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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (388)

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Bloodstained: Ritual of... 3/5
The Legend of Zelda: A ... 4/5
Hob 3/5
Assassin's Creed Odyssey 4.5/5
Ittle Dew 2 4.5/5
Luigi's Mansion 3 4/5
Xuan-Yuan Sword: The Ga... 3/5
Star Trek: Bridge Crew 3.5/5
King's Quest: The Compl... 3/5
Strange Brigade 4/5
Metro Exodus 3.5/5
Evoland Legendary Editi... 4.5/5
Evoland 2 4.5/5
Burokku Girls 2/5
Finding Paradise 4.5/5
To the Moon 4/5
Marvel: Ultimate Allian... 2.5/5
Valley 4/5
Satellite Reign 3/5
The Fall of Gods 3.5/5
Even the Ocean 3.5/5
Asterix & Obelix XXL 2:... 3/5
Valkyria Chronicles 4 5/5
Ninja Gaiden ( Shadow W... 1/5
Super Mario Land 2.5/5

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Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night   PC (Steam) 

Iga’s Losing His Touch    3/5 stars

In 1997, Konami handed the keys to its long-running ‘Castlevania’ franchise to a young upstart employee named Koji “Iga” Igarashi. Iga had started at Konami in 1990, primarily doing grunt programming, but was also given the position of scenario writer for a Japan-only Dating Sim called “Tokimeki Memorial.” His writing work impressed his bosses, while his then-girlfriend’s work on “Castlevania: Rondo of Blood” impressed Iga. The stars aligned and this young upstart ended up taking over directional control of the ‘Castlevania’ project which would eventually become “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night,” where Iga was already the scenario writer. This release in the ‘Castlevania’ series completely reinvented it, was lauded by gamers and critics across the board, and, as a result, drove a wedge between what the series had been and what it had become, with the old, linear, clunky ‘Castlevania’ platformers given the moniker of ‘Classicvania’ by fans, while the new-school ‘Metroid’-inspired products that were released under Iga’s watchful eye became known as ‘Igavania.”

With Konami being Konami – though they would not show the true depths of their corporate depravity until years later – in spite of the acclaim heaped upon “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night,” the company decided to reinvent the franchise yet again, and tasked Iga to transform ‘Castlevania’ into a modern 3D game. This process did not go nearly as smoothly as the transition from Classicvania to Igavania, adding several flops to Iga’s repertoire. However, this was still the early 2000s, a time in which the capabilities of portable game systems were drastically more limited than stationary consoles. Thus Iga was given the opportunity to write and produce several more 2D Igavania games across the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS.

Ultimately, though, Iga’s failure to transition ‘Castlevania’ into a modern series saw the keys he had been given in 1997 taken away and handed to a Spanish developer, MercuryStream in 2010. Iga lingered on at Konami for a few more years, tasked with producing and localizing a handful of niche titles, and endeavoring to create mobile games that played and felt like real console games, but failing to gain any traction. In 2014, Iga left Konami – which was now focused almost entirely on mobile Skinner Boxes and pachinko machines – to become a founding member in a new Indie development team: ArtPlay. A year later, Iga’s new team launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to finance the creation of a new Igavania spiritual successor (since, naturally, Konami still owned the ‘Castlevania’ IP). Thus, “Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night” (“Bloodstained”) came into being, spawning an 8-bit-style Classicvania spinoff, “Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon,” as a stretch funding goal.

As a huge fan of “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night” and all three Game Boy Advance Igavanias (even the one he didn’t work on), I was thrilled to learn that a spiritual successor to these incredible games was forthcoming. I had never cared for Classicvania, and while I had noticed a palpable drop in quality across the three Igavania games that graced the DS, I had initially attributed it to the platform’s gimmicks rather than anything amiss in the IP or development processes themselves. Unfortunately, with the release of “Bloodstained,” it’s pretty obvious that the fact that Igavanias released after “Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow” on the Game Boy Advance just kept getting worse wasn’t actually the fault of the DS and its gimmicks, but is evidence that Iga, after two decades in the business, is starting to lose his touch.

Presentation
“Bloodstained” is a 2.5D game created in the Unreal Engine. As a 2.5D title, it features fully 3D polygonal models for characters and environments, but presents the action from a strict side-scrolling 2D perspective. While ‘Castlevania’ is known for being a Gothic Horror-inspired series, Iga has gone on record complaining about how some games in the series that he didn’t produce (“Castlevania: Circle of the Moon,” specifically) were ‘too dark’ and difficult to see. ‘Dark’ is a complete non-entity in “Bloodstained,” as the game features frequently-garish color pallets and environments packed with little visual details – frequently to the point of feeling cluttered and overwrought. Character models, while just as colorful and eccentric as the environments, are not particularly complex and slightly blocky, often looking and animating like something out of the PlayStation2/Gamecube era. While I’m a big proponent of bold use of color in game design, and a big fan of elaborate Gothic architecture, “Bloodstained” commits a few cardinal sins with regard to its graphics. It is frequently difficult to pick-out small enemies (like bats) and projectiles against the elaborate backgrounds, and a number of boss arenas contain bits of visual clutter that look like obstacles to be avoided, but are just decorative. This leads to graphics actually hampering gameplay on more than one occasion, which is unforgivable.

Audiowise, “Bloodstained” is adequate. While ‘Castlevania’ is renowned for the incredible fusion music that makes up its soundtracks, “Bloodstained’s” soundtrack is decidedly forgettable by comparison. Like “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night,” “Bloodstained” is fully voiced, though not with as hilariously dated performances. Most of “Bloodstained” sounds like it was done by the same two people playing all of the male and female roles respectively, but there are actually more cast members listed in the credits.

Technically, “Bloodstained” didn’t present any issues for me, personally, but there are numerous complaints on the game’s various platform-specific forums which indicate that it has not always been as flawless as what I experienced, especially on consoles. Regardless, I never had the game crash or misbehave, it offers Xinput support out of the box, and is almost completely free of unscrupulous monetization.

Story
In the 1700s at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the Alchemists’ Guild of Europe is in a panic. People are turning to science and technology to solve their problems instead of alchemy (Wat? Alchemy was a proto-science, it was the Church that was shitting bricks over the empiricism and literacy that came with industrialization.). In a last-ditch effort, the alchemists come up with a cunning plan, cribbed straight from the buggy whip lobby playbook: They will unleash a plague of demons upon the world, and the people will be forced to turn to the Guild to get rid of them (Wat again? Alchemy has nothing to do with summoning demons or exorcisms. That is, once again, the domain of the Church.). The Alchemists’ Guild’s secret weapon in its manufacted demonic invasion is a group of children infused alchemically with a mysterious white crystal of unknown origin. These ‘Shardbinders,’ as they come to be known, will both act as a sacrificial catalyst for the occult ritual that will summon the armies of Hell to Earth, and the most powerful of the Shardbinders, a girl named Miriam and a boy named Gebel, will play the role of saviors, banishing the demons back whence they came.

However, as is always the case when fools dabble with powers beyond their understanding, something goes wrong. A massive hellspawned castle crosses the dimensional barrier, fusing with the old Alchemists’ Guild headquarters, and begins spewing forth a host of abominations, just as Miriam falls into an unwakable slumber and Gebel disappears.

Our story actually begins 10 years later. Miriam has awoken as mysteriously as she fell asleep, and Gebel has reappeared on the scene in the company of a demoniac familiar. With the aid of a Church exorcist named Dominique and a reformed alchemist named Johannes, Miriam’s time has finally come to banish the demons and their cursed castle back to Hell. But in doing so, she must first figure out the reason behind Gebel’s bizarre behavior, as well as deal with a rogue alchemist who is intent on recovering the cursed grimoire containing the alchemical formulae that started this entire mess.

“Bloodstained’s” plot and premise are… obviously written by a non-Westerner with little understanding of the culture and history of 18th Century Europe. While there is written evidence that indicates that alchemy, as an art, went through various phases of mysticism, occultism, and other weirdness, the field, by and large, lead directly to the modern practice of chemistry. Far from being bent out of shape about the Industrial Revolution stealing away their customers, most alchemist of the time would have been perfectly happy to scrub the ‘al’ off their shop shingle and continue practicing proto-pharmacology and proto-metallurgy to their hearts’ content. Indeed, the alienation of alchemists from regular chemists stemmed largely from the fact that those clinging to the art of alchemy and its received knowledge of ancient lore were considered (and actually were) quacks and charlatans with no actual idea of what they were doing. It seems that Iga may have read the Wikipedia page on alchemy and seized on the Royal Society’s short-lived 17th Century espousement of the idea that alchemic practices could be used to summon angels, as an inversion of this very concept is central to “Bloodstained’s” demon-summoning plot point.

However, just because someone doesn’t entirely grok a concept due to cultural differences is no reason to assume that anything they produce based on that concept will be bad. After all, Hideki Anno has gone on the record stating that he didn’t really grok Christianity going into the making of “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” but it’s undeniable that the result was spectacular and unique. But “Bloodstained”… just isn’t. Its central narrative feels like a by the books “The Church is Evil” TV Trope, only with some of the actors moved around into different roles. The small number of attempted plot twists are all pre-subverted by the fact that Iga has done them before in his previous games, and surely he must have realized that fans of his previous work would be the first to get in line for this new game, right?

Ultimately, though, there is actually very little storytelling in “Bloodstained,” outside of the setup and backdrop (as is the case with most games of this type, and not really an issue, per se). Outside of the main purpose of exploring and banishing the demon-filled castle, there are a few non-player characters who offer side quests, but all of these amount to finding a thing in the castle, giving it to the NPC, and watching them repeat the same two lines of dialog as they ask Miriam to find the next thing for them. If it weren’t for all the padding in the gameplay department, this could easily be a 10-12 hour experience. But because of the grinding and completionist achievement hunting, I ended up spending 40 hours with it, much of which felt like rote busywork instead of enjoyment.

Gameplay
When it comes to creating a sidescrolling 2D platformer, whether it’s linear or open-ended, it’s important to nail the basics. Simple things like character movement, hit detection, and what happens to the player character and/or enemies when they take damage are all things modern gamers take for granted, yet were all part of a long, painful process of revision that took place in the 8-bit and early 16-bit eras. Unfortunately, all of these little things that we have come to expect to ‘just work’ and never actively think about anymore are where “Bloodstained” has its biggest failings.

Basic character movement feels sluggish and labored, while jumping is oddly ‘floaty,’ and combat is a bit laggy. Miriam attacks far too slowly by default, leaving her vulnerable to having the attack canceled altogether due to being hit mid-swing. The backstep move that Alucard made semi-famous in “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night” is really the only method of evasion available for the vast majority of the game, yet it tends to work inconsistently at best and doesn’t move Miriam far enough from danger to make it worthwhile. Even worse, hit detection can be incredibly suspicious at times, with obvious connecting blows failing to deal damage to enemies. Oddly enough, while Miriam has access to a huge variety of weapons of different types, the only really usable type is the Greatsword archetype, since every other weapon features finicky swing arcs (especially whips, which are completely worthless in “Bloodstained”) that make it impossible to hit enemies that are standing right in front of Miriam.

Knockback and hitstun are just as suspect. In previous Igavania games, the player character would be knocked back a certain distance by enemy attacks to allow the player to recover and avoid taking continuous damage from an enemy sitting on top of them. Conversely, enemies would pause with a moment of hitstun upon being damaged, but not killed, by an attack, preventing them from charging up and beating on the player between weapon swings. In “Bloodstained,” both of these are completely out of whack. Sometimes I experienced Miriam flying across the room and slamming into a wall if I let her touch an enemy (even a weak, underleveled enemy that dealt 1 damage), other times, she’d just twitch back and forth as an enemy sat on top of her, cancelling attempts to attack the enemy OR backstep away from it.

The iffy hitboxes and other questionable-quality hit mechanics combine with an overpowered status ailment in the personage of the humble Poison Toad. These toads only inhabit a few areas of the game, fortunately, but they are the most broken thing and exemplify all of the basic mechanical flaws in “Bloodstained”: Toads are tiny, so there are only a couple of weapons that swing in an arc that will hit them; they can sit on Miriam without knocking her back; and they will automatically inflict Poison status on her. So even if the toad only deals a single point of damage, the player can kiss half of Miriams’ health goodbye (and Miriam typically has over 1000 health for most of the game) as the poison eats away at her for an insane length of time, unless, that is, the player uses a Mithridate antidote potion to cure the affliction.

Of course, the cumbersome controls and shoddy mechanics in “Bloodstained,” naturally, have their share of defenders – deranged folks who actually like clunky and unresponsive controls. Some of these individuals loudly proclaim that “Bloodstained’s” controls and mechanics are completely identical to “Castlevania: Symphony of the Nights,” implying that those of us who feel like something is ‘off’ in “Bloodstained” are either imagining it or are so out of touch with Igavania’s roots that we’ve forgotten how the old games played. Well, as an unapologetic emulation enthusiast, I decided to empirically test that assertion by firing up Retroarch and testing both “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night” and “Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance” immediately after the “Bloodstained” end credits roll… and, yeah, there’s definitely something ‘off’ with “Bloodstained,” as everything in those older Igavania titles feels tight, precise, and responsive.

Outside of the lack of polish in the basic fundamentals of 2D platforming, “Bloodstained” is a culmination of every idea that Iga ever put into one of his Igavania games. As a result, the number of RPG Elements and Action/Adventure mechanics feel overengineered and bloated. Miriam is a typical Igavania protagonist, who earns experience by killing enemies and gains levels by earning enough of said experience. Most of Miriam’s stats increase as she gains levels, but her basic health and magic meters are inexplicably excluded from the leveling system, instead relying on an older-school model of finding health-boosting and magic-boosting power-ups hidden throughout the game’s sprawling, interconnected map.

“Bloodstained” features an equipment system very similar to most Igavanias, with a choice of weapons plus a handful of armor and accessory slots to boost Miriam’s stats further and, in the case of accessories, provide access to some unique buffs and bonuses (annoyingly, the player must waste an accessory slot on a specific belt for most of the game in order to make Miriam’s walking speed feel zippier than “exhausted slug”). However, “Bloodstained” simultaneously incorporates a system of capturing slain enemies and stealing their powers via absorbing their unique Shards, ripped directly from the Soul Orb system used in both “Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow” and “Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow” and the Glyph system used in “Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia.” The Shard system allows Miriam to equip an attack Shard, a directional attack Shard (which can be aimed with the right analog stick in any direction), an active boost Shard (which only works while the player holds the right bumper), a passive boost Shard, and a familiar Shard (which summons a pet to follow Miriam, which attacks her foes erratically at best). Attack, directional, and active Shards all burn through Miriam’s magic meter during use, but this meter refills itself fairly quickly once the player stops actively consuming it.

But that’s not where the Shards, end, it’s where they begin! “Bloodstained” also includes a vast crafting system by which the player can take various junk Miriam finds in her adventures to a friendly alchemist who will synthesize new things for her to use. At its most basic, the alchemy system can be used to craft new weapons and armor, as well as cook delicious food (with each dish providing Miriam a cumulative and permanent stat boost the first time she eats it). These new items all become available to purchase from the in-game item shop (for in-game money, thankfully) after they’ve been crafted once. However, each and every Shard Miriam collects from a slain enemy can ALSO be upgraded with a Rank and Grade. Improving a Shard’s Grade is a process of collecting more copies of it from the type of enemy that drops it. Since Shard drop rates are typically around 4-8% per kill, it takes a LOT of grinding and running back and forth between two rooms to make a target enemy respawn in order to accumulate the maximum Grade of 9. Rank, however, requires Miriam to visit the alchemist, again, and provide a variety of bits and pieces in order to upgrade each Shard, once again to a maximum Rank of 9. Hitting Rank 9 for passive boost Shards is incredibly important, as it transforms them into skill Shards, which are always active, even when not equipped to the single passive boost slot.

As if that weren’t enough, it’s possible for Miriam to check-out stat-boosting books from a vampire librarian, as well as to learn Fighting-game-inspired Techniques for each weapon archetype, each of which requires a special sequence of button presses to trigger. It is only after engaging with and maxing out each and every one of these myriad gameplay systems that Miriam begins to feel somewhat more powerful, competent, and useful as a character. Yet, the single biggest improvement to making the game ‘feel’ somewhat good to play is an active boost Shard called Accelerator, which lets Miriam run and jump with incredible agility (especially compared with her default sluggish molasses moonwalk)… which is only available during the very bitter end of the game. It just seems like the number of Shard skills available is too numerous, most of them are useless or situation, and the truly useful techniques that open up new modes of character movement – one of the foundation stones of Metroidvania and Igavania alike – are handed out in completely the wrong order.

Lastly, I’d like to criticize the boss designs in “Bloodstained.” For the most part, through their long history, Igavania-style games have employed relatively simple boss fights, with well-telegraphed maneuvers and identifiable patters. While it is very possible to get killed in a typical Igavania boss confrontation, it’s also simple matter of identifying what went wrong and correcting it on the next attempt. “Bloodstained”… isn’t really like that. Boss difficulty slides all over the place with no rhyme or reason Some bosses, as mentioned earlier, have cluttered backdrops, making it difficult to see their erratic projectiles, or, worse, have decorations that look like they need to be avoided but aren’t actually dangerous. Nearly all of them have massively bloated hit point pools, making chipping away at their health incredibly tedious. And in many cases, the amount of time between the boss’ telegraph and the actual attack is too short a window for the player to react with Miriam’s slothful movements.

Overall
While not as onerous as “Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia,” “Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night” provides another datapoint for the downward curve showing that Koji Igarashi has lost his magic touch. This isn’t the polished experience of “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night,” or any of its Game Boy Advance successors, but an overwrought ‘kitchen-sink’ ideology game, where, in the pursuit of adding as many ideas as possible, Iga managed to screw up the basics.

Presentation: 3.5/5
Story: 3/5
Gameplay: 3/5
Overall (not an average): 3/5

 

 


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