With so much hype surrounding Nintendo’s return to the 2D roots of the Metroid franchise, players might want to remember that another classic series is receiving a spiritual successor, and what I played of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night has me nearly as excited to return to the nightmarish monster-slaying of the Castlevania style of games as I am to retake control of Samus. With a gorgeously moody setting, whip-smart controls, a haunting score, ghoulish enemy design, and stages built for side-scrolling exploration, Bloodstained shows how to pay tribute to the look and feel of the past while updating it for present day.
Players take control of Miriam, an orphan who has been put under a mysterious curse that is causing her skin to turn to crystal. In a plot eerily reminiscent of Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Miriam must track down the only person who can save her life, someone who just happens to reside in… a creepy castle. Though the demo I played was light on story elements, it was thick with the sort of ambiance that told a foreboding tale regardless of the lack of words. Crossing bridges in the moonlight and scaling the crumbling brick of old bell towers hammered home the plight of the protagonist, with her own body slowly falling apart. Grisly enemies patrolled the scene, from disembodied heads that called to mind a certain Medusa (though not nearly as annoying) to winged beasts, dark knights, and skeletal creatures that crumpled sombrely to the ground in defeat.
The fluid animation plays such a large role in the effect the visuals have, giving off a floating, dreamlike vibe that casts an alluring spell. My initial concern after watching Miriam move was that this level of animation would sacrifice some precision of platforming and combat, but I am happy to report that Bloodstained is as tight and responsive as the best Castlevania titles on the DS (this really shouldn’t have been a surprise, given that the game is being produced by Koji Igarashi, the person behind those classics). Miriam slashes her sword, hurls her lance, and conjures magic attacks with lethal quickness; she just also happens to look great doing it.
The impressively sharp controls aren’t the only takeaway from those older Castlevania games, however. The leveling system has returned, and there are plenty of weapons to find and abilities to learn that add a decent amount of depth to the already satisfying combat. As I cut a swath through the demo’s stage, I discovered chests both in plain view and off the beaten path that padded my arsenal and allowed me to experiment with the best ways to take down the demons in my way. Tossing the spear is a great way to show a flying foe that they’re not out of reach, or also to safely take out an armored behemoth who is just waiting for you to draw near, while the sword deals heavy damage in close quarters. By defeating enemies players also have the opportunity to pick up shards, which give Miriam new abilities that may assist in attacks or defense. I learned a spell that allowed me to cast a fire projectile, another way of holding certain baddies at bay while I plotted a moment to rush forward, while the player next to me picked up a shard that increased the damage their attacks would cause.
The amount of variation creates some wonderful experimentation in how both the platforming and combat is approached and has the potential to suit different play styles to a certain degree. The demo would not have been complete without the chance at a boss fight, however, and the one we got gave me a taste of just how gruesome and violent Bloodstained can be. Facing off against a woman armed with umbrellas might not sound like much, but her ghastly appearance and penchant for sending geysers of blood from every direction suggested an action-oriented version of Elizabeth Bathory, and this lady wasn’t about to roll over for a first-time player. This fight demonstrated the kind of timing and patience the genre requires in its big moments, and it executed some clever ideas, such as using the umbrellas to shield oneself from the raining red liquid. In the end, Umbrella Woman was utterly victorious, but I look forward to facing her again when my skills are more refined.
What was once a title I was vaguely interested in has now shot up to a must-play. There’s nothing more important to me than how a game feels to play, and Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night feels nearly perfect. The hauntingly rich setting, moody music, and polished visuals only serve to make my desire to once again ascend a hellish castle and face the eerie evil within. Bloodstained is set to release in the first half of 2018.