At the risk of being reductive, there’s very little to say about Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night other than this: it is good. From the day this game hit Kickstarter more than four years ago, it’s always been clear what it was intended to achieve. If it managed that, it would be good. If not, it would be a failure.
So yes, Ritual of the Night is good, and that’s because its developers pulled off their one job: revive the “Igavania,” a specific style of Castlevania game that producer Koji Igarashi worked on at Konami for a little over a decade. Beginning with 1997’s Symphony of the Night, Igarashi transformed the action-focused Castlevania series into a mixture of Metroid-style exploration with heavy role-playing elements. Two trilogies on the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS followed, generally to much acclaim.
Ritual of the Night is Igarashi’s first game since leaving Konami, and as the name suggests, it’s unashamedly in thrall to Symphony of the Night and its successors. The game is now rendered with polygons, not pixels, but that’s about the only meaningful change. Thematically, stylistically, and mechanically, Ritual of the Night is a Castlevania game in all but name.
This is a good thing. The “Metroidvania” is now a prominent genre, particularly for indie developers, and excellent games like Hollow Knight and Axiom Verge have been inspired by the template. But none have quite hit the same spot as Igarashi’s work. The blend of gothic horror, crafting alchemy, and RPG stats gives a satisfying edge to these games’ sense of exploration. There’s always another demon to kill, another level to reach, and a better weapon to find.
“I want to answer that demand.” - Koji Igarashi on returning to gothic horror action with Bloodstained
Ritual of the Night is set across the same kind of sprawling interiors as Castlevania’s castles and mansions, with a surprising diversity in visual design. You start out on a boat but end up exploring mansions, cathedrals, and castles, occasionally traveling to new locations by various methods. But everything is interconnected, and unlocking as much of the single map as possible is ultimately the most rewarding objective. As is tradition, Ritual of the Night’s map screen renders the complex environments as simple blue squares that appear as you arrive in each room, helping you visualize your progress.
The level design for individual rooms has never been a particular strength of Igarashi’s Castlevania games, and that’s the case with Ritual of the Night. It’s more about how the various parts of the world interlock. That’s also true of the combat system, which is pretty rudimentary on a basic level but gains its depth from its sheer variety. There’s a huge number of weapon types in this game, all with their own stats, techniques, and attributes to balance against one another. Each class has its own hidden ability that you learn about by reading books in the environment, which is an entertaining way to get you to try out new items in your inventory.
Magical abilities, meanwhile, are handled by a system of “shards,” which drop when you kill a certain number of enemies and embed themselves into protagonist Miriam’s body. Again, there’s colossal variety in how these powers work, with multiple shards able to be equipped at the same time. You can deploy offensive or defensive support characters, screen-filling magical attacks, and passive stat boosts simultaneously. Holding multiple copies of the same shard increases their power, while you can upgrade them further with additional items. It’s a clever system that rewards frequent combat, which is essential given how much backtracking you’ll be doing during exploration.
It is also a pretty ridiculous plot conceit, which goes for most of Ritual of the Night’s storytelling. Despite the moody gothic horror stylings, this game is anime as heck and doesn’t care who knows it. I would say it lands a little too far on the wordy side of things, but most of it is ignorable, and Miriam is a likable character. I appreciate Ritual of the Night’s willingness to not take itself too seriously, from the overwrought dialogue to the elaborate customization options. This is a game in which you can customize your appearance by discovering new haircuts in a bookshelf and taking them to a demonic hairdresser. I’m here for that.
This game is anime as heck
Ritual of the Night isn’t exactly an audiovisual feast, however; there is some wonky presentation exposing its modest budget. The sound mixing is oddly low quality, the character models in dialogue scenes look rushed, and the overall visual style isn’t as refined as the pixel-art Igavanias. I’ve been playing the PC version where performance has been solid, but the game is apparently somewhat less stable on consoles. The Switch version, in particular, appears to be well below par, and the developers have pledged to issue fixes.
I’d maybe advise waiting to see how those fixes turn out if you’re thinking about playing on the Switch, but otherwise, I’ve been having a blast with Ritual of the Night. It delivers on exactly what it needed to: it feels like a legitimate Igavania that stands right alongside the best of the Castlevania games.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is good. Now that you know that, it will rarely surprise you. But sometimes it’s comforting to get just what you want.
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