In the years since Castlevania: Symphony of the Night helped define the genre, "Metroidvania" has gone from a bold archetype to a bullet-point feature. Quite a few games have iterated and riffed on Metroidvanias. But Castlevania series producer Koji Igarashi isn't riffing on the genre with his latest project, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, so much as returning to convention. But despite being relatively safe, Bloodstained is more than just its creator; its impeccable craftsmanship in level design and combat, quality-of-life improvements, and unique flavor help it stand on its own in a crowded landscape.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night feels comfortable and familiar, even down to the color-coded map that reveals itself during the course of the game. Like its predecessors in the Castlevania series, your hero Miriam needs to strike even the most basic of enemies four or five times to defeat them, and the lack of agility at first can feel stiff and restrictive. This can actually seem discordant with memories of games like Symphony of the Night, but the familiarity will return as Miriam grows more powerful and the game becomes more recognizable along with her.
This isnt to say that Bloodstained has left the formula entirely untouched. A series of Techniques found in tomes around the castle teach weapon-specific move sets similar to a character-action or fighting game. With the increased emphasis on differentiated weaponry, the game introduces "Shortcut" loadout slots that allow you to quickly swap between different sets of equipment. It's a small quality-of-life touch, but it's smartly implemented.
The biggest addition comes from Shards, or pieces of the demons and other monsters that imbue you with extra powers. The Shard system combines the Spells, Relics, and Familiars from Symphony of the Night into one system thats more robust and versatile. Shards come in five forms: Conjure, Manipulative, Directional, Passive, and Familiar. Conjure summons a weapon or creature, while Manipulative makes more lengthy changes to your current state. Passive offers buffs and other benefits, and Familiars accompany you, giving aid. Directional has the most variety by far, offering tons of projectile-like weapons that can be pointed anywhere using the right-stick. Unfortunately, Directional shards are also used for a few abilities that are crucial to navigation, forcing you to manually swap them when needed or take up a couple of Shortcut slots.
By the nature of its Shard system and other power-ups and abilities, Bloodstained isnt often a terribly challenging game. Gaining a few more levels to take on a challenging new area or boss is quick and breezy, and the sheer variety of weapon types makes it easy to fit the game around your play style. Like many old-school games, seeing your way past the challenges requires patience in learning the enemy patterns, cheesing your way through with special abilities, or some combination of the two.
Other additions like crafting weapons and cooking meals for permanent buffs add a little more nuance to Bloodstained, and a nice variety of ways to improve your stats. In general, the powering up only goes in one direction. You arent often forced to make tough decisions about trade-offs, aside from a point or two from one stat or another in choosing equipment. This feels unusual by modern standards, but helps drive home the idea that the genre is about empowerment. Going from weak and overwhelmed to a capable and professional monster slayer makes for more satisfying progression.