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Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night (Switch) artwork

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night (Switch) review

"It was lost long ago, but it's all coming back to me now"

It's always a bit awkward writing a review for a game like this. While I obviously have preferences in what to play, I tend not to get too emotionally attached to franchises or "geek out" over stuff or whatever, with a mere three exceptions. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is one of those three. So while it may have been one of my other exceptions that got me to buy a Switch, Bloodstained instantly became my most wanted game the moment I heard about it. At long last, a true sequel (even if only in spirit) to one of my all-time favorites without being hampered by being on low-budget handhelds. How can I possibly write something objective when dealing with such an emotional event?

And then I found out the Switch port leaves something to be desired. So now I need to balance my love of SotN, taking the gameplay of Bloodstained on its own merits, AND the technical merits of this particular version? Screw that. So consider this a word of warning that the score of this review may be irrelevant for you.

We start the game with a little background setting, since it's a new franchise and all. It's the age of the Enlightenment, and all the alchemists are mad that the world doesn't seem to care about their mysticism anymore. So, in a plan that may not have been thought through very well, they decide to summon a demon to prove they are still relevant. Fortunately, one of their human sacrifices (Miriam) was taking a nap at the time, and it wasn't AS bad as you might expect. But now, years later, Miriam finally woke up and discovered one of the other possible sacrifices is acting all cuckoo and seems to be doing his own summoning. So she teams up with a not-stupid alchemist to try to talk some sense into him and, if not, find a way to stop him.

And so Miriam steps out into classic side-scrolling platform-based exploration: jumping around, killing enemies, searching for new items to aid in combat, and slowly making her way to the next boss that guards an ability to make progression easier. If you've played SotN, you know EXACTLY what you're in for, because EVERYTHING - from jumping speed and animation to combat maneuvers to the powerups to even some (but thankfully not all) of the environments - is ripped straight from SotN. Even one of the abilities Miriam learns is an homage to SotN's famous twist. If Bloodstain's primary purpose is to recreate the feel of Symphony, it succeeded.

But if you haven't played Symphony and thus are perhaps clueless why Bloodstained was so anticipated, just know that there is a reason it's considered among the best in the genre. One somewhat unique aspect is the integration of several RPG elements, namely large lists of equipment, experience and leveling, healing items, random enemy drops, and so forth. This serves two purposes: to give you incentive to fight the monsters (even, no, ESPECIALLY the big scary ones) along the way, and to ensure that the difficulty curve is comfortable enough for almost everyone. Bosses in Bloodstained can be brutal to the unprepared, but they are always fair (the designers of each boss had to prove this by beating their creation with the weakest weapon in the game). Thus, players looking for a challenge don't need to worry about seeking out permanent HP boosts or killing enemies all the time to level up, but those who's reflexes aren't the best can always find a way to continue onward. The experience gained from enemies is also weighted by your own level, so you can never truly become overleveled to the point of making the game a breeze. This meant that I always felt the difficulty was right (and you can always increase the difficulty if it's too easy for you); I always knew I could overcome the latest obstacle, requiring perhaps only a tiny boost from the leveling or item system. Compare that to Hollow Knight (one of the most critically acclaimed games in the genre), where if the enemy movements exceed your skill then the game is essentially over for you. Here, it's challenging but accessible, a nice combination.

But it's not just the RPG elements that make the combat enjoyable. Bloodstained features a wide, wide, WIDE variety of weapon styles and systems to use when you are going on your demon-murdering spree. Sure, there's different weapon styles, where a giant broadsword behaves differently from daggers or short swords or even revolvers or combat boots. And there's a gargantuan amount of magical summons you can randomly gain from the different demons you slay, allowing for ranged or close-up attacks. Meanwhile, you can also learn or discover fighting-game-esque combos for each weapon type to give you some flashy moves with extra damage. What all of this means is that you could simply use the jump and attack buttons and make your way through the castle if you really wanted to, but there is more than enough space to experiment, switch things up, and keep the combat fresh throughout the entire 10-15 hour experience. Will you charge in and show your flashy sword moves, or wait for an opening and summon a giant blade to grind your foe into pieces? Or just transform into a bunny girl and constantly stomp on the demon's head, Mario style? Most sidescrollers expect you to use the same basic combat throughout your entire run, but Bloodstained provides such a huge variety that you are almost ruining the fun if you don't play around a little.

So you run around, leveling up, grabbing new weapons, playing around with the combat, and slowly building up a map of the castle. Unlike many Metroidvanias, Bloodstained is truly expansive in its explorative scope. You aren't just exploring the map piece by piece (ie, exploring most of Brinstar than half of Norfair then all Maridia then the rest of Norfair…); you are essentially running all around the main structure of the castle from practically the very beginning. Like its predecessor, you will go for long stretches, both in time and space, before obtaining a new powerup, giving you a chance to see varied locations and start to build your mental map rather quickly. It means the castle feels less like a hodgepodge of ideas and more like a cohesive whole. The individual parts of this level design consists of large, set-piece like rooms that offer a gauntlet of combat challenges in between a mesh of connecting corridors and secret rooms. Quite often you may find yourself taking a lengthy route that ends up being 100% not required, but merely there to connect two areas together and provide you with some completely optional items and enemies. Again, the feeling is that of a natural castle (as natural as a 2D castle might be), rather than a deliberately designed videogame with highly formulaic backtracking and exploration elements. It's one of the most important reasons why Symphony is so special to me, and it's something you just don't find in a lot of the lesser games of this genre.

Part of what that means is that you will definitely end up feeling lost. And that's an ok feeling, since it doesn't take that long to go anywhere, and there's always emergency exits and warp points to help you out. And even if you are lost, at least you're gaining experience and finding optional items and doing something in the meantime. But with that said, I admit that perhaps Igarishi got a little too obtuse in a few locations here. At one point in the game, you need to go out of your way to pick something up from a character, and you are given no real clue that you need to do so. Even worse, progression in one area is reliant on a random drop from an enemy that only appears in one location. There's getting lost in an enjoyable matter, and there's an aggravating, frustrating inability to progress, and sadly Bloodstained hits the latter a few times. So don't be surprised if you need to consult a walkthrough for this game.

But that's about the only flaw in the game itself. I'm not going to try to compare it to Symphony and say which one's better; trying to judge against nostalgia can be impossible at times. Bloodstained does try to establish itself as a new franchise and even give itself a new identity (there's some minor side quests and a crafting system that isn't present in Dracula's castle, and some of the key items needed to progress are sufficiently different and unique as well). But there's still no doubt that this is a clone of its predecessor. If the thought of playing something so derivative makes you take pause, so be it. But in my mind, it's been 22 years, so a retread is perfectly acceptable. Sure, there's the handheld games, but they just don't have the same oomph as a full, beautiful game presented on the big screen (and I state that despite playing half the game on the small screen). Perhaps Bloodstained 2 would need to do something different, but for now I'm happy with the spiritual remake that this is.

Well, I should be ecstatic rather than just happy. Like I said, the Switch port left something to be desired. I can't comment on the visual quality too much since I don't notice these things, but I guess it's noticeably worse than other versions. More importantly, there are moments of unpleasant slowdown, and intermittent pausing occasionally appears when shifting screens. That's bad, no question about it. Is it "literally unplayable"? Nope. The slowdown and pauses are rare, not omnipresent, and I was certainly able to move past them. Supposedly the developers are working on fixing these problems, so hopefully this unfortunate asterisk can be removed in the future.

So I ask again, how do I judge this game? The answer is simple: playing Bloodstained reminded me yet again just why I love Symphony so much, why it is my favorite game in the genre. It's not just nostalgia or the lack of anything better back in the day; the varied combat, RPG mechanics, and organic level design (coupled with a fantastic presentation of course, which I didn't even touch on in this review) simply melds perfectly with the traditional Metroid-style gameplay. And, barring technical issues and the occasionally obtuse route, Bloodstained still keeps all of these elements and wields them effortlessly, creating a game that is a worthy successor to one of my favorites. And even among all the other Metroidvanias I've played in recent years, this still stands out on top. You may feel differently, but it turns out to be easy to judge after all.


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Community review by mariner (September 03, 2019)

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