Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is a wonderfully clever idea. If Ritual of the Night is a riff on the classic Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, how brilliant the developers at Inti Creates must have felt when they thought of creating an homage to Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse to serve as its stage-setting prequel. As a bonus for a Kickstarter stretch goal it could have been left at that, as a clever “I see what you did there” concept wrapped around a merely so-so game. Thankfully, it’s much better than you might expect.
You could be forgiven for having missed the announcement of Curse of the Moon entirely. While it has been on the docket of backer rewards since Ritual of the Night’s crowdfunding campaign ended, it was only given a name and the first official details a couple of weeks before release. The 8-bit style platformer features four playable characters: Zangetsu, a sword-wielder; Miriam, the main character of Ritual of the Night, with her whip; Alfred, the alchemist; and Gebel, a shapeshifter. You start with Zangetsu and gain allies as you progress, and you can hot-swap between them at will.
Curse of the Moon’s inspirations are instantly recognizable, right down to the bright hero sprite sticking out from the parallax-scrolling backgrounds like a diorama. Apart from the widescreen aspect ratio, it all looks and feels like an authentic 8-bit Castlevania game, even as it tweaks the classic formula in subtle ways. Boss sprites and backgrounds pull off large-scale movement that would usually have made a real NES flicker, and the characters are lighter on their feet than Simon Belmont ever was. It feels reverent but not overly precious.
From that framework, Curse of the Moon pulls off a few additional modernizations that take advantage of the multi-hero mechanic. For one, each character has his or her own set of sub-items, which ensures a better balance with their main weapon than if they all shared a uniform set. It also lets some characters exist with limited utility. Alfred, with his powerful spell-casting, has a miniscule health bar compared to his compatriots. That makes him a poor choice for progressing through an entire stage, but perfect for small moments when his powers are needed most.
The result is the feeling that you’re playing as the team, rather than as individual characters. Losing an ally doesn’t necessarily cost you a life. It will reset you as one of the other heroes at a checkpoint, which is a minor but not insurmountable setback. It’s still best to swap to another character if one’s life bar is getting low, but it’s only once all four heroes have gone down that you lose a life. That makes it slightly more forgiving than some classic Castlevania games.
Curse of the Moon is on the short side at only a couple of hours, albeit with branching story paths determined by how you use the various characters to traverse through a stage. As a backer reward and value-priced game it should be regarded mostly as a strange and special treat. Its existence creates a kind of fictional history for Ritual of the Night to be borne into, and it does it with surprising sophistication.