Bloodstained is another of those with an interesting back story. It’s well known as a Kickstarter project that played to gamers’ nostalgia. Koji Igarashi is moderately well known as the developer of several Castlevania games, most noticeably Symphony of the Night and Aria of Sorrow. He’d stated that he’d make a new game in that style, teasingly calling them “Igavanias,” if he could get the support. He got loads of support, as these sort of retro Kickstarters do.
Those same Kickstarters are also responsible for the debacle which is Mighty Number 9, which fell far short of fan expectation and was poorly handled by those involved (people responsible for Mega Man) and the highly divisive Yooka-Laylee (a collect-a-thon style game by ex-Rare employees). However, unlike those, Iga and his time produced something that’s truly impressive.
I had heard about this game and its development. I’d heard it was pretty good, and that it was a major representative of this whole “Metroidvania” genre that had started to get my attention. So, in the summer of 2019, I picked up two games: Dragon Quest XI (which I ended up hate-finishing), and this, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. I had joked with the Gamestop employee who helped me get the games that I was more worried about the older Bloodstained than the brand new Dragon Quest game, as I wasn’t even sure I’d like the game.
The opening of Bloodstained tells this almost melodramatic tale about alchemists and the rising technology, and how they were dealing with the possibility of being outdone by doubling down on demons. It is deliciously over the top, B-Movie sort of fare delivered with the utmost sincerity (which makes it all the more appealing), and it sets a wonderful tone for the game as a whole.
Bloodstained revels in its Gothic atmosphere. The music almost always feels bombastic, driving you onward through massive, ornate Gothic environments. Everything always felt like it was meant to be ornate, bordering on gaudy, like every single are was supposed to overwhelm you and feel impressive and massive. Again the music helped, but there was just a lot more to it.
I wasn’t sure I was a fan of the graphics, which had this strange feel to them that I’d later come to see is quite common in games of this genre. They’re sort of Polygonal, but in this almost overdone artistic way. It adds to this sort of overblown feeling the game wants to enforce.
Even the protagonist feels and looks a bit ridiculous. Miriam is a Shardbinder, an individual who can harness the power of demons through shards of their life and energy that are left behind. This grants her powers far beyond most mortals, but the power comes at a price: her dwindling humanity.
It also apparently means that Miriam is covered in flowery tattoos and shows a scandalous amount of skin for the supposed time period.
She literally could not be a more Japanese RPG/Metroidvania inspired design if she tried. Again, this demonstrates the game’s bend toward extravagance, the desire to always layer more on top of whatever’s there, building up something that’s just truly mind-boggling at times.
Miriam is here because a castle has appeared. It’s filled with demons ,and it appears as if Gebel, another Shardbinder from Miriam’s past is involved. The Church (you know the one) has sent for help, and Miriam is all the help they truly need, with her impressive abilities.
The game plays like most of its kind. You control Miriam as she jumps and fights her way through first a ship, then the castle itself. There are a handful of different weapons available, each altering Miriam’s playstyle slightly. You can find an overwhelming amount of equipment to layer upon her, and some of them change her appearance. This lends another degree of absurdity to the proceedings, as Miriam’s model changes, and you could have her spouting her super serious dialogue while wearing bunny ears and a ballroom mask.
Literally every aspect of Miriam can be altered, though she does keep her basic costume (there’s some variants throughout there, but only a handful). You could make her a green skinned, red eyed elf that prances around if you’d like. I always keep her basic design, which is just the right amount of extra for my tastes.
This does mean that you’re going to end up with your Miriam though. My Miriam uses clubs or swords as her usual melee weapon, since those have a decent amount of reach and speed without going overboard (I tend to lean that way for my melee builds in metroidvanias, a habit that started here). I also have a ranged build, using the gun and the various bullets, as that always felt like it’s the most overpowered build, so long as you spend the time to tweak it.
See, as you go, you find more and more to enhance and refine your preferred playstyles. Within that first area, you’ll realize that Miriam gains those shards by defeating enemies. The first time you get a shard is this dramatic, over the top experience, as the screen freezes while Miriam cries out in pain, ramming the shard into her body.
These grant you various powers and abilities. As you’d probably expect, this is also how the game gives you the various movement abilities you’d expect in a metroidvania: double-jump and move easily underwater are both shards.
It also adds something that makes Bloodstained stand out for me. See, every demon has a shard. That means that every demon is worth killing until they at least drop the shard. And the more shards of a type you, the stronger the ability. If you don’t want to strengthen an ability, excess shards can be sold for a tidy profit at shops.
That means that the game is constantly rewarding you. You get new shards and dropped items that are unique for almost every enemy in the game. Exploring new areas can mean new equipment, items, or shards. There are recipes which require you to put together different ingredients to create food. Eating food for the first time gives Miriam a permanent boost to her stats.
All of which means you’re constantly driven to go forward and discover more. The gameplay loops in on itself in a fashion that I haven’t seen many metroidvanias match. I constantly wanted to kill everything, to explore everywhere, because I never knew when I was going to find a new upgrade or ability or recipe or…
…the game also just plays well. Miriam moves smoothly, her attack range makes sense, and it all feels incredibly well polished. This is done by someone who mastered the art of making games exactly like that, and it’s done with the excess of a Kickstarter project that went way over its expected goals, and then went on to deliver on each excessive process.
Again: this was my first taste of games like this. I’d bought it alongside a game that was in a genre that I am obsessed with (JRPGs, see…. a lot of the reviews here). I did not realize that I was going to be thrown into the deep end, with this game of excesses, where everything ties together and there’s a constant push to move forward to find everything that lays ahead of you.
To me, every metroidvania gets compared to this, and most get found wanting. Even Hollow Knight, brilliant game that is is, doesn’t quite have the complete reward loop that Bloodstained has here. It does have better atmosphere, story, and gameplay, though I’d argue it just edges out Bloodstained.
So this is, for me, the standard. The game I compare others too. This doesn’t mean I can’t see its flaws. That excess is, well, excessive. There are flat out too many recipes, and too frequently they’ll rely on only one particular ingredient.
Get used to this screen if you want to complete most or all of the recipes and crafting. That winged cow monster is one of the only ones in the game to have Beast Milk, and someone decided that needs to go in about half the recipes. It’s a relatively low drop too. So you likely will end up farming this and a few others. It’s a noticeable annoyance, but at the same time, it is technically optional.
My latest playthrough, where these images and my knowledge for this review came from, is my third playthrough. I’m still using the mace/sword and gun. I’m still exploring everything with drive and desire (though I did leave a few things off because I had some more games on the queue; see all the new reviews around). It’s also one where I played on “Hard” difficulty.
I find that the “Normal” difficulty is just too easy for me. I thought that for the first playthrough, and, again, this was the first game of its kind that I’d ever played at that point. “Hard” is mostly well done…
…mostly, because that first boss, a sort of octopus meets siren situation (think Ursula from the Little Mermaid) is incredibly difficult. She’ll kill Miriam in just two or three hits; you have almost no healing items by that point, and you gun only has a handful of bullets. I have played through the entire game twice on hard mode, and by far the most difficult fight is this very first boss. It’s incredibly unbalanced, needing some more healing items or for the boss to do just a little less damage.
So, again, there are some issues here. Too much excess, and poor balancing in that first boss. The story gets so ridiculous that it borders on nonsensical at times. That’s on purpose though, or at least feels like it is.
Games are meant to be fun. They’re meant for us to feel something and for us to get something out of them. Some of why games become our favorites is definitely recapturing those moments. Final Fantasy IX is likely to be my favorite for nearly forever (Hades comes close) simply because I can remember playing it as a kid, to the extent that the music is nostalgic for me.
Bloodstained now is placed among those. It’s my first metroidvania, and I keep going back to it every few years. I went in this time with now dozens of games like it sitting beaten on my Switch and computer. I tested things, I tried to keep an open mind. But for me, it’s still this piece that makes me think of that first time. Of how I started wanting to play this game more than the massively overblown JRPG I had bought at the same time. How I was figuring out a new game type alongside a new game.
It’s excessive, it’s ridiculous, but it gives me everything I want in a metroidvania and is, and likely will be, the measuring stick I use for others. I don’t think it’s perfect (again: Hollow Knight’s a better game), but it’s always going to stick out for me, just like FFIX. It hits that emotional resonance that lies with most games.
And honestly, it’s just a really well done game, exemplifying everything I love about the genre.
9 though there’s a sort of tilt both in that score and beyond it; it still has some janky moments, a little too much excess, and a few issues.