Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night (for Xbox One)

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Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a side-scrolling action-RPG designed to mirror Konami's old school Castlevania games. Bloodstained was conceived as a Kickstarter project by Koji Igarashi, director of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and producer of most subsequent Castlevania titles. Many classic Castlevania conventions are faithfully represented in Bloodstained, including the movement, attacks, catchy music, and incessant need to break light fixtures. The 2.5D visual style can make avoiding attacks tricky at times, and protagonist Miriam spends too much time in the air during jumps, but Bloodstained shows great promise as the game to pick up the torch that Castlevania left behind. I played Bloodstained on Xbox One, but it will also be available on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, and Wii U when it debuts in 2017.

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Sword and Sorcery
Miriam's adventure starts on a derelict ship that's tossed about by a stormy sea. You can move her with the directional pad or analog stick, as is your preference. She begins the game with a sword, which has a basic slashing attack, a crouching attack, and an aerial attack. Early on, you'll find a leg-based weapon that replaces Miriam's sword attacks with kicks. The kicks are weaker than the sword attacks, but I found that the kick can be executed more quickly when recovering from a jump, so you can attack faster. Special input attacks, like fighting game-style quarter-circle attacks, are in the works but have not been implemented yet.

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Miriam has a back-dash that she can use to avoid frontal attacks. You are not invincible during the animation, so the technique is used for entirely avoiding an attack rather than dodging through it. I tried to speed-run through the level by back-dashing around, but there is a slight recovery between each dash that makes this unfeasible.

Miriam's cursed with a brand that slowly turns her body to glass. This curse also gives her magical powers, which she can use against enemies. Monsters randomly drop magical shards, which add new abilities to Miriam's repertoire. Anyone who's played Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow will find Bloodstained's shard very familiar. Shards from flail-wielding enemies, for example, give Miriam the ability to use the same flail as a sub-weapon. Another shard boosts your Constitution stat, though I did not experiment enough to see what that stat does in combat.

You automatically earn shards as you progress through the game. I earned the fire spell when I got to a specific point in the ship, which let me shoot a stream of fire as long as I had Magic Points (MP) to cast it. You aim the spell with the right analog stick and fire it at a foe by pressing the trigger button. Some of the lighter puzzles require this spell; for example, you can activate the cannons that are scattered throughout the ship by burning their fuses. Doing so blows open walls to unlock shortcuts and new areas. This isn't particularly groundbreaking when compared to past Castlevania games, but Bloodstained is highly polished, and makes good use of the systems it features.

Of Monsters and Pitfalls
There are quite a few dangerous beasts that haunt the cabins and halls within the derelict ship. Shambling octopi and creeping ooze monsters make up the bulk of the resistance, but a few flail-wielding knights and floating ectoplasm enemies pop up to menace you as you explore. One enemy in particular, the five-legged, lion-faced Buer, is classic demon that has made several appearances in Castlevania; seeing it again in Bloodstained was a pleasant surprise.

Vepar, the ship's leviathan boss, makes a few appearances throughout the stage, thrashing her massive tentacles to damage the environment and open up new areas. The level culminates in a battle with Vepar on the bow of the ship, where she uses her tentacles to crush you, or spit magic at you from the toothy mouth on her waist. The boss fight is not particularly difficult, as all of Vepar's attacks have lengthy tells that make it easy to recognize when she is on the offense.

I found that 2.5D perspective muddled the experience a bit, because it was tricky to know when certain attacks were active. Vepar's tentacle attack, for example, is only dangerous when she sweeps across the bow. But because the tentacle rests on the foreground before the attack starts, it is easy to misjudge the timing and jump early. Speeding up the boss' animations might alleviate this issue.

You'll have to grow accustomed to jumping, too. Miriam's leaps are slow and floaty, so she spends a lot of time in the air. I would prefer a faster, snappier jump and fall animation instead. You can still make effective use of jumping, so platforming works within the limited confines of the ship. You are not required to make any tricky jumps to get to the end of the stage, but the current jumping system doesn't feel precise enough to handle accurate platforming, either.

Taking Up the Mantle
Bloodstained's 2.5D visuals stand in contrast with the sprite-based Castlevania games, but the cel-shaded models make the game easy on the eyes. The core gameplay mechanics are so similar that Bloodstained could easily pass for a Castlevania title. The fact that Bloodstained is being designed from the ground up as an unabashed successor is exciting, as well. I'm very much looking forward to its release, and the fact that I won't have to see the same Rondo of Blood merman sprite recycled for the umpteenth time.

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