Let's not beat around the proverbial bush here. Did you play Symphony of the Night? Did you love it? Are you secretly hoping that Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night will be a carbon copy of that game to fulfil your Metroidvania needs? If your answer to those questions are yes, yes and yes respectively let me just say that yes - Bloodstained: RotN is what you have been waiting for. Now that the TL;DR section of this review is out of the way, let's get to the meat and bones of what I actually enjoyed about this game.
Because of course it isn't an exact copy of SotN. We could just all go back and play that game instead then. But it is definitely close enough of a copy that if anyone else than the master brain behind SoTN and the Metroidvania formula, Koji Igarashi, had been behind this a lot of angry voices would've been yelling words about property theft. In fact, even though IGA and his teams have been clever enough to rename and rework everything just enough to avoid any lawful actions from Konami who own the actual Castlevania property, it is clear that names is pretty much everything that really has changed. In body and soul, Bloodstained: RotN is Symphony of the Night. If you ever wondered what "spiritual successor" means, Bloodstained: RotN is the dictionary definition henceforth.
In it you play as Miriam - a shardbinder who because of reasons needs to go after evil things in a big castle, killing everything she can set her eyes on to find a vast amount of weapons, gear and magic skills. On her journey through the castle she finds new skills that allow you to open up new paths, there are occasional secret rooms and walls here and there and a load of bosses to take down. Sound familiar? If you've played any of the Metroidvania, or as they really should be called, Igavania games between Symphony of the Night and Portrait of Ruin on the NDS you will recognize the concept.
And it is clear IGA has let himself be inspired by more than just SotN for this game, we see gameplay elements borrowed/reused from several of the games in the series that so weirdly teetered out into nothingness after the (frankly) not so good Order of Ecclesia. That game was released in 2008, so even though Order of Ecclesia wasn't as great as the other games in the series, fans have still eagerly been awaiting another instalment (I know for sure I have), scratching their heads as Konami seemingly just decided to let the property mold away in its loneliness somewhere. Why companies do this we will never know, but IGA seemed to think there still was potential in the concept when he left Konami in 2014, and we all agreed with him. When IGA took the idea to Kickstarter it was quickly one of the most successfully backed video games on there.
The shardbinding that Miriam uses is very similar to the soul collecting from Aria of Sorrow and Dawn of Sorrow and thus comes with the same gameplay pro's and con's. On the one hand, finding new shards is fun throughout and they range from genuinely useful to truly whacky (one will let you summon a chair). On the other hand, once you've found ones that work for you, there is little reason to change and play around with your setup. Though I had loads of different shards to choose from I found myself using pretty much the same setup throughout the game. While I don't dislike this system neither in AoS/DoS nor Bloodstained: RotN, I am personally more fond of the card collecting from Circle of the Moon where I often found myself tinkering with different combinations to fit the situation I was facing. The shard collecting makes sense in Bloodstained: RotN however and in fact the entire story is built up around it - my only humble wish is that if (hopefully) IGA is encouraged to continue making these games, he'd explore one of the other or perhaps a completely new style of using magic.
|Simple and flexible.|
Running through the castle is fun though and it is monstrously (pun intended) large. You'll go through pretty much every kind of environment, from fire to water to ice to buzzing saws. Every enemy is not like any of the enemies in the Castlevania games and yet exactly like in the Castlevania games - they might not be called Medusa Heads, Axe Knights and Slingers but you know that's what they are and it all feels comfortably familiar exactly the way Shakespear meant it when he wrote "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet". Just like in the Castlevania games, Bloodstained: RotN reuses enemy models throughout the game. When you see an enemy you've killed before with another coloration, you know it's going to be a little bit harder. It never bothered me in any of the other Castlevania games and it doesn't bother me here, in fact I almost prefer not having to relearn enemy patterns for every new area of the game.
The bosses are varied and generally fun to fight against but I didn't find any one of them memorable like the Zombie Dragon in Circle of the Moon or Legion in several of the Igavanias. This especially is where I would've liked to see myself being forced to go outside of my comfort zone regarding the shards and maybe have to stack up on certain resistances or use certain weapons. On the other hand, the Igavania bosses are never meant to be road blocks or feel like insurmountable challenges à la Dark Souls and it's not like I feel like I can run into a boss room in Bloodstained: RotN without making sure I am properly prepared and saved. Except for the final fight there was only one boss that managed to kill me but they were generally sweaty challenges.
|I mean… just look at it.|
The game is on the easy side, but so was SotN. And while the difficulty of Circle of the Moon didn't bother me, one of my biggest issues with Order of Ecclesia was in fact that it was too hard in the not-fun way. And there are definitely areas in Bloodstained: RotN where I have to tread carefully and pray to find the next save room quickly because I have run out of healing items and am hanging on at the skin of my teeth. I find that overall the game has a good pacing where it alternates between giving you areas that are easier to traverse and some that require more effort. I wouldn't want the game to be more of either, it hits the right balance for me.
The game employs a variety of gimmicky skills to allow you to traverse the castle and some are almost criminally underused to the point where their inclusion almost feels pointless. Early on you learn that Miriam can direct her arm to interact with certain objects in the castle, to for instance move them out of the way. While the directing of the arm is used in combat, though I never found it practical enough to actually use it myself, the moving of objects this way is used in only one or two places. The whole hand-directing could've been removed from the game entirely if you ask me. The Reflector Ray is almost in the same camp. It's rarely used to get to new places and fills no other function in the game. The double-jump and inverse skill are much more thought through and practical and thus more fun. Whenever I have to dig out the Reflector Ray shard I just sigh.
Otherwise the inventory is one area where Bloodstained: RotN is an improvement over SotN, but that wasn't hard to achieve. The fact that you had to equip healing items like potions to use them in SotN was one of that games only flaws, and one that Bloodstained: RotN of course does away with just like all the other Igavania handhelds. Not only is there an abundance of gear to find, unlike other Castlevanias many of them show up on Miriam (otherwise it's only been the weapon that's changed). Miriam can tout some truly hilarious combinations of hats, scarves and masks that could ruin the immersion of the game a bit, especially in cut scenes, but to me it's definitely a fun and welcome addition. You can also change her hairstyle if you are so inclined, and it turns out I am. If I had to complain about one thing though, it's that I can't flip through the inventory lists with my right analog stick like in many other games, meaning that you have to scroll through some long list of items occasionally to find that one thing you need.
The game also allows you to craft items, disassemble items, cook food and enhance your shards so there is a lot of reason to pick up all those weird knick-knacks the enemies drop. All of these extras are well designed and fun to do, and their inclusion feels justified and not just like padding. I only had some issues with the cooking as I found it quite difficult to find some of the ingredients for the food I wanted to cook, but on the other hand once you've cooked something you can buy that finished dish in the shop. Considering that you can only carry 5 high potions at any time, being able to craft some high-healing food items soon becomes something worth investing your time in.
|Often the larger enemies are less annoying than the small ones.|
Graphically there is just no way to beat SotN, it is one of the most beautiful games not just on the Playstation but on any console, period. I've heard there were initial concerns about not going more 3D, considering this was supposed to be part of the new generation, but whoever made the final decision on art direction for SotN absolutely did the right one and proved any disbelievers wrong. To me Bloodstained: RotN can't come close to that and at first the sort of sheen given to everything in the game even bothers me. It looks like everything is a bit wet and since the first stage is literally on a boat in rain it makes sense, but as soon as you get into the castle it just looks weird. I don't know if that is a thing in modern games because I had the same issue with the Resident Evil 2 remake. As I move on through the game I quickly forget about this however and actually come to some truly gorgeous areas, the icy one being a feast on the eyes. Bloodstained: RotN is colorful and fun to look at and anything that irked me about the graphics the first hour of the game is completely set aside before long thanks to interesting and well designed areas and enemies.
The same goes for the music. Michiru Yamane returns to compose yet again and as always she does a tremendous job. The music in Bloodstained: RotN is atmospheric, relevant and good in its own right but has yet to become iconic like most of the music from SotN. This is an impossible task not because of Yamane's skills but simply because of how human nostalgia works. I fell in love with the music to SotN long before I even played the game and every time a new track comes on I just want to blast the speakers. The music in Bloodstained: RotN is lovely but perhaps a little less memorable and same-y sounding. I'm sure that is mostly my rose-tinted goggles talking though as this OST sports some truly great tracks.
I haven't said much about the story or anything about the characters because as with the Igavanias there isn't really much more to say. They are as interesting as they need to be and all characters fill their parts just fine. What motivation do you really need to go and slaughter loads of enemies to find cool stuff and skills? We don't play these games because of the story, but because of the fun gameplay and Bloodstained: RotN delivers all the elements necessary to fulfil that need. Not only are there loads of items to kill and collect, but also loads of secrets, side-bosses and optional quests to do. A handful of times I was lost and confused as to where to go next, but this has happened in every Igavania I've played at some point so it probably says more about me than the game design. I will honestly say though, there were two times where I know for sure I couldn't have figured out what I needed to do next to advance the game so I am glad internet is a thing nowadays.
I had some tiny technical issues, like words disappearing in texts, loot being uninteractable because it didn't drop properly on the ground or a hold-up when opening the menu specifically in save rooms for some reason. These were rare and never detracted from the fun of the game though.
Some of the critique pointed at this game has been that it's a step backwards and that the Metroidvania formula has evolved since Symphony of the Night was released. To me this is like pointing at a game like Shovel Knight and complain that the platform formula has evolved since the NES era. This game, and a lot of throwback indie games, are intentionally backwards in style because that is what people are after. People don't want the evolved style, they want the old one. And they can both exist without it making the one lesser than the other. Also Bloodstained: RotN is not an exact copy of Symphony of the Night, as already established. IGA has deliberately and carefully chosen the elements of all the Igavanias that he thought worked and blended them together in this throwback that is not just a delight to play but exactly what he promised all those people who threw money at him on Kickbacker.
|What is it about cool characters and wearing deep red?|
There is a saying - you can't step into the same river twice. I often hold Symphony of the Night up as an example of a game that is objectively good, regardless of what kind of genre you usually like. It is also greatness that is impossible to recreate. And Bloodstained: RotN makes the right decision in not trying to. However, while this game doesn't want to be Symphony of the Night it definitely wants to be part of the Igavania handheld series, and as such it fits the team just perfectly (Order of Ecclesia gets to sit on the bench though). It is so easy to forget it's not in fact part of the Castlevania series, but considering Konami doesn't want our money I am more than happy to give it to IGA who knows what to do with it. I think SotN to Portrait of Ruin are some of the best and most fun games ever made and Bloodstained: RotN is a worthy successor. It delivers on everything I hoped for and sets a standard for spiritual successors to come.
Images from Steam, Bloodstained.fandom.com, kotaku.com.