|Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon
|ArtPlay, Inc., Inti Creates
|May 24th, 2018
|ESRB E 10+
One of the more unfortunate results of the way modern game media is constructed is that the developers which can afford to purchase their own press tend to get the most free press. Of course, this is mostly because gaming websites need clicks in order to survive. So the more popular a game already is, the more clicks it’s going to get. As a result, a lot of indie games can get totally missed, and they usually don’t have the money to purchase their own advertisements in order to get seen. There is one small advantage to this state of affairs though, and that is the capability of small titles to take everyone completely by surprise. We might have not know how amazing God of War was going to be, but we knew almost everything else about it for over a year before it was released. You actually have to go out of your way to avoid the press about games that large. On the opposite side of the spectrum we now have the release of Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, and even as a backer I had virtually no idea what we were getting in this game until the moment I downloaded it. Even the trailers for the game were only very recently released.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a Kickstarter backed project from the former Konami developer Koji Igarashi (IGA). He was one of the primary creative forces behind the run of Castlevania games that coined the term Metroidvania, starting with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. He partnered with the developer Inti Creates to craft a spiritual successor to those type of games. This genre has had many entries in recent years but none from the original creators. This project came on the heels of other high profile game developers leaving Konami and Capcom to do their own projects. And while we haven’t seen the completion of Kojima’s Death Stranding, we have had a chance to play Inafune’s Mighty Number 9, to very mixed results. So it wasn’t without some trepidation that some people reacted to the news of the Bloodstained project. That being said, the initial pitch and artwork were enough to convince people like myself and the game was backed, easily achieving most of its stretch goals. One of those stretch goals was a very simply described 8-bit prequel game to also be released by IGA and Inti Creates. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is the fruit of that labor.
Because there was almost no press coverage of this prequel game, and because my expectations were fairly low, it was quite the pleasant shock to discover that what we got is the spiritual successor to Castlevania III. It is different enough that Konami wouldn’t be able to sue them for an IP violation, but all the familiar hallmarks are there. Each level features multiple paths that you can take, with secret areas, and the ability to backtrack within the stage. Each of those paths converge at the end to a Stage Boss. After defeating the first three bosses you can gain a new ally that you can switch to who has different capabilities, which assist the main character in fighting a wider variety of enemies and in reaching locations within Stages that he would be unable to reach himself. All of that was pioneered in Castlevania III, and then with Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon they added some more modern features.
One of the modern touches added is that for each Life you have, you potentially actually have up to four deaths. When any ally dies, you just return to the previous checkpoint and can no longer use that ally. While it may be annoying to have to start over on a boss fight, it’s quite possible to jump back in after learning their patterns with the first attempt and kill it with only three of your allies left. Another modern touch is that you do not enter any menu to change characters, as it is done very smoothly with the press of a button. This allows you to do certain things like using Miriam’s high jump and switching to one of the other characters in the middle of that jump, or using the powerful flame shield of Alfred and switching back to any of the other three while keeping that shield up. As such, being strategic with who gets sub weapon changes (you can thankfully always tell by the candle type) is very necessary. Having the Ice Arrow or Lightning Orb sub weapons on Alfred, or the Giant Axe sub weapon on Miriam before a boss can make a huge difference. Your sub weapon charges are shared between all four of the allies, so you will also need to be strategic with their use and sometimes switch to Gebel who can’t change sub weapons and therefore gets a large weapon recharge pot with those candles.
Another modern convention applied to the game is that the bosses are mostly large and have a lot of personality and different move sets. Of course, some of this stretches the definition of 8-bit to its breaking point. But they mostly still keep within that framework of what would be possible at the very end of the NES generation. Likewise with the color palette, which is much more vibrant than any NES game I ever played, and the fact that the whole game is widescreen. Those are changes that I can get behind where you are catering towards the best of the 8-bit generation, instead of the worst. Thankfully they also made the sensible choice to make the game a little easier than Castlevania III was, and also give save points and difficulty selection on top of it. Casual difficulty does not lock you out of any story or stages that you would have in Veteran, they just give you more health drops and an infinite number of lives. That may seem too easy, but even on Veteran losing all your lives merely means that you have to start that Stage over from the beginning. So even that is not too punishing. By beating the game on either difficulty you can also unlock Nightmare Mode.
If I just went through the game once, I would have still felt like it deserved a 3.5 or 4 star review and would have been pleasantly surprised with what I had. But going through it again highlighted some very interesting things about the game. The first thing that you should know is that there are multiple endings to the game. My first time through I thought that it was required that you recruit your allies after defeating those bosses. But it is in fact optional. You can either ignore them entirely or you can even kill them, and this changes the potential endings you can get. Not only that, but Nightmare Mode is not just increased difficulty. You start the game with three of the four characters, and you never meet the fourth one (not spoiling who that is because it has to do with all the endings). Each stage has a specific treasure item, which you can see in the above screenshot, that increases all the character’s health, sub weapon uses, damage, or armor. But the health upgrade in the first stage can only be received in Nightmare Mode. There are in fact many regions of the first three stages that can only be seen in this mode because you don’t get Gebel until Stage 4 normally. Not only that, but in Nightmare Mode each of the bosses has an additional phase of combat that you only see a hint of on your first time through. Lastly, you also get an entirely new ending, one that seems to be the canon ending to the game, after defeating a final boss that is completely different from the Normal Mode. Ultimate Mode is unlocked after that, but that is basically just Normal Mode with the extra powerful bosses and one of your characters is a lot more useful. So there is actually a lot of replayability to this game even beyond just the fun of playing it again.
Init Creates and IGA did not have to go to this extent to make this backer stretch goal. The music is really good, even if it’s not quite as memorable as some other 8-bit retro games like Shovel Knight. And the enemy designs and general artwork are second to none in the retro space. If this game actually came out during the NES era we would still be talking about it today. But what it also does amazingly well is build up the anticipation for Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night far above what it already was. I am not alone among the internet in expressing the sentiment that if this is what they produce with the prequel game, I cannot wait to see the final product. This is some next level advertising for a game, any way you think about it. While this game was free to backers, it is also only selling for $9.99 to everyone else. That is absurd value even if the game only takes about two hours to run through your first time. And like I said, there is quite a bit of replay value to be had even before you are just going through it again for fun (which is also very likely). I have zero intention of ever deleting this game from my Switch, not only because it takes up very little space (15MB), but it will just be fun to pull it up and start from the beginning when I’m taking a flight somewhere.
Review Copy Provided By the Developers. Author is a Backer for the game for the base price of the game itself.