If 2019’s Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a file-the-serial-numbers-off remake of 1997’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, then this year’s Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 is designed to resemble 1989’s Castlevania III and similar late NES games like Shatterhand, Ninja Gaiden III, and Vice: Project Doom (all three of which coincidentally came out in 1991), though it uses 2020 technology to do so. Some people call a game of this sort a “demake”, which I think is a better description than the muddily-defined “retro”.
There’s a 2 in the title, though this website was on indefinite hiatus when the first one came out, or I would have given it an average review. But where the first Curse of the Moon was a puny appetizer to keep your stomach from gurgling while you waited for the Ritual of the Night main course, this one feels like a more hefty and satisfying game of its own, something I would enjoy even if separated from Ritual of the Night. It has a bigger budget, better playable character, and better-designed levels than the first demake.
This is a Classicvania, not an Igavania. That means you can expect to see nasty enemies in large quantities at once and all with different attack patterns, levels that make it troublesome to approach said nasties, instant kill pits, etc. But it’s also a modern game, meaning it throws you some bones (heh) that few NES games had: A selectable easy mode (infinite lives and no knockback when getting hit), a save feature, a lack of timer, multiple characters per life (losing one simply means you can’t switch to them for a time, and using up a life revives all of them). The end result is an experience that makes you feel like you’re beating an old, hard NES game, but it takes 4 hours of practice rather than 200.
Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 has four playable characters during your first playthrough (and on New Game+, some returning from the first game), and every level is expertly molded around those characters’ capabilities. You have the all-arounder Zangetsu (who mercifully gets several upgrades during your journey), the more mobile Dominique with her high jump and 4-directional spear, the slow and weak but useful Robert with his sniper rifle that can fire across the entire screen, and the party tank, a freaking corgi in a steampunk mecha. I can’t decide if that last one is designed to sell toys or to ensure no one takes this game’s plot seriously, but I let it slide because most everything about Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 is frankly excellent. That and because I’ve been watching anime since the early 90s, so strangely-competent animal sidekicks are not terribly strange in my eyes.
What makes things interesting is when one of the characters is out of commission when you need them the most. An enemy sniper taking pot shots at you while Robert the gunner fell into a pit on the previous screen? You have to get creative, or at least good at dodging. What if you’re struggling against a boss when the character who is best suited to fight them has already croaked? Get better. But at least your party completely revives when you use up a life. This game is a decent challenge, but it doesn’t hate you.
The regular enemies are not spineless fodder for you to easily mow down before you reach the level’s boss. You have to take them–and the architecture–as real threats, otherwise you’ll have a lot of stupid deaths. You should also be paying attention because there are occasional sections with dividing paths, and the easier/more rewarding path is always locked behind some hidden wall or required powerup. There’s a particularly clever hidden path in one level that required Dominique’s pogo spear to move across a line of lamps that I didn’t notice at first glance. Pay attention and Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 will reward you.
The protagonist is unique. He starts off painfully weak, with limited range and mobility, but gets an upgrade that improves his attack range, then gets made weak again in Episode 2, then gets an even better upgrade later. My first impression was that he sucks and is completely obsoleted by the other characters, but Zangetsu’s evolution makes for an interesting dynamic. He’ll be worthless ballast half the time, and incredibly useful the other half.
Each character besides the dog (who always has his temporary invincibility ability) can use one of several subweapons to choose from. Zangetsu even gets one that lets him jump and spin around and slash all surrounding enemies, though it doesn’t insta-kill bosses like in the first NES Ninja Gaiden. But each destructible candle is color-coded to show you if it contains a different subweapon, energy for the subweapons, or health, so you’ll probably never pick the wrong one by accident. Experiment and find the best subweapons for each situation, especially against the later bosses.
I found Dominique’s healing subweapon a little bit too effective at fixing my sloppy play. A real Classicvania would only offer rare health items trapped inside walls once every level or so, but these healing plants are on tap and can even be used during frantic boss fights if you’re careful. And since there’s no time limit, you can easily find a safe area to heal up. Though “Episode 2” (really a New Game+ with new routes and new boss patterns) kicks Dominique out of your party for a time, just to force players like me to stop relying on that crutch. To git gud, if you will.
The bosses are the highlight of the game, and each offers a unique set of movements, attacks, and weak points. None of them are beatable with brute force; you must carefully inspect every new boss to find out where to stab the accursed things. And once you figure that out, you have to get into a sort of rhythm where you attack in just the right spot for just the right amount of time before avoid the oncoming attack. Failure means you will probably lose a character because you got greedy. Even the aforementioned lava worm boss, which is only vulnerable for short periods of time, is not terribly difficult with some patience and knowledge of subweapons. The bosses also look cool, especially in screenshots.
I also tried the “casual mode” a bit. Aside from the stated changes of infinite lives and no knockback when taking hits, I noticed that enemies drop health items more frequently. This combined with health plants and wall meat means your only real challenge will be bosses if you play it on babby mode.
Aesthetics and Story
The sprite work is generally good, especially the gigantic and highly detailed bosses, but the smaller sprites including the playable characters look slightly less impressive. Still, enemies and environments clearly indicate their purpose at a quick glance so you can approach them properly: The crouching dog demons are definitely going to pounce at you when you get close, the ice-spell-casting enemies telegraph where their ice bursts will land, and the giant locust swarm in the last level is absolutely something to avoid.
Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2’s music feels like a late-stage NES game, as it should. The compositions are serviceable, if not memorable, and appropriately spooby with minor-key strings that pull at the edges of your consciousness. But for something so openly imitating the Castlevania series, the songs here fail to be as catchy.
The story, like most video games, is irrelevant, but present. All you really need to know is that there are monsters to kill, and lots of interesting locations in which to kill them. I’m sure some segment of players will complain about the absence of Miriam (unless I missed her in a cutscene somewhere) and other characters from the main series, but this game gives other characters the spotlight for a time. Yes, including the dog. That operates a robot.
Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 feels so much like a Castlevania that I have to watch myself whenever I speak or write the name to make sure I get it right. It’s not a Castlevania, it’s a Bloodstained. And given the drought of playable Castlevanias since 2008, that’s a good thing to have.
Buy this game. It brought me out of retirement.