The product of one of the most successful video game crowdfunding ventures of all time, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is – quite literally – an exercise in wish fulfilment. Following his departure from Konami in 2014, former Castlevania series producer Koji "IGA" Igarashi would have required superhuman powers of resistance to ignore the flood of fan requests that he return to the "Metroidvania" genre he made so famous with the likes of Symphony of the Night, Aria of Sorrow and Portrait of Ruin, and he has duly delivered that with this grand 2.5D adventure; so much so that at times it feels little more than a facsimile of his previous work – but when you're working from a template that's this accomplished, is there reason to chastise someone for taking the safe route? Perhaps not, but Nintendo Switch owners do have a few more things to grumble about when compared to their PlayStation and Xbox-owning friends.
Bloodstained obviously isn't part of the Castlevania series, but it takes so much inspiration from Igarashi's previous efforts in the series that it almost feels like a fan-made homage rather than a stand-alone game. There are numerous points in the game where you'll instantly think back to key locations or moments in older titles; the waterfall from Symphony of the Night is recreated here for example, and many of the enemies you'll remember fighting all those years ago resurface in subtly different forms. Heck, even Alucard voice actor Robert Belgrade makes an appearance in a role that might seem oddly familiar. Despite the clear connection with his past work, Igarashi manages to tread the fine line between repetition and rediscovery, and there are enough new and unique foes to face that the recognisable ones don't outstay their welcome too much.
One thing Igarashi was keen on from the start was avoiding having Dracula as your main opponent, which, to be fair, he could easily have done as the character isn't Konami's property and sits safely in the public domain. While there is some reference to the world of vampires contained with the game, Bloodstained instead chooses to focus its gothic tale around the tragic Shardbinders; human experiments created by mysterious Alchemists' Guild so they can be sacrificed and summon forth forces from hell which would convince the world that spiritual – rather than technological – progress was mankind's true path. The main character, Miriam, is one such Shardbinder, who is spared this gristly sacrifice when she falls into a 10-year slumber. When she awakes, her fellow Shardbinder and friend Gebel has gone rogue, driven by his thirst for revenge for the wrongs done to him and his kind; he summons a massive fortress called the Hellhold and Miriam must venture inside to end his tyranny.
As a Shardbinder, Miriam's body is covered in crystals which, we are told, will ultimately cover her entirely, leading to her death. This is more than just a story beat; as you defeat enemies, they randomly release Shard Skills which unlock new attacks, demonic companions and passive abilities. The "Metroidvania" tradition of gear-gating the player's progress is also carried out by the slow and steady collection of unique shard powers, some of which allow you to open up parts of the castle. For example, when you defeat a certain boss you are gifted with a shard that offers the ability to move heavy objects, which grants access to areas of the map (and locations that lie outside of Hellhold's walls, it should be noted) that were previously off limits.
The Shard Skill system neatly mimics the Soul collection mechanic seen in Aria of Sorrow and its sequel, Dawn of Sorrow. Many of these powers are pretty basic and simply involve releasing a monster which attacks on-screen enemies, but others – such as a ray which can turn foes into stone – are more interesting. The more shards you collect the more powerful each skill becomes, and it's possible to level-up these skills to make them more potent.
In addition to your Shard Skills, you also have an inventory system which includes armour, headgear, accessories and – of course – weapons. Swords, spears, whips, axes, greatswords, daggers and even handguns are all part of Bloodstained's armoury and finding each and every one is an obsession in itself. Early on in the game you establish a headquarters of sorts which means you can buy and sell items as well as create new ones based on blueprints. A crafting system is also in place, allowing you to turn valuable item drops into powerful weapons or healing items; you can also disassemble items into their core components in order to gain access to specific ingredients.
The shards and weapons you acquire compliment each other perfectly, offering up a combat system that seems basic at first but actually rewards tactical play and experimentation. Do you release a wave of bats at an incoming foe and dive in after them to deliver the coup de grâce, or should you instead use a shard power that boosts your defence and stay well back, taking out enemies at range with your weaker (but safer) firearm? The fact that you can have multiple shards equipped at once (they're grouped into five categories: Conjure, Manipulative, Directional, Passive and Familiar) really does add immeasurably to the complexity of battle, and the ability to swap between entirely separate equipment and shard loud-outs via a shortcut system means you can have a configuration to suit every kind of encounter.
As for the core exploration experience, if you've ever played a Metroidvania in the past few years then you'll know the drill here. In theory, the entire castle is 'in play' from the moment you start the game, but portions can only be accessed once you possess a certain item or ability. Save points are dotted around the building, as are warp points which allow you to fast travel to certain sections. Despite its open nature, there are defined 'areas' on the map, and many of these showcase a boss encounter. While there's nothing quite as memorable as the horrific Granfalloon in Symphony of the Night or the nightmarish Puppet Master in Dawn of Sorrow, Bloodstained still has its fair share of unique and challenging enemies; the battle with two massive dragons on a massive tower is a highlight.
In true Metroidvania fashion, your character gains experience from each enemy encounter so even when you're having to backtrack through large portions of the castle, it never feels like a complete waste of time as you're always moving towards that health and stat boost. Alongside your health bar, there's a Mana Point gauge which is expended whenever you use a Shard Skill. This slowly recharges over time but managing it becomes a prime concern early on; luckily, smashing purple flames (another Castlevania reference) yields MP refills as well as cash, which can be spent on valuable items in your aforementioned HQ.
Bloodstained certainly feels like a proper Igarashi-made Castlevania, and the producer's love of quirky characters is retained as well. One enemy begs you not to kill them and instead offers to cut your hair; this is the primary means of customising Miriam's appearance, and you can change everything from her skin tone to the colours used on her dress. Another character sends you on revenge missions and is barely able to contain her anger as she points out which enemy killed which of her close family and friends. Then there's the dear old lady, who sits in your HQ and wants nothing more than to be fed fine food – in exchange for rare items, of course. Racing through the main story will take you a considerable amount of time, but Bloodstained is packed side-quests which will keep completionists glued to the screen, not to mention multiple endings that reward repeat playthroughs.
Despite the fact that it was one of Kickstarter's most successful video game campaigns, the $5.5 million initially raised in 2015 is still peanuts in the world of multi-format development, and while additional funds will have been generated via the publishing deal with 505 Games, it's clear that Bloodstained was made on a tight budget – and one that will have no doubt gotten much tighter following that delay. This manifests itself in a number of ways; certain locations look empty and lifeless, while a few of the character models are almost of Wii quality. The audio also suffers from some poor-quality effects, although it should be said that the soundtrack – which is mostly composed by Castlevania series stalwart Michiru Yamane – is superb and does a lot to connect Bloodstained with Konami's famous franchise.
These issues apply to all of the versions available, but the Switch port – as you may have heard – has additional problems that impact the experience further. For starters, the frame rate halved to 30 fps, and while it does a good job of maintaining that goal, there are numerous times when it dips even lower and sometimes even pauses for a fraction of a second, giving a jerky and rather unpleasant performance. This is both predictable and erratic at the same time; during one intense sequence which involves a zoomed-out camera angle, a rotating tower and multiple enemies, the frame rate was up and down like a bride's nightie – understandable when you consider the amount happening on-screen.
However, the frame rate drops just as alarmingly whenever you read a book from one of the many shelves mysteriously dotted around the castle (including in the dank caves below, which can't be good for delicate tomes). After reading the book, the game often slows down so much it feels like it's moving in slow motion and doesn't return to normal until you exit the room and enter another; this is clearly one of the many performance issues Inti Creates and ArtPlay have said they will address in a future update, but it gives you an idea of how rough this port is. Input lag is another problem; while it's not game-breaking, there's enough of a delay between your button press and the on-screen action to make the whole thing feel a little heavy and leaden.
Elsewhere, visual effects such as the running water on the ship in the opening level and real-time shadows have been either scaled back or sacrificed entirely, while texture quality is noticeably much, much lower on Switch than on other systems, leading to a muddy and ill-defined look. We also noticed 3D models 'popping in' as we entered certain scenes; for example, when entering a warp room the frame of the stained glass picture would start off with basic geometry and then 'fill in' after a second or two – a minor but still quite jarring event which destroys immersion and reminds you that you're playing a video game.
The close-up portraits of the main characters which appear during dialogue sequences are hardly what you'd call attractive on the PS4 Pro version, but they look downright ugly on Switch thanks to reduced texture quality and a resolution drop. Speaking of which, the game appears to run in 720p docked and 540p handheld, although some dynamic scaling may be in play during certain points. Oh, and while we're here, load times vary from instant to painfully long; some seemingly minor transitions between rooms can take as long as five seconds.
A patch may well fix the majority of these problems, but it's clear that the process of porting Bloodstained to Switch (it was originally slated for Wii U, lest we forget) hasn't been plain sailing. Even if the many (admittedly quite minor) problems are ironed out, it's unlikely that Inti Creates and ArtPlay are going to be able to get the Switch version on an even standing with even the versions available on the base PS4 and Xbox One consoles, at least from a visual and performance standpoint. It should be clear by now that if you have the option to play Bloodstained on any other system, then you should probably avoid the Switch edition.
As a counterpoint to that, this is actually a game that's incredibly well-suited to portable play; in fact, Metroidvanias really do lend themselves to Nintendo's console, and handhelds in general (we got two trilogies of Castlevania games on the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS, it's worth remembering). Multiple save points and a massive, non-linear environment to explore mean Bloodstained is ideal for playing in short bursts, so in that regard, the Switch version does offer one advantage over its siblings. Whether or not you're willing to put up with this version's myriad technical shortcomings in order to live the dream of Bloodstained on the move is for you alone to answer.
There's no denying that Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a fantastic Metroidvania, and arguably in the same class as the likes of Symphony of the Night and Aria of Sorrow. In that respect, it's mission accomplished for Koji Igarashi; he has fulfilled the promise he made back in 2015 to create a spiritual successor to the Castlevania games he's famous for. Bloodstained packs in hours of engaging gameplay, a complex and rewarding combat system, loads of collectables and plenty of gothic atmosphere; it's just a shame that Igarashi wasn't able to stage this revival within the Castlevania series itself, but fans should count themselves lucky – there hasn't been a full-blown Castlevania entry since 2014's divisive Lords of Shadow 2, and it would seem that the publisher is content to allow that esteemed series to fester in its grave for the time being (retro collections notwithstanding).
Despite the fact that this is unquestionably a very fine video game, there's no escaping the fact that the Switch version has some serious issues; assets are noticeably weaker than they are in other versions, the frame rate is halved and the loading times are maddeningly protracted at points. Fingers are crossed that the developers can remedy some of these problems with proposed updates, but for the time being, this is arguably the least impressive edition of the game – although the fact that it's portable perhaps counts for more than you'd think.