Ritual of the Night represents another Kickstarter project by a group of dedicated developers to revive a series the company that originally made it abandoned. In this case, the man at the helm is Koji Igarashi, the designer of famous PlayStation classic Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a spiritual successor, a revival of Symphony's flavor of Metroidvania which is sometimes called Igavania after its designer.
I was recently able to experience this game, and streamed it from start to finish. I'd like to share some thoughts about it. I'll focus on what the game learned from its predecessors, and to contrast, on what's brand new.
Ancient Rituals, New Rituals (Gameplay Comparison)
Ritual of the Night draws from many of its Castlevania predecessors. Like any Metroidvania worth its salt, it offers a huge area to map out and explore as you gain more abilities and knowledge, but it's easy to name a few specific inspirations.
The game draws from Symphony of the Night - including its name - but actually has very strong parallels with Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow and Dawn of Sorrow. Like Soma, the protagonist of those games, Miriam absorbs the abilities of the demons she fights. In Soma's case, he collected their souls; in Miriam's case, she collects their "shards" - which is functionally the same thing. In fact, Miriam's abilities as a Shardbinder are a logical evolution of that system after Order of Ecclesia had its own iteration with Shanoa's Glyphs. Soma could equip an offensive, defensive and passive soul - 3 in total. Miriam can equip 5, and the additions can be attributed to modern hardware. The GBA and DS don't have many buttons to manouver with and no joystick, so the Directional Shards that Miriam can use could never work on those systems - they require 360 degree rotation, after all. These new shards offer Miriam some mobility and attack options no other Castlevania hero has had. and the sheer amount of shards in so many categories means you could play the game a dozen times and still find new synergies.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night has a town with friendly NPCs. Like in Aria and Dawn, these NPCs buy and sell items. Like in Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, the townspeople also give you quests. There are also many parallels between Ritual's story and that of another Castlevania, but you'll have to play it to find out which. Another point about the town - Ritual of the Night has dedicated crafting system. Johannes, the Alchemist, can craft all sorts of items for you - and even food items, which give you permanent stat increases. The permanent stat increases represent something completely new for the 'Igavania' genre. I had an absolute blast trying to make as many dishes as possible. I've always really appreciated games that incorporate cooking, like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Paper Mario (I will use any excuse to bring that game up) - after all, what's more relatable than improving yourself by eating good food?
Miriam also moves at a good speed and has many possible ways to attack enemies depending on your preference. Guns, swords, spears or a good kick to the face; whatever suits you, and every playstyle has secret combos to discover and experiment with. These combos can even be mastered so they can be used with even more weapons. Combine that with the aforementioned shards, all of which can be upgraded in two ways for even greater effects, and you've got hundreds of ways to play. The variation is truly impressive.
All in all, Ritual of the Night is the sum of many great ideas across the Castlevania franchise with improvements across the board and a few great new ideas. It plays it fairly safe, but it's everything a revival of the genre could hope to be.
Ritual of the Night got a lot of flak when the first gameplay footage came out. With weak lighting and a distinct lack of vibrant color and contrast, people began to worry that they might have another Mighty Number Nine (a famous example of a Kickstarter game that failed to meet expectations) on their hands. But instead of ignoring the fans or labeling them as haters, the dev team took the criticism to heart and delayed the game to overhaul the visuals completely. And the results really do speak for themselves - Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night turned out very pretty indeed. It's fascinating that Ritual of the Night represents a rebirth for its particular kind of Metroidvania, but that the game itself also had such an extreme overhaul.
The characters and enemies are all very distinctive, and the amount of detail is appreciated - for example, each weapon has a unique look and each equippable hat or headpiece shows up on Miriam in game as well. You can also customize various other facets of Miriam's appearance, like her hair, hair color, skin color and clothes, among others. There are a few decorative objects in the background that could use a few more polygons, though, and Miriam's swimming animation is very odd and basic (she basically stands upright and waves her arms a bit). But while there are minor rough edges, all in all the game looks beautiful.
The game has voice acting, and I feel the voice actors did a good job. Unfortunately, there are some problems with how the game uses the voice acting; for example, some attacks will cause Miriam to call out the name of the attack or some other vocalization, every single time the attack is used. In a hectic battle where you're trying to sneak attacks in every second, hearing Miriam's voice clips repeat can get pretty grating. This is purely a problem with the implementation of the audio. For example, why not give a voice clip a 10-second cooldown after it's been used so you don't get so many repeats? Many of the voice clips could've used a few more takes, as well, just for variation. Implementation aside, though, the performances are great. It should also be mentioned that the game stars David Hayter, famous for doing the voice of Solid Snake, as Zangetsu. It also stars Robert Belgrade, who did the voice for Alucard in Symphony of the Night on the PlayStation. It's a real treat to hear David Hayter's gravely voice from Zangetsu, and seeing Robert Belgrade symbolically return to the role he's most known for is poetic, not to mention his excellent performance and deep voice.
The soundtrack is brilliant and I have no gripes with it whatsoever. Michiru Yamane, the genius composer responsible for so many classic Castlevania soundtracks, handled this game's soundtrack and she outdid herself again. Every track represents the atmosphere of the moment or environment perfectly, and many of them instilled a sense of wonder in my as I listened to them. The Garden of Silence is one of my favorite tracks:
The game's presentation has a few rough edges in its visuals and audio implementation, but the plentiful creative designs, great looking models, great performances and excellent soundtrack make it a treat worth experiencing.
Shards of a Story (Narrative)
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night's overarching story is very similar to the Igavania Metroidvania's that came before at its core. A castle has been summoned from Hell, and it's up to our hero with her special powers to send it back where it came from. The backstory is a little different, though, as there's no Dracula in control of the castle this time. Rather, the castle was summoned by Gebel, a Shardbinder (people who can absorb and use demon powers, like Miriam), as revenge for how the Alchemists sacrificed the lives of so many Shardbinders to summon demons to our world. As Miriam and Gebel were friends, she makes her way to the castle to see what has happened to her old friend and what has driven him to take such drastic measures - and to stop him by force if necessary.
As usual, I don't want to spoil the story, so I'll keep this vague:
There are a few emotional moments in the story, and while they are well written, we spend so little time with the characters that the impact is lessened a bit. The game is definitely not focused on its story too heavily, with much of it hidden in optional conversations with the alchemist Johannes and on the bookshelves you can encounter. You spend much of your time exploring, and it can be easy to forget all about Gebel and the tragic story of the Shardbinders when you're just running through the halls kicking demons to death and having a great time. But even though the time you spend with them is limited, the characters are pretty well realized and the dialogue is enjoyable. Miriam in particular is a very likeable protagonist with a friendly and enthusiastic demeanor, in contrast to Shanoa from Order of Ecclesia who was (justified by the story) lacking in emotion and expression.
In short, the story is fine; it offers enough justification to move the game along and has interesting and entertaining characters, but it mostly stays in the background and can easily be ignored, for better or for worse. This does mean that when emotional scenes come along, they may be less impactful.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is everything it sets out to be. Learning from the best ideas of its predecessor while implementing a few new ones, it's truly a revival of the 'Igavania.' It's big, it's fun and there are more ways to play than you can count. Its visuals thankfully got a necessary overhaul before release, and the results are a shining example of how taking feedback to heart can lead to major improvements. There are rough edges, but it's hard to be judgmental when you see how far the game has come. The game's audio is fine, with only some repetitive voice clips potentially harming your immersion. The soundtrack is a magnificent work of art. The story, like the game, is classic - but with new elements. It unfortunately stays in the background to the point that you may not get invested, but this will vary from player to player.
And that's it. This game was a really amazing experience for me. Streaming the game also helps me get my thoughts out as I play through the game. If you've played Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, did you enjoy it? What were your favorite Shards? How did you customize Miriam? All thoughts are welcome in the comments below and I'd be happy to answer any questions.