Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night – Demonic Platforming With Style
PC, Xbox One, PS4, Switch
With its vibrant colour palette, twisted enemy designs and satisfying side-scrolling action, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is an ultimately enjoyable ride through the oddly beautiful, but overrun town of Arvantville. Though it’s got some early pacing concerns and frame rate issues in some of the larger scenes, Bloodstained manages to pull it all together over the course of its easily 20+ hours of gameplay to create something intriguing enough to beckon you through its challenging, labyrinthian realm.
Playing as the Shardbinder, Miriam–whose powers come from being experimented on with demonic crystals known as Shards–you’re charged with saving the world from the arrival of the demonic castle, Hellhold, that’s shown up on the town’s doorstep some ten years after disaster befell the region. The story itself goes deeper than you may expect, delving into church ritualism and betrayal, going some intriguing places in the process. Though where it struggles to grip is through its delivery; most of the discussion is done through visual novel-style dialogue sequences, while a lot of the backstory forms through journal entries discovered through the course of play. While the journals aren’t so bad, the dialogue sequences feel stagnant and not all that charming, a bit like an L-plater who rides the brakes a bit too much, which is a big contrast to Bloodstained’s enchanting level design.
While I’m not a fan of games characterised by lots of backpedalling, it’s something inherent to Bloodstained thanks to its firm Castlevania roots. As such, you’ll spend a large amount of your time in the game going back and forth between various sections of its sprawling map. This aspect didn’t take long to wear pretty thinly for me. It wasn’t until around five hours into the game, once I’d managed to gain a few ability shards, gain a few levels and collect some better weapons that I felt things opened up a bit. The early game is pretty tough, and not helped by combat that feels pretty cumbersome to begin with, but gets better the more you play. Thankfully once you’ve crossed over that hump, progress starts to come more consistently.
I found that the more of the map I uncovered, the more I wanted to keep going. The world is nothing short of a visual spectacle at times, with some incredible background and world art that mixes gothic horror influences with vivid colours. Particular highlights include the intricate stone architecture of the Entrance and the Garden of Silence, or the book-bound halls of Livre Ex Machina. They’re filled with gorgeous details, which might be part of why the game’s framerate can slow to a crawl in some of the more open scenes, like the Twin Dragon Towers.
Enemies are similarly impressive, with many looking like something that crawled directly from the pits of hell itself. From simple bats to giant, blue-glowing demons, there’s some great variety in both their design and their attacks. Less impressive are the main character designs, that don’t feel all that inspired when compared to the elaborate look of the enemies and much of the environment. Some slower enemies are simple fodder, but when combined on-screen with other enemies things get a lot hairier. Later enemies will use a combination of ranged and close melee attacks with quick movement, so learning the tells of each attack can be crucial to later survival. You only have a limited number of defensive abilities; frustratingly there’s no block button, which felt really unnatural to me. You’re only given a quick dodge to jump backwards from attacks, so the combat can take a little getting used to in that regard.
There’s a huge range of weapons and abilities to find, and though I never really felt the need to stray from the greatswords I predominantly used thanks to their powerful attack strength, I did enjoy being able to switch to faster weapons as required. In the early game, changing weapons can be a pain, requiring you to go into the Pause menu, then scroll through equipment lists and equipping it manually before the fight. This fades later on in the game though, thanks to a pickup that allows the creation of equipment shortcuts; player-created loadouts that can be used to change your characters equipped items with a quick button press. Although it feels far from required, these loadouts can save you a lot of time in the later game when switching between abilities, particularly those that help with traversal.
Perhaps my biggest issue with Bloodstained is how entrenched in the ‘start weak, finish strong’ trope it is. So many games do this, where the player character not only starts out less skilled, but more lethargic and flimsy, and it translates into a bad feeling at the controller. Had I not been playing this for review, chances are I would’ve fallen away from Bloodstained within that first five hours because it simply didn’t feel good to play. The jump is slightly too short, the running speed is slightly too slow and weapon swings feel languid and underwhelming. That is, until your character builds up abilities and experience. It’s only then that the game’s depth starts to reveal itself, but some may struggle to reach this point.
Despite the issues I have with the early game and feeling like some of the player character design is a little dull, Bloodstained gave me more entertainment than I expected. The stronger you get, the better the game feels, allowing you to better focus on the brilliant world there for you to explore and uncover. Thrust along by some incredible art and world design that actively makes you want to explore every nook and cranny, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night will delight some and frustrate others, duly rewarding those who push through its early game irritations.