In the years since Castlevania: Symphony of the Night helped define the genre, "Metroidvania" has gone from a bold archetype to a bullet-point feature. Quite a few games have iterated and riffed on Metroidvanias. But Castlevania series producer Koji Igarashi isn't riffing on the genre with his latest project, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, so much as returning to convention. But despite being relatively safe, Bloodstained is more than just its creator; its impeccable craftsmanship in level design and combat, quality-of-life improvements, and unique flavor help it stand on its own in a crowded landscape.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night feels comfortable and familiar, even down to the color-coded map that reveals itself during the course of the game. Like its predecessors in the Castlevania series, your hero Miriam needs to strike even the most basic of enemies four or five times to defeat them, and the lack of agility at first can feel stiff and restrictive. This can actually seem discordant with memories of games like Symphony of the Night, but the familiarity will return as Miriam grows more powerful and the game becomes more recognizable along with her.
This isn’t to say that Bloodstained has left the formula entirely untouched. A series of Techniques found in tomes around the castle teach weapon-specific move sets similar to a character-action or fighting game. With the increased emphasis on differentiated weaponry, the game introduces "Shortcut" loadout slots that allow you to quickly swap between different sets of equipment. It's a small quality-of-life touch, but it's smartly implemented.
The biggest addition comes from Shards, or pieces of the demons and other monsters that imbue you with extra powers. The Shard system combines the Spells, Relics, and Familiars from Symphony of the Night into one system that’s more robust and versatile. Shards come in five forms: Conjure, Manipulative, Directional, Passive, and Familiar. Conjure summons a weapon or creature, while Manipulative makes more lengthy changes to your current state. Passive offers buffs and other benefits, and Familiars accompany you, giving aid. Directional has the most variety by far, offering tons of projectile-like weapons that can be pointed anywhere using the right-stick. Unfortunately, Directional shards are also used for a few abilities that are crucial to navigation, forcing you to manually swap them when needed or take up a couple of Shortcut slots.
By the nature of its Shard system and other power-ups and abilities, Bloodstained isn’t often a terribly challenging game. Gaining a few more levels to take on a challenging new area or boss is quick and breezy, and the sheer variety of weapon types makes it easy to fit the game around your play style. Like many old-school games, seeing your way past the challenges requires patience in learning the enemy patterns, cheesing your way through with special abilities, or some combination of the two.
Other additions like crafting weapons and cooking meals for permanent buffs add a little more nuance to Bloodstained, and a nice variety of ways to improve your stats. In general, the powering up only goes in one direction. You aren’t often forced to make tough decisions about trade-offs, aside from a point or two from one stat or another in choosing equipment. This feels unusual by modern standards, but helps drive home the idea that the genre is about empowerment. Going from weak and overwhelmed to a capable and professional monster slayer makes for more satisfying progression.
Occasionally, Bloodstained does show slight technical issues. It suffers from slowdown at points, especially given certain Shard abilities, and some areas are noticeably more plain than the lush gable rooftops of Arvantville or the gaudy brilliance of the Dian Cecht Cathedral. The interior of the castle on the whole is gorgeous, and the disparate environments show a keen eye for design with differentiation. The less ornate parts of it stand out, but only because the rest is so well put-together. [Editor's note: The Nintendo Switch version fares worse, with a number of technical problems including reduced visual fidelity and an unstable frame rate that affects gameplay. Stay tuned for our separate Switch review.]
True to its lineage, Bloodstained is full of secrets to uncover and nooks to explore. The castle design unfolds beautifully over the course of several hours, instilling a constant sense of curiosity and exploration. The layout is subtle and inviting; points that are meant to be accessed sometime later are clear without feeling restricted or frustrating, and it rarely leaves you at a loss for what to do next. A pin feature lets you mark points of interest to return to later, too (though its unintuitive button mapping means it’s easy to place a flurry of them accidentally). Accessing the "true" ending is a clever puzzle within this platformer formula, which opens up even deeper layers of the castle that beg to be explored.
The castle design unfolds beautifully over the course of several hours, instilling a constant sense of curiosity and exploration.
Being a Castlevania game in all but name places some restrictions on how explicit the game can be with its references and callbacks. Some are more blatant than others, but Bloodstained consistently impresses with creative solutions to raise the specter of Castlevania while skirting just on the right side of originality. From weapon descriptions to a hidden 8-bit-styled stage to one of the super-tough optional bosses, Bloodstained pays homage to its legacy with too many Easter eggs to count. These fun winks are clear messages to long-time fans, but not so obvious that they should be distracting for newcomers.
That cheeky tone informs the entire game. While the story itself is bland and unremarkable, the style and trappings around it are anything but. This is gothic horror at its most silly, with demons occupying the castle corridors alongside giant puppy heads and homages to the indie hit Shovel Knight. Even some of the dialogue is clearly in on the joke. A quest giver in the main hub has a comical level of bloodlust over her revenge quests. An undead ferryman drops an unsubtle hint about how you could open a path for him if you only had a giant hand. A demon barber who opens up cosmetic options is conspicuously named Todd. Bloodstained is full of little touches like these, which let you know that despite its dour name and setting, the game is comfortable enough with itself to be absurd.
It’s that sense of comfort in its own skin that makes Bloodstained such a treat. This isn’t a bold modernization of the genre or a departure from its roots. It is exactly what it set out to be: a return to the style of a bygone era, with a few modern improvements. Its perception was always going to be affected by how well it invoked the feeling of a classic Castlevania game, but Bloodstained does that and better. With more flexible combat and level design that always beckons to check just one more room, Bloodstained shows that a modern Metroidvania can stand alongside its predecessors as an equal.