Official artwork and logo for Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, much like the classic Castlevania: Symphony of the Night from which it draws a great deal of inspiration, is a combat and exploration focused Metroidvania game. In other words, you can expect to spend most of your time carving a path through numerous bosses and enemies, messing around with a giant assortment of weapons and abilities, and perhaps most importantly of all, using said abilities to open up new shortcuts or to simply explore previously inaccessible areas.

A fairly old formula at this point, but one that has managed to stand the test of time quite well! So if you're wondering just what Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night has to offer, as well as how its newly redesigned visuals have fared, allow me to share with you my thoughts after a rather eventful playthrough.

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night screenshot of the blue whip weapon

Naturally, there are plenty of whips to choose from! 

After watching some of the earliest trailers, my biggest worry with Bloodstained was that its core gameplay wouldn't be up to snuff. Thankfully, my concerns ended up being completely unfounded as Bloodstained feels remarkably similar to Symphony of the Night. What I mean by that is that the gameplay is smooth and responsive almost all the way through! Not once have I felt like I died because Bloodstained was wrestling with me for control - it was mostly just me doing something unbelievably stupid and then getting punished for it, which is definitely in the Castlevania spirit.

The one thing I did find myself annoyed with was the backstep move. On its own it works perfectly fine as a means of dodging away from attacks or scooting under enemies while they jump at you. However, since Bloodstained allows you to essentially turn on a dime, the backstep can also be used to dash forward by simply changing your direction before you do it, and this is where the problem arises. 

Having to constantly orient yourself left and right in order to make use of the dodge move in a frantic boss fight feels incredibly fiddly, especially against bosses like Zangetsu as his fast strikes demand near instant responses. So instead of a backstep, the ability should've been a simple dash forwards or backwards. It already serves this function, so might as well get ride of the needless inconvenience. 

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night screenshot of the medusa head enemies

The dash comes in really handy against the 'Medusa Head' enemies as well

Another thing that was unnecessary, but I definitely appreciate regardless, is the staggering amount of different weapons and abilities. There are so many unique playstyles to utilize that even if Bloodstained featured half of the weapons it has now, it would still have an incredibly diverse and interesting arsenal to play around with. There are slow weapons, fast weapons, flying weapons, enchanted weapons, spears, whips, katanas, greatswords, and perhaps most surprisingly of all, kung fu boots! So regardless of what sort of playstyle you might enjoy, chances are Bloodstained will have a weapon that'll make you feel right at home.

Besides the weapons themselves, you can also acquire a brand new ability from every single monster your encounter. This could be a passive effect like faster attack speed with spears, a monster's signature move like a flaming whirlwind, or for those of you that love Pokemon, the ability to summon the monster itself in order to have it do a bit of fighting for you. Once again, if this was the extent of Bloodstained's repertoire I would be more than happy, but that's just not the case. Basically, every single weapon has some sort of combo you can unlock, and every single spell has multiple upgrades in order to make them scale into the endgame! 

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night screenshot of the great Worm boss

Nothing ruins a giant dragon-worm's day faster than a drill to the snout! 

As you might imagine, having such a massive amount of options means that some of them are going to end up being overpowered. I don't particularly mind secret weapons being super strong for a while, but the way Bloodstained distributes its abilities through random drops means that it rarely feels like you've earned the power boost. It also doesn't help that some of the strongest spells in the game look rather tame in comparison to the spectacular but weak spells like the fire whirlwind. So as much as it pains me to see some of my favorites get nerfed, I do believe some serious balance tweaks are necessary in order to keep Bloodstained engaging throughout the whole playthrough. 

Speaking of balance, the bosses themselves are also in need of a bit of work. Due to simple numbers, and the above mentioned overpowered abilities, a lot of the bosses can be brute-forced, which to me goes against the spirit of Castlevania. You should have to spend at least a life or two learning their patterns and how to counter them as the satisfaction of beating a boss is directly proportional to how many times they used your face as a mop. As it stands, you can just dodge a couple of attacks and then blast them in the head with one spell after another and hope they keel over before you do. An effective strategy to be certain, but also a pretty boring one.

There is no better example of how this could be done than the second boss, Zangetsu. Brute-forcing him with early game abilities is almost impossible, so in order to defeat him you will need to engage in what feels like an elaborate dance. He swings - you dodge, he jumps - you backstep through him, he throws daggers - you attack him from above, he explodes half of the arena - you hide behind his back and introduce his head to your mace. Failing to evade his abilities will take off a significant portion of your health, but since each of his attacks are telegraphed and have a 'proper' way to avoid them, fighting Zangetsu is a very satisfying affair. I can only hope future patches will bring more bosses up to his level.

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night screenshot of the Zangetsu boss

For a second boss, Zangetsu was refreshingly challenging! 

Besides being used to smack enemies around, your abilities are also important when it comes to facilitating exploration. Certain pathways will require you to have a double jump in order to continue, while some secrets will require a clever combination of moves in order to plunder their riches. This sort of thing is a staple of just about every single Metroidvania game, and I am very happy to say that it works wonders in Bloodstained as well. 

This is partly because the map design is highly intuitive and easy to follow, and partly because you never have to backtrack through large stretches of cleared areas in order to access one or two new secrets. Best of all, there's almost always an entire region hidden away, or at the very least a series of rooms to fight through, which makes exploration highly rewarding. After all, nothing feels as exhilarating as returning to an area you've previously cleaned out, only to then realize you've barely even scratched the surface of what it really has to offer! 

While most of the pathways you're supposed to take are either highly telegraphed or at least hinted at through dialog, the route through the underwater caverns is absolutely infuriating and almost impossible to figure out without blind luck. Without spoiling too much, the only way forward is to farm enemies until they drop their ability which lets you propel yourself through the water. Nobody ever tells you this, however, so unless you get lucky and loot the ability within a couple of kills, chances are you're going to wonder around for an hour like I did, constantly looking for a passage that simply doesn't exist!

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night screenshot of the library level

There's a nice variety to the levels as well! 

It also doesn't help that the design of the map itself is a bit troublesome. Despite the levels being fairly expansive, the map always starts zoomed out and focused on the very center, rather than on where you are right now. Combine this with right click being "place marker" instead of "cancel", and you've got a situation where simply checking the map can be a lot fiddlier than you might expect.

Similarly, the rest of the PC UI is a bit underdeveloped. There is basically no mouse support, so you're constantly going to have to use the left side of your keyboard in order to do any sort of item management. In a small inventory this is no problem, but once your hoard of items starts ballooning out of control, having to use a console-focused UI gets really tiring really quickly.

None of this is too big of a deal, however, as the actual gameplay controls work perfectly fine. While the menu keybinds are a bit bizarre, at least as far as my tastes are concerned, the actual movement and combat keybinds are spot-on! They're all centered around WASD and easy to reach, so despite the UI being made primarily for consoles, I found playing on mouse and keyboard to be just as good as using a gamepad.

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night screenshot of the map

My character is hidden among the dozens of dots somewhere near the bottom left 

The final thing worth mentioning is the first thing most people complained about when Bloodstained got announced - the presentation. While the raw graphical fidelity is somewhat low due to Bloodstained's limited budget, I am glad to say that the recent redesign has done wonders for its aesthetics. It feels like a consistent and cohesive world all the way through, and with the exception of a couple of areas that look like cardboard cut-outs, the visual style is actually quite charming. 

As is tradition for a Castlevania game, the voice acting and writing are a bit of a mixed bag. However, unlike Symphony of the Night, the voice acting in Bloodstained is surprisingly good! I could really tell the actors were trying their hardest to make the material work, but unfortunately there is no amount of talent that can save the frequently awkward dialogues. It's not exactly a major problem given that we're all here to smack demons over the head and not chat with merchants, but it's still one of those elements I would've loved to see polished up just a little bit more.

Thankfully, the music is exactly what it needs to be! It's action-packed when things heat up, somber and atmospheric when you're simply roaming around the castle, and grandiose when you encounter something that's truly out of the ordinary. I'm out of my depth here as I'm not exactly a music expert, but perhaps the biggest piece of praise I can offer is that despite playing Bloodstained for around a week straight, I still find myself listening to the soundtrack in my free time. It really is quite relaxing!

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night piano in-game screenshot

So relaxing, in fact, that there's even an in-game piano you can play!

Closing Thoughts

Like I said at the very beginning, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a modern Castlevania game in everything but the name. There's a ton of weapons and abilities to toy around with, the controls are smooth and precise, the castle and its outskirts a joy to map out, and while there is still work that needs to be done on the balance, most of the enemies are pretty fun to fight against. 

So while its low budget does occasionally cause some problems, most notably when it comes to the UI, Bloodstained is an excellent Castlevania game and one I can comfortably recommend to fans of Symphony of the Night, or just anyone that's looking for an oldschool Metroidvania game. As for me, I do believe it's time to try and complete a playthrough of Shovel Knight!