And breathe. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night – the long-awaited Koji Igarashi-helmed spiritual successor to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night – is finally here. After a worryingly long gestation period, some Kickstarter troubles, and numerous delays, we were concerned that Bloodstained was destined to disappoint. Fortunately, you can rest easy: Ritual of the Night is fan-bloody-tastic.

In Bloodstained we play as Miriam, a woman who has awoken from a decade-long coma at the precise moment that an unsightly castle filled with nasty beasties has appeared on the horizon. Miriam is a shardbinder – a human infused with crystals allowing her to harness demonic powers – and while most of her kind were wiped out as she slept, she and another survived the cull. The other shardbinder has gone well and truly off the deep end, hell-bent on revenge against the humans who wronged him, and so Miriam must set off on a quest to bring his evil machinations to an end.

You'll do this – in true Metroidvania fashion – by exploring a vast map in 2D, solving puzzles, platforming, defeating enemies, and picking up new skills that will allow you to access previously unreachable areas. The beginning of the game is ludicrously easy, with most enemies requiring little to no strategy to best. Push square to attack, and that's about it.

There's a moment fairly early on when you'll go up against a boss in which the difficulty ramps up significantly, and if you're anything like us you'll wonder if you've taken a wrong turn and wandered into late game content. It's a rite of passage after the welcoming opening hour, and in order to progress you're going to have to keep practising, learn attack patterns, and utilise every trick in your ever-expanding arsenal. It's an exhilarating battle.

Thankfully, combat provides you with many options. You can wield knives, short-swords, katanas, huge greatswords, maces, whips, and even guns. Each type of weapon has its own pros and cons in terms of speed, range, and damage output, and so you can play in whichever style you feel most comfortable.

Killing baddies sometimes yields loot, and on rare occasions you'll acquire a shard. Shards are demonic skills that you can equip, and on your travels you'll find dozens of them. There's projectile attacks, defensive manoeuvres, creatures you can summon to aid you in battle, passive abilities that can boost your stats, and more.

Mixing and matching the many different weapons and shards you can find is truly a joy, with practically limitless combinations. If you want to focus on building a character that relies on melee, using big magic attacks only when you get overwhelmed, you can. If you want to be a ranged attacker utilising both guns and magical spells, that's an option. If you want to get up close and personal with poisoned daggers before summoning a giant buzzsaw to annihilate anything that gets in your way, then go for it.

The sheer variety of options available to you in combat is genuinely quite staggering, so why settle for one? Later in the game you gain the option to shift between different character builds on the fly, so you can create specific load-outs for different situations and then quickly switch between them when the situation warrants. It's a wonderfully flexible system that encourages experimentation.

As is prerequisite for games within the genre, you'll occasionally discover new skills that will allow you to reach areas that you couldn't access earlier in the game. Metroidvania veterans will immediately notice the signs – narrow gaps you can't fit through, heavy objects you can't yet move, etc – and so it would behove you to take note of these locations for later in your adventure when you'll have the tools you need to traverse them.

The skills are fairly standard for the genre, but one late game addition to your arsenal is so game-changing that it practically turns Bloodstained on its head. All of these abilities can be used to aid you in combat, but it's in exploration that they're most useful, and most rewarding.

The game is teeming with secrets to discover, and since most of them are worthwhile pursuits, your efforts constantly feel like they're being rewarded. Sometimes you'll find items that will increase your health or magic, other times a rare weapon or a unique piece of armour. The level design is unfathomably clever, with an incredible attention to detail. Some hidden areas contain amusing, thoughtful, and frequently delightful Easter eggs, the secrets of which we couldn't possibly spoil here.

There's an aura of camp and silliness to Bloodstained that keeps things light. The dialogue is largely silly and overblown, there's cute references to Castlevania and other properties, some of the monster designs are utterly ridiculous, and at one point, David Hayter even turns up doing his best Solid Snake voice to take things to the next level. It's gloriously over the top stuff, and genuinely quite funny at times.

For example, one side-quest giver you'll meet early on charges you with exacting revenge on the monsters that killed her friends and family. It starts sensibly enough, with her justifiably wanting the heads of the creatures that killed her beloved husband, but by the time you're twelve side-quests deep and she's angrily demanding justice for her favourite local chimney sweep, it's comical.

Aside from side-quests of the monster killing variety, there's a fairly robust crafting system, recipes to cook that boost various stats, a demonic hairdresser who'll allow you to customise how Miriam looks, and three different endings to unlock. There's an awful lot to do here, and nearly all of it feels worthwhile and enjoyable.

If there's a reason to perhaps take umbrage with Bloodstained it's in the overall lack of polish. There's graphical and gameplay glitches, some frame rate issues, and on one occasion our game crashed, forcing us to reset and lose fifteen minutes of progress. None of these are huge problems, but given the quality of the rest of the product, it's a shame.

Conclusion

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a wonderful love letter to Castlevania fans. It's gothy, camp, and unabashedly old school. But it's also a meticulously crafted game that constantly rewards players for exploration and offers unbridled options in combat. For long-time Metroidvania fans, Ritual of the Night is an unmissable celebration of the genre from the mind of one if its chief architects, while for newcomers it's an accessible entry-point that's easy to pick up and oh so difficult to put down. Let's hope the next one doesn't take quite as long.