Game design has come a long way over the past three and a half decades. We old fogies may look back with sparkling nostalgia in our eyes, but when you get right down to it, we know that modern games are better overall. Sure, we have gems like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Super Mario 64, and Resident Evil 4 that truly, almost without question, stand the test of time. But most modern titles have learned from older games and improved on systems or design decisions. That’s just common sense. Simple concepts like being able to wiggle in mid-air without committing to a jump blew our minds. These are improvements. They provide agency, freedom, and more variables with which players can interact with a game. Choices matter. Taking away options? No thanks.
When we look at Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 (CotM2) and compare it to Shovel Knight, we acknowledge that both games celebrate the classics. The difference being that Shovel Knight is good. Why is that? Because the developers looked at what was good and bad about old side-scrolling action platformers and decided — as if receiving wisdom from the heavens — to not include the bad parts of old games. Whereas those who worked on CotM2 consciously decided to make as authentic an experience as possible, and while a demographic who values that certainly exists, it serves only to frustrate those who just want to play a good game. Let me count the ways CotM2 is far too authentic to its forebears.
First, there’s the stiff controls. I already alluded to jumping and being forced to commit to it. No one seems to do that anymore in platformers. Why is that? Because providing freedom in the air is more responsive to what players want to do with a character, and that is more fun. Obviously. Not only are CotM2‘s stiff controls uncomfortable, but the level design specifically sets up situations that put players in frustrating positions simply because of the stiff controls. The level and enemy design are built around the knowledge that players have to make difficult decisions at a moment’s notice about jumping. Normally, this is fine when players can get creative with tools and movement, but options are intentionally limited here. In this way, CotM2 can feel like a puzzle, not a platformer.
Initially, levels are entertaining enough. The first couple stages serve as a sort of tutorial that tests what players learn. It’s decent design, to be sure. Unfortunately, later levels force players into difficult decisions with no knowledge of what’s ahead. In CotM2, players recruit characters that have different attacks, movement abilities, and sub-weapons. The sub-weapons are critical because they vary in strength and attack direction. For example, Robert can throw a ball that hugs walls and moves along the edges of terrain, but he also has two spears he can throw at a high angle in two different directions. In this example, I hit a blue candle that drops one of the two weapons. I have to make a decision about which sub-weapon will benefit me the most for the next couple screens. Do I think I’ll need the throwable ball or the spears? I don’t know.
The right decision makes the next screen much easier. I can still beat the next screen without the preferred sub-weapon, but it’s a chore and doesn’t feel fun. In fact, I feel punished for losing the coin flip. Of course, I have different characters with access to alternative weapons. This adds a degree of customization that can fill in holes. Okay, I gave up the spears, but at least Dominique can throw rising tornadoes. But what if Dominique’s dead? Or worse, what if the game just takes her away from me?
Developers can increase difficulty in a variety of ways. One way is to add more interesting enemy design that forces players to think on the fly. Another way is to increase the difficulty of the platforming, but provide players new abilities to help navigate the heightened challenge. Yet another way is to take tools away and weaken abilities. I’ll let you guess which one CotM2 does. Choices are fun. Involuntarily losing skills in a game that already limits one’s skill set is unforgivable. In future episodes, players not only lose access to tools, but they are forced to replay all of the same levels with the illusion of choice regarding routes. In short, CotM2 restricts players while forcing them to repeat the experience. Sure, the bosses are souped up, but the options for dealing with them can be mind-numbing.
A quirky dog character comes along early in the game, and this dog pilots a hulking mech with one power (yeah, one power): invincibility. Of course, while the togglable power is active, sub-weapon ammunition is lost, but this is literal invincibility. Players can choose to skip entire screens using this ability with minimal loss, as the game provides ammunition all over the place. What’s worse, several bosses can be cheesed using this ability, taking all depth away. Don’t like a boss’s pattern? Literally stand in front of them and toggle invincibility. The same can be said for Zangetsu’s demon ability, which temporarily increases attack power across all characters. Powering through an enemy’s attacks and abusing invincibility frames upon taking damage can thwart most bosses. Imagine doing this to a robot master in a classic Mega Man title. Actually, you know what? CotM2 isn’t even that faithful to classic action platformers. It’s worse.
This review has been unpleasant to write. I thoroughly enjoyed the first Curse of the Moon. In fact, I liked it more than Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Somehow, the developers made CotM2 so much worse. If I’m to be brutally honest, CotM2 was horribly painful at times. So many of my deaths felt out of my control or the result of cheap, unimaginative design. I’ve played my fair share of action platformers, and the design here is lazy, cruel, or both.
Maybe the story can redeem it? No, it can’t. Like classic games, the story isn’t even thinly veiled. Zangetsu is on a quest to find a demonic power that summoned a tower and defeat it. Characters exchange a few words when they meet, and then something happens at the end. Again, we’ve moved beyond this. Other titles that honor classic games at least have mind enough to soup the story up a bit with well-animated graphics and cheeky one-liners.
Graphically, this looks about as much like Castlevania as any title since ever has. If those visuals suit you, then there’s much to love about CotM2. Unfortunately, not everyone wants to bask in a world of pixels, and again, other titles reminiscent of years gone by at least add a distinct level of charm and imagination. Aurally, CotM2 sounds like a Nintendo title, which is fine if the retro beats are your thing, but I didn’t encounter anything particularly well-composed or performed.
I think part of the problem with Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 is that the first game was so good and all they had to do was copy the same design. Maybe the same people didn’t work on this title, but it’s offensively difficult with few options. Difficult games are fine; in fact, I celebrate difficult games. Unfortunately, without giving tools or proper agency, CotM2 deserves as much respect as it gave me, the player. Unless you are the most die-hard classic gaming fan, I can’t recommend this title. In fact, even then, buyer beware.