Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2
Review by Mike Finkelstein
When Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night was originally proposed, fans of the Castlevania series weren't entirely sure if this would be a one-off project or the start of a whole new series for famed producer Koji Igarashi (aka IGA). Even when the Kickstarter for the project became a huge success and spawned a bonus prequel, Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, fans still weren't sure where the series was going -- it was hard to think of them as two separate games since one just came along on the back of the other.
Now, though, all of IGA's hints have revealed the truth: the Bloodstained series will continue and it wasn't just a one off project. While some fans might still have been hoping for hints of a new, Metroidvania title for the series (something or a proper sequel to Ritual), production houses ArtPlay and Inti Creates have instead continued the series with a second retro-inspired platformer. Although not creative with its name, Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 does delivery on exactly what you'd expect from the package: even more Curse of the Moon.
Picking up after the events of the first retro game in the series (with little explanation to boot), Curse of the Moon 2 finds the original hero, the sword-wielding Zangetsu, teaming up with a new cast of allies -- Church-sanctioned sorceress Dominique, sniper/soldier Robert, and corgi-in-a-mech Hachi -- for another demon-hunting adventure into the evil Gremory's dank abode. There will be twists and turns along the way, and opportunities to explore many different branches of the levels, as the game weaves a story in around the characters three or so times along its course.
Because of its construction -- essentially being built in the same engine as the original game, with similar graphics and assets (along with a few surprises we'll get to in a bit), it's hard to view this game without comparing it directly to the first Curse of the Moon. It's a direct sequel and begs for comparison, which is both a blessing and a curse (no pun intended) for this sequel. The short of it is that if you enjoyed the original Curse of the Moon you'll find exactly what you want here in this direct sequel. But that's also the problem because for long stretches of the game you're getting the same experience all over again.
The game's core strength is its love of the classic games from which it draws inspiration. As with the previous title, Curse of the Moon 2 goes all in on the retro aesthetic, featuring 8-bit inspired graphics and sound, crafting a lovely mix that will make any aging gamer feel right at home. The game isn't entirely true to the retro roots, with some graphical options (parallax scrolling alongside more sprites on screen than an NES could handle) that make the package feel a little more modern. Still, it has the vibe just right. It buys in on the retro and crafts a lovely package around it.
As with the first title (there I go again), this game draws heavy inspiration from Castlevania III, featuring a storyline that sees our hero collect his allies and hot-swap them on the fly as they dive into a castle and kill everything in their path. Not all the enemies are one-to-one, and the heroes move further away from the classic Castlevania archetypes, but you can still draw a straight line from Castlevania III to the first Curse of the Moon to this game and feel right at home.
The new characters are, for the most part, nice additions to the fold. Dominique (who, oddly, was the villain of the last game in the series, Ritual of the Night) acts as the cleric and sorceress of the group -- she can either be relied on for healing or for powerful magical attacks, but not both at the same time. She also has a nice, long spear with better reach than Zangetsu's sword, and she can even attack upwards with it which, coupled with her higher jump height, gives her a lot of utility. She's certainly much better than Robert who brings a gun to a sword fight and, somehow, ends up the weaker for it. He has range, but lacks health, jump height, more much utility. His big feature is that he can kick off walls to climb up areas, but you have to have two walls to work with and the levels only have so many areas that are appropriate for this. Robert is not setup or utilized well in this game.
Better is the final new character, Hachi, a literal corgi in a mech. Hachi's mech is powerful, with some of the best melee damage in the game. He also has the ability to hover out of jumps as well as turn invincible (as long as you have the magic points to power it), giving him crazy amounts of utility. Frankly, I used Zangetsu, Dominique, and Hachi to get through all the early stages of the game and largely ignored Robert unless I had to use him. It speaks well for the balance of three of the characters, but it also points out just how imbalanced the game is against Robert.
As in the first game, Curse of the Moon 2 features multiple play throughs that re-contextualize the main adventure. After the first time through you lose Dominique (in a nod to the original game where you lost Zangetsu) and you have to play back through with your other three characters to save her and her soul (and, yes, I ignored Robert here as well). But this is where the game also pulls a curve ball as, now that you have these other two characters, Hachi and Robert, you can go into areas that were inaccessible in the first play-through of the levels and find three hidden swords. Collect all three swords and unlock Zangetsu's Zanmato blade, you can defeat Gremory and free Dominique, unlocking the best ending for Episode 2 and moving right on to the Final Episode.
This is, however, one point of annoyance I had with the game: I didn't expect the 100% run I did, getting these three blades, would force me to skip over content. If you fail to collect the blades, then fight the demon, you get a different ending and unlock Episode EX where you play through as Zangetsu alongside his three original companions (Alfred, Gebel, and Miriam) and get to use their abilities to explore the levels. The idea of the parallel stories is nice, but to unlock all this content, and see both endings, you have to play through the second mission twice. That means that, between all the play throughs -- the first mission ones, the second twice, the EX episode, and then the final episode -- you're playing the same stages over and over again five times.
It's really annoying once you realize the stages don't have much new content in them past the second play-through; you'll have seen it all, basically, have have to play it three more times just to get to the last levels of the last mission, and it really starts to feel tedious. Don't get me wrong, the game play is as tight as ever, the game comes up with creative ways to remix the characters around and make you work for it, but it's still the same game, over and over again, for five missions. Even a few alternate levels on a couple of the play throughs would have really added some life and variety to the game.
It does lead to a great reveal at the end, though. The last mission sees you going through each of the levels, collecting one of the characters again from the full seven and defeating the boss there to build a space ship and travel to the moon (yes the moon) to defeat the demons on that planetoid. This then (spoiler, of course) leads to a top-down shooting section that feels fresh and new in comparison to what came before. It reminded me a lot, in fact, of The Guardian Legend, a Metroidvania that combined Blaster Master-style dungeons with top-down shooting sections, and it was great. This area felt new, and lively, and the stage goes on for a decent stretch so you can really experience all the fun of it.
Seriously, this section was so good as you're flying in a ship that looks like Hachi, shooting lasers at enemies and collecting power ups. Each character you save in the main part of the mission can collect power ups. during the flight, so you can end up shoot scythes or daggers from Miriam, have a fire shield or lighting orbs from Alfred, wind attacks and ice blasts from Dominique, spares and grenades from Robert, and even extra bat drones from Gebel. I loved this section, and all its variety, so hard. My only complaint was that it was only a single level and then it was gone. I wanted more!
This shooting section led to one more new stage, another platforming area on the moon (with lower gravity), and I enjoyed the heck out of this whole area. This was new content that helped to bring the whole game to a proper crescendo and it sent the adventure out on a high note. The game needed more of this variety, more of a sense of fun as you explored around. It was great while it lasted but it only highlights how little risk the rest of the levels took with their design. The game needed more adventure, more style, more variety, but it mostly feels like remixes of the previous game fed to us five times over.
And that really gets us back to my main point: I loved the original Curse of the Moon and I'm very happy to have this sequel. It's everything the title implies, but it doesn't do much more with the game. Assuming there's a Curse of the Moon 3 (or some other title but still in this retro part of the series), the designers need to do more. I don't know if it's more shooting stages worked into the series (although I'd welcome that) or just more and differing levels with a lot more exploration baked in. This sequel does exactly what it says on the package, but the producers can only pull this trick so many times before we're all going to get bored. I happen to think twice is enough; now they have to push the games further.
The one truly new addition is the inclusion of a two-player mode, something a lot of fans apparently were asking for. I appreciate this, and I could see how having two players in the game changes up boss strategies and exploration. Still, even then, we need to see more out of the developers. This is a nice stop-gap game, and the included features and full cast of characters is lovely. Use this as the basis to build something even grander from this point forward. You've shown you can build a solid retro game, Inti Creates. Now, what else you got in you?