Gameplay is the lifeblood of video games. I mean, just think about what video games would be like without gameplay. They’d be really awkward movies, I guess.
Even if all else fails in a game, it’s the gameplay that can ultimately save it. Gameplay is the connection between developer and player that separates the medium from all others. It is of the utmost importance to game design.
Winner: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
Okay, so Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night isn’t going to get any awards for originality in gameplay, as it is virtually a spiritual recreation of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night with a little Aria of Sorrow thrown in for good measure. To Bloodstained’s benefit, however, Symphony of the Night remains one of the best games ever made, and Aria of Sorrow comes a bit closer to SotN’s quality than many admit.
Basically, we have a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Though many other Kickstarter-funded spiritual sequels came and went, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night was the one that went all out and recreated the intricate gameplay and sharp level design of the game that inspired it.
Yeah, it might be “more” of the SotN-style Castlevania gameplay, but in a gaming landscape that’s grossly starved of such gaming greatness, Bloodstained is something of a godsend.
Runner-up: Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair
2014: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
2016: Dark Souls 3*
2017: Super Mario Odyssey
2018: Marvel’s Spider-Man (PS4)
*Retroactively awarded after further consideration.
*Review based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game*
It can be strange how greatly things change in just a few short years. After the successful Kickstarter campaign for Mighty No. 9 in 2013, the year 2015 saw fan investment in such crowdfunded games reach new heights. Three such games even broke crowdfunding records in quick succession that very year: Yooka-Laylee, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, and Shenmue 3.
But the enthusiasm was not too last. Later in 2015, Keiji Inafune, the man behind Mighty No. 9, decided to launch another video game Kickstarter campaign (despite the fact that Mighty No. 9 was still being continuously delayed), Red Ash: The Indelible Legend. With Mighty No. 9 still having trouble getting off the ground, the Red Ash Kickstarter went about as successfully as the Hindenburg. Not only did Red Ash tarnish the reputation of Kickstarter games, but when Mighty No. 9 was finally released in 2016 to a negative reception, the once-promising prospect of crowdfunded games was further dragged into the mud. The final nail in the coffin seemed to be the 2017 release of Yooka-Laylee, which ended up being a much more mixed bag than fans had hoped for the Banjo-Kazooie successor (though in all fairness, Yooka-Laylee was a much better game than Mighty No. 9, even if it failed to live up to its potential).
Now here we are in 2019, and Kickstarter games are now something of a punchline. After the mixed receptions of Mighty No. 9 and Yooka-Laylee, as well as several delays of its own, the enthusiasm for Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night had died down considerably. Despite the flounders and flubs of previous Kickstarter games, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night lives up to the promises it made back in 2015, showing us that perhaps there is still something to the idea of crowdfunded video games.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night was always promised to be a spiritual sequel to Symphony of the Night style Castlevania entries (AKA the better half of Castlevania). Helmed by Koji Igarishi, the man largely responsible for Symphony of the Night as well as its excellent GBA and DS follow-ups, Bloodstained accomplishes what it set out to do. It is a worthy successor to the legendary Symphony of the Night, as well as Aria of Sorrow, Dawn of Sorrow and Order of Ecclesia, and a sequel to Igarishi’s Castlevania titles in all but name.
Players take on the role of Miriam, one of the two last ‘Shardbinders’ – people infused with demonic crystals that were used in sacrifices – and must infiltrate the castle Hellhold. Fittingly with a name like ‘Hellhold,’ the castle was summoned through hellish magic by Gebel, the other last Shardbinder, who is using the castle to bring demons into the world, as a means to take revenge on those who sacrificed the Shardbinders
There are a few other details to the plot, but honestly, it gets a little confusing and lost in the shuffle. But that’s okay, considering this is a spiritual sequel to the game that gave us dialogue such as “What is a man?! A miserable little pile of secrets!” Is the story really the reason you’re going to play it?
As you might expect, Hellhold serves as the location of the entire game (with the introductory segment taking place in the destroyed surrounding town and the ship Miriam arrives in). This is a Metroidvania through and through. And like the best games in the genre, you’ll gradually uncover more and more of Hellhold as Miriam learns new abilities, and be surprised and delighted every time you discover a previously unreachable area. The more of Hellhold you discover, the more you appreciate the genius of Bloodstained’s world design.
Miriam’s aforementioned status as a Shardbinder also finds its way into the gameplay. In what is essentially the “Tactical Soul System” from Aria of Sorrow, Miriam is able to absorb “shards” from enemies within the game. Nearly every enemy boasts its own shard, each of which will grant Miriam with new powers and abilities. Depending on the enemy type, you may have to farm them for a bit before you claim their shard, but the shards still shouldn’t be too hard to come by.
Shards come in different types, represented by colors: Conjure shards (Red) give Miriam a magic-consuming attack, Manipulative (Blue) give Miriam status/form-altering abilities, Directional (Purple) are able to be sent in different directions by the player, Passive (Yellow) – as their name implies – grant bonuses that are always active once equipped. Familiar shards (Green) give Miriam a monster partner to aide her in battle, while Skill (clear) shards are claimed by defeating bosses or found hidden in the castle, and give Miriam new means to traverse said castle.
With the exception of the Skill Shards (which are always active, unless the player turns off their effects in the pause menu), the player can only equip one of each shard type at a time. The game’s most addictive side quest sees the player gathering materials so Miriam’s alchemist friend Johannes can level up the shards. Additionally, the more of a specific shard you have, the more powerful that shard’s ability will be. In addition, like in Symphony of the Night and its kin, Miriam can gain a wide range of different weapons – from swords and spears to firearms and shoes, to name a few – and can equip various armors with stats and effects of their own. Not only can Miriam level up and gain strength, but so too can the Familiars when aiding Miriam in battle.
Given the variety of weapons and shards, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a game of immense variety. You may find a particular setup or two of shards that you prefer to use over all others for your first playthrough. But Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is worth repeated playthroughs just to experience it with different ability and weapon preferences.
Admittedly, the game has its share of technical issues, with slowdowns and frame rate drops being a lot more frequent than you’d care for (though I learned only after purchasing the game that the Switch version’s technical blips are more prominent than other versions, which Igarishi and company have been addressing little by little in updates). Granted, Bloodstained is a crowdfunded game, and thus didn’t have the same level of resources as most games these days, so a few technical issues are more forgivable here, but they do become a little bothersome at times.
If there’s any other ‘issue’ to address with Bloodstained, it’s probably just in that it doesn’t really do much that Igarishi’s Castlevania titles didn’t already do. Granted, the entire pitch for Bloodstained was that it was essentially a brand new Castlevania in a time when there are no new Castlevanias. So it’s certainly no disappointment, but while Bloodstained may exude profuse quality, it does lack in freshness. Again, that’s no unforgivable sin, considering its emulating some all-time greats. But should we ever get a Bloodstained sequel (and please, let’s), hopefully it can deliver a similarly excellent experience, while maybe adding a few more features that give it more of its own identity outside of Castlevania (one of Bloodstained’s original mechanics, which sees Miriam interact with certain environmental objects by means of the player manually guiding her hand, goes sorely underutilized).
Still, that seems like nitpicking, because what Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night does right, it does right in spades. This is very much the Symphony of the Night-worthy Castlevania follow-up that Igarishi promised to fans in his initial Kickstarter pitch. It’s an incredibly fun experience brimming with depth and variety, and a captivating successor to one of gaming’s richest lineages.
The idea of Kickstarter-funded video games may have lost a lot of its luster in the four years since the initial announcement of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. But with the final product living up to its lofty expectations, Koji Igarishi’s latest adventure should remind the video game world why we loved the prospect of crowdfunded games to begin with.