Joining Witch's Cat in Agetec's recent duo of playfully spooky eShop releases, Bloody Vampire is a stylish, side-scrolling adventure in the Metroidvania vein. It tells the story of Latis, an exquisitely pigtailed half-vampire / half-human, who sets off to investigate the coming conflict between her two bloodlines with Cereza, her loyal protector and vampire defector. The characters are mildly interesting, but the plot, elucidated through talking heads cutscenes, is not one of Bloody Vampire's strong points. That's fine as far as we're concerned, because the game behind it is frightfully fun.
Like Metroid, Castlevania or the DSiWare hit Shantae: Risky's Revenge, Bloody Vampire's gameplay revolves around platforming through an open world, upgrading your character and using newly acquired abilities to return to previously out-of-reach areas and items. It's a first-rate formula of exploration and light puzzling, and while Bloody Vampire doesn't do much to shake up the paradigm, it does bring a distinctive combat system into the fray. Instead of using a ranged weapon, sword slice or head-bop, Latis attacks her foes by ramming into them. It's similar to the classic "bump attack" from the Ys series, but with slightly different mechanics: meeting an enemy head-on will deal damage but can also hurt Latis if the enemy is much stronger than she is, while bumping baddies from behind will dish out damage without repercussions.
It feels bizarre at first to pilot the gracefully skipping half-vampire lass as if she were a bulldozer, but it quickly becomes enjoyable and gives the game a unique feel. There's a great variety of enemy types to smash up against too, and the bosses in particular are classically fun, with unique movement patterns that force you to find an appropriate plan of attack. Unfortunately, the collision detection doesn't always keep up with the fun of the combat; on the ground it's mostly spot on, but it can be difficult to gauge a safe angle of attack when you're jumping to meet an enemy in the air.
Beyond simply hammerheading her enemies, Latis has access to several different types of magic. Equipped via the touch screen and activated with a press of the X button, her fire, ice, lightning, and meteor magic serves offensive, defensive and puzzle-solving roles, and each has three levels to obtain. You also eventually gain the ability to transform into bat and wolf forms, both of which — besides opening up the map quite a bit — are seriously fun to play around with.
In general, Bloody Vampire controls very well. It takes a minute to get used to Latis' slightly floaty jump, but after that, platforming feels solid and natural. The shoulder buttons are sensibly used to cycle between equipped magical abilities, both the Circle Pad and D-Pad are supported for movement, while jumping and spell casting are taken care of by the face buttons. One odd omission is the lack of consistent touch support on the bottom screen. Strangely, while you can manage your items in the Inventory tab with the stylus, and select either of the other two tabs with a quick tap from there, once you're on the Status or Conversation tabs the stylus is rendered useless — even getting back to the inventory requires switching to button control. It's not game-breaking, but it definitely feels shoddy.
Bloody Vampire is a throwback to the 8- and 16-bit days in more ways than one; along with the gameplay, it retains a few anachronistic mechanics that modern handheld games have mostly left behind. Perhaps the ultimate nod to the game's old-school origins is the fact that there's no map to accompany your adventure. There's all the obligatory backtracking to previously inaccessible items and areas you'd expect from the genre, but here you have to navigate entirely from memory. Whether that's a source of excitement or frustration will come down to player preference, but we didn't find it to be too much of a problem. If you do get lost, a "Conversation" option tucked away under the touch screen's third tab will initiate a dialogue between Latis and Cereza specific to the room they're in, often containing hints on where to go or what to do next.
Another of Bloody Vampire's retro trappings is the fact that players can only save at specific points, by visiting a shop. These are usually frequent enough that you won't lose too much progress by dying, but it's worth noting that this isn't the kind of game you can quickly save as you're pulling up to your bus stop.
Finally, the game's currency — required to purchase keys, upgrades, abilities and restore items in the shops — is initially very thin on the ground, and doled out in random amounts when you've defeated an enemy. Skill enhancements cost 1000 "solg" and HP-restoring medicine costs 150, but you'll be picking up pennies just as often as five- and ten-solg pieces, The coin shortage helps keep the game from becoming unbalanced by early bird upgrades, but it also means you might need to farm for gold in order to advance at a few points. Thankfully, respawning enemies makes that a relatively easy task.
Graphically, Bloody Vampire harkens back to the colourful 2D platformers of the Sega Saturn era, though the level of detail doesn't quite match up to its influences. Character and enemy sprites look great, and the halo of a white outline around Latis adds a nice effect, but in motion everything feels as if it's missing a frame or two of animation. The level tile sets are simple and very repetitive — you will see a lot of bricks — but they contrast well with the soft, watercolour backgrounds, especially with the relatively mild 3D effect activated. Disappointingly, the fonts used in Bloody Vampire are distractingly unpleasant and, in some cases, downright difficult to read — the shop and the save screen are particularly illegible.
Like the game's visuals, Vampire's fun synth-guitar soundtrack evokes an old-school feel, and fits the game well. The only issue is repetition; since the tracks start over from the beginning after every cutscene or shop visit, and since most of the tunes feature distinctive "intros", it feels like the soundtrack restarts itself a bit too often. Sound effects add 'oomph' to spellcasting, 'swoosh' to flapping your wings as a bat, and a satisfying and sturdy 'thwack' to Latis' bump attack.
Bloody Vampire is a bit rough around the edges, and it's far from original, but it combines its sleeve-borne influences into a stylised package that's a lot of fun. Fans of Metroidvania-style games looking for an eShop fix will get well more than their $5 worth of fun here, and newcomers up for designated save spots and the absence of a map should definitely look into spending a vampire weekend with Latis.