Castlevania: Symphony of the Night developer Koji Igarashi is back on the bloodsucker wagon with the Kickstarter-funded Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Despite a long, troubled development, the final product is great—though like any castle, it has a few rickety rafters.
You play through Bloodstained as Miriam, a “Shardbinder” with the unique ability to absorb and use the skills of the demons she hunts. Unfortunately, her talent is a literal curse: Her body is gradually being crystallized, meaning it’s her fate to eventually wind up looking like your grandmother’s gaudy dining room chandelier. Unconcerned about her potential doom and determined to stop the demons that are pouring onto the mortal plane, Miriam sets out to put an end to the invasion. She also tries to deduce why her friend and fellow Shardbinder, Gebel, is on the demons’ side.
I honestly find Bloodstained’s overarching story a little confusing, but like most action games, the tale is secondary to the fighting. Miriam’s Shardbinder saga is mostly an excuse for the monster skill absorption system from Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (another game by Igarashi) to make a return—and it’s a damn good excuse, too. The hell-castle you explore alongside Miriam is brimming with enemies and bosses, so there's no shortage of foes on which to practice your pilfered skills.
I've already gone over how great Bloodstained feels to a die-hard Symphony of the Night veteran like myself, but it doesn't hurt to re-iterate. I sank into Bloodstained's controls and fell in step with Miriam in no time at all (mind I reviewed the PlayStation 4 version of the game: I haven't played the Switch version, which might still be a mess). In fact, Bloodstained is filled with loving callbacks and coy references to Symphony of the Night. You'll find parallels to beloved locales in Dracula's Castle, including a sprawling underwater cavern, a chapel, and an alchemy lab. Thankfully, these areas feel like actual tributes and not simply warmed-over leftovers; exploring them still feels fresh and interesting. Additionally, the presence of new characters like the moody librarian vampire Orlok Dracule (who is totally not Alucard, guys, even if they happen to share the same voice actor by sheer coincidence) demonstrates Igarashi knows exactly what he's doing with these shout-outs and callbacks. Bloodstained's main story might be a bit cheesy, but it has a sharp sense of humor.
Of course, Bloodstained has plenty of new areas to call its own, like a pair of titanic towers that are home to a ferocious two-headed dragon boss. The Towers of Twin Dragon is actually where Bloodstained takes a moment to remind you it's still an indie game that lacks the backing of Konami's stacked coffers. The screen winds around to follow Miriam as she ascends, and it's an impressive effect. However, the area feels like it needs one more go-over with a sander. It might be because the Towers' frame rate drops substantially while Miriam climbs up its exterior. It's a relief whenever she enters one of the Tower's rooms and the action jumps back to a fairly consistent 60 FPS.
"Fairly consistent" is a notable term here. While I have few qualms with Bloodstained's frame rate, there are still instances where the action chugs a little. That might be the trade-off for the castle's gorgeous backgrounds and plethora of large, detailed enemy sprites. If so, I can deal. More worrying are the instances where the game straight-up locks for seconds at a time, typically after defeating an enemy. There are also long moments where I got a black screen while transitioning from room to room. Thankfully, Bloodstained hasn't hard-locked on me, though the load time drags a bit when you continue after a death. The infamous 1.02 patch bug is worth mentioning, however, because it's a real humdinger that inadvertently punished Bloodstained's early adopters. Hundreds of players had their save files rendered useless after the 1.02 patch opened all the game's chests and removed contents vital for advancing the narrative. The only option was to start over with a new save file, potentially losing hours of work—not to mention rare item drops and rare Shards.
Sometimes you have to find the opportunity in a crisis. Easy for me to say: I started playing Bloodstained with the 1.02 patch and was therefore never affected by the plague. But Bloodstained has so many items and accessories that a clean slate can be viewed as a chance to build yourself back up with a new look and fighting style (if you really want to look on the bright side of things, I mean). I don't doubt some players will find Bloodstained's impressive quantities of collectables overwhelming, but amassing a collection of swords, armor, and accessory you may never glance at again is part of the fun of an Igarashi game. Just because you never pick up a gun or a greatsword doesn't mean another player won't main them. Besides, Bloodstained changes Miriam's physical appearance depending on the hats and accessories she equips. It's pretty funny to enter a serious cinematic while wearing a goofy hat and a pair of John Lennon glasses.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night isn't a perfect game, but it's very much a worthy successor to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. We live in an age where indie-made Metroidvania games are ten a penny, but Bloodstained stands out because Igarashi's influence is obvious in the way it looks, sounds, and plays. It feels good to move back into the castle, despite the presence of a couple of crumbling walls and broken windows.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night has been a long time coming, but now that it's here, fans of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night have everything to gain. Playing through Bloodstained feels great if you're already a fan of Koji Igarashi's work—and if you're a fan of action-adventure games in general. There are some unfortunate bugs, hitches, and glitches, but once you download the 1.02 patch, you should be through the worst of them.