Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon

[contains minor spoilers]

Inti Creates's output can vary wildly from game to game, making them a difficult developer for me to articulate my feelings on. I love love love their Mega Man games (9 is my favorite in the series), but found myself disappointed by the Gunvolt duology, and left sadly lukewarm on a title that I should by all accounts love: Blaster Master Zero. That's why upon hearing that Inti Creates was developing a retro classicvania prequel to Igarashi's Bloodstained, I wasn't champing at the bit to play it—for all I knew, it could be another lackluster platformer like Mighty Gunvolt.

It wasn't though; Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is the best Castlevania knock-off I've ever played.

Granted, there aren't a lot of classicvania games that I know of—there's like, 8-Eyes, Holy Diver, Curse of Issyos, and... that's it? Maaaaybe Volgarr the Viking? So perhaps a more glowing appraisal would be to say that Bloodstained is in the running for being one of the best Castlevania games. And I don't make that statement lightly—to me, Castlevania is perhaps the strongest non-Nintendo franchise out there (well, that's older than the Xbox 360). I should confess that a big reason for this is because I'm irresistibly drawn towards platformers more than any other genre, but nevertheless, I've yet to find a (non-Nintendo) platforming series with better level design across the board.

Coupled with the rocky history of modern Inti Creates, you can imagine my surprise when Curse of the Moon demonstrably proved that it understood what made Castlevania tick. There's multiple characters with distinct playstyles, powerful subweapons, optional shortcuts, stages dripping in atmosphere, and even the option to turn off mid-air direction changes. The caveat here is that Curse understands Castlevania primarily because... it is Castlevania, at least to some extent. There are lamps that drop hearts, angled stairways, a dagger-chucking lady with a whip, and certain enemies feel lifted from an abandoned Castlevania project—I mean c'mon, there's even a hallway with medusa heads and axe armors!

But the similarities never become grating largely because there are so few Castlevania-likes out there. The aforementioned Stage 5 tribute comes off as endearing and respectful too, a nod to its forebearers without being a soulless reproduction. Curse of the Moon seeks more to use the Castlevania blueprint as a springboard for its own clever ideas, like how it spreads Simon Belmont's subweapon repertoire across multiple characters, or how it swaps out the bone pillar for an archer that quickly fires three arrows. In fact the entire project is a delectable mix of reverence and ambition, feeling less like a bonus reward for kickstarters and more like the vampire-slaying dream project of someone at Inti Creates.

There's a lot that I admire about the design of this game, so I'll try to keep it brief. The most overarcing piece of praise I can offer is that the game lets playstyle dictate difficulty. Though I personally feel the game is still too easy for its own good (Shovel Knight is harder), there are ways to hamper yourself on a playthrough, like refusing to use certain weapons, taking the main route through a stage, or skipping out on recruitable characters. Trying to get through the game with solely Zangetsu and his starting loadout is a fitting task for Castlevania veterans, so it's cool that the difficulty of the game can range wildly between "anyone can do this" to "enjoy restarting half the level if you get hit four times!"

While Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon has a really solid first playthrough, there's also two additional NG+ modes that add some neat tweaks, the most welcome being a new final stage & boss. The game looks great, with backgrounds being rarely cluttered or overdone (the foreground of Stage 6 is pretty ugly but I think that's by intention). The music is absolutely fantastic and has some phenomenally uplifting tunes that you can't help but nod your head to. There's some great gameplay sections that boast both smart enemy placement and a clever platforming challenge—Stage 7 in particular bursting with these devious designs (love that bouncing sprite enemy!) Lastly, not only are the characters extremely well balanced, but switching between them is instantaneous, so you're motivated to try each one out and discover how best to use them. And game over only occurs when you've lost all four, so even when your main damage dealer bites the dust, you still have a chance to pull off a heroic upset.

The single complaint I have to levy against Curse of the Moon is that the bosses lean too much on memorization rather than reflex. "Bosses" can feel like a silly thing to focus on in video games sometimes, but in more simple challenge-oriented games, they can often be the piece de resistance that pushes the player's limits, tasking them to out-think and outmaneuver a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Curse doesn't really aim for that however, even on its hardest difficulty; nearly every boss has a repeatable pattern you can learn which will allow you to defeat them without taking a single hit. Castlevania bosses aren't super intricate, but the randomness of their attack patterns coupled with the inflexible controls made for stressful duels that were a blast to scrape by on the skin of your teeth. Outside of a 1-2 fights in this game, the luster of perilous combat is unfortunately lost once you remember what your foe will do next.

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is the real deal. It has a retro playstyle and feel, but is not held down by the archaic philosophy of its forefathers—it plays like a new Castelvania without being as mercilessly punishing. The attacks feel great, the enemies are creative, the music is energizing, and there's a variety of ways to make it through the game, whether it be in the stage itself or by bypassing (or murdering) one of your allies. It's a short game too, which should satisfy the desires of anyone that's nostalgic for the 8-bit aesthetics but doesn't have the time to spend suffering through trial and error. It pleases me to end to see Inti Creates do justice not only to Mega Man, but Castlevania as well—bravo!

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