Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night (RotN) is a game of notorious origins. Konami, holding IPs like Silent Hill, Metal Gear, and Castlevania franchises hostage, has become arguably the gaming industry’s Public Enemy Number One. This prompted Castlevania mastermind Koji Igarashi (Iga) to depart the company and found ArtPlay in 2014. Its mission was to create a spiritual successor to one-half of the “metroidvania” moniker: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
In 2015, Iga/ArtPlay launched a Kickstarter, and Castlevania fans voted with their dollars, making its $5.5 million in crowdfunding the most-funded video game in Kickstarter history at that time (likely inspiring Yu Suzuki for Shenmue 3). Unfortunately, RotN served up the double-whammy of the poor reputation of Kickstarter projects and typical video game industry tardiness. We would not get our hands on a playable demo of RotN until 2018, a year behind the list of 2017 Kickstarter goals. From what I played then, I was confident that it would not replicate the disappointment of Mighty No. 9. With the full version of RotN in-hand, I can say that it clears the hurdle…while knocking it over.
Violence: In most cases, attacks do not generate blood. However, a couple of instances border on the M-level of disturbing. The werewolf saturating a water fountain with blood from its skewering returns from the demo. Similarly, a(n optional) boss fight involves the foe painting entire arena with gallons of blood like Johnny Depp’s death scene in Nightmare on Elm Street. It could also be argued that the most gruesome parts of the game have nothing to do with blood, but the protagonist’s shrieks of pain when she absorbs new shard powers through self-impalement; she also shrieks like this when receiving a deathblow.
Language: I do not recall any swears, but in a T-rated game, one should be prepared for some of the PG-level stuff, such as d**n or @$$.
Alcohol and Tobacco Use: Potions and elixirs are used to replenish health and mana.
Sexuality: Remember how Alucard would strike a pose while holding the up button in SotN? The protagonist here likewise strikes a pose with the same command, but one that reminds my wife, who was watching my playthrough, of a stripper. I am admittedly bothered by the character’s overly-feminine posture, while my wife is troubled by her impractical-for-combat, gravity-defying tube dress; on the other hand, I appreciate her modest shorts under this dress.
The first boss of the game echoes Virtua Fighter boss Dural. Only those who consider the customary mermaid figureheads on ship bows worthy of shielding children’s eyes will find this boss offensive. Animated vessel carvings aside, RotN does feature one “topless” humanoid whose back is to the camera before her clothes bifurcate across her body after a literal blood bath. I hope that this would trigger only haematophiles. Yes, I am kink shaming.
Spirituality: Not since the Binding of Isaac have I played such an aggressively fractious depiction of Christianity as is RotN. To save me some space in the “review” section, the story is as follows: threatened by the encroachment of the Industrial Revolution, shifting humanity’s ethos from faith and speculation toward reason and empiricism, the Church sought to reinforce its ideological dominance. A secret society called the Alchemy Guild, a proxy for the Church, infused humans with crystals, not unlike stained glass, that attuned them to the demonic sphere. The Church sacrificed these Shardbinders in ritual, unlocking a gateway for demons to invade the world while coinciding with the Laki eruption of 1783; darkness descended upon the earth in soot and fiends. In other words, the Church created a demonic invasion to justify its own existence in the eyes of humanity.
As though the idea that the Church would propagate evil to maintain power were not enough of a boorish criticism, a character in the late game harangues on the “silence” of God amidst the demonic invasion, the
“powerlessness” of God, alluding to the Nietzschean “death” of God—yes, capital-G God. While it would be intellectually dishonest to downplay some of the atrocities that the Church has committed when using God as an ideological tool in both the past and present, and I do think it fair to levy these criticisms, I take umbrage with a story that positions the Chruch as the source of evil. When RotN references the Church with a capital-C, it is speaking of the body of Christ, and we know that any part of Christ cannot be evil, for he is holy and perfect; some denominations go as far as to recognize transubstantiation, where the consumption of Jesus’ body is imprecisely metaphorical, because they desire the holiness that his mere presence provides.
Take note, readers, how often criticism is levied against Christianity or God—almost never Jesus, who is why we are Christians in the first place. This is because as the song says, there is power in the name of Jesus (John 14:13–14). Remember that demons may not back down from the weapons of the protagonist in RotN, so she struggles mightily. However, demons tremble even at the thought of Jesus Christ (James 2:19)!
The Church is able to just barely suppress the 1783 demon attack, solidifying the importance of its role within public mindshare. However, ten years later, the demons return. Only two Shardbinders had survived the original purge: Gebel, who appears to be the source of the second demonic invasion, and Miriam, who was spared from the ritual sacrifice because she mysteriously went comatose. Conveniently, she has awakened, seeking to end the turmoil.
It is endearing how much Iga has invested into Castl—I mean, Bloodstained: Symph—pardon, Ritual of the Night; I am susceptible to sympathize with developers who involve themselves with a passion project in the way that Iga does, from candid developer diaries, to acting scenes. Iga took on the criticisms gamers offered in response to the RotN Kickstarter backer demo, and made a trailer (above) demonstrating his dedication to crafting a stellar, rather than mediocre, product. As a result, RotN delivers everything Castlevania fans should expect, albeit with a few elements for which nobody asked.
Most importantly concerning RotN is that it gets “Igavania” right. This game is principally SotN with its environments, animations, weapons, and enemies rendered in 2.5D. The backgrounds in particular stand out as the primary benefactor of a shift to polygons from sprites, as the depths of the z-dimension beckon with their shifting along with my movement in the foreground. Animations for those elements in the fore have been treated with equal measure, creating a game that looks as good as one should expect from a veteran lead designer.
Behold the 1:1.
All the little things that made SotN RPG-like return, including level-ups for Miriam and her familiars, weapons and items that vary in strength and purpose, as well as the “spells” that shards provide. I do not care for the whole “shardbinding” plot device to explain why Miriam possesses Alucard-like powers, but there are plenty for gamers to choose from. I would have stuck with martial arts attacks if the RNG allowed me to roll the necessary items to craft what was appropriate for my level and the enemies that I faced. I had to settle for a polearm—specifically a shovel—more than I wanted to because for a long time, it was my most potent weapon; in addition to some animation canceling, and I could deal substantial damage. Likewise, I stuck with just a few shards for spells, such as a dog that does damage simply by across the screen; and I hardly ever used the “aiming” shard. Most of my MP drained when I eventually unlocked the healing shard.
Michiru Yamane reprises her role as composer, and while I do not think she outdoes her work on SotN, RotN‘s soundtrack is sure to make some playlists. “Voyage of Promise” appropriately fits the introductory stage to hype up the game with its guitar; in fact, all songs featuring the famous SotN guitar are among the best in RotN, such as “Cursed Orphan” “Repentance,” or “Exorschism.” “Holy Wisdom” fosters the mimetic splendor of a cathedral, making for one of the game’s better songs. “Interred Glory” delights unexpectedly, indicating that sampling from Eastern themes remains largely untapped territory beyond archetypes such as assigning Arabian melodies to deserts, or Oriental harmonies to falling cherry blossoms. “Luxurious Overture” matches “Dracula’s Castle” in its welcoming of players to explore its treasures. “Call of Eternity” tries to recapture the enchantment that is “Prayer,” yet lacks the necessary conviction. “Lost Garden” is a great allusion to “Marble Garden,” however. Over time, I think this OST will grow on me.
I must also mention that although the voice acting is stiffer than I am willing to tolerate in a game translated from Japanese to English, Iga managed to nab two iconic voice actors. The attentive will notice David Hayter’s Solid Snake tone and cadence almost at once. I could not resist a “Meryl…I mean, Miriam!” joke. Only true SotN fans will recognize Robert Belgrade’s cameo in RotN. He does not play Alucard, but instead, someone who is close enough….
RotN gets a lot of things right, but unfortunately, the things that it gets wrong are not just game-breaking, but on the precipice of system-breaking. I have been running a stable PC for years, and I only update my GPU drivers for dire situations, usually when a taxing AAA game comes out; not even Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus required this, or the recently-released Total War: Three Kingdoms. However, I would experience memory leaks, screen tearing and flickering, and finally, BSODs while running ROTN. I was under the impression that my RAM was failing, and spent hours running diagnostics, wondering if I was going to have to write a review having played only about 1/4 of the game. On the contrary, RotN is unnecessarily taxing on the system, requiring the latest GPU drivers. I consider the root cause of these problems as a lack of optimization even though the game (now) runs at a silky-smooth 60 fps+. So much for the Steam page’s joke concerning merely needing a potato PC to run the game—I’m running a GTX 1070!
Not being able to collect items stuck in the geometry of the environment is merely annoying, but the BSODs and crashing are indefensible. I did not experience a game-breaking bug that makes RotN impossible to finish as was discovered and patched on the Switch version, but the game crashed enough all on its own. For example, I did replicate the “headless Miriam” bug that freezes the game, requiring a hard restart.
Here, Dominique initiates a conversation, but I was back-dashing when she spoke, so I am no longer in front of her. I could not move. Hard reset required.
To rub salt in the wound, when I experienced one of these game-breaking bugs, I minimized RotN to file a report with ArtPlay and was interrupted with a BSOD. Granted, this took place before I updated my drivers, but is still fresh in my mind: RotN is so buggy, that it seemingly acts against my troubleshooting efforts. Things became so bad that the fear of game-ending bug suppressed my natural desire for exploration well before hard-hitting enemies did. Thus, during my playthrough of RotN, finding the nearest save location became the highest priority. Because of this fear, I could no longer enjoy the game as I wanted.
As if the bugs were not bad enough, RotN features two vexing sequence transitions. In the shop, an NPC named Dominique periodically provides clues concerning where the player should go next, often citing the characteristics of a boss’s and its location before the relevant area has been found. In one example, she says, “find a creature that can go through small spaces.” The problem is that this area is not accessible until two other interactions with two other NPCs; if players are naturally traveling through the castle, they may have already interacted with one or more of these NPCs, and see no reason to go back and interact with them again, because the game does not prompt them to do so. I am intentionally vague here to avoid spoilers (although I have already provided the solution in this review; I am only just now calling the reader’s attention to it), but I was furious when I looked up the solution because of its lack of logic.
Another sequence dilemma concerns players knowing there will be an item that will allow them to go underwater. The problem is, this navigational perk does not come in the form of an item, but a shard from one specific creature in the whole game. And shard drop rates vary dramatically. After attaining the bad ending to RotN and looking up the steps to earn the good one, I became enraged again because dumb luck is yet another unintuitive solution to puzzles in an Igavania. He should know better than this!
When I think of my all-time favorite games, I say to myself, “I just wish I had more levels and modern graphics.” Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is precisely that for SotN fans, from the OST to even the scale of a few bosses. For all intents and purposes, it is fundamentally a great game. However, it is unfortunate that during my review playthrough, I spent several hours troubleshooting bugs, running RAM tests or performing hard system restarts. Depending on preferential platforms, YMMV with RotN. If there is any consolation to be had, Iga’s team is actively patching the game, with 13 free (!!!) DLCs when all is said and done. Additionally, I did not experience further inconveniences with crashing or game-locks after hour ten. Approach with vigilance.
Review code generously provided by Wonacott Communications
The Bottom Line
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is the outstanding game that Iga promised us, currently blighted with several game-breaking bugs.