Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Review (PS4, 2019)

Finally released roughly 4 years after the project got funded on Kickstarter Koji Igarashi's latest gothic action RPG is now on sale. I expected a classic Metroidvania game, hoped for a very good one and feared a terrible mess. The result has something of all these.

If nothing else Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a solid Metroidvania (or Igavania) game with all the mechanics and gameplay quirks one can expect from the subgenre. There's now some character customization and a crafting system. The latter doesn't change a lot and just adds to the addictiveness. There's more enemy drops than ever before and way more chests scattered across the demon castle. Customization is usually neat, but here I feel it may be a bit misplaced. Letting you change Miriam's look to the extend Ritual of the Night allows for kind of ruins the character's recognizability. Since I don't consider the narrative a strong aspect of these games a nameless custom character might have been an even better fit for the protagonist.

You can customize Miriam's colors and hair style
And craft your own equipment
Equip whatever magic you like

Weapons and accessoiries now have their own unique models, allowing you to personalize your instance of Miriam even further. Unfortunately this is the only positive outcome of the decision to base the game on 3D graphics, as the overall visuals range all the way from passable to flat out awful. The GBA and Nintendo DS Castlevania still look much better than Ritual of the Night. For some reason you can still tell that early concept had the game take place all around the world and not in the confines of the usual castle from hell - some areas just don't fit at all. The default audio balancing feels quite off, I had to go and reduce the volume of voices and soundeffects so that they wouldn't drown out the music so much. But even then the soundtrack feels shallow for the most part. There's a few good and memorable tracks, but they get lost in the sea of less recognizable background tunes. They really botched the presentation for this one, there's no way to talk about this aspect with a positive notion.

However the presentation doesn't ruin the game. Slashing demons, grinding for loot and magic, creating one's own character, finding secrets in a somewhat non-linear environment is as fun as ever. For the most part, that is. Bloodstained has technical issues hurting the enjoyment of the overall product. It often freezes for moments, making you worry it crashed on you. And if you're unlucky it might just really do that - so better save often! Even if you would otherwise have no need to do so. Then they mismanaged the load screens. Just starting the game takes a while, only to need another load screen for the main menu to show up after you press start on the title screen. Load times are fortunately bearable during normal gameplay - unless you happen to die. Getting back into the game after a Game Over takes a while and can quickly get very annoying if you're stuck on a tough boss.

The main gameplay loop feels pretty satisfying but for my taste the game could have been a lot tighter mechanically. The balancing is all over the place, so your weapon and magic setup has a big impact on the perceived difficulty. Even on normal - the lowest difficulty mode - Bloodstained is in no way an easy game if you avoid the strongest equipment and go for a personalized character instead. Miriam misses a proper feedback animation when taking damage. Since almost nothing pushes her back it's easy to get stuck in enemies, and something about that just never feels right. It's especially bad because enemies have no clear patterns and appear to be bouncing all over the place, often making it hard avoiding these awkward situations. Then many enemies have the strong tendency to fly into the background where they can't be hit by the player. Unless I misremember that's always a thing in these games - only it feels a lot worse in HD with huge enviroments. What kind of gameplay feature is "wait for the enemy to be touchable"? Not to mention that loot constanly gets stuck in the terrain, forcing the player to wait again so they can claim their spoils. All in all the game could be a lot more mature with its gameplay. It's still fun for the most part, but can feel frustrating at times and there's a lot of room for improvement. The boss fights are very unsatisfying, and the late game areas are all rather uninspired with little to explore.

If I had backed the Kickstarter I'd have reason to be disappointed. But we still got the much better Curse of the Moon out of it. Ritual of the Night has a lot of potential and feels good thanks to its satisfying base mechanics - but in the end Curse of the Moon is just the much tighter game. Still I'm hoping for a sequel to Ritual of the Night with more polish. There's a great game waiting to happen. What we have right now is just good enough to be recommendable to fans of the genre.