One series that can be considered among the pioneers of gaming is Castlevania. First showing its face in 1986, the franchise has become a big part of pop culture, even to the point where a Netflix series was produced, despite Konami leaving the series abandoned for some time now.
As a direct response to this absence of Castlevania games in the modern day, the legendary Koji 'Iga' Igarashi - one of the minds that contributed to the growth and consolidation of Castlevania (starting with one of the masterpieces of the series, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which he worked on as a programmer, writer and assistant director) - decided to start a Kickstarter campaign for his ambitious new project, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night.
This leap of faith would come to bear fruit too, with the game (which is considered a spiritual successor of the Castlevania series, and with good reason) financed with the then-record amount of $5.5 million USD, thus proving that gamers had indeed been missing the adventures of the Belmont family. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night tells a very different story from that of the whip-wielding vampire hunters, however, even though it leans into its dark and gothic style.
Bloodstained follows the story of Miriam, an orphan who was taken in by a group of alchemists, from whom she learned the art of channelling demonic energy into magical crystals that are embedded in her body. Awakened from a coma that lasted 10 years, Miriam discovers that her powers have been temporarily disabled, and thus she is forced to embark on an arduous journey littered with demons as she works to fight a renegade alchemist called Johannes.
Unsurprisingly, one thing that fascinates us about Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is its artistic style. Although it's imbued with the essence of past Castlevania games in many respects, it's perhaps in the elegant, vivid, and varied settings (the build we played was close to the final version of the game) that the new game shows its unique and intriguing personality.
From the spooky galleon upon which our demo started, through to the majestic castle where we faced an intense boss fight with a familiar-feeling enemy and its fiery sword, the hour-and-a-half of play we enjoyed allowed us to catch very different, incredibly detailed glimpses of what's to come. After seeing all this, we can't wait to explore the game from start to finish as soon as we have the final version in our hands.
You can't have shiny scenery without great gameplay though, and one aspect that defines the experience is the use of crystals, which Miriam recovers as she progresses through the map, giving her special abilities that can inflict damage on the various enemies that will attempt to block her path. These special powers consume mana. which can be easily found within the various candelabra and gas lamps that adorn the scenery. From fireballs to water spells (in our session we only got to play around with a few, but apparently there will be many more in the final version), the crystals give our young alchemist unique and original abilities, which aren't just limited to attacks either; they also deliver skills that allow us access to new rooms and different areas.
In this regard, its exquisitely Metroidvania nature is clearly evident, as we will often return to previously-visited rooms, access secret passages, and gather up a number of well-hidden items that will be useful as we progress. To guide us on our journey, there's also a mini-map placed on the upper right side of the screen, which allows us to observe the areas that have already been explored, those we have yet to set foot in, and special rooms. These special rooms are elegantly furnished with a comfortable sofa and decorations, and here Miriam can recharge her energy and save.
As for the weapons you'll be using, expect to wield everything from sharp blades to powerful axes, along with piercing daggers and pistols. If you miss the iconic whip of old, you can also expect to see that (what kind of spiritual successor would it be without one?). Yes, Miriam has an incredible arsenal at her disposal, allowing her to face any enemies that stand in her way, but it's also worth noting that the chests dotted around the game contain objects too - such as potions, for example, which in the later stages of the game should become increasingly useful - as well as gold and resources of various kinds, which our alchemist can use to create new objects.
Unfortunately, during our hands-on session we couldn't experience the crafting system due to time constraints, but it's clear that Ritual of the Night provides lots of options when it comes to making the experience as varied and enjoyable as possible. You can also unlock certain items of clothing that Miriam can wear to change her style, and no doubt players will enjoy the option to personalise their gaming experience.
There's no doubt that Ritual of the Night's strength lies in its gameplay, which is accompanied by respectable visuals and a truly engaging soundtrack. It wouldn't be up to standard without a solid level of performance though, and luckily Igarashi's new title doesn't disappoint us here either, since the game offers a strong and stable frame-rate (even though the build was running on a standard PlayStation 4). As it approaches release, Ritual of the Night has made improvements compared to the versions we've tested in the past, demonstrating ArtPlay's commitment to paying homage to the game's illustrious forebears. It's true that the wait has been long, but it's equally true that this has resulted in a quality game that could speak to a lot of Castlevania fans.
We ended up with a positive impression and high expectations after our hands-on session. It's still too early to make final judgments, but our time with it has at least confirmed its potential. To date, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is considered by many as the best game in the Konami series and one of the best 2D platformers ever. Will Miriam and her crystals go one better than the Belmont family saga? We'll have to wait and see on June 18, when Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night will start arriving on PC, PS4, Switch, and Xbox One.