Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon Review (Switch, 2018)

This is just a bonus game that came out of the kickstarter for Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. But forget about this piece of info, because Curse of the Moon is a great game all on its own. It's so good I'd be surprised if the main game comes even close to this level of quality. Fingers crossed.

The first announcement video instantly sold me on it. It's classic Castlavania! But much less crude, plays smoother than the original NES titles and so is a lot easier and fairer than the games its based on. With different play modes the difficulty of this title is just right to please players of various skill levels.

The game begins with a short introduction to its setting. A text scrolls across the screen for a few seconds telling you about Zangestu and his quest to vanquish all demons. It's basic, but all the game needs. On that note I need to mention that the ending is really cool and has a depth you wouldn't expect of a game with next to no narrative events. Still, Curse of the Moon is a game you play for the gameplay first and foremost. There's little to no dialogue and cutscenes, and yet the characters feel distinct and unique. It's got the perfect balance of narration and gameplay - more games should be like this.

Curse of the Moon plays similar to Castlevania III on the NES. You start outside of the big bad's castle and fight your way through various dungeons, each with their own unique tileset. At the beginning you play as Zangetsu, who wields a sword of limited range. For the first 4 stages you have the option to recruit an additional character after beating the stage's boss. Doing so lets you access a wider array of abilities and tackle various situations fluidly, because the game lets you choose which character to control at any time. Losing a charater makes them unavailable until you lose a life, which happens when all charactes reach 0 HP, or until you clear a stage. This mechanic does a lot for replayability because each stage is divided into many paths of which most are only available with specific characters and abilities. It's one of those games where no playthrough is the same, much like the classic Sonic games where stages are divided into many many possible paths to take.
The first couple of stages are a bit on the easy side to ease in younger players that aren't used to games like this, but experienced players can rank up the challenge by choosing to kill or walk past Zangetsu's comrades. The former results in a single character game where Zangetsu earns extra skills that improve his mobility, the later is recommended for people that love real challenges because walking past the other characters means you will have to face the game with only one character, little health and limited capabilities. Zangetsu on his own is unable to obtain any of the various power ups that lie hidden in each stage. On the other hand the game comes with a casual mode for people that are having a hard time even on a normal playthrough with all charactes. In casual mode you have infinite life and characters don't bounce back after getting hit - protecting them from potentially getting thrown into a hole and dying on the spot.

The graphics are intentionally limited to low res sprites because the game aims to mimic the experience of classic NES games. Personally I find most modern games that limited themselves like this fail terribly at the visual style of yesteryear and present themselves with sprites that come across as cheap instead of retro. Curse of the moon is nothing like this, and on the contrary has some boss sprites that are too high in quality and thus look out of place for looking too good. That problem only happens with some bosses, so the game does a great job at mimicking the NES without looking cheap or bad.
The sound effects are spot on and the soundtrack is really good, although it doesn't mimic the original NES sound very well.

To say the least I enjoyed this one a lot. With all the diverging paths and various playstyles there's a lot of replay value in this otherwise short game. There's also a nightmare mode that unlocks after clearing the game normally with all characters. Nightmare mode is a little harder and features an exclusive final stage and ending. Definitely play this if you liked the game on normal. So far Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is my personal game of the year for 2018, but then there hasn't been much competition for me. It's a real gem for sure and it would be neat if it got a physical release someday.