We've heard it before: An ambitious Kickstarter project launches, promising to reinvigorate a genre through use of genre-defining creators and a pinch of nostalgia. Sure, some have succeeded, with games like Shovel Knight and ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove scratching that itch while bringing their gameplay elements into the modern day, making good on the promises of lofty crowd-funding goals.
But what about Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, previous holder of the record for "highest-funded Kickstarter game," with the legendary Koji Igarashi in tow? After nearly five years of waiting, Bloodstained Ritual of the Night sits comfortably between the high and low successes of the Kickstarter craze, with snap gameplay and plenty of content that just happens to reside in a game that stutters, stops and performs sluggishly on all platforms.
First things first: There is an innumerate amount of love and care put into Bloodstained. While the game constantly feels like it's fighting its 2.5D art style and subtle cel-shading, it's oozing with character. The game's protagonist, Miriam, is well-acted, and a welcome departure from some of the more recent Castlevania protagonists, even if her story feels as if it's in lockstep with the Belmonts. Side characters are mostly voiced, with the delivery feeling like it came from a scrapped sequel to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, the first of many signs that Ritual is not playing coy with its influence -- it's obvious. This is an Igarashi Castlevania game through and through, and it's a good one at that.
The mainstay mechanics are all here, from a slide and back-dodge, to diverse weaponry and abilities. Weapon classes include short swords, daggers, axes, guns, whips and boots. Each has a plus and minus in when and where it should be used, but you can usually stick to one class once you learn the flow of the game. Weapon damage is complemented by Ritual's Shard system, in which enemies you kill randomly reward you with special abilities inspired by those foes. These can be enhanced and upgraded throughout, and are divided into active and passive categories, with six being equip-able at any given time. These can make or break boss battles where an enemy stuns you with a guard or can help manage pesky bats or wolves by summoning a demon.
In a break from some of the more classic Castlevania elements, Ritual is a difficult and sometimes frustrating game, but it's never unforgiving. Save and warp rooms are scattered throughout the expert-designed maps, so you'll want to explore every bit so you're not set back hours of gameplay on a "Game Over" screen. And the map is where Ritual gets its bonus points, with every room feeling like a puzzle to be solved, whether its to collect shards and grind or to dodge enemies as you make your way back through areas you've already explored. Igarashi nailed the "living castle" feel here, which is why it's such a same that game struggles, technically, on a number of levels.
Playing through the game on Nintendo Switch, the flow of gameplay is quickly broken by long load times into and out of the game, as well as between rooms. Even signature room transitions like jumping up and to the left or right to progress is broken, often resulting in Miriam falling back down, forcing another load screen. The game also stutters regularly, making it difficult to time attacks in not just boss battles, but regular enemy encounters. It doesn't help that damage cancelling amplifies this, making for a frustrating experience if you're in a particularly vertical room. Players have reported similar issues across other platforms, including PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.
While the development team has certainly acknowledged the issues and will seek to repair them, it's a bit off-putting for those that have been waiting so long for the game to have to fight against this. It's even more off-putting because it can sometimes overshadow the clear passion in this project, down to the little details of character portraits and bookcases.
So, it's a regret to say that after five years of waiting, that it's probably worth waiting just a bit longer to play through Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. But the game is by no means unplayable, and its presence on the Nintendo Switch means you can pick it up and clear a few rooms on a commute or while traveling, easily hearkening back to back-to-back Castlevania classic on the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS. Though, if you're looking to play the game on a bigger screen, look to the console or PC counterparts for that.
As a package, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night feels worth its asking price if you're coming in as a new player. It's packed with content and a living world to explore, colorful, emotional characters and elaborate enemy design, even if it's graphical style feels a bit played out. If you've been waiting since its announcement, though, it's understandable to feel a bit disappointed.
Wherever you stand, it's reassuring to know that this genre, at its base, can still live and breath in 2019. And if you breeze through Ritual and want something more, there's the even-more-classic-feeling Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon out there as well.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is now available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.