Bloodstained is one of those games that would only exist with Kickstarter funding. It is a very specific game, created to satisfy a very specific market: people who enjoyed playing the Castlevania series from 1997 through to 2009, after which point Konami abruptly stopped making them Metroid-style free-roaming platformers and started making them terrible 3D adventures instead. If you didn’t play any of the Castlevania games released during that period, I suspect Bloodstained is going to come across as a rather flabby, messy and generally rough-around-the-edges experience, because you won’t understand where the game is coming from.
On the other hand, if you are fortunate enough to have played one of the good Castlevanias, then Bloodstained is still going to come across as a rather flabby, messy and generally rough-around-the-edges experience. It’s just that in this case, you won’t care, because Bloodstained gets the important stuff right and does enough to scratch an itch that has gone un-scratched for just over a decade now.
Now, since I’m firmly in the target market for Bloodstained, I have the luxury of admiring it for how brazen it is at being a direct copy of a noughties Castlevania game despite not having the IP, instead of annoyed at how obtuse it might be to anyone who wasn’t brought up on those games1. I’m very aware that I lambasted Devil May Cry 5 a few months back for doing much the same thing, largely because I wasn’t in the target market and didn’t have my perception blurred by the heady fumes of nostalgia. However, while Bloodstained makes the same mistake of wallowing in the past without really paying much attention to what other games in the genre (particularly Hollow Knight) have been doing to move things forward, I think it gets away with it for two reasons:
- Platformers are a much more accessible genre in general.
- Bloodstained might copy the Castlevania style of platformer a little too slavishly, but this has the side-effect of its player onboarding actually being quite good because it’s effectively built-in to the game concept.
You have probably heard the term “Metroidvania” thrown around when describing certain modern platformers such as Hollow Knight and Ori And The Blind Forest. It’s a catch-all term used to describe any platformer that takes place in a fully-contiguous world where each individual area that you explore slots into a coherent world map and can be visited and revisited at will (as long as you’re willing to backtrack through the rest of the map to get there), and where access to new areas of the map is gated by mobility abilities such as double-jump that must be acquired from specific locations, usually by defeating a boss. Sometimes it’ll be immediately obvious which areas your new ability unlocks; more often you’ll have to retrace your steps through already-explored areas, looking for any blacked-out portions of the map that might now be accessible. You start the game with almost no abilities (a concept that Hollow Knight took a little too far) so it’s easy to pick up, and you’re given plenty of time to get used to each new ability once you acquire it; Metroidvanias don’t make you read a whole book on how to use it the way Devil May Cry did. The enduring popularity of the genre is largely down to this slow drip-feed of abilities making you more and more powerful in a way that’s very easy for the average person to keep on top of.
Oh, and the “vania” part of “Metroidvania” comes from Castlevania, which Bloodstained is an almost direct copy of. So, like I say, Bloodstained has this very smooth onboarding curve built into the game concept, and that’s one of the reasons it’s far less offensive to me than Devil May Cry 5.
Anyway, on to what Bloodstained is actually doing, which can be adequately summed up as “Looking at the Castlevania series circa Aria Of Sorrow and stealing everything that’s not nailed down.” I’ve seen it referred to in places as Aria Of Sorrow 3, and that’s not an inaccurate description of the game. There is a architecturally-implausible castle full of demons that has magically appeared out of nowhere to ravage the surrounding countryside. The castle is presided over by a low-rent Dracula cosplayer, and the player character must climb through the castle in order to fight and defeat them, at which point the castle will disappear up its own asshole just like in a Castlevania game. To help them achieve this goal, the player character has the ability to absorb the souls of the enemies they defeat and use their own abilities against them; unlike most Metroidvanias this is not just restricted to boss monsters, but applies to every single enemy in the game, with nearly a hundred separate soul abilities that can be acquired. There’s a light RPG system with level-ups and equippable armour and accessories that can boost your stats and abilities in various ways. There are many, many weapons to hit baddies with, all of which have their own strengths and weaknesses. And there are a ridiculous number of things you can do in the crafting interface — crafting new armour and accessories, upgrading creature souls, combining weapons into new and more powerful weapons, and even cooking many different foods that each provide a permanent stat bonus the first time you eat it.
It’s a Castlevania game then — except developers ArtPlay have to pretend that it’s not if they don’t want to get sued by Konami. So in Bloodstained you’re not a burly vampire hunter with a whip, or a fey reincarnation/relative of Dracula; you’re a Shardbinder called Miriam who runs around in a gothic lolita dress2 and strikes a very kawaii pose whenever she stops for a moment. (Which, I will grant you, is not something I think Castlevania ever did.) You’re not absorbing creature souls to get their abilities, you’re absorbing creature shards instead. There’s the requisite rival vampire hunter character, except here he’s a random demon-hunting samurai voiced by David Hayter instead of ridiculously baller old man Julius Belmont. The enemies are mostly cut-and-pastes from Castlevania but they’ve been renamed and very slightly reskinned in some instances to avoid the worst cases of copyright infringement — so Axe Armors are now Axe Outsiders, and Medusa Heads are now Dullehammer Heads, and so on. And while I can hardly point fingers at Bloodstained sharing generic area names such as “Castle Entrance” and “Underground Waterway”, there is a Clock Tower area in the game just as with all the best Castlevanias.
Normally I’d take a very dim view of this blatant theft of ideas and mechanics, except one of the developers behind Bloodstained is Castlevania producer Koji Igarashi, so they’re arguably his ideas and mechanics to steal. Also it’s not like Konami are ever going to make another classic Castlevania game, so somebody might as well take the concept and run with it. The thing is, though, it feels like Bloodstained has very few original ideas of its own. There’s an area set on a speeding train, and the Clock Tower analogue uses the 2.5D nature of the game to have you run around the tower in a spiral pattern — effectively having you remain in the same place while the level moves around you, although this doesn’t translate well to your position on the map at all — and probably the best idea that it has is an Invert ability that’s picked up fairly late in the game, which changes the direction of gravity and lets you run on the ceiling. Those are all things that would have been very difficult (if not outright impossible) to do in the old 2D Castlevania games, but they’re notable precisely because they’re exceptional standouts in a game that is otherwise 100% concerned with being a slavishly faithful reproduction of a Castlevania game — or as close as it can get without the IP.
And that presents something of a problem for Bloodstained, and it’s paradoxically one that’s going to be worse if you’re in the target market of actually having played those older Castlevania titles. It’s a feeling not dissimilar to the Uncanny Valley effect, or perhaps encountering a stranger with a very strong resemblance to an acquaintance and wondering for the rest of the day if it was actually them or not: here is a game that is doing all of the Castlevania things, hitting all of the right Castlevania notes, and yet because it’s not Castlevania everything feels unsettlingly off somehow. The uninspired visual design and backstory really don’t help here either; Bloodstained has a very generic art style that could have been plucked from any platformer released in the last decade. Castlevania itself is derivative as all hell, of course, but it has the advantage that we instinctively understand the concept of vampires and vampire hunters. It’s much more difficult to give a toss about Shardbinders and Alchemists; changing all of the names around exposes it for the nonsense it really is and robs it of much of its impact.
This feeling was something I really struggled when during my first couple of sessions with Bloodstained. I understood that it was a successor to Castlevania — that was the entire reason I bought it — but I wasn’t prepared for how much of a straight copy it was and the almost total lack of flair with which it executed on the concept. It felt very much like a B-tier game that, for all its talk around absorbing the souls (excuse me, shards) of its enemies, didn’t have a soul of its own. That feeling gradually lessened as I engaged with more and more of the game’s systems and mechanics — show me a potential way to break a game and I’ll really get my teeth into it — but it wasn’t until the fourth or fifth hour that I managed to fully shake it off, which is a significant chunk of the game’s length considering it took me fourteen hours to finish.
Still, if you are prepared to get over that hump and allow Bloodstained to establish itself in your brain as a separate entity from Castlevania, there’s a lot of game there to enjoy. I haven’t really talked much about the gameplay except to relate it to Castlevania, but I should probably also explain its position relative to modern Metroidvanias like Hollow Knight. Both styles of game involve a hefty amount of freeform exploration and backtracking, but Hollow Knight is much more skill-based — you will not succeed at that game unless you have decent reactions, good hand-eye coordination and some sheer bloody-mindedness to get you past the numerous deaths at the hands of each boss. It’s also more open, with the key mobility items being able to be picked up in different orders depending on where you go and which secret routes you managed to find. By contrast Bloodstained is much more linear; while there’s still plenty of backtracking there is a set route through the game with almost no optional areas (there’s one hidden area and a few optional bosses and that’s it) and no deviation in the order in which you fight bosses and open up new areas. However, while the bosses can also be quite tough, and the character movement doesn’t flow properly until you have all of your movement abilities (which, given the linear nature of Bloodstained, is about five minutes before the end of the game), it’s far less reliant on player skill in order to progress the game because the levelling, shard and equipment mechanics make it possible to brute-force any boss with enough forward planning.
This is the part of Castlevania — and now Bloodstained — that I really, really like: figuring out how to build the most brokenly powerful character possible. Because there’s so many weapons and so many shard abilities available there’s only been the most token attempt made to balance them, but I don’t see that as a flaw at all. Unbalanced abilities are great fun just so long as I have to put in a bit of effort to make them that way, and the amount of effort required to do so in Bloodstained is significant, but not prohibitive. Each weapon upgrade requires a blueprint — usually hidden in a secret room or behind a breakable wall, so some exploration required — and crafting materials; these drop from monsters, but you have to use the in-game Demon archive to figure out which monsters and where they live. Shards are just straight-up upgradeable, but they also require materials to do so, which means even more demon hunting. There’s potions dotted around the castle that boost your maximum HP and mana, and finding all of these is a fun bit of exploration. The real power booster in Bloodstained, though, is cooking. Yes, you read that right: cooking. The permanent stat bonus from eating an individual food is small, but because there’s about a hundred different types you can almost double your power level just by cooking and eating a majority of them. Just like the weapons you need both the recipe and the ingredients, though, which is going to require a certain degree of targeted farming.
All of these systems promote full exploration of the castle to uncover every little secret and kill every demon type possible, because you’ll eventually need their body parts to fuel your ever-growing power level. Drop percentages mean that there is unfortunately a bit of grinding needed to do this properly, which may not be your cup of tea, but if you’re smart there’s some pretty neat ways to bypass a lot of it and just get to the good stuff (in particular you can find gear that increases your Luck stat and improves those drop rates) and anyway it’s all giving you XP and passively boosting your power via levelling up. The reward for all of this is being able to walk down a castle corridor with your abilities turned on and have everything around you spontaneously combust without having to lift a finger. For tough targets you’ve got directional spells that can be spammed/held down because thanks to all the cooking stat boosts your MP regenerates so quickly you can use them indefinitely. One area where Bloodstained does differ from Castlevania is that you can’t regain health by smashing lamps/other objects in the level; you have to either use healing potions or food, or else find a save room that’ll replenish your HP bar as part of the deal. This is definitely painful at the start of the game when your HP bar is very small and you don’t have unlimited money for buying healing potions, but it just makes the contrast with the endgame version of your character even starker, when you have so much HP you can comfortably facetank most enemies in the game, and even the endgame bosses can’t do enough damage to nullify the huge quantities of apple pie you’re stuffing into your face with one hand while using the other to melt them with an ion cannon spell.
I very much enjoy this kind of thing; it’s why I like Castlevania games, and it’s why I ended up quite liking Bloodstained in spite of its unambitious nature and its many flaws. In the end I think enough time has passed since the last proper Castlevania game that it’s fine for somebody to just make another one, even if it’s just as an experiment to prove the formula still works. It’s a very specific game that’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ll mention two things in mitigation to balance out all the criticism that ended up in this review. First is that if you want an actual challenge from your Metroidvanias, then Bloodstained does have multiple difficulty levels that would likely tax even an endgame Miriam. And second is that while I’ve mentioned the words “grinding” and “farming” in this review, there’s really not all that much of it required; it’s a fourteen hour game, after all, and I’d say I spent maybe ninety minutes of that on purely farming-related activities to get certain shards and materials — and that was spread out over around nine hours of exploration and bossfighting, i.e. playing the game the way it was meant to be played. Importantly once you’ve set your sights on acquiring a specific item it won’t take you much more than five minutes to get it if you’re wearing the right equipment, so grinding in Bloodstained carries more of a feeling of accomplishment — that you’re quickly completing a series of mini-goals that you’ve figured out — than it does frustration.
And that goes for Bloodstained in general, really. The core structure is very solid and it does the experience of flying up the power curve very, very well. There’s a lot that it doesn’t do so well — it doesn’t really explain the character stats at all and leaves you to infer what they do by trial and error, there’s a fair few sidequest chains that seem pointless, and while there’s been a minor attempt to update the interface by providing quick shortcuts to different gear sets you still have to consume healing items by pausing the game and navigating through three layers of menus — and which gives it that messy, lumpy atmosphere I mentioned at the start, but it’s mostly ignorable, or at least liveable-with. I’m less sanguine about the almost total lack of innovation or even modernisation compared to the games Bloodstained is supposed to be a spiritual successor to, and if ArtPlay make a sequel (which I think they almost inevitably will given how well Bloodstained has been received) they’ll have to do significantly better in that regard if they want me to continue holding back my Hating Stick. For a first attempt at resurrecting Castlevania, though, Bloodstained is just about good enough.