Developer: ArtPlay || Publisher: 505 Games || Platform: PS4/Xbox One/PC/Switch

The Metroidvania subgenre is by far one of my favourite in video games. Whether it be a 2D platformer or a 3D action-RPG game, the classic design elements of a Metroidvania almost always lead to an interestingly designed world with interwoven and interconnected pathways. It’s why I love Dark Souls and Bloodborne so much, because they allow for a sense of familiarity and world connection often missed in many other games (especially modern open-world games). While I never really got to play most of the Castlevania games, I cannot deny their influence on the industry (I have to give Metroid some love too). So here we find ourselves with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, a labour of love lead by former Castlevania producer, Koji IgashariWhile it does do a great job at being a spiritual successor to Castlevania, Bloodstained also can’t help but feel a little stilted with slow early-game pacing and cryptic progression points in the late game.

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night takes place in the 19th century and sees the player assume the role of Miriam, an orphan who has been turned into a “Shardbinder” (basically someone who absorbs the souls of demons) by the Alchemists’ Guild. The caveat of this experimentation is that, eventually, the power consumes the shardbinder and they begin to crystallise and fade away. Struggling to come to terms with this grim reality, Miriam befriends a fellow Shardbinder named Gebel who helps her find comfort and accept what has happened. Ten years after this, Miriam is awoken from her deep slumber and the world has fallen into chaos and disrepair. Demons roam the earth and Miriam is the only one with the power to stop them.

In terms of design, Bloodstained follows a very systemic set of rules for a Metroidvania style game. The early levels are designed and balanced in a way to teach you the dos and don’ts of the game and allow you to get familiar the with the general gameplay mechanics and platforming. For the most part, this is a really well-implemented progression pace. The worst thing you can do as a designer is to throw the player into higher difficulty design without making sure they are familiar with the game first (a critical flaw with Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin). There’s a fine line you have to walk along between making sure the player is familiar and stunting the game’s pacing. Unfortunately, the game’s cautious design teeters a bit too far towards outstaying its welcome, which results in it feeling a bit slow until you get to the first new ability. Once you unlock the first ability, things open up and begin to feel a lot more fluid and organic.

 

 

 

In saying all this, the brilliant part of Bloodstained’s core gameplay design is that each new ability can vastly change how the game is played, so there will always be new approaches that you can take for a variety of different outcomes. You can use a really defensive set of tools as an offensive set and still see varying degrees of success. The design is very much a ‘one-size fits all’ style for combat, which means that you are not punished for trying new things. Instead you are rewarded intrinsically by discovering new techniques that you can use at any point in the game, which may prove beneficial to you as you progress further through the game and the difficulty scales higher and higher. Learning which abilities work best where is some of the most fun you’ll have as the huge variety of skills means you’ll be at it for hours (if you’re that type of player). A number of these abilities also have a hand in how you traverse the world in Bloodstained. The only downside with the “one size fits all” style design is that the game can feel quite easy for a while, something which is especially noticeable as players can only choose the easiest difficulty on their first playthrough.

It’s kind of hard to make a Metroidvania with bad level design. The subgenre was born to identify games whose overall design was very similar to that of the classic Castlevania and Metroid games, allowing for paths that seem closed off to suddenly become avenues and shortcuts as you make your way through the world. A great example of this is with the elevator in Dark Souls that connects the Undead Parish and Firelink Shrine. It’s a level of thought and attention to detail that creates a world with a variety of secrets, while also being familiar. It’s, once again, a fine line to walk along, as you want to promote and reward exploration accordingly. Having too many economy or combat-based rewards can break the balance of the game and can also (in a way) punish exploration if the combat is scaled to compensate for the potency of those rewards. Having too few of these kinds of rewards though can make exploration boring, as too many shortcuts can undermine the intent of the level design while also stunting the power climb of the player. Bloodstained walks along this fine line at an almost perfect level. The number of times that I felt rewarded for my exploration and experimentation with the game mechanics meant that I wasn’t afraid to try new things (like using a late-game ability to skip entire sections of an area), but I was also shown when those different levels of exploration and experimentation were appropriate.

Bloodstained does this thing where if you don’t meet certain criteria, the game can end incredibly abruptly. It’s entirely possible to get the bare minimum ending and miss half the bosses in the game, meaning that you have missed almost half of the entire map as well. While it’s cool that a choice to rush through the game can lead to one of the “bad endings” (both in terms of quality and narrative weight), it’s very easy to miss the fact that you’re supposed to go off the beaten path to progress even further. If you’re not diligent enough you might be left with a sour taste because of a crap ending that literally gives you a “game over” screen (I’m not joking, they give you that screen as if you have achieved nothing). Maybe if there was a bit more exposition to explain that your choice led to a certain outcome because you failed to rectify certain issues, it wouldn’t be so bad. But the game just slaps you in the face and tells you to try again. In all fairness the atmosphere of the area in which you can get the early endings doesn’t feel climactic per se, so it is possible to pick up on the fact that you’re missing something, but even then, it’s all a bit cryptic. If you do manage to get past this, however, you are met with a beautiful crescendo of difficulty and atmosphere, as each new area becomes more and more uninviting in nature. There also hits a point where you get a major ability which completely changes how you approach the level design, and the game relies on you to experiment with this ability in obscure areas to find an item which will allow you to progress even further. If you are someone who doesn’t like to rely on map elements or anything, this can become a really frustrating part of the game.

Bloodstained leverages the performance strengths of Unreal Engine 4 and somehow botches them. While, for the most part, the game runs at a beautifully smooth 60 frames per second, there are a few areas where the scale (somehow) is too vast, with the framerate dipping into around the 40-50fps range. It’s not too bad though, as usually these dips are at least consistent and not major enough to imbalance the feeling of the game. Where it is really bad though is with a boss in one of the later areas of the game. There’s a certain ability it does which summons giant poker chips and, for whatever reason, the frames dip so hard that an input latency develops, making the boss a (potentially) imbalanced fight. It’s also not like it’s rendering insane levels of volumetric fog or particle effects, it’s static textures with a set animation and collisions, but it almost seems as if the memory usage just explodes to disproportionate levels when this move is used (though I can’t really test this as I don’t have a PC copy). Bizarre performance issues aside, the general art for the game is really well done. Areas feel distinct from one another, all conveying a different atmosphere. Earlier areas convey an atmosphere of cautious optimism as it’s easy to traverse through these places when revisiting at a later stage in the game. Later areas always have an air of mystery and intrigue, while using lighting and art design to communicate the hostility of those places.

Musically, Bloodstained doesn’t set the bar, but it does still excel. Composer Michiru Yamane (the original composer of the Castlevania games) did a great job at using melodic motifs and catchy tunes to make each area memorable, which is not an easy feat. A tricky challenge for any composer to do is to make a song invoke a feeling which links to a memory of something (a trait which composers like Yamane and Koji Kondo have mastered) and Bloodstained’s soundtrack is perfectly suited. The music conveys a thematically appropriate atmosphere and clever instrumentalisation helps with this. Areas that have a more Eastern influence in their design also are accompanied by very Eastern instruments, like the shamisen, which help the player properly gauge what the area is about and what kind of challenges they should face. The consistency of the music perfectly complements the art and it’s something that Bloodstained (and Yamane) should be commended for.

Conclusion

For a game that laid its foundation on a platform known for its trouble with game development (I’m looking at you, Mighty No. 9 and Agony), Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night rose out of the ashes from development troubles to offer a great experience which pays incredible homage to its spiritual predecessor, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, while also feeling distinct in its own right. If you can get past some of the stilted progression points in the early and late game, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night will reward you with an experience that excellently captures the Metroidvania design while also offering a great variety of ways to experiment and build on top of that familiar style of play.