Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme, sick girl and the funny man.
Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 is a disappointing game in every dimension. It falls short of paying proper homage to the Castlevania titles that inspired it, it sits well below its predecessor (which I was only lukewarm about), and it continuously lets itself down whenever it manages to make expectations rise. It does itself a disservice by inviting comparisons to other 2D platformers, and it even manages to betray the reputation of its developers, Inti Creates, who had proven themselves good stewards of old 2D series such as Mega Man in the past.
“Where to start?” is the question of the day regarding a game for which I can’t name any positive thing that doesn’t come saddled with massive caveats. To catch you up, Curse of the Moon is more or less a “Castlevania for people too young to have played Castlevania.” It imitates everything from the canned jumps to the slow horizontal attack that has an active hitbox for *juuust* a little too long to make sense, to the candles that dispense ammunition and health. The aesthetics are a dead ringer for the 16-bit Castlevania the New Generation (Bloodlines for the US); with the framing of a few screens taken wholesale from Konami titles.
The previous Curse of the Moon went as far as to constantly quote passages from the Konami Kukeiha Club in its own soundtrack to a comedic extent. Curse of the Moon 2 does this as well, albeit much less, which sadly just ends making most of its music sound utterly generic. It sports the kind of lifeless chiptune compositions that you can tell is simply aping popular genres and adding the electronics for nostalgic appeal. And really that sums up Curse of the Moon 2 brilliantly: close enough to be cute, too far to be as good, and trying so hard to imitate that it doesn’t have much to offer once it fails to prove itself worthy of the Belmont legacy.
The two problems being stabbed right into Curse of the Moon 2’s heart are nearly inseparable from one another; the difficulty and the characters. The first 3 stages of the game seem normal enough as you start with Not-Simon-Belmont Zangetsu. Then you unlock Dominique who can jump higher, attack from more angles, has a longer range, and a slide manoeuvre, at the cost of being frailer and slower on the draw compared to Zangetsu. So far, so good. These first two stages prove themselves tougher than Curse of the Moon 1, which was so laughably forgiving I managed to beat it with 10 extra lives in tow on my first attempt. It’s a really promising start!
Then Robert, a sniper, joins your party and the game design goes out the window. Robert has a few different skills, but all you really need to know is that he, being a sniper, has no range limitations. Press X and the X axis of the screen is now an active hitbox. Robert essentially trivialises any enemy that wasn’t specifically designed to fight him this way, barring very specific setups. His introductory stage is a breeze, and he proves an overwhelming force. One could be forgiven for thinking this was only to make the player more comfortable with his novel mechanics. Then Hachi shows up. Hachi is a corgi piloting a mech who joins your party because life is cool like that sometimes. Hachi then proceeds to high-five Robert and the two of them climb onto the ropes to come crashing down on the game design with force to make the Mega Powers cower.
Hachi’s mechsuit moves very slowly, but packs the punch of a locomotive, can bypass some —but not all, and it is very poorly telegraphed which— environmental hazards, can hover at the apex of his jump for a couple of seconds —though I found this feature very unreliable to get to work— and can make himself impervious to all damage at the cost of ammunition. Does any of this sound overpowered to you? It should. Robert and Hachi team up to single-handedly trivialise the entire enemy gallery of the game, save for two very good bosses. The only moments in which combat will prove a challenge is if you had the misfortune to lose a character to platforming. Or if you let Robert get hit twice, I guess.
Platforming is the word that I want you to hear in your head’s voice with all the venom you can muster, because it is atrocious. In stage 4, someone had the idea to make all future platforming sections involve moving platforms, which mixes terribly with Castlevania’s canned jumps. Castlevania platforming works best when based around static landing points with enemies who put pressure on the timing of the jump. Moving both the jumping and landing point tightens the precision required to jump safely so much that it nearly made me pull my hair out. The moving platforms put pressure on a jumping arc that you flat-out don’t have control over.
In the end, it was the platforming sections that made me swallow my pride and change the game mode from “Veteran”, a faithful recreation of Castlevania punishment systems, to “Casual”, a mode without recoil and with infinite lives, making you always restart from the nearest checkpoint. All this really did was give me more and faster chances at the platforming, but it didn’t make them particularly easier since the enemy positioning in them was extremely forgiving, like the rest of the game. My experience with the last 3 stages was continuously breezing through the combat rooms, being showered in health and ammo pickups, only to lose all my characters at the platforming sections and having to try again. Rinse, repeat, for up to 20 minutes at a time.
This made the difficulty curve go haywire and incoherent in strange ways. The first 2 of the 4 stages with sadistic platforming had incredibly fun bosses that required me to use all my characters in different ways to secure victory, and were only nominally soured by the frustration preceding them. But all the stages leading up to them, and the ones following them, are commandeered by a bunch of pushovers who will be vanquished by the heroic deed of standing in their face and tapping a drum beat on the X button. Just remember to hit the bumpers when your character is low on health and victory is assured. It’s to the point where it makes me think the whole game should be three or four times harder just to avoid the whiplash between the combat and platforming portions.
By the eighth stage I did not give a toss and was actively racing to the end in a way that minimised my every interaction with the system. The final boss was, of course, defeated by tapping X in its face a lot. I was then informed that I had unlocked “Episode 2” In which, for plot reasons, I would have to replay through all eight stages again with three of my four characters, plus a new member of the gang. This lit a final ember of hope that was swiftly stamped when the new combat areas made accessible by my travel companions were as generic and easily defeated as everything that had come before. The two bosses I fought in Episode 2 were the same as Episode 1’s so far as I could tell, if they had a new move I did not remember, and it certainly did not impact my chance to beat them.
Who knows, perhaps in the final chapter the whole Curse of the Moon 1 gang comes back, and they manage to make the combat sections feel more challenging whilst trivialising some of the platforming, but I was just not up to playing through the game thrice more to find out. I am really sorry to confess that. I loathed three quarters or more of my time with this game, and “Curse of the Moon 1, but more” is not enough of a carrot on a stick to drag myself through that three more times.
The most apposite description, I suppose, is that Curse of the Moon 2 has the unmistakable stink of a fan game. Indeed, one cannot accuse it of being cynical or callous towards the legacy it’s attempting to honour. There is a lot of heart here, but it’s just a clumsy implementation of every idea it tries to pull off. The characters have abilities that weren’t decided through an evaluation of the systems and the stages, but on a fleeting question “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” This is not a Castlevania game. It is a Mega Man game, staffed by characters whose abilities come short of, or sometimes eclipse, Mega Man’s, but never equal them. Inti Creates clearly loves the classic series as much as I do, but they didn’t think this one through.