Disclaimer – This review is part of an 9 part series of reviews for the the Castlevania Anniversary Collection for the Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Playstation 4 and PC. Due to a full review of the collection coming soon, I will not be mentioning everything the collection brings – only mentioning those that pertain to Castlevania: Bloodlines.
Since as early as the 11th Century, the Dark Lord Dracula, master of Castlevania and lord of Vampires had risen and been defeated by the Belmont Clan. Unfortunately the legends of Trevor, Christopher and Simon fell into obscurity as their line faded. With the Belmont’s missing, indirect descendants and other powerful bloodlines took on the mantle of Hunter, and faced Dracula in their stead. As the Great War ravages Europe, Elizabeth Bartley plans to use the worlds suffering to resurrect Dracula once more. John Morris and Eric Lecarde march on Transylvania armed with the Vampire Killer and the mysterious Alucard Spear (yes, that Alucard) to end her nefarious schemes.
Castlevania: Bloodlines is the first Castlevania to leave the Nintendo family of home and handheld consoles. As a result, this game is often overlooked due to being that weird outcast on the Megadrive. The question is, after all of these years, how does Konami’s second 16-bit attempt fair?
The last couple Castlevania games have really abandoned the ‘feel’ of the series. Many of the classic 30’s horror designs had been dropped, traditional powerstanced castle shots were no longer a thing and heck, we even lost that scene setting introductory corridor. The atmosphere was gone. Like a bat out of hell, Bloodlines ‘Morris Struts’ onto the scene and fixes that immediately. We have classic monsters and bosses making their return, we have awesome castle shots and we have our corridors back. Add to this some pretty sweet locales and you have yourself a Castlevania that brings the classics to life once more. A great first impression.
Not wanting to lose its headstart, Bloodlines finally gives us a plot that has a little bit of weight. The timeline has advanced considerably, whilst simultaneously establishing that the series is set in the real world, and for the first time we are not playing a Belmont. Adding to all these firsts, Bloodlines even goes as far as making Quincy Morris from the Bram Stoker novel a canonical Castlevania Vampire Hunter and descendant of the Belmont Clan. If none of that blew your mind, then have I got news for you – Dracula is not set up as the main villain, instead the aforementioned Elizabeth Bartley is the target. Bloodlines throws a massive spanner in the works for the series, and is even substantial enough to get a direct sequel in the form of Portrait of Ruin many, many years later. Very exciting stuff for any lore aficionado who wanted a bit more meat to their Castlevania games.
One of my biggest gripes with Konami’s original 16-bit title, Super Castlevania 4, was that the game looked drab, dull and very ‘busy’ with character sprites taking up far too much room. Bloodlines almost entirely fixes every graphical problem Super brought to the table. The colour pallet is vibrant, the sprites are incredibly detailed whilst remaining reasonably sized and the environments are jaw dropping at times. Special mention goes to stage 2 which has truly staggering visual set pieces. Similar to Super however, there is a bit too much of an emphasis on visual gimmicks with some stages. The final stage in particular being especially egregious as it was genuinely disorientating to the point I had to put the game down. Overall though, a massive step up from Super, final stage be damned.
In addition to giving the series a fresh coat of paint, Bloodlines takes the NES classics and Super, then smashes them together violently, to form what I would call – the perfect union. In my review of Super, I heavily criticised it’s over use of the whip and how 8-directional whipping was a step too far and eliminated the need for Sub Weapons. Clearly Konami recognised this too, as they dialled back both John and Eric’s attacks. John can whip in 5 directions, with 3 of those directions being locked to a jump, whilst Eric is a little bit more forgiving with 6 directional attacks. This change cannot be understated in how impactful it is on gameplay. Both characters feel more powerful and diverse than their NES counterparts whilst still requiring Sub Weapons to truly maximise their combat capability. This brings the series to modern standards whilst retaining the puzzle-like combat the classics, and it feels wonderful. In typical Megadrive fashion Bloodlines even adds in a healthy dose of gore, making the dispatching of enemies immensely satisfying.
Since I have touched on John and Eric, I think it is time for a quick gander at as to what makes them so unique. John is your traditional ‘Belmont’ character. He is packing the Vampire Killer whip, he struts like he owns every location he enters and his movement options are very similar to that of Simon from Super. Namely, he can swing from ceilings, has limited vertical movement and can jump onto stairs for extra flair. Eric on the other hand has a more diverse set of attack options in addition to a slightly longer ranged weapon – the Alucard Spear. His movement options are mostly the same, however instead of being able to swing from ceilings, he can charge up a super jump and leap directly up, opening new path ways. These minor changes between character give you more than enough incentive to play through the game at least twice as many stages and challenges can be tackled in multiple ways. A wonderful addition.
The level design in Bloodlines is also spot on. I have already mentioned how amazing the game looks, however that is only half the story. Every stage in Bloodlines is themed around a location around Europe as John and Eric are taken on a wild goose chase by Lizzy. This gave the developers a comparatively endless supply of unique scenarios for our heroes. Whether you are fighting through Atlantis and its hordes of Minotaurs and Medusa, battling up a moving leaning tower of Pizza or invading an ammunition factory in Germany, Bloodlines keeps you interested with unique enemies, bosses and ways to dispatch your foes.
As always we end on music. Not to sound like a broken record, by Bloodlines knocks it out of the park. Gone are the ambient sounds of super and in are the head bopping, endlessly addictive tunes found in the classic tunes. The quality on offer here is unmatched even amongst a series renwoned for masterful music. This is the soundtrack the series deserved when it moved to 16-bit. Utterly brilliant.
Castlevania: Bloodlines is a true return to form for the series. Almost every aspect of the game is an evolution of the 8-bit classics or a refinement of Super Castlevania 4’s formula. The only flaw I could find was the disorientating nature of the final stage, but that is thankfully short and does little to hold the game back. Bloodlines is an unfortunate subtitle, as this game 100% deserved to be numbered.