Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Switch, PS4, Xbox One
Kickstarter games are always a crapshoot. Sometimes you get a masterpiece like Shovel Knight. Sometimes you get a failure like Mighty No. 9. Koji Igarashi’s recently released Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is something special. It’s a game that looked like it was headed toward disappointment only to turn itself around. Iga had seen the mistakes of Kickstarters that came before him and refused to repeat the sins of the past. Also, he wore a cowboy hat and threw a lot of wine glasses on the ground. He’s quirky that way.
If you aren’t familiar with Iga’s work, he’s essentially the mastermind behind Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It’s no surprise that Bloodstained is somewhat of a spiritual successor, not just to SoTN but to every Metroidvania in the Castlevania series. Sorry, he prefers them to be called Igavanias.
What a horrible night for a curse
If you’ve ever played an Igavania, you know what you are in for here: dark gothic atmospheres, enemies that come straight out of a horror story, lots of loot to pick up, castles to explore, bosses to defeat, secrets to find, and so on. It’s the size and scope of this game together with it’s incredible attention to detail that make it stick out as not only one of the Kickstarter greats, but one of the greatest Igavania’s ever.
You play as Miriam, a Shardbinder and anime heroine du jour. What’s a Shardbinder you ask? It’s someone who has had magic crystals embedded in their body, allowing them to absorb and use demonic magics. Unfortunately, this crystal also slowly starts to take you over and drive you mad.
Anyway, a bunch of alchemists sacrifice every Shardbinder in a “bloodstained” ritual and accidentally open a portal to hell… oops. Two Shardbinders survive however, Gebel, a Dracula look alike who seems to be commanding the forces of evil, and Miriam herself. Now Miriam has to make her way through a mystical castle to stop Gebel and close the gate to hell… as far as you know. There are TONS of surprises, twists, and turns in Bloodstained. Not everything is what it seems.
The tools of a demon slayer
Shardbinding translated over to gameplay in a familiar way. As much as we like to call Bloodstained a spiritual successor to Symphony of the Night it actually has a lot more in common with Aria/Dawn of Sorrow. Every time you kill an enemy you have a random chance to absorb its shard, much like Soma could absorb souls. Shards give you a variety of different powers, from projectiles to shields to the ability to summon enemies to fight by your side. Collecting multiple shards of the same type will increase a shard’s power, while spending loot materials to refine a shard will increase its versatility. For example, refining a projectile shard usually allows you to fire multiple projectiles at once.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg of the many overlapping systems that Bloodstained has to offer. You can also use your loot to craft items, weapons, and armor. You can find ingredients to cook food which not only serve as recovery items but provide permanent stat increases every time you eat a unique meal.
You can plant seeds that you find to grow produce, which can then be used in cooking endeavors. You can find lost mementos to build a graveyard, each one granting you a reward. You can take on quests to kill specific kinds of enemies in order to avenge the deaths of townspeople. You can cook food for an old woman in order to gain access to her collection of surprisingly powerful artifacts. You can rent books from an old vampire, get a haircut from a zombie, and so much more!
All of this is tangential to the main game, and that’s kind of amazing. If you want, you can just blast your way through each section of the castle straight to the end. Maybe you are the kind of person who likes to grind, well you can do that too, killing minor enemies until your stats skyrocket. Maybe you are a quest completionist, constantly wandering back and forth to find the exact items you need to trade to the peasants all begging for your help. You can play the game however you want and it feels great in any playstyle.
In fact, “playing how you want” seems to be one of Iga’s central design philosophies. There’s an obscene amount of playstyles simply in weapon choice. You have swords, whips, maces boomerangs, all of which operate completely different. Heck, if you want you can use muskets, shotguns, and even magical guns and the game turns into something closer to Mega Man or Metroid. This is before you get into armor choice, shard choice, or even the hidden fighting game style special moves that are unique to each weapon, which you can ALSO level up individually.
No matter which way you look at it, Bloodstained’s major selling point is its content. Beyond what we get in the initial game, we are also getting 13 free DLC packs including co-op and versus modes, new characters to play as, a rogue-like/randomizer mode, and much more. This is one of the most content packed Kickstarter games that has ever come out, and you are definitely getting your money’s worth out of this package.
Storming the castle
Of course, all the content in the world doesn’t matter if the base game isn’t good, and other indie developers should take notice. Iga was willing to be the bad guy in order to make a good game. When he released demos and asked for criticism, he took that criticism to heart. When we said the game looked like crap, he contracted WayForward to help polish it up. When we made comments about the lighting, he delayed the game to fix the lighting. He made difficult choices that sometimes angered backers in the short term, in order to make the game succeed in the long term.
As a result, we get a game that really feels like a labor of love. The graphics are fantastic. The environments are brilliantly designed. The voice acting is great and features big name video game voice actors like David Hayter. The soundtrack is incredible and is easily as catchy as any Castlevania that came before it.
If there’s any complaint that can be levied on this game, it’s that it could have used one final editing pass. The script has a number of spelling and grammar errors and sometimes the text fails to display properly. I suppose if there was any place that had to have flaws, this is the one that impacts the game the least.
It’s hard to accurately describe what a breath of fresh air Bloodstained is. If you are a Symphony of the Night fan, then this is a game you just want to saturate yourself in for as long as possible. You’ll want to find every treasure. You’ll want to craft every item. You’ll want to put a bunch of dumb names in the character creation screen looking for cheats (and yes, they do exist). This is everything you could have wanted from a spiritual successor to Symphony of the Night and more.
I do not hesitate to call Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, one of the best Kickstarter games I have ever played. Iga delivered on every promise he made, and then some. This is Kickstarter gaming done right, a game made for the fans, for the people who loved his original work. This is game development without the need to be tied to investors, to set your own deadlines, to freely listen to fan feedback. Anyone even considering Kickstarter as a method of funding should look to Bloodstained as an example of success, because this is how you do it.
Take a sip of that wine and smash that glass Iga-san. You deserve it!