or two filler-y areas, but the castle on par with the best in the Igavania series, with the crafting system making it that much more rewarding
There are some puzzles that deal with progression that could stump you, but if you're diligent with exploration they aren't hard
The lore is on par with the rest of the Castlevania series, which also means the story skirts the line of being great but never crosses it
Preferences aside the visuals at times look absolutely fantastic, but the cutscenes and many other parts are almost broken
The music direction is as perfect as it has ever been in any of the Castlevania games. They even use Silence wisely
The crafting system gives so many dang options that it's hard to imagine two playthroughs looking the same
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