Everything in Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a little uneven. Take main character Miriam, for example: all style, poise and flowing scarves, and compare her to the roughly sketched and stiffly animated supporting cast. Or admire the astonishing detail and depth in many of the backgrounds, while walking past another boring pile of rocks. Or contrast some of the game’s imposing and inventively designed enemies against those that look like rejects from a vintage Doctor Who.
But I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Why? Because it’s all part of the perfect tribute to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Of course, Bloodstained is Castlevania in all but name, Kickstarted by long-time series producer, Koji Igarashi. But specifically it’s channelling the 1997 PS1 classic, and it gets to the heart of what made that game special in a way that no Castlevania since has managed. And because Symphony itself was always a bit of a mess, the rough edges only add to the sense of authenticity. A harmony of dissonance, if you will.
In fact, the disparities and unconventional structures in Symphony were essential to its success. It’s a Metroidvania that will let you travel miles away from the critical path, before forcing you to turn back; a game full of dead ends containing little of consequence, where a new power is as likely to open a single new route as unlock nearly half the map. But for me the pleasure was always in the casual wandering, turning these ‘flaws’ into strengths. The haphazard distribution of relics, the excessive inventory, the lack of direction or significant challenge – all key ingredients for this exercise in digital flâneurie, admiring the sights and picking up curios, while the exquisite soundtrack washes over you.
Symphony is also less precious about your experience than most Metroidvania games. It’s happy for you to play with it and define your own journey, rather than slavishly follow breadcrumbs. It throws in various spells and techniques that you might take time to learn or simply ignore altogether, and doesn’t seem to care either way. Eventually, it discards the rule book of light RPG progression entirely, allowing you to roam freely, tackling bosses and picking up new gear in whatever order you happen to come across them.
While Bloodstained isn’t quite so unruly – it’s more organised and evenly paced than Symphony – it captures a lot of that carefree charm. One thing it’s equally committed to is giving you options. There are dozens of weapons, from boots to swords to whips to guns, and almost as many types of armour and accessories that provide buffs and effects. In a nod to later Castlevania games, Miriam can also absorb powers from fallen enemies, enabling her to shoot projectiles, summon demonic helpers, enhance abilities, call familiars and so on. One shard even lets you define multiple loadouts to switch between instantly in play, which further encourages you to experiment.
Added to all that are appearance customisation options and weapon-specific special attacks to discover, plus a mass of materials, ingredients and recipes. In this last respect especially Bloodstained makes wandering more gainful. Outside the castle is a ruined village populated by a handful of NPCs, where you can restock supplies, forge new gear, cook meals and upgrade shards, as well as accept requests to find specific items or kill certain monsters. In this way, everything you find has value; even cooking different dishes is worthwhile because you receive a permanent stat bonus the first time you eat each one. And instead of amassing loads of useless weapons, you’re picking up materials and choosing what stuff you actually want to make.
Of course, as with Symphony, this focus on freedom comes at the expense of balance. And as such, there are plenty of ways to make yourself overpowered if you level up the right shards or forge the right equipment. Some enemies can be dangerous, and you always need to keep an eye on your HP, but many of the gargantuan knights you face still fall with a few swift kicks to the shins. Even most bosses are quite trivial, often being beatable on a first or second attempt. In some cases it’s because they’re oddly simple, with only a few, easy-to-read attacks, while others lack power, giving you time to figure them out.
A greater challenge can come from seeking your next key destination. Bloodstained wants you to feel a little lost, and won’t tell you outright where to go, to give you extra impetus to explore every last pathway. Usually, rigorous exploration is sufficient. You comb the latest area you’ve discovered until you find a boss and a new power that renders previously blocked routes traversable. But in the second half of the game it all becomes increasingly obscure. You may end up recovering a lot of old ground to figure it all out, looking for the one new place that you can now access.
It does drag a little... but for the most part these ‘flaws’ are similar to the ones in Symphony. Which is to say, if you’re happy taking your time, soaking up the views, beating up monsters and hoovering up loot, they don’t feel like flaws at all. The only thing that’s undeniably subpar is the music, whose tame remixes of Symphony’s eclectic tunes merely remind you how much better the originals were. But compensation comes from the level design, which is much more varied than in the older game. Each location is dense and intricately crafted, with distinct architecture that offers specific navigational challenges. And naturally, as you unlock new powers and your means of movement become increasingly diverse, the areas open up further.
The other thing Bloodstained has going for it is history, the rich lineage of the Castlevania series, and (music aside) it uses the past to great effect. There’s a real commitment to fan service here, with tons of Easter eggs and twists on familiar moments that add texture to the game. Most of all, it feels like Bloodstained has benefited from its Kickstarter origins. It has a greater sense of playfulness and imagination than any post-Symphony Castlevania game, and gets to experiment with the old tropes instead of merely repeating and refining them. And some of the rewards for major backers, such as their portraits appearing on paintings, enemies based on their pets, or even personalised secret rooms, make it burst with vitality even more.
Under the weight of expectation, it would have been easy for Bloodstained to either rely on nostalgia alone or become incoherent. But in the event, it knows when to modernise and be its own thing, and it hangs together superbly. More than anything, escaping the burden of the name has worked wonders, enabling that gloriously unevenness. All that was needed to make another special Castlevania game, was to stop making Castlevania games.