Bloodstained Wins the Prize for E3's Best Thinly Veiled Version of an Abandoned Series

Bloodstained Wins the Prize for E3's Best Thinly Veiled Version of an Abandoned Series

Koji Igarashi's new game isn't Castlevania, but... it's Castlevania.

We're at E3 this week, covering the year's biggest gaming event. Be sure to check out all our coverage on our E3 2016 hub!

How many times have we seen developers games crafted in the style of a venerable franchise that has been put out to pasture by the original property's owners? Practically too many to count. Yet how many of those games have actually lived up to their inspiration? Those tend to be far fewer... vanishingly few, really.

On the other hand, we have Koji Igarashi Bloodstained. Successfully crowd-funded shortly before last year's E3, Bloodstained was playable at this year's show in the form of a one-stage demo that should be going out to Kickstarter backers in a few days. And it nails the Castlevania feeling perfectly.

Now, the fact that Bloodstained plays very much like the franchise Igarashi oversaw for Konami for a decade — running from Symphony of the Night to Order of Ecclesia — should come as no surprise to anyone. "Make a game that plays as closely as possible to the Castlevania action RPGs" was almost literally the Bloodstained Kickstarter campaign's entire remit. Igarashi was as open about those intentions as he could be without incurring legal troubles with Konami.

What you may not expect is that Bloodstained doesn't simply imitate Castlevania; it duplicates it. In fact, based on the E3 show floor demo, it could well turn out to be better than Castlevania, at least in a sense. Igarashi has already dabbled in the same 2.5D action style that Bloodstained uses, back with 2007's Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles. While good, that game suffered from the flaws and technical frustrations that typically go hand-in-hand with 2D action games rendered in 3D polygons; it moved somewhat sluggishly, had edges that felt murky and imprecise, and was also kind of ugly. Nearly a decade later, Bloodstained returns to that style, yet it demonstrates none of the technical frustrations present in The Dracula X Chronicles.

Instead, it controls and feels almost exactly like those two aforementioned Igarashi Castlevanias: Symphony of the Night and Order of Ecclesia. The heroine moves fluidly yet deliberately, responding crisply to commands while demonstrating a touch of inertia that lends her a touch of weight and presence without bogging down the action. She wields different forms of attack (the demo includes a sword and a pair of boots for kick attacks) that feel pretty much perfect. Protagonist Miriam can wield magic, perform slide attacks, and use the gear she collects to boost her stats or change her combat style. It feels spot-on in subtle, important ways.

For me, the best testament to the way Bloodstained so perfect recaptures the Castlevania vibe can be found in the way I immediately fell back into familiar play patterns. As I fought the demo's boss — a massive demonic woman with a grotesque mouth splitting her abdomen and kraken tentacles below — I found myself using the same triangular jump motions to attack with Miriam that I tend to use with Alucard from Symphony of the Night: Leap forward while striking, then pull back to safety once I reach the apex of my jump. It's such a trivial little thing, but it's a technique that I never use anywhere but Castlevania... and, apparently, Bloodstained.

The Bloodstained demo takes place inside a rotting galleon swaying on the sea, reminiscent of the boat stages in Castlevania III and Rondo of Blood, the action taking place both above and below decks. The structure of the area is effectively linear, taking players in a sort of counter-clockwise circuit through the ship's interior, but it offers many opportunities to branch off in search of treasures and other perks, like the mystic tattoos that grant Miriam her magical powers. (These are almost identical in both function and in distribution to the powers protagonist Shanoa collected in Order of Ecclesia.) Once you reach the branching-off point to the boss battle, the level doubles back onto itself, allowing you to create a shortcut for future traversal. Along the way, you battle never-before-seen monsters (zombie-like wraiths called Mortes) as well as familiar foes like Buer (the face of a lion surrounded by five spinning wings) and Dullahan (a headless giant knight who wields a flail and sends spectral skulls after you).

It's not Castlevania, but Bloodstained sticks to the Castlevania formula almost to a fault. Fans who found the series in danger of growing stagnant during its DS days probably won't complain too much, though; a slightly predictable new Castlevania-like game is a far sight better than the no Castlevania-like games whatsoever we've been not-enjoying for the past six or seven years. Besides, the demo clearly doesn't represent a true final product, lacking proper balance (it's super easy for a veteran fan of Igarashi's work) or essential niceties like save points. Even at this early state, with launch still about a year out, Bloodstained nails the most important factor of the game: Its feel. Even legit Castlevania games sometimes had trouble getting that right, which means Bloodstained's already won its hardest battle.

In short: Castlevania's back, baby. Don't let that Witness Protection Program fake ID fool you.

We're at E3 this week, covering the year's biggest gaming event. Be sure to check out all our coverage on our E3 2016 hub!

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