The road to Bloodstained has been a strange ride, full of anxiety and surprises, both good and bad. Massive Kickstarter failures such as Mighty No. 9 (which once shared a dev studio in part with Bloodstained) caused a dip in confidence, exasperated by how long Bloodstained seemed to be cooking. But the home stretch was full of updates and positivity, fueled in part with a substantial visual update and WayForward joining development. Now after a few years of anticipation, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is upon us, with some impeccable timing due to a resurgence of sorts of its older Konami sibling. Bloodstained, with its massive map full of secrets, challenges, and bizarre gags, feels like a true successor to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and an evolution of the “Igavania” style all in the same package.
Original Dracula Do Not Steal
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night follows Miriam, who is a “Shardbinder.” Basically, that means through human experimentation, crystals imbued with powerful demon juice were magically attached to her skin. Miriam is one of two subjects of this experiment, the other being Gebel, Bloodstained’s antagonist. The setup here is that Gebel seeks revenge on a world that did him dirty, and part of that plan included summoning a massive castle full of demons. Miriam, who is a ticking time bomb herself, aims to stop Gebel and find a way to beat the “curse” for both of them.
The story is, honestly, Bloodstained’s weakest link. The game opens with some brief narration that throws a bunch of jargon out in your face, and brief conversations between characters who already know each other attempt to fill in the blanks. Storytelling is not Bloodstained’s strong suit, but it really doesn’t need to be. After all, Castlevania was never a strong narrative experience – it has a compelling timeline built upon a simple foundation, the appeal being in tracking events throughout different time periods, all through a branching family bloodline. Where Bloodstained struggles is in trying so hard to feel different, and in doing so wants to cram a bunch of lore and jargon upfront. While the Shardbinder stuff is expertly woven into Bloodstained’s gameplay and aesthetic, there doesn’t seem to be much to latch onto narratively.
And that’s fine really, because everything else about Bloodstained rules. Metroidvania games have been the cool thing to do in indie games for years now, ever since the genre practically disappeared from the major leagues. A game in this style from Koji Igarashi, one of the OGs, hasn’t been seen since Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia on the Nintendo DS. That’s notable because despite the series’ renown and popularity, there hasn’t been a large-scale follow-up to Symphony of the Night on a non-portable platform. Bloodstained finally does that, and the result is almost intimidating.
Hot Damn, That’s a Big Castle. Nic Cage Would Buy That Castle.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is huge. Gebel’s castle feels familiar, like one of Dracula’s many hangouts. But since fans will have been so used to playing these games on small handheld screens, this contemporary version feels massive. Hours will pass while exploring this castle, and you feel every nook and cranny you’re unable to reach. Upgrades, equipment, and other bonuses are everywhere, since there’s so much space to fill. While many of the handheld Castlevania titles felt more deliberate and focused in their design, Bloodstained feels much more open and littered with incidental pickups, making the Metroidvania vibe much less linear. Tons of time will pass between major upgrades like the classic double jump, but none of that space feels wasted.
Bloodstained isn’t afraid to have fun with itself, and uses its scale and fidelity to really let players goof around as little or as much as they want. On top of the critical path, several distractions and extra, little systems can be found throughout the castle, each giving completionists more and more to stress over. Miriam, for example, is surprisingly customizable. You can find new hairstyles on your journey, and even change her skin color. Certain accessories will also change her look, and sometimes even weird stuff you wouldn’t expect like the sound of her voice. The experience almost feels like a kitchen sink sort of approach to a Metroidvania, except IGA himself was in charge, so it still has his leadership stamped all over it, separating it from its peers in a way that feels genetic.
That IGA DNA has the most presence in Bloodstained’s Shard system, which is the new endpoint of all the experimentation seen throughout the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS Castlevania titles. Striving to innovate, as game developers do, Igarashi’s teams have been playing around with these games’ RPG elements. We’ve seen various forms on the idea of farming new abilities from enemies, and once again Bloodstained feels like the floodgates have been opened. Previous Castlevania titles used said abilities in different ways, but generally one specific way per game.
Bloodstained has its own Shard menu, with several slots that each serve a different function. Drops from enemies can take several forms, from one of two attack methods, to passive boosts and even ultra specific roles like manipulating objects (that one being needed to progress in the game, full stop). These Shard abilities are not only swappable on the fly and all quite distinct from each other, but there’s also an upgrade-slash-crafting system that can take you abilities even further. You can also craft items and food, the latter providing permanent stat boots for each first taste of a new recipe. There is so much to do, and just enough explanation that Bloodstained has no problem telling you what to do, but good luck finding what you want when you want it.
There is so much meat on Bloodstained’s bones, I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface in this review. But my job isn’t to outline all the content. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a game that returns on the player’s investments, whether that’s going through the critical path as quickly as possible, or deep-diving for recipes and checking off every last collectible from the list. This is a game that is well aware of its pedigree, and every person involved in making it has given their all to deliver on that prestige. Aside from some minor performance issues and localization typos barely worth mentioning, Bloodstained is an incredible feat in independent video game development. I’ll be coming back to this one for years to come.
Bloodstained Ritual of the Night review code provided by publisher. Version 1.02 reviewed on a Standard PS4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy.