All right, all right, so it's another explormer. However, I would argue that Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is the most important explormer of this year, and it's therefore paramount that I cover it here instead of some minimal budget thing from 2016 (not that I mean to denigrate minimal budget things from 2016; plenty more of those coming in 2020). The big surprise return of Koji Igarashi to the genre he helped define through Castlevania: Symphony of the Night started with a Kickstarter project that was wildly successful, to the extent that it even made a stretch goal to develop a completely separate prequel game. It's fair to say that for all those who backed the game at least, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is one of the most hotly anticipated releases of this year. And I hated it. Nah, I'm just kidding; can you imagine waiting years for some Japanese auteur designer to finally release his dream project free of any shackles only to find out it's a horrific disappointment? Heavens forfend.
Talking of heavens forfending things, we've got a castle chock full of demons to slay. Bloodstained follows the adventures of Miriam: a "shardbinder" who was cursed by human alchemists with a crystal embedded into her body that is capable of channelling darker forces so she could be a pawn in a conspiracy to summon a demonic horde to overwhelm the complacent populace of the 18th century, who had long since stopped giving alchemists money for their research because fancy steam trains and automated factories were more the rage. That's a loose approximation of what sense I can make out of the story, because it's really just an excuse for Iga to cast Shanoa in the leading role again without violating any Konami copyrights. Like Shanoa, Miriam is covered with demonic tattoos that confer a number of demonic powers, and each enemy in the game can potentially drop their "shard" for Miriam to collect and use; some shards are active spells while other provide passive effects like familiars that float around and support you, or provide boosts to stats and resistances. If you've played Order of Ecclesia (or either of the Aria of Sorrow/Dawn of Sorrow duo) you already know the score. The game's antagonist is another of these shardbinders, Gebel, but you get the hint early on that it's another "Richter's being possessed" situation: I've no doubt I'll need to figure out what's controlling him and remove it if I want to see the rest of the game and its true ending.
But these familiar beats are part of Bloodstained's charm. Igarashi is careful to make sure the game is highly evocative but not entirely a carbon copy of his previous works. Part of that process is the new look, of course, which has a much heavier emphasis on 3D character models and environments. Some of it works, though a lot of it is pretty rough going: some odd lighting choices here and there, some dubious canned animations, and when the game decides to play with parts in the background that suddenly become "active" once they enter the plane Miriam is working in, the transition between when something is there and when it isn't is really hard to judge. This was certainly the case with the first boss of the game: a kraken-like monster called Vepar, who would swing its tentacles menacingly in the background before swiping them across the deck to damage you. Most of the changes, though, are welcome mechanical improvements. These include quality of life changes like being able to change the dimensions of your mini-map or gaining permanent stat boosts by eating new types of food (the Igavanias always had lots of food items, but they were usually ignored for the standard potions). There's a side-quest structure that usually has you killing certain monster types or collecting/crafting rare items, there's farming (of the literal kind) through which you can get a lot of food ingredients quickly, and there are waystone items that teleport you directly to your home base which are vital when you're stuck miles away from the nearest save room and are in a critical health state.
Despite these changes, though, it feels just like playing a classic Igavania and I suspect that was the whole point. These additions are relatively minor tweaks in the grand scheme of things, and the meat of the gameplay is still in picking your favorite weapon type, exploring a castle from top to bottom, making notes of which areas are inaccessible and for what reasons, coming back to those places once you've procured the right upgrades, and figuring out how best to defeat the game's no-joke boss fights without just spamming Heretical Grinder. It's about finding an enemy close to an exit where it can be quickly killed and respawned and deciding to farm it until it finally drops its shard. It's about using enemies to get higher up by air-stomping their head for extra height, M. Bison style. It's about swinging your weapon just before you land and attacking immediately again as soon as your feet touch the ground for a sneaky twofer. These were all fondly remembered habits from Sorrow and Ecclesia that I quickly fell right back into, and are clear evidence that Igarashi and his team at ArtPlay knew exactly what their fans wanted and where to pick up after their time at Konami came to an end.
If I had to create an analogy for what it feels like to play Bloodstained, it's like one of those times where Giant Bomb moved studios for their live shows. It was a bit rough initially aesthetically speaking, but it was clear that the team hadn't skipped a beat and the new digs would eventually offer all sorts of advantages and amenities that the previous studio lacked. It'd take a little while longer before it really began to feel like old times again, but the faith you had in them to put on a quality show was sure to be rewarded. Bloodstained has its little flaws and bugs - I especially don't care for when the game refuses to let you collect an enemy drop because it fell into some weird seam in the geometry, and the load times are on the languid side - but the core is solid and the developers knows all the right notes to hit. I'm looking forward to digging even more into it, possibly even catching up to the currently ongoing GBEast playthrough before they reach the end. Another strong contender for my GOTY list this year.
: 4 out of 5. (So far.)
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