Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon
Review by Mike Finkelstein
It's fair to say that Castlevania fans haven't had a lot of love from Konami as of late. Sure, there's the pretty decent Castlevania anime over on Netflix, but as far as games are concerned, Konami has seemed content to push out gambling machines and mobile products without ever giving the fans a proper game to continue their favorite series. It was a minor miracle, then, when long-time series producer Koji Igarashi (aka IGA) announced a Kickstarter to support production of a spiritual successor to his Metroidvania games titled "Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night".
That Kickstarter went on to be a huge success, reaching $5.5 Million on a base goal of $500 thousand. As part of that pledge drive, a prequel mini-game was unlocked that promised 2D, pixel-based, retro game play. Three years later, the promised prequel, Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon was released to whet everyone's appetites for the eventual release of the full-fledged game to follow. And let me just say, if nothing else, the retro-inspired Curse of the Moon continues to show us the developers are serious about making a proper Castlevania successor.
While Ritual of the Night is a Metroidvania game through and through, the retro Curse of the Moon draws influence from the older games in the Castlevania series. The most obvious influence is Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, and not just because both games have "Curse" in the name (although that was probably purposeful). The players start off as Zangetsu, a cursed demon hunter looking to fight the very demons that cursed him and save the world from their evil. As he journeys through 8 stages, battling to the very top of the evil fortress of demons, he'll collect three heroes along the way, creating a powerful team to aid in his journey:
- Miriam, our whip-wielding Belmont analogue
- Alfred, alchemist and Belnades analogue, and
- Gebel, essentially Alucard by a different name
Along with the characters, the game play is very Castlevania III by design. The heroes will battle through the stages ahead, finding alternate paths and different ways to traverse the countryside (although the branching paths are in the levels themselves instead of on the world map). The player can switch between the characters at any time, using their various abilities and powers to aid in the fight and make different sections easier to traverse.
But they'll also have to watch for strategically placed enemies and constant spawning hordes of monsters. Anyone that has played the classic Castlevania games will know all to well how easy it is to soak damage, how one false move with cause a bat to fly in and kill you when you least want it (possibly by knocking you back into a pit). There's a reason the classic games are considered "Nintendo hard" -- they old-school series was absolutely brutal and, if you want to play that way in Curse of the Moon you can.
That's one of the concessions made for modern sensibilities: if players so choose, they can crank down the difficulty of the game some. The game starts with one main difficulty unlocked, "Normal", and two additional settings to flip, "Veteran" and "Casual". If you play as a veteran you'll have limited lives and will have to contend with the traditional knock-back effect any time you take damage. Casual, though, grants you extra lives and removes the knock-back. I'm not ashamed to say that while I did try out Veteran, I played through the main game on the Casual setting (because I suck at the old games). I got the experience all the fun of the game without the brutal difficulty of a traditional Castlevania title.
And hey, if you want it brutal, go for it. The game will not only let you play as a veteran but, once you'll played through, you can unlock additional difficulty modes to really give you that "Nintendo hard" experience. Plus, you'll have to play twice, once on the harder "Nightmare" mode, to see the extra level and bonus boss fight that finishes out the story.
Really, there's a lot to like in Curse of the Moon, especially if (like me) you picked up the game from the Kickstarter drive and, thus, got this retro game for free. That said, the package isn't perfect and there are some little flaws.
For starters, the penalty for a death is almost too forgiving, especially when the screw up happens at an inopportune moment. There are certain sections of the game where, if you want to collect a special bonus item or go to make a section a little more bearable, you'll have to use a specific character. However, each character has their own energy bar and "life" as part of the team -- when they die, the rest of the team can continue onwards but that character is unavailable until the whole team is dead. Thus, sometimes you have to spend the time killing everyone else off if you want your full team back to go somewhere or do something. This was especially the case in the later stages where losing a character can make some sections nearly impossible to get through with the rest of the team.
There's also the fact that not all the heroes are made equal. Alfred the alchemist, for example, has some massive powers that are hugely useful to the team. However, he's also super weak as a basic hero. Since you can switch between characters freely, you can activate one of his powers then immediately switch back and freely use the power as someone else. I spent almost no time as Alfred but used his powers constantly, making me wonder why he was even in the game (instead of just giving his abilities to someone else or making him a better hero).
Also, let's be honest, while it's Castlevania-inspired, Curse of the Moon doesn't quite reach the heights of the games it plays homage to. The music, while decent, never reaches the levels of the great tunes from the classic NES era -- I barely remember any of the tracks from my play-through, they were just background noise. The graphics, too, are decent but nothing special. The style is much more anime and less true Castlevania, and it lacks any of the spark of the old games. Enemies aren't too interesting, and I had no clue what some of the bosses were even supposed to be (especially the end boss).
And one more minor quibble: while the game is retro-inspired, the graphics aren't really 8-bit. There are too many sprites on screen most time, too many colors in certain areas, that a purist will have issues with the whole retro ambiance.
Still, that's being really nit-picky. Overall this game is great, a good time to be had especially when you consider that it's free for some (as part of the Kickstarter) and only $10 at initial release for anyone else. Hard to argue with a good, cheap, fun to play game.