Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Review

*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.

“The enemy “Shovel Armor” is a blatant homage to Shovel Knight.”

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?

“Hey! I know that guy!”

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.

“Yeah, you can customize Miriam quite a bit.”

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).

“What exactly is supposed to be reassuring about that sentence?”

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.

 

8

Advertisements

Happy Halloween 2018!

Happy Halloween everybody! Hope you all had some good, spooky fun and lots of candy.

Sorry again for the lack of a proper Halloween post – like the top 5s I did of yesteryear – I just didn’t get around to it. Hopefully next year I can do something special for one of my favorite holidays (along with Christmas).

Here’s something classy.

Again, I’m hoping to have more reviews and such done soon. And here’s hoping I can write more for Halloween come next October.

Anyway, Happy Halloween, you lovely people!

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night Review

Symphony of the Night

Back in 1997, video games had transitioned to the third dimension. The emergence of the Sony Playstation and the Nintendo 64 ushered in new ways to play video games, and many deemed 2D game designs to be obsolete. Despite this drastic shift, there was one classic gaming series that remained defiant, Castlevania.

While the likes of Super Mario 64 showed what the new dimension of gaming was capable of, Castlevania proved that there was not only still a place for 2D games, but they could even stand tall against their 3D competitors. Castlevania accomplished this with the remarkable Symphony of the Night.

Symphony of the Night was as much a reinvention of the Castlevania series as Super Mario 64 was to Nintendo’s flagship franchise. Though that reinvention may not be as immediately obvious, as Mario made 3D gaming seem effortless, while Symphony of the Night instead showcased how much depth could be weaved into a seemingly old formula.

Symphony of the Night literally begins where Rondo of Blood ended. The game’s very first moment is the final boss from the previous game, with players taking on Count Dracula as Richter Belmont (complete with one of the most gloriously cheesy dialogue exchanges in gaming history). The game then fast-forwards four years later, and Richter Belmont has gone missing.

Alucard, the son of Count Dracula himself, travels to Castlevania in hopes of discovering Richter’s fate, and to destroy the castle for good. Maria, another character from Rondo of Blood, is also searching the castle for Richter. To both Alucard and Maria’s surprise, the castle is more alive than ever, with Dracula’s armies of monsters ready to stop Alucard’s quest.

The plot is simple enough, but considerably more character driven than the Castlevanias that preceded it. Making Alucard the main character gives the game a unique sense of urgency, seeing as defeating Dracula means he must defeat his own father. And while the voice acting is cheesy, it gives the game a kind of campy charm.

Where Symphony of the Night transcends all previous accomplishments of the series, however, is the game design itself. Symphony heavily borrows the foundations of Nintendo’s Super Metroid, setting all of the game’s events within one labyrinthian game world, emphasizing exploration and character progression in a way that wouldn’t be possible in a traditional Castlevania title.

Symphony of the NightSuper Metroid laid the groundwork, but I might argue that Symphony of the Night perfected it. Alucard is a more versatile character than Samus Aran, able to equip weapons and items in both hands, as well as armor, helmets, capes, and rings for defense. He can learn magic spells that are used with Street Fighter-like button combinations, and can gain experience points and level up like an RPG character. Alucard can learn to transform into various forms, summon familars to aid him in battle, and can learn new moves as the game progresses. Similar to past Castlevanias, he can pick up secondary weapons like throwing axes, holy water, and crucifixes, which are used with the hearts you pick up. As is the norm for the series, Alucard can only hold one of these secondary items at a time, but his main weapons and moves are so versatile, you probably won’t care.

Symphony of the NightThe best part is, despite the sheer variety in gameplay, it all works so smoothly. Aside from the aforementioned combos used to cast spells, most of Alucard’s actions are mapped to specific buttons. Both of Alucard’s equipped weapons, his jumps, his transformations, almost everything is as simple as hitting a single button (though you must hold up and hit the attack button to use the secondary items, as is series tradition). Not only is it all easy and accessible, but Alucard is one of the best controlling characters in gaming. He lacks the stiffness that plagued the Belmonts of Castlevanias past, and his fluidity of control ranks alongside the likes of Super Mario at the very peak of gaming.

Like Super Metroid, Alucard’s progressively expanding array of abilities help him access new areas of the castle and discover its secrets. It is possible to beat the game without seeing everything, but Symphony of the Night is a game that begs to be explored, and the player is rewarded for uncovering as much of the castle as they can.

Uncovering the many layers of the castle and improving Alucard’s abilities give the game an insane amount of depth. As stated, Alucard controls so well that its a joy just to move around, and combat, though simple, is immensely fun, with a large rogues gallery of extravagant boss fights serving as a great exclamation point to the gameplay.

Visually speaking, Symphony of the Night still looks beautiful. The dark, gothic character designs and grim atmosphere give the game an appropriate tone, while the fluid animations for every character and enemy (specifically those of Alucard himself) are wonderfully detailed.

Then there’s the soundtrack, which is one of the finest of any video game. The majority of the soundtrack is performed with a full orchestra, and the game has an incredibly unique blend of classic, electronic, and metal themes. It’s a beautiful, creepy soundtrack that builds on the game’s dark atmosphere. There’s not a single forgettable track to be found.

Symphony of the NightSimply put, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is one of those exceedingly rare games where all the pieces just come together to near perfection. The gameplay is terrific, the structure and design are genius, the visuals are beautiful, the soundtrack even more so, and it remains a deep experience even by today’s standards. But perhaps the greatest testament to Symphony’s brilliance is the way you can double the length of the adventure if you uncover the right secrets. The twist in which the game doubles its quest is still mind-blowing in execution, and has yet to be topped by any game.

Super Metroid may have planted the seeds, but Symphony of the Night is the game that helped them grow. With its release, the ‘Metroidvania’ genre came to full fruition, and it could easily be argued that Symphony of the Night is still the peak of the genre.

It’s one of the greatest video games of all time, and that’s no miserable little pile of secrets.

 

9

Super Castlevania IV Review

Super Castlevania IV

Castlevania is one of the most storied franchises in all of gaming. Renowned for its intricate action and grim atmosphere, the sidescrolling series would eventually reach new heights when it combined Metroid-style exploration and RPG elements into the mix with the classic, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. But before Symphony helped create the “Metroidvania” sub-genre, Castlevania’s most acclaimed entry was Super Castlevania IV on the Super NES, which many still hail as the best “traditional” Castlevania to date. In many ways, Super Castlevania IV lives up to the legacy its built in all these years since its original release. But in some areas, the game shows a bit of age.

 

Storywise, the game is a remake of the original Castlevania, with Simon Belmont venturing to defeat the evil count Dracula, after the vampire lord has resurrected from a previous defeat 100 years prior. But other then the simple plot, the game is entirely original from the previous games in the series, with new levels and gameplay mechanics that built on its predecessors and brought the series up to date for the 16-bit era.

The game takes place over eleven stages, and like any old school action game, the goal is to simply make it to the end of a stage and defeat its boss to progress further.

Super Castlevania IVSimon Belmont is equipped with a whip that can lash out in eight directions. The whip can also be used to swing across chasms in various points in the game. It can even be swung to shield Simon from projectiles. Additionally, secondary items such as throwing axes and boomerang-like crucifixes can be found throughout the stages, and require ‘hearts’ (think Magic Points with the collectibility of Mario’s coins) in order to be used.

The combat is undoubtedly the best aspect of the gameplay, as whipping down hordes of monsters becomes a thrilling experience.

Unfortunately, there are some areas in gameplay that haven’t aged particularly well. The most notable of which being the jumping, which feels both slow and stiff. Granted, Castlevania is based more on action than platforming, but theres enough jumping from one object to the next to make the clunky jumping become a major problem at some points in the game.

Super Castlevania IVAnother problem – strange as this may sound – comes from walking up and down stairs. When Simon sets one foot on the first step of a staircase, he becomes “glued” to the steps, unable to jump, which leaves him vulnerable to enemy attacks. The sense of control when Simon is walking on a staircase just feels awkward.

The extensive knockback that Simon receives from enemies also becomes a bit of a problem, and you may get more game overs from Simon being knocked back into a pit than from losing all your health. Notably, vertical-based segments become a particular pain, since previous platforms disappear once they fall out of the screen’s focus, so one hit from an enemy often sends Simon plummeting to his doom.

The game as a whole can get pretty difficult. At the best of times this is due to the game’s wonderful level design (with every level feeling distinct from one another), and at its worst due to the aforementioned stiff mechanics. There are some segments that should be reasonably difficult, but they are often made downright frustrating by the awkward control.

While the controls often damper the experience, the adventure as a whole is still memorable, and more than worth a look for fans of classic action games. The level designs are creative, sometimes even genius, as the game took advantage of the SNES’ capabilities of scaling and rotation in inventive ways.

Super Castlevania IVThe game still looks great, and sounds even better. The character designs are detailed, and the graphics are appropriately gloomy, with even the title screen setting up its dreary atmosphere. The soundtrack is a highlight in both the Castlevania series and the SNES library, which is no small feat, considering the hefty soundtracks to be found in both categories.

There’s certainly a lot to love about Super Castlevania IV: Its hard to imagine its presentation could get any better for its time, the combat is fun, the boss fights are memorable in a “difficult but fair” kind of way, and the level design is a constant delight. The downside is that as great as the overall game is, Simon’s slow and often awkward sense of control can hinder the fun. The overall package is something to behold, but Simon himself seems to have aged in the years since the game’s initial release.

Super Castlevania IV is an epic, eerie quest. But it lacks the timelessness and seemingly perfect execution of design that Symphony of the Night boasts. A classic for its time that’s deserving of a revisit, if maybe not a timeless classic in its own right.

 

7