Konami have one of the most enviable back catalogues in the industry, such is the luxury of over three decades worth of gaming.
With franchises such as Contra, Metal Gear, and Silent Hill to their name, one wonders why they haven’t done more with them in recent years and parted ways with some of the most talented developers of our time.
Talent such as the legendary Koji Igarashi, godfather of the infamous Castlevania series, for instance. A man who was never expected to make a side-scrolling action adventure again.
But just a few years later we have Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night and potentially the beginnings of an all-new franchise that’s loaded with potential. A game that is so Igarashi you’ll soon forget it’s not Simon Belmont you’re controlling or Dracula you’re hunting.
This isn’t just a straight riff off his past successes either. There’s smart evolutions on previous design with equippable weapons and armor, as well as crafting and interchangeable shards which instil you with unique powers.
Lash out at enemies with aggressive tentacles, and summon hounds of justice to gnaw at the faces of demons, whichever fits into the strategy of each particular fight, or how you prefer to play.
That flies in the face of Castlevania games of old which saw you fight with merely your whip and wits to see you through to the end and it gives Miriam her own discernable qualities as the game’s protagonist.
Her origin story tells that she was experimented upon extensively using the game’s shards, awakening a demonic power inside her, leading her to become a ‘Shardbinder’.
As you see throughout the game when Miriam defeats enemies, sometimes she’ll be pierced and stabbed by a shard which infuses her with the power of the creature she defeated.
Five shards can be active at a time, some passive, while others can be used in battle at the expense of mana. The abilities have varying costs and effectiveness, dependent on how regularly they’re used and against who.
And that’s a massive change compared to Castlevania in that you’ll regularly be switching out the shards in an effort to stay ahead of your enemy. A strategic undertone that reverberates throughout Bloodstained and it’s so refreshing.
What’s also so refreshingly cool is the story and the way it’s voice acted. Just wait till you hear Zangetsu as David Hayter returns to his Solid Snake form. It’s so good to hear his dulcet tones again.
The game’s cut scenes are also really slick, with Igarashi really taking the time to develop his world and fill it with lore. One thing I did find is that the transition between game and cut scene is a bit rough.
And that sort of fits into the game’s overall aesthetic which, while mostly sharp, sometimes suffers from its overly vibrant palette and the insistence of highlighting each character, making it sometimes seem out of place compared to the images in the background.
The real disappointment, though, is the Switch version. Having played on both PC and Switch, I can tell you that the game has suffered enormously so that it can be brought to the small screen. Encouragingly, Koji and the team are already hard at work trying to resolve this and we will revisit when some of that work is complete. But for now, we’d advise you to stay well away. Not only does the frame rate chug along, creating multiple forms of lag, but the textures look so rough the game barely looks HD at times.
Fortunately, having played on PC, I can tell you that the game runs smoothly and succinctly and this just appears to be a porting issue. When the game is at its fastest, it just makes the gameplay so much more enjoyable and immersive. You’ll find hours flying by as you fight your way through one of the most varied cast of enemies I’ve seen.
Each foe has an attack pattern that you’ll need to memorise and be ready for. Some will charge at you, slicing you to pieces with Edward Scissorhands, then jump onto the ceiling above to get out of the way. Others will fight you from a distance with bows and arrows, forcing you to come in all hacks blazing.
What ArtPlay have done very well, though, is combine those enemies in such an effective way at times, that you have to really take the time to prepare accordingly, timing your strikes and pacing yourself, otherwise your health will get obliterated. Each screen requires a strategy of its own to progress.
That, for me, is the thing I loved most about Bloodstained. It’s not just a side-scroller where you run through, hit stuff, go to the next screen, rinse/repeat. A lot of thought has gone into this and it shows. Especially when some screens completely throw you for a loop and chuck in a surprise or two to keep things fresh.
Simply put, Bloodstained is brilliant. It’s hard as nails, but refreshingly fun at the same time, and it absolutely celebrates the qualities of a very special talent in this industry. If you were ever a Castlevania fan or if you quite enjoy a good old action adventure, then this one cannot be missed. Best game of its type since Symphony of the Night for my money.
And if that hasn’t convinced you, then there’s loads to come from the game in the months ahead with THIRTEEN DLCs, so we’ll be sure to keep revisiting this one to see what the team are cooking up. Igavania is well and truly back!
Just give it a month or two if you must play on Switch. It’s not there yet and it might end up ruining your opinion of what is an absolutely excellent game.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is now available on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.
Review code kindly provided by the developer
Tested on PC and Switch