#478: Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2
Castlevania spiritual sequel semi-prequel gets semi-sequel… or something
Initial release: 2020
Developer: Inti Creates
Platforms: Playstation 4, XBox One, Switch, PC
When Koji Igarashi, after having left Konami, announced that he was going to put out a spiritual successor to Castlevania, the franchise he had been the showrunner on for years, the fandom rejoiced. A successful Kickstarter later and… not much happened for a number of years. However, during the long wait for Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night to release, Inti Creates, a small studio founded by ex-Capcom staff who are best known for developing the Mega Man Zero series, was brought on first to initially help develop Ritual of the Night but later switched to developing a prequel of sorts, Curse of the Moon, which was promised as a stretch goal. If Ritual of the Night was intended to be a modern take on the “Metroidvania” that Igarashi helped popularize with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and its sequels, Curse of the Moon was instead a love letter to classic Castlevania, specifically Castlevania III. It proved to be a big hit, and was a welcome treat to players who had been waiting long for the main game.
After Ritual’s eventual release, Inti Creates released Curse of the Moon 2 by surprise, and it’s everything you would expect a followup to the original Curse of the Moon to be: unforgiving, with crunchy 8-bit music and graphics, with solid gameplay mechanics. The core gameplay conceit is basically the same: demon-hunting samurai Zangetsu returns as the primary protagonist (despite the game accounting for none of the previous games’ endings… not that this game explains the connection between Curse and Ritual, either. I suspect there isn’t one, and I also suspect that Curse of the Moon is not only in a separate universe from Ritual of the Night, but it’s not even in the same century.) He’s helped along by a different crew this time: Dominique, the spear-wielding Church representative seen in Ritual, Robert, a musket-toting old war buddy of Zangetsu’s, and Hachi, a corgi in a steampunk mech.
Having a vastly different set of abilities and uses from Miriam, Alfred and Gabel from the original game, this new crew makes for a very different experience. Robert, despite being the most physically weak (he’s simply an ordinary human compared to any of the others in both games) is absurdly powerful with his musket doing long-range damage. Dominique has the ability, provided you find the right item, to resurrect any dead teammates and give them half-health, and her agility makes her indispensable in traversing the game’s myriad yawning pits. Hachi trades being able to use subweapons for a weapon-points-powered invincibility that on top of his already high attack and defense makes him the ideal boss clearer in spite of his slow speed and large size. (He also does not have trouble with ground hazards such as ice or spikes, the latter of which he crushes just by standing on them.)
While all this makes for some interesting gameplay (and, if you play through the game multiple times, you unlock a “final episode” that reintroduces Zangetsu’s original trio of friends) there remains a critical problem from the first game that is even worse here: lose one character, and prepare for a death spiral as the game gets considerably more difficult with each character’s loss. Hell, on some levels, if you lose Hachi you might as well restart. In fact, the game is overall considerably more difficult than its predecessor on every level. The difficulty curve is steeper, the game doesn’t allow for as much versatility, and exploration isn’t rewarded as much, but sometimes actually punished. The difficulty only increases in later playthroughs, the final one giving me so much trouble on the very first level’s final boss that I could hardly believe it was the same level I played the first two times despite nothing having changed — except, I suspect, a significant boost to damage. (This is only a suspicion — it’s not something I’ve tested yet.)
Overall the game feels like a bit of a step back. The new characters are great, Hachi especially is fun to play (his victory animation is literally him hopping out of his mech and barking a couple of times, it’s so cute!) But the game’s focus on making you as a player rely much more on keeping the team together really puts a damper on the player’s ability to surmount obstacles; on any difficulty except Casual (which lets you start at checkpoints after a game over) you’ll likely be restarting levels over and over. Those checkpoints, by the way, are more numerous on Casual, as well, but even then they’re few and far between. In general it feels like the game was designed around the co-op mode (which, I’m going to be honest, is a very odd design choice for this kind of game.) This puts it squarely in Diablo 2 territory, which was balanced for multiplayer and that was a big reason why I didn’t like it.
The game does however succeed in maintaining its original aesthetic, that of a Castlevania III on steroids, complete with a crisp, simple color palette, chunky sprites and a pumping 8-bit soundtrack, though I personally found most of the soundtrack fairly forgettable compared to the original. (Stage 4’s theme is a standout exception.)
It’s still a fine game in its own right, but I have a hard time recommending it to anyone unless they really liked the original Curse of the Moon. It’s a flawed gem; there’s a lot to love about it, but design issues hamper what would otherwise have been a fantastic sequel.