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Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night: The Kotaku Review

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Genre is mostly bullshit. It’s useful for discussion and for imagining where a certain game exists on the continuum of innovation and progress. These discussions are important, and for them, we need genre. But genre doesn’t do a lot for games, especially once they start to borrow from each other, forcing us to come up with new genres to collect them under. Genre can never really keep up.

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a genre throwback, here to bring us back to the halcyon days of 1997, when Castlevania: Symphony of the Night debuted on PlayStation. It took a series of games in one genre—the action platformer—and borrowed from another to codify something that felt new, a genre that, over time, was collected under one of the worst colloquialisms in games: “metroidvania.” Decades later Koji Igarashi, Symphony of the Night co-director and Castlevania franchise steward during the 2000s, has decided to reclaim this genre with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night.

Bloodstained is Igarashi’s return to the style of game that made him famous. Kickstarted in 2015, Bloodstained was pitched alongside a new portmanteau: Igavania, defined by Igarashi as “a gothic, exploration-focused action platformer, designed by one of the godfathers of the genre.” For this, Igarashi received $5,545,991 from 64,867 backers eager for Symphony of the Night, but with the serial numbers filed off.

To his credit, Igarashi and his collaborators have done exactly this. Bloodstained is what was promised four years ago—and that’s also where its problems lie.

In Bloodstained, you play as Miriam, a woman who, through alchemical experiments, became a shardbinder—part human, part crystal, and capable of wielding the powers of demons found in the crystal shards they leave behind when slain. This power comes at the cost of her humanity. The more shards she collects, the less human she becomes.

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Following a disaster that precedes the events of the game, Miriam awakens from a coma to learn that she is one of two shardbinders left. The other shardbinder is her friend Gebel, who is now leading a demon invasion of Earth. To that end, he has summoned a demonic castle from which he will wage a war against humanity and challenges Miriam to enter it and stop him.

After a brief prologue aboard a galleon where Bloodstained teaches players the basics and introduces the game’s small cast of characters, you’re free to roam the castle as Miriam on the hunt for Gebel. Almost immediately you notice platforms you can’t quite reach, doors you cannot yet open, and obstructions you cannot remove, shunting you back for another lap through the maze-like castle until you find the ability or key that lets you clear the obstacle you saw before—usually after a boss fight.

It takes some adjusting to how resolutely Bloodstained chases the specter of Symphony of the Night. Its structure is nearly identical, putting players in a seemingly-open 2D space that they can’t fully access until they spend some time exploring. But games in this genre have evolved, with games like Hollow Knight taking heavy inspiration from Dark Souls to tell richer stories or the Rogue-inspired runs of a game like Dead Cells. Bloodstained ignores the modern conventions of these games, as well as their conveniences, like swift, speedy movement and the ability to strike in directions other than right in front of you. Their absence makes Bloodstained feel like Symphony of the Night, but also reminds you that Symphony of the Night is 24 years old.

That isn’t to say that Bloodstained doesn’t take other games into consideration. They’re just other Castlevania games. Its shard system, by which new abilities are acquired from defeated enemies, is a rework of Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow’s Tactical Soul system. Like in that game, just about every foe you face in Bloodstained has a chance to drop a shard that gives Miriam either a new active or passive ability. Most abilities let you replicate the basic attacks of the enemies you get them from. Bone Toss, for example, lets you toss a damage-dealing bone, much like the Bone Morte enemies do. Some shards boost your proficiency with a weapon, or buff stats like strength or luck. Others allow you to summon a familiar that can attack foes and occasionally defend you.

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The wealth of shards in Bloodstained, in conjunction with the extensive amount of weapons available (many of which have their own unique special attacks that can be performed with the right button input) allows for endless experimentation, to the point where it’s almost a detriment. You can’t possibly try out every shard and weapon combo while steadily exploring. There’s just too much, and on normal difficulty—which is fairly easy, barring two required bosses and the extra-hard bonus ones—sorting through combinations introduces far too much tedium when it’s easy enough to find one build and stick with it. Experimentation feels more necessary on higher difficulties, where tougher foes make builds matter more and new strategies mean the difference between progress and frustration.

There’s also a crafting system in Bloodstained, which lets you craft powerful new weapons, armor, items and food using raw materials you find throughout the castle. On the one hand, this means you often have something to show for the times you get lost or have to backtrack through the castle. On the other, it feels like obtuse bloat, with a lot of time spent in menus parsing upgrade trees. There’s just so much, and while a lot of the weapons you can make are extremely cool, tinkering until you find which you like best takes time I’d rather spend exploring.

Bloodstained, like Symphony of the Night, is partly about choosing to do the harder thing. In both games, the ostensible goal—confronting the antagonist—is achievable fairly early on. You can, and likely will, stumble across the room where Gebel is waiting for you after a handful of hours in Bloodstained. You will also probably be strong enough to beat him. Doing so, however, yields an unsatisfying, abrupt ending that does nothing to resolve any of the plot threads the game hints at via characters you meet, all of whom suggest something more sinister lurks behind Gebel’s threat to humanity.

To truly get to the end of Bloodstained, you have to ignore the fact that your goal is right there, waiting for you, and commit to exploring. This is easy enough to do, because the fundamental pleasure of Bloodstained, like in every game of its ilk, is in hasty cartography. Filling in a map as you explore the space it represents, surviving its dangers long enough to get to a place where you can save and make your more complete map permanent. As nonsensical as the game’s castle is, I only got lost a handful of times, forcing me to scour the map from the beginning for things I missed or didn’t try.

That’s not to say it’s a smooth ride. The game’s 3D art style on a 2D plane is often incongruous and strange, particularly in the way that Miriam is given a cel-shaded, cartoony look that clashes with the environs she runs around in. All of the lush, gothic scenery’s pursuit of grandeur feels at odds with how the characters are designed.

It also doesn’t help that the game sometimes struggles to perform well on the PlayStation 4 version I played. Frames would occasionally drop, and the game would briefly freeze if things got too busy. Close-up character models used in dialogue scenes all looked strangely fuzzy. All this is tolerable, but beware the Nintendo Switch version for now—my brief time with this week’s Switch release worked, but movement felt just a little thick, as if a frame was missing every second. Reports from Switch players online also note crashes and missing text from dialogue boxes. The developer says fixes are coming.

These rough edges didn’t turn me off, but I still came away from Bloodstained feeling dissatisfied. I chafed against the way the game set out to recapture the feeling Symphony gave players over two decades ago without offering anything new. It has a built-in defense for this, of course: Bloodstained exists because it is what backers were pitched and what they asked for.

The story that Bloodstained conjures up is not delivered with the conviction its design seems to have. As spare as it is, it’s got more than a few interesting ideas worth pursuing. It’s about a woman coming to grips with a body altered by a patriarchal clergy desperate for a weapon to ward off their fading influence, a group that uses her powers to clean up their mess even if it costs her humanity. It’s about stopping a cycle before it has the chance to become one, about self-determination and letting former titans fade away. But these ideas are done a disservice by the single-mindedness of the game they’re draped against. They’re also ideas that undermine Bloodstained’s existence—or at least, its existence as the Symphony of the Night redux it is.

As designed, Bloodstained is a celebration, a declaration that this style of game—Igavania, metroidvania, whatever you call it—is immortal and undying, like the romantic nightmares of gothic horror. Bloodstained’s story, however, is about breaking cycles. It’s about change.

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Bloodstained is tethered to video game relevance by its influential creator’s desire to continue doing what he has done. Clearly, that’s something fans want, and it’s something Igarashi and the team at his studio, ArtPlay, do well. Bloodstained is fun to play. It’s also fun to take in, full of amusing touches like the demon that doesn’t attack you with claws or axes or swords, but by standing in a red dress and playing guitar riffs so sick flames come out to torch you. Or the haunted portraits that assault you, bearing the faces of Kickstarter backers.

Those backers now have the game they wanted, the game that they were promised, and that’s great. Bloodstained is a job well done, but it’s also hermetically sealed. It’s a work that oxidizes the moment it’s exposed to the atmosphere, where the modern games inspired by its lineage have changed the genre it’s out to reclaim.

Bloodstained can be read as an argument that legacy matters, but only in one direction: from Igarashi to the twisted castles he has helped bring to video games over the years—hence the word “Igavania.” But this view of legacy overlooks the conversation that’s happened since Symphony. The original game is not influential because it is perfect, but because it started a discussion between games that came before it—Metroid, Zelda, the previous Castlevania games—and those that came after, like Cave Story, Metroid Prime, and Yoku’s Island Express. Maybe that conversation has been missing the gothic stylings of the now-dormant Castlevania series, but, by bringing them back, Igarashi seems content to ignore the rest of that conversation.

That’s fine, of course. Throwbacks have their pleasures. Bloodstained is, in Igarashi’s words, exactly the kind of game that he wanted to make, exactly the kind of game he’s been making for most of his career. The exceptional success of its Kickstarter suggests that Bloodstained is also what everyone wanted to see. But video games have been chasing Igarashi’s work for an entire generation, adding to it and carrying it further the way he did when Castlevania: Symphony of the Night arrived in 1997 and codified a genre. It would have been something to see him rejoin that conversation. Instead, he has chosen to haunt it.