Keiji Inafune, Yu Suzuki, Koji Igarashi... There are a few Japanese creators who have found in Kickstarter the trust and, perhaps more importantly, the money that their former companies didn't offer them to keep doing what they wanted to do. Obviously, we're here to talk about Koji Igarashi, who made his name on the Castlevania series; a collection of 2D action platformers that take place in twisted maps that follow the story of the Belmont family. Since he left Konami, however, he isn't allowed to use that license anymore, and so he is trying to build something new, something which takes the best of the popular formula but wraps it up with a new name, a fresh story, and more besides. Of course, we're talking about Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night.
More than $6 million dollars in pledges is a good start for a new game but is it enough to create a modern game with full 3D graphics? There have been highs and lows in this particular development cycle, and the addition of 505 Games as publisher and the development hell the project went through resulted in Inti Creates being pushed out and WayForward being brought in. Luckily, after a tense development process, we can confirm now that the game is out in good shape, but the scars of the struggle are visible. Let us explain.
The main Bloodstained game (there's also a pretty good 8-bit prequel called Bloodstained: Cursed of the Moon) is an example of what a 2.5D Castlevania should be in the modern day. It brings back the old formula but with better graphics, better sound, an evolved combat system and much, much more content and options. We can't complain about the ambition and the scope of the project. Everything is very similar to Castlevania, that much is true, but then again Igarashi must feel like he owns the underlying concept and knows that this is exactly what fans were expecting - a reskin of sorts to bypass legal problems with Konami, but not a huge departure.
An Igavania game needs a castle, vampires and other such monsters, and a hero who learns new abilities on their way to the final battle, unlocking new areas along the way. And then there's the whip, of course. The game is set in a dark medieval period where demons have found their way to the human world thanks to some experiments with alchemy. The narrative isn't too strong and relies on a few characters who chat during some totally unbelievable encounters. Even though the voice acting is not that bad, the story is not really entertaining and it's not particularly well-paced either. Some old Castlevania games got a pass when it came to story, but it was never a strength of the series and it definitely isn't here.
Artplay clearly spent more time on levels, combat and weapons design, however. Myriam's path starts in a Galeon, which serves as a tutorial for newcomers to learn how the genre works. This small area contains hidden and locked paths, a few weapons, a boss battle against a big monster, and the first coloured shards (even this area is open later on for you to come back and visit for a juicy weapon and some boosters, but only when Myriam gets the moves that let her access it). Thereafter follows a village that serves as a hub, but it lacks interesting NPCs and secondary missions, although you will return often to buy, sell, cook, craft, dismantle and upgrade abilities. After that comes the castle.
The main scenario is huge, probably double what we're used to seeing in other Igavania games. It's full of small and medium-size rooms divided into zones, like the library, the towers, or the sewers. Each of them is not only different in style, but they're different in terms of structure; one is for platforming between chandeliers, another is purely for fighting, there are even some water zones where you have to swim. At times it might look like a maze, but we almost never felt lost - there is a clear path even if though it's not always obvious. The only problem we noted is that it is maybe too big. Not because it gets boring traveling, but because it killed a bit of the interconnection between the areas and forced us to teleport more than we expected.
It never gets boring to traverse the world thanks to the constantly evolving combat system and the huge range of customisation options. There are dozens of weapons to find and level up, and some special attacks activated with stick and button combinations as you might see in a fighting game. Daggers and swords are fast, whips offer better range, and there are even pistols that need crafted ammo. You have to choose the style that fits you best, with your weapons, with your clothes and rings, and also with your abilities. Magic attacks are gained by collecting crystal shards from enemies, and even the tiniest one has a trick up its sleeve. Some are very useful, although others are rather forgettable, so just sell those. We really appreciated the big effort that the developers put into this system and how improved it looks when compared to that of any Castlevania game before it.
We already noted that the characters' movement looks stiff and robotic, but it does work well with the combat system. This is probably the ugliest part of an otherwise pretty game. Igarashi knows how to deliver a gothic and dark atmosphere and this time around they nailed it. Every part of the stage looks alive, although the backgrounds could have been better. The atmosphere is also enhanced by a good soundtrack that captures the essence of the series.
The other big problem with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a technical one. Playing on the PS4 is not as bad as some people say, not in our opinion, although while we suffered just one crash in more than 15 hours of gameplay, we did spot a few bugs (none of them were particularly problematic though). Some areas are not yet optimised and the frame-rate drops are noticeable. The Switch version, which we haven't played, is in worse shape and the publisher has promised to work on improving things. It would appear that the best version of Bloodstained is yet to come, and Artplay is working on fixing some issues plus there are 13 pieces of DLC planned that will be free for all. And we're not just talking about a few weapons or skins, either - multiplayer modes, 8-bit graphics, online co-op and more are still to come.
After so many years of waiting for a new Castlevania game, we can say that Koji Igarashi has delivered a good one, even if it does arrive with a different name. Bloodstained is fun to play, easy to engage with, and full of content. Some rough edges and a silly story forced us to focus on the gameplay, but that worked out alright for us.