Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a spiritual successor to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night… in the same way Assassin’s Creed’s Desmond Miles was a descendant of Ezio Auditore. It’s not just that this Kickstarted project led by longtime Castlevania producer Koji Igarashi shares DNA with that game. Symphony of the Night gave birth to a genre; its influence on the current crop of Metroidvanias is unavoidable.
It’s just that, as I played Bloodstained, I could almost feel the devs butting up against the walls SOTN built. “This isn’t right,” I’d think. “Symphony of the Night didn’t do that.” Bloodstained is still an entertaining action-RPG with a dollop of platforming, but it follows slavishly closely in its ancestors footsteps.
New Moon, New Look
That’s frustrating because, aesthetically, Ritual of the Night is a breath of fresh air. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, the 8-bit Castlevania throwback Igarashi’s team developed as a stretch goal during this project, adopted the low-pixel look that defined the older series’ NES titles. Ritual of the Night looks surprisingly current by comparison. Its 3D models wouldn’t be out of place in a modern JRPG. Its environments resemble the sidescrolling sections from NieR: Automata, but all goth’d up. The shining mahogany, blood-red rooftops, polished stone — it all makes Bloodstained feel new.
There are plenty of other features that place Bloodstained unmistakably in 2019. You can find seeds throughout the world and work with a farmer in your hub village to grow crops. Then you use your share of the yield to prepare dishes. Crafting isn’t limited to food, and as you trek across the map, you’ll find materials like iron and silver to build new weapons. Or you can break down weapons and sell their constituent parts. Bloodstained significantly expands and improves the economy from Symphony of the Night. In that game, rare gems were the only item that Alucard could pawn to earn currency. Here, everything’s for sale.
Side quests are also new — and a worthwhile addition, despite being on the simple side. There’s no narrative content here; they’re one-note fetch quests to kill five demons, bring a villager a tunic, etc. But in a game where you spend a good chunk of your time backtracking, rewards for killing the monsters that populate those frequently visited areas are a welcome boon.
But the most substantial change to the Symphony of the Night formula are new, equippable items called “shards.”
Powering Up is Shard to Do
Narratively and mechanically, these crystalline objects are at the heart of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Protagonist Miriam is a Shardbinder: a human bonded with… well, shards. These magical gems make Miriam sensitive to demonic power. Shardbinders were created by an Alchemists Guild and sacrificed in an arcane ritual to ward off a demonic uprising. Miriam, and her friend-turned-nemesis, Gebel, are the two remaining Shardbinders. Gebel inexplicably survived the ritual while Miriam fell into a mysterious 10-year sleep before hers could begin.
As Bloodstained starts, Miriam awakens from her coma to set off on a voyage with her friend Johannes, an alchemist’s apprentice. After a brief tutorial on their galleon — which ends with Miriam meeting Gebel for the first time in a decade — the pair arrive at the landmass that serves as the primary setting for the game. Here, Miriam begins to explore, hunting for Gebel, and the power-up granting shards that allow her to reach him.
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The shard system is an excellent way to take Symphony of the Night’s disparate systems and unite them under one roof. In 1997, power-ups, weapons, tools, and familiars were all cordoned off into separate systems, but in Bloodstained, shards feed into each. Miriam still wields swords and wears armor, but I wound up determining my character builds according to which shards I could equip into each of five slots. When I played Symphony of the Night, I never used a familiar (those allied spirits that follow you around and helped in combat). That’s because that game never effectively explained how to do so. Here, summoning a creature to fight by your side is as simple as equipping a shard and pressing a button.
Shards drop as a reward for killing enemyies — much like spells in the later Igarashi Castlevania games. They then grant the player a skill that corresponds with the enemy’s abilities. A knight wielding a spear might drop a shard that grants proficiency with spears, for instance. Whereas a fire-breathing dragon might relinquish a shard that allows you to shoot fire from your hand. A suit of armor that looks an awful lot like Shovel Knight might drop a gem that allows you to summon a suit of armor… that looks an awful lot like Shovel Knight.
Parsing the Protagonist
This all works well, until it doesn’t. One shard I needed to reach a new area was tied to a specific enemy in the world. The odds of that enemy dropping said shard were random. Bloodstained has a great map, and I marked it up with locations of interest that I needed to return to once I earned the necessary power-ups. But all that effort seemed pointless when I realized a vital shard might be waiting in an area I’d already explored, held by some random foe.
I’m also split on how Bloodstained incorporates shards thematically. The story sets Miriam and Gebel up as victims of a traumatic experience that left them scarred, but powerful. It’s the standard superhero/supervillain origin story. Yet given the way Miriam’s relationship with the shards is framed (whenever she unlocks a new shard it stabs into her abdomen and she cries out in pain) it feels like a metaphor, intentional or not, for sexual violence.
At least Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. While the inclusion of Solid Snake voice actor, David Hayter, earned the game some pre-launch attention, the most important players in the cast are all women. Protagonist Miriam, cleric-turned-clerk Dominique, her ward Anne, and a pair of female quest givers ensure Bloodstained is in tune with the Metroid parts of its heritage — not just the ‘Vania bits. They may always be discussing anime nonsense, but they aren’t always talking about a men.
Faithful to a Fault
Symphony of the Night is famous for hiding half its content behind the kind of arcane, unknowable variables strategy guides were created to explain. In that game, it’s easy to reach the credits without seeing the inverted castle that serves as setting for the true second half of the game. Getting to it required the same kind of illogical pixel-hunting that games like Dragon Quest and The Legend of Zelda asked players to do more than a decade before.
It’s frustrating to see Bloodstained uncritically adopt the same structure. While reaching the bad ending will earn you a “Game Over” screen, rather than the end credits, Bloodstained follows in Symphony of the Night’s footsteps by hiding its true ending behind a bunch of in-game rituals with very little signposting. Reaching the real end all but necessitates a walkthrough. In making a spiritual successor to a game with a twist that subverted player expectations, it seems Igarashi and his team simply repeated the twist. If players expect it, it’s not much of a subversion anymore, though, is it?
Ritual of the Night copy-pastes Symphony of the Night’s structure, but it also borrows its game feel. Generally, that’s a good thing! At the time, Symphony of the Night perfectly refined classic Castlevania mechanics. Jumping was significantly less stiff and, unlike Richter, Alucard could move and attack at the same time. Truly, it was a revelation. SOTN’s combat and locomotion still hold up pretty well today, too. Hell, if anything, Bloodstained feels even better.
Bigger, Badder Baddies
And, thankfully, that combat gets put to the test in a series of impressively inventive boss battles. Sometimes you’ll simply match swords with your fellow human warriors. But Bloodstained shines when it gets really creative. A slot machine, a monstrous mermaid with membranous pink tentacles, and a showdown with an alchemist on a circular stage that doubles back on itself are all highlights in this menacing menagerie.
Don’t expect any of them to put up much of a fight, however. Bloodstained adopts the same RPG mechanics as Symphony of the Night. That means you can over-level for a tough boss — and, if you get lost as often as I do, you’ll do a lot of unintentional grinding. In addition, an expanded marketplace ensures you’re often flush with cash to purchase healing items. I always carried nine Potions, five High Potions and 99 bowls of Corn Chowder (don’t overthink it). As such, boss battles never required more than two attempts.
Flaws and all, though, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is an entertaining Metroidvania that successfully brings Symphony of the Night-style gameplay — in its most direct resurrection yet — to a new audience. That said, if you’re looking for a game that improves upon the classic, you may need to look elsewhere.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
Despite slavish devotion to the source material, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is an entertaining spiritual successor to Symphony of the Night.
- Gorgeous 2.5D environments
- Inventive boss design
- Satisfying combat and improved RPG mechanics
- Strong sense of progression
- Faithful to a fault to Symphony of the Night’s design
- An essential upgrade is tied to killing a random enemy
- Getting to the end credits all but necessitates a guide