Sunday, February 13, 2022

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

Take Heed, Mr. Igarashi

The year 1997 saw the release of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, widely considered the godfather of the Metroidvania gaming genre, given its implementation of elements from both Nintendo’s Metroid series and earlier Castlevania games, chiefly Simon’s Quest, which featured RPG elements. Though overshadowed by the release the same year of Final Fantasy VIISymphony would gather widespread acclaim and spawn more entries in the Castlevania franchise sporting similar mechanics. When series producer Koji Igarashi departed Konami in the previous decade, fans clamored for more titles in the style of Symphony, with a Kickstarter campaign funding the creation of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Is it a worthy successor to the Castlevania games?

When beginning a new game, the player can choose whether to play as Miriam, a “Shardbinder” in eighteenth century England, or Zangetsu, a Japanese demon hunter, both who traverse a large interconnected area chiefly composed of a castle, in style similar to RPG Castlevanias. There’s good backstory and different endings, but the narrative is a bit too similar to the franchise from which Bloodstained derives, and has plenty played elements such as a twist later on during the main storyline of Miriam’s quest. There’s also terrible narrative direction, and Zangetsu has virtually no plot in his journey. The translation is okay, although there are some errors even a grade-schooler could see such as sizeable gaps in dialogue sentences and abbreviated attribute names.

That leaves the gameplay to shoulder the burden, and Bloodstained definitely shows great promise in this regard. Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow seems to be the game’s greatest influence in Miriam’s gameplay, with the defeat of enemies sometimes netting her different kinds of Shards granting her abilities, many of which consume her MP, although a few enhance her Metroidvania-style exploration of the interconnected world, and some allow her to summon familiars that may perform useful functions such as attacking foes or pointing out secret passages. Combat is real-time, and mercifully, navigating the menus pauses the action, and Miriam can use consumable items to recover, players also able to perform a suspend save.

Permanent saves also exist, and while Miriam losing all her health results in a Game Over, there is a safety net in the form of Waystones that instantly teleport her back to the hub town outside the castle, where she can purchase items or use materials to produce things such as consumables or equipment. There’s also a myriad of sidequests such as killing monsters of a certain type to receive rewards, and luckily, an in-game compendium exists tracking exterminated enemies, where to find them, what they drop, and the percentage rate at which they provide Shards and/or items when defeated. As one would expect of a game that worships the Random Number God, however, Bloodstained is somewhat iffy when it comes to these drops, but luckily combat is largely a quick affair.

Miriam or Zangetsu can also acquire money from destroying illumination sources such as candles, helping the former afford shop purchases, and while the latter character can collect funds as well, it seems pretty pointless in his regard since he lacks access to shopping. In both characters’ quests, there are also items they can collect to provide permanent increases to HP or MP, with leveling from experience obtained from exterminating enemies further increasing their stats. One can also obtain further finances from selling excess Shards Miriam acquires, and fortunately, players can obtain duplicates occasionally from killing enemies.

There are also occasional boss battles that will really test the player’s skills (with mastery of the fixed abilities Zangetsu has especially necessary towards victory), and aside from the mentioned reward of a Game Over screen upon demise, lengthy load times also abound, making death more annoying. Some irritating environments also exist, with one Shard allowing Miriam to propel herself through water, which can feel wonky until she gets the ability to sink to the bottom. The player can select difficulty upon starting a game, but Zangetsu’s mode can be hard even on Normal (in addition to his lack of healing outside save points), but Miriam’s quest is more merciful, even if I discovered late the use of food cooked in town to recover health alongside the finite potions she can carry. In the end, the general good and bad portions of the game mechanics largely balance out.

Control, however, fares slightly worse, one of the major issues, as mentioned before, being the terrible direction of the central narrative and the need to reference the internet in order to figure out how to advance, since trying to actually “beat” the game without performing certain tasks beforehand results in a Game Over. There are also the lengthy loading times, and while there is an in-game clock easily viewable, it doesn’t account for time wasted when exploring without frequent saves before or said load intervals. The menus themselves are bearable, however, and there is some semblance of enjoyability with the Metroidvania exploration, but otherwise, interaction could have been far better.

One aspect where Bloodstained fares somewhat better, however, is its aural presentation, with a soundtrack, for one, that very well invokes the feel of its RPG Castlevania predecessors, including plenty solid tracks containing excellent instrumentation. However, the feel is a slight double-edged sword in that their genres are slightly dissonant, and while the music fits the various environs, much of it isn’t very catchy or memorable. There’s voice acting as well, with most characters sounding fine, although there are a few weak performances, and the enemy voices can be somewhat annoying, especially regarding the taunts bosses make when the player dies, making death even more rage-inducing. In the end, the aurals are somewhat tolerable.

The lengthiness of the development cycle by Igarashi and his team for the Castlevania spiritual successor put some pressure on him to improve the overall visual quality, compared with a video of the game’s early build, and for the most part it definitely wasn’t time wasted. The artistic direction is absolutely superb, with excellent character and enemy designs, although there are some occasional reskins in the latter instance. The environments, in spite of some minor recycling, are absolutely gorgeous and realistic, with good effects such as rotation of tower environs, and both the character and enemy models contain a cel-shaded style. There is a minor bit of choppiness and slowdown, but otherwise, the graphics are perhaps the high point of Bloodstained.

Finally, my final playtime for Miriam and Zangetsu’s storylines were respectfully seventeen and seven hours, but given the sluggishness of the in-game clocks, the total was more in the realm of thirty or so. There is hypothetical lasting appeal in the form of sidequests, percentage completions for the compendiums and maps, and the like, but frankly, I’d find additional playtime to be somewhat tortuous.

When all is said and done, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is indeed a worthy spiritual successor to the RPG Castlevanias, given its action-based combat mechanics and Metroidvania exploration along with above-average aural and visual presentation. However, it ends up imitating Japanese entries in the genre to the point where it ends up mimicking their flaws, such as the sometimes-punishing gameplay with terrible direction, not to mention the paper-thin plot and difficulty of investing additional playtime into the spiritual successor. Regardless, it’s certainly not a total waste of time (aside from the frequent loading), but it’s very much one of the weaker Metroidvanias released within the past few years, and if you do decide to play it, take my advice and definitely don’t play as Zangetsu; you’ll thank me later.

This review is based on playthroughs of Miriam and Zangetsu’s storylines to their canon endings of a physical copy purchased by the reviewer.

The Good:
+Good RPG Castlevania spiritual successor.
+Decent soundtrack.
+Great graphics.

The Bad:
-Loads of loading.
-Zangetsu’s mode is grindy and has little to no narrative.
-Paper-thin plot for Miriam’s quest as well.

The Bottom Line:
An average Metroidvania.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 4
Game Mechanics: 5.0/10
Controls: 4.5/10
Story: 3.0/10
Localization: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 7.0/10
Graphics: 7.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 3.0/10
Difficulty: Artificial
Playing Time: 24-48 Hours

Overall: 5.0/10 

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