Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night isn’t much of a game yet

How early is too early to present a playable build of your game at E3? I’m going to say “before it’s fun,” which happened to be the state Castlevania successor Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night was in at E3, where it was running on a pair of screens at Microsoft’s booth. I played through the 10 minute demo and recognized the very familiar trappings of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night—a similar walking speed and attack animation, the classic Metroidvania map overlay, and the good old backdash—but using them was a disappointingly bland experience.

Bloodstained’s demo level was a wooden galleon with a few enemies sparsely scattered throughout its screens. The most common are some oversized jellyfish which mostly scoot left and right and wait for you to kill them in one or two quick hits (and oily goo monsters that spawn from the floorboards and wait for you to kill them in one or two quick hits). Protagonist Miriam’s attacks and movement aren’t slow exactly, but I never found making contact satisfying. Enemies could be more responsive to attacks with animations. Hit pause on contact (where the game freezes for a frame or two to exaggerate the attack’s impact) could help. Maybe Maria’s animations need more wind-up. I’m sure a designer would know better than me how to make Bloodstained feel more satisfying—I just wasn’t feeling it in the demo.

An image from the Kickstarter page depicting the demo's galleon setting.

Another familiar enemy, a hulking armored brute with a spiky mace, doesn’t feel any better to slash or kick, but does give you a fun reason to use the backdash when he brings his mace in for an overhead strike. The boss at the end of the demo was the most disappointing. The character design is just...bad. How bad? The bottom half of the sea monster is a hulking purple face with half a dozen orange eyes and a mouth full of chunky teeth. The top half is an (essentially naked) woman, with oversized, floppy breasts and seaweed green hair. The kicker: the boss is so tall that when you run up to attack it, the woman’s face is above the top of the screen, but her breasts are juuuust in view.

It feels like an utterly needless sexualization of a creature that could've had a more interesting design had it been drawn more creatively. I'm not against sexualized character designs in games in general. But compare the rote design of this monster to the wildly disturbing crones in the Witcher 3, whose sexualization is used in a genuinely creepy way, and Bloodstained doesn't come out looking well.

The boss wasn't fun to fight, either. Like the basic enemies, the boss doesn't react to being hit, and it attacks in a couple slow, obvious patterns with a fireball (waterball, since it’s a sea monster?) lob and tentacle bash. The demo ends after about a minute of basic attacks to its teethy face, so maybe there's a second form with more interesting attacks. But what I fought was just bland.

I hope this demo is more indicative of Bloodstained’s graphical style and the engine’s performance than the moment-to-moment play of the final game.

The environments look beautiful thanks to the comic-booky shader shader Bloodstained's artists developed, but it's too still and barren to really come alive. I broke one wall to find a hidden item behind it, but overall it wasn't an interesting space to traverse or explore. The level design is very blocky--most rooms will be empty or have a couple raised platforms to jump to, so most traversal is just walking left to right. And look, we’ve been walking left and right in video games for a long time. That’s a tried-and-true activity. But when combat is as simple as basic button presses with no combos, and the environment is too barren to provide platforming obstacles or opportunities for clever movement, traversal ends up feeling bland.

When I think of other Metroidvanias I’ve played since Symphony of the Night, games like Cave Story and Ori and the Blind Forest, basic platforming has a fun acrobatic quality that is missing here. Perhaps abilities unlocked later in the game will make movement far more dynamic. This environment could be far simpler than the levels in the final game. I hope this demo is more indicative of Bloodstained’s graphical style and the engine’s performance than the moment-to-moment play of the final game.

Ori and the Blind Forest gets acrobatic platforming right.

I know I’m being hard on Bloodstained, but only because I have high expectations for it. I recognize it's an alpha more than a year away from release, and I hope most of my complaints are naturally addressed by the rest of development. The final game could be dramatically improved. I hope it is! What I’m afraid of is Bloodstained exactly retracing the conventions established by Igarashi’s older Castlevania games. I loved those games, but do I really want to play a new one that hasn’t evolved the plodding movement and blocky room design? At this point, I expect more.