Saturday, January 19, 2019

Castlevania: Bloodlines Review

Castlevania: Bloodlines was released by Konami on the Sega Genesis in 1994. It is also known as Castlevania: The New Generation in Europe, and as Vampire Killer in Japan. It's 1 of only 2 Castlevania games ever released on a Sega system. The other being Symphony of the Night on Saturn. Bloodlines was 1 of 3 Castlevania games being developed simultaneously at the time, along with Castlevania for the Sharp X68000 (AKA Chronicles) and Rondo of Blood for the PCE, and it was the last of the 3 to be released. Bloodlines was originally meant to be a side story, and was referred to as a Castlevania gaiden on the back of the Japanese Rondo of Blood guide, but it was later made a pretty important part of the series thanks to its ties to Jonathan Morris, Richter Belmont, and Alucard.

Contrary to what the English opening sequence of Symphony of the Night suggests, Bloodlines does not take place before SotN. The story of Castlevania Bloodlines starts in 1897, exactly 100 years after SotN. That’s the last time Dracula came back and was killed by Quincy Morris, John Morris’ father and wielder of the Vampire Killer at the time. Young John Morris and his childhood friend, Eric Lecarde, watched Quincy kill Dracula from the shadows, and were inspired to become Vampire Hunters themselves. Bloodlines takes place in 1917, around 55 years after Order of Ecclesia and 27 years before Portrait of Ruin. Dracula’s niece and Vampire, Elizabeth Bartley, has been resurrected by a witch named Drolta Tzuentes. They then start World War I by orchestrating the assassination of the Austrian Prince and performing a ritual to resurrect Dracula with the souls of humans who died in WWI. They need the help of other monsters too, so they travel from Castlevania in Romania to 5 other castles around Europe, recruiting monsters. John and Eric then follow them all over Europe, cleaning up after them, and trying to stop yet another resurrection of Dracula. Spoilers, they fail and we fight Dracula at the end anyway. It’s kind of a crazy story, but it’s important in the Castlevania lore, and it retroactively becomes more interesting after playing Portrait of Ruin.

Bloodlines is structured most similarly to Castlevanias like I, Chronicles, and IV. You play each level in order and there is no stage select or exploration. There are 6 levels, and each is split up into several blocks. There's a mid boss around the middle of the level and another boss at the end. There are branching paths in a couple of levels, but you can only take one path depending on which character you're playing as. There are areas which only John can go through by swinging with his whip, and places which only Eric can get to with his high jump. These branching paths lead you to character exclusive areas, but they always lead to the same bosses, and there are no alternate levels, like in Rondo of Blood.

Like Rondo of Blood, Bloodlines has 2 playable characters, John Morris and Eric Lecarde. However, you don’t have to unlock either one here, and even though Eric is easier to play, his game is not an easy mode, like playing as Maria Renard. They both play fairly similarly. Both characters can do the basic Castlevania attacks, but each has their own unique attacks and platforming abilities.

John Morris is the son of Quincy Morris. He was born in Texas, USA, is the current owner of the Vampire Killer whip, and is the father of Jonathan Morris from Portrait of Ruin. John plays a lot like a Belmont. More specifically, he plays like an NES Belmont with a few more moves. John can whip upwards diagonally and downwards while jumping, and he can use his whip to grapple onto stone blocks and swing across chasms, kind of like Simon in SCIV. This whip swing also works as an attack. John’s attack and platforming abilities are a bit limited when compared to Eric’s, but I guess his strength is having more familiar Castlevania gameplay.

Eric Lecarde is John’s childhood friend. The Lecardes are also descendants of the Belmonts, and hold the key to unlocking the Vampire Killer's full power. He was born in Segovia, Spain, he's the wielder of the Alucard Spear (not Alcarde, like the game spells it), and is the father of Stella and Loretta from Portrait of Ruin. Eric’s girlfriend was turned into a Vampire and he's looking for a way to save her, but hasn't told John about this. Eric can attack upwards and upwards diagonally while on the ground, downwards while jumping, and do a spinning spear attack by holding the attack button after a side or up attack and pressing either left or right on the d-pad. He can also do a high jump by pressing the jump button while crouching, which can also be used as an attack. Eric flashes while crouching, like in Super Mario Bros 2, but you don’t have to charge to do the high jump. Eric’s attacks are easier to land and he has much more mobility, thanks to his high jump, so playing as him felt a bit easier than John, especially during boss battles.

Overall, the game feels a lot like an NES Castlevania, but faster. It has a few things in common with Rondo of Blood, like being able to jump on and off stairs and the item crash move, but you don't have any air control besides being able to change directions mid jump.

Bloodlines brings back subweapons, but there’s only 3 real subweapons in the game. There is an item that gives you the max upgrade for weapon and lets you shoot magic, but it only lasts for a short while. The throwing axe and holy water return, and there’s a new boomerang that looks like a real boomerang, and not a cross, too. You can do item crash moves, and they are more powerful than regular subweapon attacks, but they’re nowhere near as flashy as the ones in Rondo of Blood. On a weird side note, Bloodlines uses rubies as the resource for subweapons instead of hearts, and a winged metallic item that looks like it's straight out of Contra for weapon upgrades. The subweapons feel very limited in terms of both selection and usefulness. I never felt like I needed them for boss fights, and they only came in handy a few times while playing through the levels.

Bloodlines has no battery backup, so you can't save at all, but it does have an icon-based password system similar to other Castlevanias, which you can use to continue your games. The game gives you 3 lives and 2 extra continues by default, but there is a cheat code you can use to set it to 9 lives in the options, and there's another trick you can do to get unlimited continues by simply resetting the system and picking the same character again after running out of continues. The checkpoint system is also very forgiving, and restarts you at the same block, or at the one before the one you died in, even when continuing. This game isn't anywhere near as punishing as some other Castlevanias, which send you all the way back to the beginning of a level.

For a Castlevania, Bloodlines has some pretty unique settings for levels. They’re not all the usual Castlevania stuff. You get a quick tour of Dracula's castle, there’s a clocktower in another level, a few castle halls, and some cathedrals with stained glass windows, but it feels like they really tried to do some new stuff. There’s a shrine to Atlantis in Greece where you have to outrun the water flooding the level, a level in the Leaning Tower of Pisa with all sorts of rotating sections inside and around the tower, a giant overgrown rose garden in front of a palace in France, and weirdest of all, a munitions factory in Germany with oil drums, steel beams, conveyor belts, chain link fences, and skeletons wearing army helmets.

The graphics in Bloodlines have that sort of Mega Man 8 thing going on. They're kind of weird. The designs of a lot of the enemies are very different from what they usually look like. The Mermen look more serpent-like, the wolf boss looks more like a hellhound with its fur burnt off, and the zombies are missing their usual tattered robes, for example. Sometimes the floor has that Mega Man 8, tilted camera perspective where you can see the floor, and sometimes it has a normal perspective. It's very inconsistent. There’s a lot of rotation effects used on the bosses and the levels, but none of them look especially good, because the animations don't have a lot of frames in them. It looks like they wanted to do polygon graphics for some of these effects, but weren’t able to on the Genesis. The colors look very plain and lack variety when compared to the other 16-bit Castlevanias. Backgrounds don’t use a lot of colors and gradients are more like pixelated transitions between two colors than actual gradients. There are also no real transparencies on fog or clouds. Instead, we get a dithering effect that deletes some of the pixels, so you can see what's behind them. It looks fine for a Genesis game, but it’s the worst looking of the 16-bit Castlevanias. At least the framerate is smooth most of the time, unlike in SCIV.

The sound quality of the Genesis leaves a lot to be desired, but the actual soundtrack is pretty awesome. This was the first Castlevania soundtrack Michiru Yamane worked on. It has awesome new renditions of Simon Belmont’s Theme, Bloody Tears, Beginning, and Vampire Killer, and this is where classics, like Sinking Old Sanctuary and Iron Blue Intention, made their debut.

As far as ClassicVanias go, this is a pretty good one. I like playing as both characters, the level designs are creative, and the soundtrack is awesome. The game is challenging, but not as punishing as other ClassicVanias, thanks to how continues work. It's a real shame Konami has never re-released this. This would be great to have on one of the Genesis collections, or even a Castlevania collection. I'm not holding my breath, though.