It's been over two decades since I first played Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and my love for it has only grown through the years. In fact, I consider it to be my favorite game of all time, and I replay it regularly. Naturally, I was thrilled to hear that Koji Igarashi, the creative mind behind Symphony of the Night, was working on a spiritual successor titled Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night.
Apparently the rest of the gaming community was too. The Bloodstained Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign was hugely successful, and the development team set to work on creating an experience that was meant to rival the very progenitor of the Metroidvania genre. Did 505 Games pull it off? Can Ritual of the Night even hold a candle to Symphony of the Night? In a word, absolutely.
A Demonic Castle Beckons
If you ask me, one of the best things about the Metroidvania genre — or this instance the Igavania genre — is that it follows a very natural, old-school style of play. True to its form, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night sees players moving about a castle on a two-dimensional plane, and includes the sort of platforming and action-based combat that would be instantly recognizable to video game fans who learned their trade back in the 1980s. There's something of a plot to be found — a great evil was awakened years ago, and a mysterious castle must be purged of the demons within — but the narrative mainly exists to encourage progression. Instead, the real meat of the experience is in the action.
It's an old-school format for sure, and yet Ritual of the Night is full of modern touches. There are still enemies to kill, weapons and items to collect, and a massive castle full of secret passages and hidden areas. With that said, and in comparison to the game that inspired it, Ritual of the Night throws in several new features, including the ability to upgrade weapons, craft various recipes to earn stat bonuses, complete quests for villagers, and most notably earn Shards.
Shards are a big part of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, and they are found everywhere. Almost every enemy in the game has a Shard to drop, and Shards range in utility from offering new offensive or defensive abilities to granting stat bonuses that can be developed or even stacked. Players can collect extra Shards to increase their powers, sell off the ones they don't want for gold, and can also augment the effective range or spread of abilities by utilizing a variety of items or materials, often ones which are very hard to find.
The Power Is Yours
Ritual of the Night places a heavy emphasis on making the most of Shards, weapons, and items. And, as might be expected, some of the Shard abilities must be earned before progression can continue. This is the same as how it was in Symphony, where some areas can't be reached until players can double jump, get past spike traps, and so on.
The difference this time around is that there are a frankly huge number of Shard abilities to find. While players are always free to experiment, there's little doubt that only a handful of powerful or particularly useful attacks will take preference over essentially all the others. Given that many of the attacks or powers are slight variants of other abilities, this is to be expected. Still, all of those Shards are out there waiting to be found, and each one has something a little unique to offer. As a way to make exploration and combat more interesting, this system works gangbusters.
Players will immediately notice that there are very few powers or weapons in Ritual of the Night that can't be upgraded. Not only can players craft their own weapons or armor, they can use those crafted items to create even more powerful weapons and armor. In fact, some of the most powerful weapons in the game are only available after crafting and combining several other high-level weapons. Techniques are also available for specific weapons, and if players put in the time needed to master them, they can be used by any weapon of the same type.
The result is that players really can deck out their character for whatever need they choose. It's possible to create builds that favor heavy DPS, or ones that drastically increase the drop rate of gold, items, and Shards. I mostly used a build that was designed for ease of exploration, with Shards that offered area-of-effect damage and gear that increased my movement speed and drop rate. Best of all, players can swap between their many builds easily using the Shortcut shard.
Choose Your Fate
Of course, all of the fancy new features wouldn't count for much if the gameplay was boring. Thankfully, this is not the case. Things are naturally a bit slow from the start, as Miriam isn't as agile or as powerful as players might expect. Over time, though, she becomes a force to be reckoned with, able to double jump, invert her own personal gravity, zoom across the map, jet around underwater, and make use of screen-filling abilities that rain destruction down upon enemies. From slow-starting adventurer to veteran demon slayer, every slide, dodge, jump, and strike feels weighted, balanced, and predictable — all the elements that make a platformer "feel" good.
Still, players shouldn't jump into Ritual of the Night expecting a totally flawless experience. One of the first things I tested was the game's save and resume feature, which upon reloading my save resulted in a broken model for Miriam with a missing head. There are also a few issues with typos in written dialog, or discrepancies between what's displayed on-screen and what's heard spoken aloud. These are relatively few and far between. With that said, players are likely to encounter a few instances where attacks that should have landed seem to miss or enemies who land hits they shouldn't have.
Through it all, though, Ritual of the Night looks, sounds, and feels great. Many players have expressed their distaste for the game's art style, but nothing I've seen in my two complete runs through the game so far has managed to turn me off. I personally wouldn't have complained if the game appeared to be pulled straight from the 16-bit era, with pixelated sprites and jagged polygons, but if you ask me, this new style strikes the perfect balance of old-school and new.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is pure fun, and I couldn't be more pleased with the experience. Diving back into creator Koji Igarashi's iconic style of gameplay has been deeply nostalgic for me; I even found myself humming old Symphony of the Night tunes after playing the new release for a few hours. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a prime example of how much fun the Metroidvania genre has to offer, and will undoubtedly serve as a point of comparison for all retro-inspired platformers that follow it.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
- Tight, satisfying platforming action
- Loads of hero customization
- Plenty of unlockable abilities and equipment
- Extra quests and NG+ add replay value
- Polarizing art style
- Occasional technical hiccups