Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is finally here after a long, bloody journey down a haunted road. Bad news and bad luck dogged director Koji Igarashi's project for ages, and frankly, there was doubt this spiritual successor to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night might be worthy of walking in the same light as its predecessor.
Thankfully, Bloodstained is a great game outside of that one truly regrettable day one patch bug that forced some early adopters to start a new save file. Also, at the time of this writing, we still don't know how the troubled Switch port is going to turn out. Aside from that—and aside from holding my breath every time Miriam acquires a Shard because the game just feels like it's going to crash on me every time it happens—Bloodstained is exactly the experience I wanted since the day Igarashi hurled a wineglass on the ground and declared his intention to make a follow-up to Symphony of the Night.
Earlier this week, Kotaku pointed out we're not hurting for indie games that offer the "upgrade, backtrack, upgrade" reward loop the Metroidvania sub-genre is famous for, but it's been some time since a Metroidvania's gone full goth.
It's true. Bloodstained isn't just a Metroidvania; it's an "Igavania"—the informal name given to Metroidvanias that are directly descended from Igarashi's work (which means it's a sub-genre of a sub-genre, I suppose). It's hard to describe the distinction. While gothic demon-hunting themes like the ones in Bloodstained make up part of the difference, there's a certain sensation to Igavania games that bind Symphony of the Night, Aria of Sorrow, and now Bloodstained together. It's the same sensation that let my muscle memory fall into the task of controlling Bloodstained protagonist Miriam without missing a beat. Collecting and using the Shards that grant Miriam the use of monsters' skills feels natural to a deeply invested Igavania fan like myself. Even the weight of Miriam's weapons seems familiar, though she doesn't crack her whip with the deadly reach of a Belmont (maybe Konami trademarked the distinctive Belmont hunch that makes Castlevania's whip-play feel so good).
Bloodstained's resurrected gothic themes are secondary to the hard work ArtPlay put into making sure its game plays well for Symphony of the Night veterans, but the presence of said themes undoubtedly enhances the experience. It's been so long since I've been set free to explore the heights and depths of a Castle from Hell, so playing through Bloodstained feels like coming home in a twisted way. You've got your crumbling courtyard, your haunted gardens, your underground caverns, your fancy fountains that gush blood instead of water because it's spooky—all the stuff I missed from Igavania games, even if I didn't realize it until now. I even admit I got tired of Konami recycling locales after Symphony of the Night. I guess absence makes the heart grow fonder.
I have a ways to go in Bloodstained. It's not impossible for the whole experience to crumble under me like the eroded bridges in Symphony of the Night's Clocktower stage. I don't think it'll happen, though. Bloodstained might not have the sparkling polish of its direct inspiration, but Miriam unmistakably shares a soul with Alucard and Soma Cruz. My Igavania-loving heart is happy, and I'm also a little relieved for Igarashi. I don't imagine he'd feel great if Bloodstained—the new host body for the sub-genre he perfected—wound up being a sickly, unplayable mess doomed to writhe forever in Symphony of the Night's shadow. That'd be embarrassing.