"Feels like I've been here before. Not that I'm upset about it. "
When it comes to dealing with adversity created by others, I'd like to think that when push comes to shove, we could all be a little bit like Koji Igarashi.
IGA gained somewhat of a "godfather" reputation with the long-running Castlevania series due to his work with transforming a tough-as-nails collection of action games into the genre known as "metroidvania". He was the assistant director for Symphony of the Night and then went on to produce several additional games in the series, garnering a lot of praise from fans of those games.
But like all good things, this came to an end when parent company Konami decided to move in a wildly different direction didn't involve console gaming. The sort of thing that left IGA in a bit of a pickle, as his prized series was still owned by that company, but new games weren't going to be made — essentially making him obsolete.
So what's a gaming producer to do? In IGA's case, he worked to start up ArtPlay inc. and, along with a couple other companies, essentially flipped Konami the double bird with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. If you spend any amount of time with this game, you'll realize one very simple truth: This is a game that uses elements featured in his previous "metroidvania" games while bearing a stunning resemblance to them, but just barely avoids blatant plagiarism by changing names and altering character designs a bit. There's sticking it to the man and then there's this!
To cut through the world-building and back story, this game revolves around a young woman named Miriam who possesses strange powers that allow her to, much like Aria of Sorrow's Soma Cruz, absorb powers from slain enemies. She travels to a massive castle that just mysteriously appeared out of the blue to locate similarly-powered childhood companion Gebel, who seems to be the lord of the place. You know, kind of like Alucard investigating what happened to Richter Belmont in Symphony.
She'll have a couple NPC allies who help her via selling and crafting stuff for her via the money and items she finds while exploring the castle and its surrounding areas, such as the ship that took her to the place or the small town outside its gates. She'll also find herself doing all sorts of things that make it very obvious this is an IGA Castlevania that just doesn't happen to have that name attached to it.
You'll have the same sort of rooms for saving and limited fast travel as in those games. There will also be a large assortment of weapons and armor to find and try out, as well as food items and potions to restore health if a save room isn't nearby. While enemies have been changed a bit — in both name and appearance — you'll recognize them as they really are: zombies, bone-throwing skeletons, floating medusa heads, massive armor-clad knights, annoying little hopping critters and so on.
And as you play, the similarities continue to amass. Much like Symphony, one area is a library containing a particular room with a librarian. This time, that guy is basically an incognito Alucard with the same person voicing him. He's also a potential bonus boss if you play your cards right. Another one of those happens to be a take on the original Belmonts, using much of the same weaponry a long-time Castlevania fan would be familiar with from the NES games. Yet another is IGA himself doing a Dracula cosplay. There's a clock tower, of course. And I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you that when you finally encounter Gebel, he can be the final boss fight OR you can do a bit of extra exploration and work to find a way to extend the game beyond that confrontation. And, yes, one step in that process does involve getting a special set of armor that allows you to walk through spikes without taking damage.
It's not just the superficial stuff; the entire experience is designed to be reminiscent of IGA's Castlevania games. Miriam will collect all sorts of shards from fallen enemies. Some allow her to attack foes in different way, some give her passive abilities and others allow her to make it to places in the castle which she couldn't previously reach. Get the right shards and she'll be able to travel underwater, double jump and move large objects out of her way. While this game doesn't have an entire second castle where everything is upside-down like Symphony did, there is an Invert shard that has that effect for Miriam's surroundings. Not only is this necessary to get to certain locations, but it's also VERY handy for handling a few boss fights, as a number of them just don't quite know how to handle those sorts of shenanigans.
And that's pretty much the experience. You'll travel through a large castle while gradually building Miriam up from a frail waif to a powerhouse capable of taking down foes in about any way you can imagine. You'll fight all sorts of foes ranging from easily toppled weaklings to powerful demons and annoying elementals that are amazingly proficient at raining down spells on you while staying just out of your reach. There are a lot of places to explore and a lot of secrets to find, ensuring that a diligent player will regularly be backtracking every time they get a new ability. The game looks good, it sounds good and it plays good.
And yet, it might have fallen a bit short of my expectations. I've played Aria of Sorrow a couple times and I've gone through Symphony of the Night a couple times plus a few more, so to me, this game felt less like a truly original quest and more "IGA Plays the Hits". I mean, just read the last several paragraphs — they all either talked about similarities between Bloodstained and IGA's Castlevania games or encounters designed as Easter Eggs for their fans. That's the sort of thing that kind of puts this game in a category where it's a very good game and a lot of fun, but also not exactly essential, since the vast majority of its content was directly recycled from older games and given a new coat of paint.
Don't get me wrong: A good game is a good game and Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a very good game — It's just one that's not trying to break any new ground. It's vintage IGA "metroidvania" through and through and has no desire to be anything different. If you're a fan of those game, you'll enjoy this one, as well. But if you're like me, you might occasionally have an annoying little voice in your head telling you that you could have saved a bit of money and just replayed Symphony and Aria one more time to get virtually the same experience. No matter how satisfying it might be to watch IGA snub his nose at Konami.
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (October 14, 2022)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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