Is it theft if you steal from yourself? The most recent demo of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night certainly begs the question. If there was ever any doubt in your mind, dispel it now: Bloodstained IS a classic 2D Castlevania in anything but name, brought to life through the vision of longtime series torchbearer Koji Igarashi.
Yes, the graphics are 2.5D and yes, nobody’s a Belmont. But from level design to weapon structure to character customization to monster behavior, Bloodstained bleeds pure Castlevania. And that’s a very good thing.
The E3 demo picks up where previous slices leave off, starting at the end of a sailing ship battle and progressing through a village and into a castle setting. Conversations pop up occasionally as several new NPCs appear, fleshing out some parts of Miriam’s story, but I spent the bulk of my time exploring as monstrous flying beasts, skeletal dogs, demonic archers, and various other cannon-fodder-of-the-damned tried their best to kill me.
The stages extend vertically and horizontally, with treasure chests tucked away in corners. Save points are scattered about in antechambers, and shopkeepers appear in some areas, dealing a variety of useful wares from consumables to firearms. I choose to rely on black powder weapons for much of the demo, and was pleased to discover that guns felt quick and powerful without ruining difficulty and balance.
The experience was, quite frankly, awesome, and an internal confirmation that this is the Castlevania I know and love.
But it was the acquisition of a knife and balisard that really sent the cockles of my heart racing into high gear. Armed with these fast-striking point blank weapons and her agile move set, Miriam practically became an early game version of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night’s Alucard. My actions began to take on a muscle memory fidelity, an instant sensation of familiarity that shouldn’t be possible in a game that’s nominally the first in a series. The experience was, quite frankly, awesome, and an internal confirmation that this is the Castlevania I know and love.
I don’t particularly remember much about the audio, a notable concern as part of what makes Castlevania great is its consistent fidelity to bodacious music. This may, of course, simply be a matter of ROTN being incomplete at this stage of development, but I’d really hoped for a catchy track or two.
My playthrough featured two bosses, the gigantic sea creature that appears at the climax of previous demos, and an entirely new enemy, a katana-wielding humanoid warrior who taunted me before kicking off a stirring test of agility. Beating him requited me to use swift reflexes to avoid his quick, far-reaching attacks, and I also found myself switching weapons mid-battle from ranged guns to close combat knives because my pistol shots appeared to do less damage as the battle wore on. Eventually, my foe’s sword spouted flame as he leapt around the screen threatening to immolate me, as I sprang away and countered with giant-elemental-god-tentacle-magic attacks of some kind. The fight (which took me four tries to win) was intense, rewarding, and refreshingly Castlevania.
While I don’t typically want my video games to be derivative, I frankly can’t hope for anything else from Bloodstained. Konami has made it apparent they have no interest in producing new titles in what was once a groundbreaking series that maintained cultural relevance for two decades before withering on the vine from neglect, and I want the best ideas of that legacy to exist where they can be enjoyed. I’ll take an imitation that honors the core elements of Castlevania any day, and that day appears to have arrived. It’s probably too much to hope that Bloodstained will surpass its progenitors, but I do hope it can evoke and match them.
I’ve seen enough of Ritual of the Night now to feel very hopeful that this isn’t another Mighty Number 9 situation. The feel and pacing of the game, the vast selection of customization options, and the attention to thoughtful design convince me that the creators have a deep philosophical understanding of what makes the best Castlevania games great. I feel good about this one.
Jared Petty produces Red Dead Radio: The Read Dead Redemption Podcast, Hop, Blip, and a Jump, and Pockets Full of Soup. He’s a host at Kinda Funny Games and a frequent contributor to IGN. He really likes when video game characters use whips. Follow him on Twitter @pettycommajared and on Instagram @pettycommajared.