Greetings, friends and onlookers. Are you sitting comfortably? Good. Then gather round, and I will tell you a story of how a game franchise cheated death via the awesome power of Kickstarter.
Few video game developers/publishers have suffered a fall from glory greater than Konami. Although Konami have developed some of the most famous videogame franchises in the world – Contra, Metal Gear, Silent Hill and Pro Evolution Soccer to name a few – the only thing Komani is famous for nowadays is selling out and turning their most beloved franchises into pachinko slot machines.
In the late 80s and early 90s, the Castlevania series was the jewel in Komani’s crown. The last, and highest grossing, of Komani’s Castlevania “greats” was Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, a “metroidvania” style open-world side-scroller. After release however, the Castlevania franchise spent the next decade dying a slow and painful death, due to Konami’s lack of creativity and their increasing apathy towards the franchise.
Just when it seemed like Konami would never develop a decent Castlevania game ever again, former Castlevania series producer, Koji Igarashi, broke away from Konami to resurrect the spirit of Castlevania and bring the “metroidvania” style back to a modern audience. Thus, the Bloodstained series was born.
“Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night” is a gothic action-horror side-scroller. It was crowdfunded through Kickstarter and eventually released in June 2019 to all four of the major gaming platforms – PC, Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo Switch. With updated graphics and a more intuitive user interface, it propelled the “metroidvania” style into the modern age. It aimed to build upon the classic gameplay framework that made the Castlevania games so successful, but give it a new lick of paint. Though heavily influenced by the original “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night”, the game was not a remaster or a reimagining, but a free-standing game in it’s own right.
Bloodstained’s gameplay loop is simple – explore the castle, solve puzzles, improve your equipment and kill the demons you meet along the way – but it’s simplicity is part of what makes it so addictive. It’s a throwback to a simpler time, when games didn’t need to be ambitious or revolutionary or pioneering to be enjoyable. I dare say it is refreshingly short as well – about 10-12 hours for 100% completion – unusual for a market where 60 hours is fast becoming the industry standard.
The game does an excellent job at incentivising you to explore the castle as thoroughly as you can. There are countless pathways, crossroads and out-of-the-way side rooms with all kinds of juicy secrets and powerups in them. There are even some secret bosses and secret areas that give you useful extra abilities and items if you can find them. This makes the castle a lot of fun to explore, but there’s always something to see or do around each corner. Not a single inch of the castle is wasted.
The combat is also very simple, as you might expect from a sidescroller. You can choose what kind of weapon you want to use, from firearms to spears to katanas, depending on whether you prefer to dispatch your enemies from a close, mid or longer range. Your magical abilities, known as “Shards” play a huge role in both combat and exploration. There are so many “Shards” to choose from that each player will come up with their own combinations depending on what works for them. The combat as a whole is very customisable and I definitely felt like the game gave me more than enough leeway to decide for myself how I wanted to play.
The retro Castlevania games are famous for their difficulty, so I braced myself for considerable challenge and rage-factor in Bloodstained. Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised – Normal difficulty is quite reasonable. Bosses take, on overage, 1-3 attempts; the first to learn the bosses move set and “tells”; the second or third to actually go in for the kill. In reality, I died far more frequently out exploring the castle than I did fighting the bosses – late-game regular enemies are no joke. I found this meant there was a healthy sense of danger whilst exploring the castle. You always have to be on your toes, especially in new areas.
Whilst the enemies, gameplay and graphics all have their own unique aesthetic, but the music in Bloodstained is definitely a love letter to “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night”. It’s so 90s! It’s so japanese! The orchestral-metal style screams “Castlevania.” The mix of guitar power-riffs and violin crescendos still give a distinct romantic-era classic flair to keep in tone with the game’s gothic 1800s setting. Have a listen!
There is a story in Bloodstained, but it’s incredibly generic. Foolish mortals have unleashed a demonic army into the world and now you have to stop them. Same old, same old. There are attempts to bring other themes into the story like a mysterious tome and the evil Alchemists guild, but to be honest, it didn’t grab my attention. The characters, including the protagonist, aren’t particularly memorable either.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I didn’t pick Bloodstained up for a compelling story or witty dialogue. I got exactly what I paid for, which is an action-orientated side-scroller, so it doesn’t bother me. I acknowledge it might bother others however, so consider this a “buyer beware.”
The feeling you get when your game freezes after a really difficult segment and you can’t remember the last time you saved is literally what nightmares are made of. I picked my copy of Bloodstained up from CEX because I wanted to christen my new Nintendo Switch. Turns out, I should have done my research first. The Nintendo Switch port is terrible. My game froze for at least 15 seconds after defeating each boss; the frame rate often drops below 30fps, and sometimes falls as low as 15fps; it chugs and lags frequently; and if that wasn’t enough, there is a noticeable graphical downgrade compared to the PlayStation version. I’m not sure what went so wrong with the Switch port. MY advice? Buy the PC version, which appears to be the best by far.
Videogames Make Me Happy concludes…
Similarly to how a person can be an “old soul” (with a youthful exterior but a wisened, perhaps old fashioned, way about them) I feel the same is true for games. “Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night” is very old-fashioned in some regards. There is no autosave, no skill trees, no buffs or debuffs, no multiplayer, no online features, no dialogue choices. It’s you, in a short blue dress carving up demons for 12 hours. It’s you, backtracking through the linear story. It’s you, losing an hour’s worth of progress if you forget to save. It’s you dying, dying again, and dying some more.
What that means is entirely a matter of perspective and personal taste. For some people, it’s a regression back to a style of gameplay that’s more frustrating than fun. For others, it’s an ode to a time when games were allowed to just be fun and challenging rather than having to make a grand statement about life or a moral judgement about some wider issue.
“Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night” is not an experience, or a journey. It is a game – a very entertaining game, set in an environment that is fun to explore, and of an appropriate length, and I am happy for it to stay that way.