Review by SethBlizzard

"It's not the size, it's how you use it"

Castlevania Bloodlines is as immensely fun as I could ever expect a Castlevania game to be. The Castlevania games are already a pretty reliable series when it comes to 2D gothic platforming, and Bloodlines tickles most of my fancies. Kickass action? Check. Awesome, inspired enemies and obstacles? Check. Great music? Check. Memorable level design? Check. Tough bosses? Oh, you better believe that's a check. Often compared to its SNES brother, Super Castlevania IV, Bloodlines stands alone and is, in many aspects, more successful in what it sets out to do, quite different though it is.

Unlike SCIV, Bloodlines doesn't bide its time before reeling you in. It doesn't give you that chance; it grabs you right from the start. At any time, the game's cinematic spirit may take over. During the first level, in fact, you suddenly find yourself in an encounter with an undead hellhound whose high-pitched howl breaks the tall windows in the ruined palace. That moment is pretty descriptive of Bloodlines; atmosphere, storytelling and gameplay coming together. Atmosphere is everywhere, and you never really know what to expect. I was gasping, ecstatic over defeating two bosses in one go, when I discovered that I was only halfway through the level in question.

Graphically, Bloodlines looks like a dream. The environments are beautifully crafted and imaginative. The first, big traditional gothic palace with its dark woods out in the distance is very memorable. The sunken city, with its vast sea and structures out in the distance, is striking. Unlike SCIV, it also attempts some graphical gimmicks and succeeds, because they are only placed where they are needed. The game's third boss takes place upon a tower, and the boss flies around it, so we have the illusion of the tower spinning as the boss flies around it. Not to mention do the enemies of the game look beautiful.

In Bloodlines, you have a choice of two characters to play, John Morris and Eric Lecarde. The game's opening story doesn't really explain how they and the Belmont family are related, but apparently, John Morris is the son of Quincy Morris from Dracula, the Bram Stoker novel. Okay, let's back up here. Why are we bringing the canon of the novel into a game series that was inspired by the novel? That's like making an Austin Powers movie with James Bond in it. Anyway, I usually play as John, who is definitely Simon Belmont's spiritual successor and is wielder of the Vampire Killer. This time, it comes in three strengths instead of the traditional two. When you find this third upgrade, it overtakes your current special weapon as well; a ball of energy that devastates any enemy (including bosses) who get in its wake. It's quite useful, but has limited uses, and then the special weapon you had before (if any) is returned to you, which is very gracious and user-friendly.

Another thing I love about Castlevania Bloodlines, and something that today's Castlevania fans could never understand, is how it plays with its setting. Unlike practically all other games in the series, Bloodlines doesn't constrict itself to Transylvania, nor indeed to the country of Romania, but to the actual continent of Europe. The stroke of genius that results from this is that in every place our heroes travel through, that place's level borrows from famous myths and monsters of that region. Take the second level, in Greece, where you meet menacing Minotaur guards who are good at both slicing you up with their weapons and charging you down like a bullet train. They even use ancient columns (as in, ripping chunks of them off – with their bare hands) to pummel you like a sledgehammer. This allows for delightful creativity that gives Bloodlines a ton of character.

Truth be told, the enemy roster in Bloodlines is to be commended. Starting with the classic, reliable skeletons, it has no intentions of falling back on those (unlike SCIV). Along with the aforementioned Minotaurs, there are also flying skeletal dragons, mummies, gargoyles, the works. The mid-level bosses steal the show.

And in terms of gameplay, Bloodlines may be one of the most comfortable Castlevania games I have ever played. Your characters respond to the lightest touch of your buttons, unlike Simon Belmont in SCIV. And guess what? You can even whip in multiple directions! Provided you are in mid-air, true, but unlike Simon Belmont, John Morris has got the whip-swinging down to an art. At certain wide and impassable pits, he can just whip at the ceiling and swing over like Tarzan. It even comes in handy to save your own skin at times. Already in the second level there is a lethal section where, if the game tricks you into a dead-end, you can use your whip to swing to safety before danger catches up with you. That's what I call inspired. Bloodlines even fixes more things that had been a problem with the series, such as the stairs. Even when you jump onto stairs, you land on them. You don't have to station yourself at the top or bottom and press the corresponding button, no, you can also use the stairs to get yourself to safety. The only way in which Morris isn't an improvement is that he isn't very adept at whipping fast in a row.

Asides which, don't you just hate when you run out of lives and you want to continue, but you have to start over from the beginning of the stage. Presumably it's something you've got used to, but Bloodlines has other plans. When you run out of lives and continue, you start from your last checkpoint! The downside to this is that you only have two extra continues. But that's okay, because there is a password system, and you get a password at the completion of each level (unlike in Castlevania III where you only saw your passwords if you got a Game Over and chose not to continue).

The music is the icing on the cake. Bless the SNES, its sound chip doesn't allow for a great variety of sound. The Megadrive, whose sound chip closely emulates that of arcade machines, never had this problem, and Bloodlines sounds almost as beautiful as it is to look at and play. The themes can be catchy and brisk, mysterious and melancholic, or spooky and eccentric. Most of the tunes will get stuck to your mind, I strongly suspect. It's ironic that the mid-level boss theme is far more memorable and adrenaline-pumping than the end level boss theme. My biggest highlights are the brisk and blood-pumping opening stage tune, and especially the sublime Atlantis theme (which would feature in Castlevania: Circle of the Moon for the Game Boy Advance).

The challenge level ought to not let most down, either. Even from the second stage on, death can come swift and unforgiving. The third level boss took a lot of persistence for me to get past, but not as long as it took me to figure out exactly how to go about beating him, because he has this nasty habit of knocking you off the tower, to your death. I really wished, during this battle, that I actually could whip diagonally when stationary. All bosses then add to their lastability in that they change their tactic when half their energy is down, as all the best bosses do.

Bloodlines has some problems, though, enough to puncture its own joyous bubble. First and foremost is the length. I was really getting into the game, on a roll, and then suddenly it was just over. The first Castlevania game was only six levels long, but that was on a more primitive console and had insane difficulty on its side. That's right, a 16-bit Castlevania game that's only 6 stages long. There's no question that Super Castlevania IV is not a short game and that definitely worked in its favour. There was no reason not to make Bloodlines longer, and it's a real shame.

Then there are times when Bloodlines betrays its own excellent setup and atmosphere and starts thinking it can use reject levels from Sonic the Hedgehog. How else would you explain a level set in Germany where you fight skeletons with army helmets and the level itself is a factory (!) with conveyor belts and pistons (!!). Just when I thought that the level in question only starts in this ridiculous fashion before coming to its senses and turning into a clock tower level, I reached the end-level boss. It's a dozen cogs connected via an invisible skeleton, like Rayman. I don't care if this game takes place in 1917, this level goes against everything else the game is trying (and succeeding so well) to be. I have no idea why it's even there, or why the region of Germany didn't give them enough to work on – especially since Neuschwanstein is there, in the background! As much as I love Bloodlines, I cannot let this tanker of a level pass. There's nothing about any horror or fantasy cliches in it; nothing at all relevant to the game's spirit.

Speaking of bosses, good as the sub-bosses are, the end-of-level bosses really are a terrible letdown for the most part. The end boss of Atlantis could've escaped from Sonic & Knuckles, and the fifth level boss makes a ridiculous transformation halfway through. As said, sub-bosses like the Hellhound and a duo of giant knights are very pleasant, but the end bosses are very anticlimactic. It doesn't help that you have to fight them all again (the end-of-level bosses, that is) in the final level, Mega Man style. Only a giant dragon-like creature flying above the Leaning Tower of Pisa and a confrontation with Death are riveting fights. Overall, the bosses in Bloodlines are a mixed bag.

In spite of relatively short length and occasional lapses into ridiculousness, Castlevania: Bloodlines, for the Mega Drive's only Castlevania title, is a solid platformer. With atmosphere by the bucketloads, a myriad of great enemies and locations, inspiring levels and music that make the whole game feel like an adventure, it's as enjoyable as it is challenging. Choosing to think outside the box a little in terms of setting resulted in an exciting platformer that has enough appeal to keep you coming back for more. I wish I could give it more, but for a game to be this needlessly short as well as having such a ridiculous level as the factory one in it, I have to deduct some points. More severely, most of the game's bosses are sub-par. A game has no excuse for being this short if the bosses don't measure up. All of this makes Bloodlines a somewhat disjointed, unsatisfying gaming experience that still has enough fun and character to make it worth your time.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 11/28/12, Updated 09/24/13

Game Release: Castlevania: Bloodlines (US, 03/17/94)

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