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Dark Devotion Review — Dying In Darkness

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Among indie developers, exploring the Metroidvania subgenre is very popular. In a crowded market, developers need something special to truly stand out. Hibernian Workshop has chosen to blend two popular design philosophies to create Dark Devotion: Souls-like combat and roguelike elements.

The player takes the role of a female Templar, who is drawn to explore a mysterious temple complex. As soon as the player enters the temple, the door locks behind them with a clang, leaving them trapped in a labyrinthine structure crawling with monsters that want the Templar very dead.

Starting equipment is actually fairly decent, but do not expect this situation to last very long. Like Dark Souls, Dark Devotion is brutal. Deadly traps wait around every corner, and the player often ends up falling into deadly spike traps, being sliced to bits by swinging blades, or eaten by some massive, terrifying abomination. Upon inevitable death, the player is returned to the hub area, the evocatively-named Filthblood Shelter.

Curiously, unlike most roguelikes, players keep their accumulated experience and skills while losing any collected items and equipment: say goodbye to that cool starting armour, and say hello to scavenging for any armour or weapons from the randomised loot drops.

The graphical style owes a great deal to the 16-bit aesthetic, calling to mind classic titles such as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The sprite-based artwork is quite appealing, with smooth animation. The only major visual problem is that the lighting matches the title’s name, being so dark that players may struggle to see what is going on. The flickering candlelight is poignantly atmospheric, but, in places, the poor lighting can make things harder than they need to be.

Aesthetics is not the only area where Dark Devotion pays homage to retro design. Similar to many 8-bit-era action platformers, every hit the player character takes inflicts the same amount of damage, whether it comes from a skeleton or being sliced by an axe trap.

As a result, players will spend a lot of time trying to block or dodge-roll to avoid traps and enemy attacks. Continuing the obvious Dark Souls influence, a stamina bar is used up when blocking or dodging. Both mechanics are smooth and responsive. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of attacks. A number of different weapon types are available, which are said to have a varying balance depending on the type, such as big, two-handed swords being slower than light, one-handed swords. In reality, all attacks feel slow and cumbersome. The combat is held back by the monotonous attacks, and equipment choice usually boils down to the biggest sword that does the most damage, as the speed advantage of lighter weapons is negligible.

Fans of Dark Souls are usually happy to explain that, though the combat in Dark Souls is difficult, it is never unfair, with any deaths being the result of player error. The same cannot be said for Dark Devotion, as the sluggish attacks and murky lighting means that quite a few deaths can be directly attributed to design choices.

Progression is also tricky. To buy or upgrade new skills, players need to collect experience from enemies. However, not every enemy drops XP, often making progression frustrating, as gathering enough to do anything significant can be difficult. Another means of progression involves collecting Runes, which are also scattered around, helpfully displayed on the map screen. Runes can increase one of the player character’s stats, such as damage, stamina, faith, or critical damage.

The map screen itself is excellent, expansive, and detailed, which makes traversal easier by enabling players home in on new areas or track down runes after yet another death.

If players need to return to the hub area for whatever reason, it is possible to do so by using the teleportation statues placed throughout the temple. Only one of these statues can be active at once, and their placement is often awkward.

Dark Devotion has buckets of atmosphere and a polished gothic visual style. Some of the controls feel smooth and comfortable, while others are awkward and unresponsive, such as the attack option. The dingy lighting makes the surroundings difficult to appreciate as well as interfering with combat and navigation. The result is interesting, but ultimately unbalanced. Dark Devotion has some good ideas, but feels unfinished; ultimately, the game’s dinginess needs more polish to truly shine.

OnlySP Review Score 2 Pass

Reviewed on PC.

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Review

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Review — A Symphony for the Fans

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Bloodstained Ritual of the Night

For a long while, the industry had yet to see a return to a true-to-form Castlevania title, leading many fans to speculate if Konami had abandoned the formula all together. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is ArtPlay’s response to this absence, with the legendary Castlevania-veteran Koji Igarashi at its helm. Although Bloodstained may not have certainty that it will continue the legacy of Castlevania, the title delivers on its promise as a game for fans, by the fans, and exceeds most expectations. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a true Castlevania experience in every way except the title. 

In Ritual of the Night, players take control of a Sharbinder named Miriam, an individual who can harness the power of magical shards crystallized by the souls of the enemies she kills. As the core mechanic, the ability to absorb shards and utilize their new skills is required for player progression and success. The fact that Miriam is a Shardbinder further reinforces the narrative of Bloodstained, since their existence often lead to negative events. The story contained within Ritual of the Night is similar to most Castlevania titles, except this time, Dracula is replaced in favor of Gebel, a more skilled Sharbinder and Miriam’s old friend and mentor. 

Bloodstained Castle

Most of the game takes place inside a castle, but long-time Castlevania veterans will expect that the castle is only an external facade, with caverns and caves hiding beneath. Remaining true to its Metroidvania roots, Bloodstained contains a sprawling map full of hidden rooms and secrets. Exploration is encouraged by the ever-present possibility of better items and power-ups in the following rooms. Bloodstained finds a perfect difficulty balance by spacing out save rooms to encourage caution. Every time death was close, the curiosity of what could be behind the next door drove the desire for further exploration.

The map present in Bloodstained is truly expansive and worthy of a Metroidvania title. Each new area provides an extension onto the already dense castle setting, never requiring players to travel to a new location to progress. All additional areas remain connected to the central castle, providing an experience that is continuous and believable. Similarly to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, players can unlock an “Inverse” ability that will flip the playable map upside down and allow for new experiences in an already explored area. Just as he did with Symphony of the Night, Igarashi-san crafted a beautiful setting that retains its appeal even when explored upside down.  

The desire to progress deeper into the castle is fueled in part by the Shard system and the potential of discovering new ones along the way. In Bloodstained: RotN, enemies have the potential to drop shards that provide enhanced abilities and passive stats. Players can equip multiple shards at once, each enhancing different areas of play. For instance, one shard can provide Miriam with an ability drawn from the creature that dropped it, while another can summon a familiar to accompany Miriam throughout her journey. 

Bloodstained Shard

As the game progresses, players are required to backtrack and utilize newly gathered shards to enter areas that were not accessible early on. In this regard, the title maintains its genuine Metroidvania, or Igavania, genre as some fans are hailing it. Killing a random sea creature might net Miriam the ability to create a directional aquatic blast, but use that ability near deep waters and players might be surprised by what they can do. 

Since every enemy in Ritual of the Night is capable of rewarding Miriam with a shard ability, players will quickly find themselves host to multiple of the same kind. To counter this, players are encouraged to sell unwanted shards for coins at the local merchant, where they can also purchase crafting items. The crafting system allows players to utilize recipes found throughout their journey and create food that provides a temporary boost to Miriam’s stats. Additionally, players can use materials gathered to enhance the shards they have amassed to alter its capabilities and damage output. 

Although Bloodstained deserves to be showered with praise, the game is not immune to technical issues that can hinder the experience. During the preparation of this review, the game was subject to continuous frame issues, where too much action would result in stuttering. Additionally, optimization issues plague the console port, with registration lag featured every time Miriam would absorb a shard or with the occasional room entry. ArtPlay has responded to these issues ensuring fans that optimization is a high priority for the company, and it will be addressing these problems within the next few patches.  

Despite a few technical setbacks, Bloodstained is truly an experience for first-timers and longtime Castlevania fans alike. Igarashi-san and ArtPlay built this game out of their love for the genre and that is evident in every aspect of the game. The preservation of a traditional Castlevania game along with the advancements made towards propelling the genre further help Bloodstained stand out amongst other Metroidvania titles of recent years. Although an argument could be made that the title leans too much on its Symphony of the Night influences, Ritual of the Night succeeds in providing fans of the genre with an experience that has been absent for years. 

Given that Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a crowdfunded game, the amount of love and attention evident in its production comes as no surprise. The level of quality that is present in this package is truly astounding, and the appreciation grows even more when considering the free content promised for the coming months. Perfection should not be expected from Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. However, the result is exactly what was promised by the developers, and fans could not ask for more. Throughout its development, Igarashi-san provided continual assurance that he desired to make the game a product of its fans. By listening to criticism and acting on it, he fulfilled his promise with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

OnlySP Review Score 5 High Distinction

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro. Also available on Nintendo Switch, PC, and Xbox One.

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