Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon

This is almost not fair. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon probably shouldn’t be listed alongside stuff like Escape Goat 2 or Axiom Verge or even Fez. I mean, Fez had close to an entire movie devoted to its development, something most indies could only dream of. And yet, it still feels more on the same level as its peers than Curse of the Moon. It seems somehow wrong that today’s game competes head-to-head with it for a spot on the IGC Leaderboard, along with Dead Cells or SteamWorld Dig 2 or Sportsfriends. In case you didn’t know, Bloodstained is produced by Koji Igarashi. As in “the guy who made Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.” To say doors would open to him that wouldn’t open to your average indie developer is a bit of an understatement.

To put it in perspective, Curse of the Moon is the result of a $5,545,991 Kickstarter campaign. But, Curse of the Moon wasn’t even the focus of that campaign. This is the game that got made because the campaign made so much money. This is a stretch goal. The game that people actually backed is coming out next year. That’s fucking insane.

The moon is visible in every stage and slowly develops into a full moon that frames the final level. This doesn’t make Curse of the Moon better, but it shows a wonderful attention to detail that demonstrates how much care and consideration was given during the design. Meanwhile, Link is like “the moon.. full gets full? That’s adorable. For me, the moon tried to crash into the planet, obliterating all life as we know it. Enjoy your Castlevania cosplay. It’s precious.”

Curse of the Moon was promised to be a “retro mini-game prequel” or something along those lines. But it ain’t mini. This is a full-fledged NES-style game so convincing that you would swear this is the missing link between Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse and Super Castlevania IV. And it truly is an NES Castlevania in everything but name. Enemies are almost all reskinned versions of Castlevania staples. The four characters are very similar to Dracula’s Curse. There’s no Grant Danasty, and the main character doesn’t feel like a Belmont, but the first ally you gain certainly does, whip and everything. The second character is a close approximation to Sypha Belnades. Finally, they just pretty much said “fuck it” and stuck Alucard in as the third ally, bat-transformation fully intact. It’s the moment where you feel the team said “we’re either going to get sued or we’re not. Might as well go big or go home.”

If you think of Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon as Castlevania 3.5, that tells you everything you need to know about the game. It controls slightly better than the NES series, and it’s especially nice that the stairs aren’t a complete nightmare to use anymore. But otherwise, it feels like a really great ROM hack. Everything has this creepy familiarity, but that doesn’t mean some inspired bits of originality don’t seep through. In fact, not being married to the Castlevania mythos allows for some of the most creative boss designs in the series. The series that Curse of the Moon isn’t part of, but kind of is anyway. Sorta. It’s complex.

“Excuse me, have you by any chance seen my wife? Last time I heard from her, she said she had to go fight bears. Bears that ‘care’ whatever that means. Kinda sexy in a bald, creepy, evil spirit kind of way?”

Another way to look at it is someone shot Castlevania with the same modernization ray Shovel Knight used on classic NES Capcom games. 2010s 2D gameplay conventions are here. Optional difficulty? Check. A save system besides a password? Check. Tons of extras and multiple endings? Check. It’s actually an impressive, fully-realized package and it’s strange that people still think it’s some sort of throwaway Kickstarter bonus. Let’s say Ritual of the Night never sees the light of day and Curse of the Moon is as far as the franchise makes it out of the crib. As much as that would suck, the one thing we wound up getting is very, very good on its own merit.

Having said that, the big issue is the difficulty and the lack of flexibility. Curse of the Moon has two difficulty options: Casual and Veteran. There’s no toggles to adjust how hard the game is between these, and that’s sort of a problem. “Veteran” is Castlevania exactly as you grew up on. A lives system and that infamous Castlevania “getting hit by a bat somehow causes your character to dramatically curl up and fly six feet backwards, more than likely into a god-damned fucking pit” recoil that resulted in many a hurled controller. It also nerfs the value of item-pickups. Casual eliminates both the lives and the recoil. Consequently, the normal mode is too hard and the casual mode is too easy. But there’s also a chance that the normal mode is too easy for most Castlevania veterans. Despite the fact that I’ve beaten Castlevania I & III (fuck Simon’s Quest, it sucks, it’s  boring, and it has too much downtime), I wasn’t really looking to challenge myself here and so I opted for casual mode. But when I dipped my toes in the putrid water that is Veteran mode, I actually did clear the first few levels with almost no effort. I’m getting reports from Castlevania fans that this would be the easiest of the NES Castlevanias if it was legitimately part of the series. Take that for what it’s worth.

This was my favorite boss fight. And yet, as cool as it was, I couldn’t stomp out the earworm that kept humming the theme to DuckTales in my head.

But, I kind of wish I could have played the unlimited lives version of the game with the option to turn the recoil on and off. Just to give a whirl. Oh, I wouldn’t have left it on. I actually kept a running count of how many times I would have almost certainly died as a result of that recoil: 57 times. That’s 57 times I didn’t scream myself hoarse in anger. But what if I wanted at least that much challenge without having to deal with starting full levels over because I ran out of lives? That’s not possible with Bloodstained, and maybe it should have been. The lack of Goldilocks options means everything is too hot or too cold, and we never get a chance at making things “just right” before the bears show up to eat her face off.

You can actually make your own challenges, though the game doesn’t remotely advertise this. I didn’t even know about this stuff until well after I had beaten the game and was replaying it for the sake of grabbing extra screenshots for this review, but you can murder the allies you acquire over the game’s first three levels by attacking them instead of talking to them. If you do this, you gain an extra ability for the main character. Killing the Belmont wannabe gains you a wider-ranged jumping-slash maneuver. Killing the Sypha clone gains you a double-jump. Killing not-Alucard allows you to dash. Mind you, the main character is easily the most boring to use, so it’s actually not-desirable to kill the allies to gain these moves. It would make more sense if killing them gained you something the ally did. Kill the not-Belmont, gain her higher jumping. Kill not-Alucard, get the ability to fly. Something, ANYTHING other than the way they did it. You also unlock different endings, depending on which allies you kill and which ones you don’t. By the end of the game, I was using all of them except the Sypha clone, who would be almost worthless. Except for the fact that I killed the last boss by, you guessed it, using the Sypha clone. That dude became the friend you drag around with you on a night on the town because he’ll pick up the check at the end of the night.

I giggled when I reached this scene. Yes, it’s a character based on Elizabeth Báthory, the infamous “Blood Countess” accused of killing over 600 girls and bathing in their blood to maintain her youth. But this is also a wonderful satire of the final room of the original Castlevania. Instead of coming across Dracula’s coffin, you come across a bathtub. And yes, I’ve confirmed this was deliberate. Now THAT is how you do an in-joke.

Otherwise, I really liked Curse of the Moon. It’s probably not as good as Castlevania III, where I feel the level design is stronger and more inspired. Curse of the Moon brings a lot of great ideas to the table, but the levels themselves feel more like direct homages that didn’t stray far enough from tradition to feel like the “lost sequel” that it aspires to be. Given the fact that the bosses stand out for their creativity, it’s a crying shame that the levels almost never do. There are multiple branching paths in each stage, but they’ll all bring you from one level to the next in linear fashion and only give you a couple new areas to explore, though those few extra rooms have the same look and feel to them that the other paths do anyway. Don’t get me wrong: the levels are never boring, and actually it’s a treat that not one of them sucks the fun out of the game. But while the themes can be fun and the reskins of existing Castlevania enemies are nifty, the levels all feel like stages we’ve already played from previous games. Well, besides the last stage where an army of bugs destroys the walls, but that feels more like Heat Man’s stage in Mega Man 2, so the familiarity is still there.

And also, it’s worth noting that the fifth boss is so absurdly flashy that I’m honestly lucky I didn’t have a seizure. All the bosses do a final “last hurrah” attack once defeated, and that one was probably the most flashy, dangerous-for-my-epilepsy moment I’ve had in seven years as IGC. It made people without epilepsy sick too. I normally defend these types of artistic decisions, but this one I feel crosses the line where it’s unnecessary. But don’t let that discourage you. The bosses are creative and cool. Just exercise caution.

What makes Curse of the Moon truly unique is I don’t have to say “it’s an NES Castlevania, and if you didn’t enjoy those, you won’t enjoy this.” Because that might not be entirely true. The casual mode might make it so players who liked the concept but not the prohibitive difficulty of the originals can actually take-in this game from start to finish and not give up in frustration. And they’ll probably have more fun with doing so than they ever did with the 80s/90s originals. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is an accessible NES Castlevania that gives players broken by Dracula’s Curse a pair of crutches. Isn’t that the best way to pay tribute to a classic? And it goes so much further than that. Teenagers who grew up with the NES are now adults in their 40s with all the fun that can come with that. Slower reaction times. Waning skills. Maybe those who ate through the originals once upon a time but can barely get past the Mummies/Cyclopes/Gargoyle combination now that they’re decrepit can feel like they’ve come home again. Curse of the Moon can tickle the nostalgia of that crowd, but also be something they share with their kids. This, my friends, is how you do a classic franchise tribute. Polish the spirit of the game and plaster-over the unsightly holes. You know, the holes you made when you threw your controller through a wall after being knocked backwards into a pit.

The real question is whether or not Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon and next year’s Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night are indies at all. It’s not as if Igarashi was some nameless, faceless coder working at Konami who finally worked up the courage to go off on his own. He’s a legend of game development. Oddly enough, even after seven years of running a moderately popular indie game review blog, I still couldn’t tell you exactly where you draw the line between “indie” and “not indie.” For Bloodstained, it just seems off to me that the guy who went from making real Castlevania games leaves Konami to make games that are still Castlevania games in every way a game can be except the name and characters, and that counts as an indie. This isn’t someone taking a huge risk trying to mimic a game designed by his hero. He’s already the hero, making exactly the kind of game we would expect from him if had never gone off on his own and Konami mandated a direct sequel to Castlevania III with NES-style graphics. I put Curse of the Moon to a vote among my fans. 88% said this should count as an indie, but I was going to go against this and make a judgement call that this isn’t right.

Real super quick: see that whip? It sort of implies that you’ll have full eight-way attack options, just like in Super Castlevania IV. I think that’s why this picture is literally the first picture shown on the Steam page. But actually, this is a special attack that uses the game’s weapon-juice that you might not even be carrying because the game’s version of the holy water could fill its spot. This character’s default weapon is a short-range sword that fucking sucks. When myself and others bought this, we thought there’d be eight-way attack options based on these screens, so it’s kinda skeezy on their part. Also, this is the best sub-weapon for most bosses besides the Sypha clone’s magic homing missiles, which completely make bosses a cakewalk.

And then something unexpected happened: developers started contacting me, some I had never previously interacted with, saying they wanted the game ranked on the Leaderboard. Why? So they could aim to beat it. It was universal. They wanted Bloodstained: Cursed of the Moon to be declared by me an indie game and placed where I felt it should be (in this case, as the eighth-best indie I’ve ever reviewed as of this writing) so they had something to aim at. I like that. And, if this could serve to bring out the best in a new generation of game development heroes, hell, why not? So Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is an indie. And now I’ll remind those who pushed for this that next year, the real Bloodstained will arrive. A game in my favorite genre (Metroidvania) by one of my favorite producers (Igarashi) that will presumably take all the best parts from those classic games, clear up the warts inherit to those, and combine what’s leftover with modern game design principles. You want to be compete with that? Hey, your funeral.

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon was developed by Inti Creates
Point of Sale: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Vita, Nintendo Switch, Steam

$6.99 (normally $9.99) sang ♪ this isn’t the greatest game in the world, this is just a stretch goal ♪ in the making of this review. Thanks @luvcraft

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is Chick-Approved and Ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

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About Indie Gamer Chick
Indie game reviews and editorials.

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