Fans of IGA’s formative side-scrolling series Castlevania are in for a treat with the retro throwback Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, originally planned as a stretch goal reward for the close-to-release Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. While IGA’s Kickstarter blew the doors off with a $5.5 million pledge peak, a late-stage stretch goal spoke to a planned “Prequel mini-game for PC/Consoles.”
“Mini-game” might be a misnomer, though; this is an old-school Castlevania-length pixelated action-platformer with considerable depth. In many ways, Curse of the Moon functions as an extended love letter to Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse for the NES, a game considered the best entry of the original run by many (including, of course, IGA himself), but with a few built-in mod-cons that alternately make the game easier, harder, and more complex, with a strong replay value for its 2-3 hour length.
Players first take on the role of demon hunter Zengetsu, a character with a move-set similar to that of Ryu Hayabusa from the original Ninja Gaiden. He's equipped with a fast-moving katana and can pick up side weapons, most of which act as counterpart to those found in Castlevania. Taking a path through the initial stages will offer an opportunity to recruit some companions, available after each of the first three bosses are defeated, and who can then be swapped to at will. Zengetsu and his teammates each possess individual health bars of varying length, adding a unique mechanic where a quick swap can save a character from being taken out of commission.
The level design is wholly familiar, with Gothic architecture, horror-influenced enemies, and even a version of those infuriating medusa heads we’ve all grown to fear and despise. Additionally, most of Zengetsu’s companions hearken back to Castlevania III’s playable characters, with Alfred the Alchemist’s glass cannon status a stand-in for Sypha, and Gebel the Vampire an ersatz Alucard. Miriam the Shardbinder plays quite similarly to Trevor Belmont, as well as occupying a central role in the next-gen Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night.
Offering two difficulty modes at the start of the game — veteran and casual — Curse is sufficiently challenging, offering multiple routes per level and character abilities that can lead to permanent stat upgrades. The improvements to health, mana, defense, and attack strength are most apparent during the boss fights, which are usually surmountable but reasonably challenging; that being said, I’m an old hand at the series, and found myself defeating many bosses on a first attempt while on veteran difficulty. Newcomer mileage may vary, but they’re satisfying enemies to contend with, and they each possess a showy last-gasp attack when their health is fully depleted.
Casual mode offers more heart pickups and prevents a knockback effect when injured, and apparently activates without any in-game penalties. It’s a fine mode to select, and its inclusion is reminiscent of indie game Celeste’s numerous ease-of-use options for players, but veteran is recommended for those familiar with the original Castlevania series.
Music has always been a strong selling point of Castlevania games, up and through the later exploratory metroidvania entries. While the soundtrack fails to reach the lofty heights of Castlevania III’s OST, it’s full of memorable themes and a considerably less baroque inspiration, trading in the overly dramatic for the anthemic. The title screen music in particular is superb, and is an example of many, if not all, of the songs being chiptune covers of what’s to come in the final current-gen console game.
Although a playthrough of Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon takes a mere handful of hours, unlockable modes will pull players back into the game as they sniff out alternate routes and rooms. Most fans won’t be able to just beat it and leave it at that, and there are some interesting mechanical changes to unlock that make later playthroughs feel fresh. There are also plenty of fun Castlevania easter eggs in the enemy designs, boss animations, and the playable characters themselves. Experienced vets will have probably already purchased this game prior to reading this, but newbies may find a new appreciation for a series of pioneering games that have barely any equals.
Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is available for purchase now on Xbox One, PS4, PS Vita, Nintendo Switch, and Nintendo 3DS.
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