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Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon (Switch) artwork

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon (Switch) review

"Come join the adventures of Sim... I mean Trev... I mean Zangetsu!"

As you start the game, the 8-bit orange and brown sprite stands in front of a fence on a dark night and stares at his goal in the distance while ominous music plays. You then take control in a straight passageway - with no enemies or obstacles - and attack some flames, obtaining useful powerups to get you started. At the end of this path, you enter a building and see your first enemy coming towards you...

Any veteran of the NES era recognizes that immediately as Castlevania... except I was describing Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon. But then again, that's not surprising given how unsubtle this game is in being an homage to its predecessor. Koji Igarishi (the man behind the classic Symphony of the Night) is making a Bloodstained game that is a blatant copy of his most famous work, and commissioned Inticreates (of Mega Man 9 fame) to make a love letter to Castlevania III on the NES. And sometimes it seems this game was made with copyright infringement lawyers standing by, making sure they can get as close to the line as possible without technically crossing over.

Don't believe me? Besides the obvious graphical and musical inspirations, you can play as four different characters, just like CV3. While the first two characters (Zangetsu and Miriam) both have aspects of Trevor Belmont (Zangetsu's movement and Miriam's whip), Alfred the wizard is suspiciously similar to Sylpha and Gebel is straight up Alucard. Like CV, your characters have no control over momentum when they jump, and of course, no jumping off the stairs (although you can jump onto them here!). You can attack with your main weapon or subweapons, the latter of which require energy to use (which drop from lanterns). And yes, subweapons include a dagger as well as redesigns of holy water and the cross. Speaking of redesigns, you'll see expies of flea men and Medusa heads (nooooo!!!) and ghosts and bone pillers and the white dragon, all of whom behave like they do in CV. And yes, you'll even see very similar setpieces; besides the aforementioned beginning you may find yourself coming across a long flat plain where birds continually drop the fleamen expies. Moving from section to section of a level is exactly the same as before (a crude animation of a door opening, walking through, and shutting behind you), and the maps in between levels are notably similar. And that's just scratching the surface of the similarities!

Opinions on this will certainly vary, but I do think the slavish devotion to copying, rather than a more subtle homage, is to the game's detriment. It's not a huge issue, but having CV thrown in your face so often can often feel like a contradiction whenever there is something novel going on. Seeing some of the more obvious enemy expies mostly hurt my own immersion in this particular game, especially since many of them appear once and then never again, as if just to say "Look, remember this!" It also doesn't help when sometimes the game that Bloodstained is aping did it better, something I felt was true for the between-level maps. But still, at most this warrants an eye-roll or two, and I'm not going to ding them for it. But it's just so blatant at times that it really could impact how some players perceive the game.

But still, this feeling did eventually fade, allowing me to appreciate the game for what it was. While it is faithful to the Vania style, the more modern approach does provide enough differences. For example, in the original CV you could only have one subweapon at a time, and so you tended to save the one you needed for the level's boss. But here, you have four characters, three of which can change their subweapon! So you have more ability to experiment, more freedom to play around with different combinations without worrying about what you'll do for the boss. Well, until you see Alfred's ice and electricity and how vastly overpowered those two are (to say this game's subweapons are not balanced is an understatement). But still, the sheer number of subweapons is good to see. As is the fact that you always feel you're missing something: the subweapon that shows up depends on the character that strikes the lantern; so you're always left wondering which character you should risk upgrading your secondary weapon for and hoping you aren't passing up a really good one for someone else. It's a little extra tension, which works well in a challenging, pseudo-horror game such as this.

The bosses also aren't the same. They're more in the Mega Man style of constant patterns and tells (not to mention often larger) than the more random monsters of Castlevania. That's not a bad thing necessarily; Vania bosses were either too easy or too hard with little room in between, with the "too hard" ones often not any easier the 2nd or 102nd time you fought them. While some bosses in Bloodstained are definitely easy, the rest of them are daunting at first but ultimately manageable once you get used to them, a system I far prefer. My only complaint is the consistency of their designs. You're supposed to be fighting demons, and bosses like the Hydra-esque thing or the Elizabeth Bathory clone certainly fit the bill. But the first boss looks more like something Dr. Wily would make than an actual demon, and I did have to wonder how Scrooge McDuck's moneypit ended up in this gothic setting... Again, it's minor, but it did stand out.

Of course, you can't talk about a Castlevania game without mentioning the challenge. Thankfully, this game is much easier than the brutish, practically cheating games on the NES, and is thus the most important difference between the two. One thing that helps is that each character has their own health bar, meaning you can switch out to a new person when one is close to death and switch back when you find some health (or switch to someone you won't use much when getting to a tricky part where you know you'll take damage). But in general, there are fewer medusa heads, fewer obvious death traps, and fewer grueling marathons before nightmare bosses. While I died often on my first playthrough, I never felt it was due to the game being cheap or due to a sequence designed to be frustrating, something that was prevalent on the NES. I admit I was a bit worried through the first four levels, as they seemed almost too easy for 'Vania, but things ramped up quickly after that. It's definitely a tough game, but thankfully one that can be conquered, and I give credit to Inticreates for finding a good balance (although, again, perhaps too easy to start out). And if it's still too hard, you can always play on casual mode, and switch to it at any time.

But that's just your first playthrough. There's actually three versions of the game (not counting the veteran/casual option), which each have different endings if you care for that sort of thing. Besides the normal playthrough mentioned above, you can play as just Zangetsu with some fancier moves (but still a depressingly short sword), giving the game a Ninja Gaiden feel of all things. Or you can play as the three other characters without Zangetsu. There's a few other changes to the levels and bosses as well. It mixes things up, and provides even more of a challenge if that's what you're aiming for (particularly the solo Zangetsu version). There's also multiple paths available through the levels, most of which depend on one of your secondary characters' extra moves (like Alfred's bat form or Miriam's slide). So even if the game is short (maybe twice as large as CV, and about 2 hours to finish), it's still worth coming back to.

By now you've presumably noticed this review makes a ton of comparisons to NES Castlevania since, y'know, blatant homage and all. But if you have no connection to the games of yore, well, you might still get some enjoyment out of it. The critical question is if you can get past the lack of speed and the jumping issue, which is faithfully reconstructed from the NES days. There's no run button, and your characters walk slowly and climb stairs even slower. And you have two options for jumping: straight up or a predefined arc forward. No maneuvering in air, no long presses for higher jumps, nothing. Once you press the A button, you are committed. You are also automatically knocked backwards if hit (unless you play on easy mode), meaning you can easily be thrown off a ledge and die. Is this frustrating? Yes. Is it as frustrating as in the NES days? No: Inticreates made sure there's not much random enemy movement during platforming, allowing you to plan your jumps accordingly. Besides, two of your characters have extra mobility options. It's certainly not a moveset I would recommend for a game starting from scratch, but for a spiritual sequel they accounted for it and improved it the best they could. And since the game is designed around it, it's basically an enjoyable, well-structured platformer assuming you can accept these controls.

But for a fan of the old school Castlevania games, this is a must have. Sure, it's a little too derivitave of the NES games, but it's not like there are any other modern games in the same style. And it's definitely easier, but some of the options for playthroughs can bring that challenge right back up to NES levels. More importantly, though, the challenge feels more fair, like it's a better version of the NES games. Thanks to this sense of fairness, it feels worth it to come back to the game and try the different paths or the different modes. The few complaints that can be thrown at this game are basically nitpicks compared to the relief of finding a non-frustrating Castlevania game. If you're going to clone the past, this is the way to do it.


mariner's avatar
Community review by mariner (December 18, 2018)

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