Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night feels very much like a precursor to Hollow Knight in the indie Metroidvania scene, despite having been released two years later. It was a Kickstarted game whose main selling point is that a bunch of the people who worked on Symphony of the Night were back making Metroidvanias again, and the Kickstarter launched in 2015, so the game would’ve been at least two years into development when Hollow Knight dropped in 2017, and plus, I’m not sure that the guy who made Symphony of the Night felt the need to be looking around the Metroidvania scene to see what the new developments were when the game he made was one of the two founding titles and namesakes of the genre.
That hubris hasn’t paid off, because Bloodstained certainly feels more like a nostalgia trip than it does a new game. It’s a good nostalgia trip, with the soundtrack kicking in on the first stage really feeling like I’ve been dropped right back into the era of peak Castlevania, and I’m having fun with it. More recent games that are actually building on what Castlevania did well are better, though. No one who follows this blog is going to be surprised to hear me bring up Hollow Knight in regards to that, but also Blasphemous and Ori and the Blind Forest (which does suffer from being early on in the process, a stepping stone that the genre has largely moved past – but less so than Symphony of the Night and Bloodstained).
I don’t think the leveling system in Bloodstained is automatically a bad idea. In fact, I appreciate that there is the option to take a trip or two through the castle smacking mooks for a few more levels to help get past a difficult boss. But I think something Bloodstained lacks that its Kickstarter contemporaries have embraced is that the game, and especially the boss fights, are much more satisfying if they are a desperate struggle rather than a formality, that if you don’t grind you should have to learn a bosses’ pattern in order to defeat them (especially since Bloodstained is good about putting save points near boss chambers, so it’s not like it’s a huge imposition to try again).
And I can’t imagine I’m overleveled in this game, even though that happens in other games because of my thorough playstyle, because it’s very hard to be any more thorough than a main-plot-only playthrough in this game. There’s side quests, but they’re all to either acquire and then give away certain items or to kill X amount of Y monster, and in both cases they’ve been easy to accomplish in the course of normal play. I have occasionally had to farm a monster for a couple of minutes, but enemies respawn as soon as you leave a room and re-enter, so it’s not like I was reclearing entire areas of the game. This farming probably accounts for less than 1% of the XP I’ve acquired.
In fairness, Bloodstained has difficulty modes and from what I’ve read online, hard mode is genuinely difficult. Still, the first time I had to make any attempt to learn a bosses’ pattern on normal mode was fighting the Elizabeth Bathory-themed vampire boss halfway through the game. And that’s technically optional content, since you can go fight the final(?) boss before her (he’s very easy), although the game makes it really clear that this is a bad ending and the start menu stats show I’d explored about 45% of the castle at the time, so this is clearly a Symphony of the Night situation where the final boss isn’t really and there’s a whole second half of the game you have to play to get the real ending. No sign that this second half of the game is the first half but upside down, which is a relief.
While I’m glad that Bloodstained offers an easy mode and it does look like the game gets respectably challenging on normal mode once you reach the second half, past the fakeout ending where you go to the final boss as soon as he’s unlocked, I wish the first half of the game had the same challenge, at least once you get past the introduction and into the demon castle where 90% of the game takes place. This is especially true because the game as it is probably has the difficulty curve I want, but has split it up between modes. It’s hard to tell since you can’t change difficulty modes mid-playthrough and I don’t want to run an entire second playthrough to check, but from what I can tell the first half of the game would’ve been more fun on Hard while the second half is better on Normal. That means I ultimately made the right choice, I’d rather blitz through an easy first half than get frustrated on an overly difficult second half, but if there was an option to increase or decrease difficulty midway through, or if they’d just made the difficulty modes with the philosophy that if someone wants a certain level of challenge then that is probably the level of challenge they want for the entire game and there shouldn’t be any major difficulty spikes, then I could’ve had an optimal experience the whole way through.
It’s still a fun game (although bear in mind I really like Metroidvanias, so it’s hard for any reasonably competent Metroidvania not to entertain me), but it’s somewhat annoying that the resources to make the perfect difficulty curve for me were poured into this game, but then structured in such a way that I can’t actually use them.