You Play The Sidekick In Bloodstained

Video game plots sometimes have a problem, and Bloodstained, despite some early promise, walked right into it. There are two main characters directly working to defeat the demons in Bloodstained, and Miriam, the player character and alleged protagonist, is not one of them. The first of the real protagonists is Zangetsu, a samurai warrior that the creator is clearly very enamored with. They made a 2D sidescroller game in the style of the pre-Symphony of the Night Castlevanias called Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon that starred Zangetsu – maybe by putting their actual favorite character in the protagonist role, they were able to tell a better story.

Zangetsu and Miriam seem like they’re co-protagonists for most of the game. They’re both working for Dominique, the nun who is totes not evil, and they both have a personal connection with the two co-villains. Zangetsu is on a vengeance quest across the world to kill Gremory, and Miriam is on a quest to save the soul of fellow shardbinder (result of a demonic alchemical experiment that gives you protagonist powers, unfortunately I can’t think of a broadly recognizable word that conveys the concept effectively) and former friend Gebel, who has been corrupted by Gremory. Zangetsu provides you clues as to how to advance throughout the game, and near the end you have a second boss fight with him after which he gives you his special sword, which is the only thing that can break Gremory’s hold on Gebel and kill her.

This would all work, except that the game goes out of its way to establish explicitly in the aftermath of the second boss fight against Zangetsu that you have not surpassed him, that indeed, he could kill you easily and is really just testing your abilities. He thinks Gremory will abandon her current evil scheme and flee to scheme another day if he catches up with her, so he gives the special Gremory-killing sword to Miriam, confident Miriam is strong enough to kill Gremory with it, but believing Gremory will underestimate her. Miriam is very explicitly Zangetsu’s inferior in ability and spends the entire plot following his clues to pick up all the powerups that unlock new areas of the castle until the moment he dies, which is maybe an hour before the end of this twenty hour game. Though initially presented as co-protagonists, the conclusion of Zangetsu’s arc really cannot wait to hammer home how much cooler and more important he is than Miriam.

This might work as a protagonist hand-off if Zangetsu were some legacy character whose shadow Miriam needs to get out of to carry the series, but this is the first full game in the series. Zangetsu is the protagonist of a stretch goal game, and while that was technically the first game released in the series, Ritual of the Night is the game that actually got Kickstarted, Curse of the Moon was always presented as a side project.

The second real protagonist of the game is Alfred. Alfred is one of the alchemists that summoned all the demons in the first place ten years ago as part of the shardbinder experiments. His apprentice Johannes left the order in the aftermath and helped Miriam (and I think also Gebel?) recover from what the alchemists had done to them. Turns out Alfred is also on a redemption quest, inscribing glyphs in Enochian script throughout the castle in order to banish it back to Hell. We learn this after the final boss, when Johannes picks up his book and is like “aha, this is what Alfred was up to all this time!” While Alfred’s emotional investment is lesser than Miriam’s (his personal connection is not with a specific antagonist but just that his foolish mistakes of ten years ago led to the present situation in general), he’s clearly the protagonist of the gameplay. He’s the one for whom going to each part of the castle and defeating all the bosses (or, I guess, evading them, since they’re all still around when Miriam shows up) is actually accomplishing something.

Miriam does it because it’s a Metroidvania game and what else are you gonna do? At first she’s specifically there to find Gebel, but then you find Gebel halfway through and after defeating him get what is clearly a bad ending, so you reload a save before the fight and just start exploring the castle blindly to find more movement upgrades to explore more of the castle, accomplishing nothing besides eventually unlocking all the movement upgrades needed to get to the part of the castle where Zangetsu explains that he’s been the real protagonist the whole time but is too cool to bring it home and needs someone less badass to avoid scaring the villains off before they can be defeated.

The gameplay would make much more sense if Johannes were the one running around inscribing Enochian script in various boss locations (the game says they’re scattered throughout the castle but not exactly where, but the boss chambers is obviously where you put them), and Miriam had to clear the bosses out so he could do so. Then, instead of clearing the game (especially its second half) as purely an exercise in gameplay, I might’ve been able to actually get invested in the story. It’s not an amazing story or anything, but it’s got a few decent enough hooks that I could’ve got on board with it if it didn’t abandon any effort to provide an in-character motivation for completing the game past the point when you can get the bad ending (skipping half the game in doing so).

It’s pretty weak as a Metroidvania, as well. It’s no worse than Symphony of the Night, but Symphony of the Night was a genre-founder who’s since been pretty cleanly surpassed. It has the Symphony of the Night problem where there’s only ever one real way forward, but you often have to backtrack to find it. Movement powers unlock hidden alcoves with extra treasure, which is good, but never provide shortcuts or alternate entrances into areas that tie the castle together. As long as you retained the ability to fast travel between them, little would be lost if you presented each area in the game as proceeding left to right in fixed order.

It’s hard to fault Ritual of the Night too much for this. Symphony of the Night had similar flaws, and it pitched itself as “Symphony of the Night, but again.” On the one hand, there’s definitely no reason to play Ritual of the Night unless you really want there to be another Castlevania game, and specifically Castlevania, not Metroidvania in general. On the other hand, that’s exactly what it advertised itself as, so I don’t know what I was expecting.

Bloodstained Cooking

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night has a cooking system. You can bring ingredients to the alchemist Johannes and he can make them into food. Eating food heals you, and if it’s the first time you’ve had that kind of food, you get a permanent stat boost. Cooking ingredients sometimes drop from enemies and also can be purchased from the store. This is a fun way to get some extra healing (you can also buy potions, but there’s a fairly low cap on how many of those you can have), but the execution is unfortunately pretty botched.

There are intermediate ingredients, so for example you combine milk and halite into butter, but butter can’t be consumed by itself, you have to bake it into other things. You can create just plain “cookies” and those are edible, but you can also use cookies as an intermediate step to specifically making chocolate cookies or cinnamon cookies. That gives the system a bit of depth and charm in a good way, but the UI only lists which ingredients you do or don’t have, without indicating which ingredients you’re missing but which can be made from ingredients you have, i.e. if you’re missing butter but you have the milk and halite needed to cook some butter, the game won’t tell you. You have to flip between the recipe cards to check for yourself.

Worse, the shop is down the hall from Johannes, which means if all you’re missing is a bunch of common ingredients like milk, eggs, and sugar that you can buy from the store, you can’t flip over to another tab and stock up immediately. You have to leave Johannes’ workshop, go to the store, buy those ingredients, and come back. That’s not so bad to do once, but if you’ve got a bunch of rare ingredients like beast milk and dragon eggs and you’re trying to cook a bunch of new recipes all at once, it’s easy to end up making a half-dozen trips back and forth between the workshop and the store as you work your way through all the recipes you can make with nothing but what you have and storebought ingredients, one at a time. Pretty quickly I realize that what I actually need is a list counting up how much I need of every single ingredient needed to bake all my rare ingredients into mid- or high-tier food, but if the store for the common ingredients was in a different tab of the cooking menu instead of down the hall, I wouldn’t need to make grocery lists to play a gothic action video game.

Bloodstained Is Easy

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night feels very much like a precursor to Hollow Knight in the indie Metroidvania scene, despite having been released two years later. It was a Kickstarted game whose main selling point is that a bunch of the people who worked on Symphony of the Night were back making Metroidvanias again, and the Kickstarter launched in 2015, so the game would’ve been at least two years into development when Hollow Knight dropped in 2017, and plus, I’m not sure that the guy who made Symphony of the Night felt the need to be looking around the Metroidvania scene to see what the new developments were when the game he made was one of the two founding titles and namesakes of the genre.

That hubris hasn’t paid off, because Bloodstained certainly feels more like a nostalgia trip than it does a new game. It’s a good nostalgia trip, with the soundtrack kicking in on the first stage really feeling like I’ve been dropped right back into the era of peak Castlevania, and I’m having fun with it. More recent games that are actually building on what Castlevania did well are better, though. No one who follows this blog is going to be surprised to hear me bring up Hollow Knight in regards to that, but also Blasphemous and Ori and the Blind Forest (which does suffer from being early on in the process, a stepping stone that the genre has largely moved past – but less so than Symphony of the Night and Bloodstained).

I don’t think the leveling system in Bloodstained is automatically a bad idea. In fact, I appreciate that there is the option to take a trip or two through the castle smacking mooks for a few more levels to help get past a difficult boss. But I think something Bloodstained lacks that its Kickstarter contemporaries have embraced is that the game, and especially the boss fights, are much more satisfying if they are a desperate struggle rather than a formality, that if you don’t grind you should have to learn a bosses’ pattern in order to defeat them (especially since Bloodstained is good about putting save points near boss chambers, so it’s not like it’s a huge imposition to try again).

And I can’t imagine I’m overleveled in this game, even though that happens in other games because of my thorough playstyle, because it’s very hard to be any more thorough than a main-plot-only playthrough in this game. There’s side quests, but they’re all to either acquire and then give away certain items or to kill X amount of Y monster, and in both cases they’ve been easy to accomplish in the course of normal play. I have occasionally had to farm a monster for a couple of minutes, but enemies respawn as soon as you leave a room and re-enter, so it’s not like I was reclearing entire areas of the game. This farming probably accounts for less than 1% of the XP I’ve acquired.

In fairness, Bloodstained has difficulty modes and from what I’ve read online, hard mode is genuinely difficult. Still, the first time I had to make any attempt to learn a bosses’ pattern on normal mode was fighting the Elizabeth Bathory-themed vampire boss halfway through the game. And that’s technically optional content, since you can go fight the final(?) boss before her (he’s very easy), although the game makes it really clear that this is a bad ending and the start menu stats show I’d explored about 45% of the castle at the time, so this is clearly a Symphony of the Night situation where the final boss isn’t really and there’s a whole second half of the game you have to play to get the real ending. No sign that this second half of the game is the first half but upside down, which is a relief.

While I’m glad that Bloodstained offers an easy mode and it does look like the game gets respectably challenging on normal mode once you reach the second half, past the fakeout ending where you go to the final boss as soon as he’s unlocked, I wish the first half of the game had the same challenge, at least once you get past the introduction and into the demon castle where 90% of the game takes place. This is especially true because the game as it is probably has the difficulty curve I want, but has split it up between modes. It’s hard to tell since you can’t change difficulty modes mid-playthrough and I don’t want to run an entire second playthrough to check, but from what I can tell the first half of the game would’ve been more fun on Hard while the second half is better on Normal. That means I ultimately made the right choice, I’d rather blitz through an easy first half than get frustrated on an overly difficult second half, but if there was an option to increase or decrease difficulty midway through, or if they’d just made the difficulty modes with the philosophy that if someone wants a certain level of challenge then that is probably the level of challenge they want for the entire game and there shouldn’t be any major difficulty spikes, then I could’ve had an optimal experience the whole way through.

It’s still a fun game (although bear in mind I really like Metroidvanias, so it’s hard for any reasonably competent Metroidvania not to entertain me), but it’s somewhat annoying that the resources to make the perfect difficulty curve for me were poured into this game, but then structured in such a way that I can’t actually use them.

Bloodstained: So Dominique Is Evil, Right?

I haven’t gotten very far into Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, but there’s a conversation with Dominique that immediately leapt out at me as signposting that Dominique is evil when it’s supposed to be, like, subtle foreshadowing. The basic premise of Bloodstained is that the Alchemists’ Guild were falling out of favor as the Enlightenment marched on, so they summoned an army of demons. The Catholic Church was not a fan of this move. Dominique is affiliated with the Catholic Church, but provided shelter to a rogue alchemist who fled the guild after the whole demon-summoning thing along with the victim of alchemical human experimentation (the latter being Miriam, the main character of the game, who has alchemical demon-fighting superpowers as a result of the experiment).

So Dominique is already under suspicion because she’s Catholic in a Japanese game, and Catholics or Catholic analogues are usually evil in Japanese games. But also, the main character Miriam has a conversation with the rogue alchemist Johannes early on in which Johannes says Dominique provided shelter to a fleeing alchemist and an alchemically enhanced supersoldier fleeing the crumbling Alchemists’ Guild against the will of the greater Catholic Church for reasons unknown.

So, like, she’s evil, right? She wants the power of the demons for herself and she provided shelter to an expert on demons in order to keep a route to that power open. Now that the demons are making their move, she’s pointing her pet alchemist and his supersoldier waifu at them in order to get her hands on the Necronomicon knock-off. She’s even buying all the spare demon shards off of Miriam (as an alchemical experiment, Miriam can use these shards as magic spells, but you can only have so many of them equipped and about 80% of them are going to end up as vendor trash even on spell-heavy builds), allegedly to dispose of them in some kind of nun-approved manner, but, y’know, we only have her word for it that she isn’t grinding them up into powder and cutting them with cocaine to sell to children in minority neighborhoods.

Hades: If Only I Had Some Kind Of Estus Flask

Zagreus, the protagonist of Hades, has a line early on in your first run when you get about under half health. It’s hard to find an exact script for this game because so many of the lines are triggered randomly, but the gist of it is “if only I had some kind of magic red drink that could heal me.” This line is a small detail, but I really liked it. It made me feel like me and Zagreus were in the same place, as indeed I was thinking to myself “oh, no, I’m going to die, I wonder if this game has some kind of healing I can find.” Particularly in a game like Hades that has a lot of random generation poured into it, lines like this help reassure me that the system is working as intended, that the devs anticipated this experience and it’s what they wanted me to be feeling right now, which inspires confidence that the game is going to be well-paced despite its randomization (and indeed, Hades does go on to be a very well-paced game, quite an achievement for a Roguelike, though it’s by no means the first one to pull it off).

Morbid: The Seven Acolytes

Morbid: The Seven Acolytes is one of those 2D Soulslike games, in this case taking its cues mainly from Bloodborne. It reminds me a lot of Minoria, not because of the nun fetishism that immediately grabs your attention in Minoria (though the protagonist is a woman, there’s nothing especially fetishistic about Morbid, unless you’re really into gore, I guess), but because it feels like an apprentice-level game created as a learning exercise. This isn’t to say that it has no creative identity of its own. It has original worldbuilding and monster designs and locations and piles on some unique mechanics like stealth and inventory tetris. Ultimately, however, when the game is good, it’s because it’s kinda like Bloodborne, and the best thing you can really say about its innovations is that they mostly fade into the background and don’t get in the way. In fairness, the stealth mechanic might’ve been really good, I never really tried it.

Morbid is a much easier game than your standard Soulslike. There is no penalty for death, except in that your sanity doesn’t regenerate when you visit a shrine (the local flavor of bonfire), so any sanity damage you took before getting kicked back to the last shrine will persist. Sanity regenerating items aren’t that hard to come by, however, and sanity damage is rare enough that you’re not likely to have to deal with it often. Since there’s no corpse runs, if you find one part of the game too difficult, there’s no risk or penalty in trying another instead.

Not that you’re especially likely to run into serious difficulty walls. The only particularly hard bosses in the game are King Cornelius and Bile Toad Putrus. The others I generally beat on my first or second attempt, and it should be noted that my first attempt on most bosses happens when I stumble into them unprepared, with half my resources already depleted, and trying to avoid using anything that doesn’t regenerate automatically when I die so that I can save those for a rematch when I’m better prepared both in how many resources I go into the fight with and having a basic understanding of the boss moveset. And I still got the game’s second to last boss on my first try! I doubt this is intentional, either, since some bosses’ later phases are actually easier than their earlier phases (Bile Toad Putrus, for example, uses his most difficult attacks from the very beginning, which means later phases are easier as less difficult attacks get mixed in, decreasing the frequency of the really hard ones).

While slightly disappointing, a game at this level of craft is defintely wise to err on the side of too easy rather than too hard. You still can’t sleepwalk through it, and making a frustrating game that requires you to beat your head against a boss for hours before getting it is a huge gamble. Sure, it can make the game very rewarding to beat, but you have to make a really good game in order to hold a player’s attention long enough to bother beating it. I liked Morbid, and while I would’ve liked it more if its difficulty had been perfectly balanced to the Bloodborne standard, I would’ve liked it much, much less if it had overstayed its welcome. Besides, if someone really wants the game to be hard, they can always equip rubbish weapons and take all their blessings off to give themselves a short healthbar and low damage. Now every boss is a gauntlet that requires perfect play over the course of (estimating since I haven’t tried this) 15-20 minutes, rather than a blitz where victory is decided one way or the other in about 5 minutes and if you find one particular attack to be hard to dodge/parry, you can probably just facetank it and focus on countering the other attacks instead.

Bottom line, this is one of those games that I recommend to anyone who really likes Soulslikes and has already gotten through all the luminaries of the genre. There’s a lot of luminaries to get through in that genre, but not so many that a fan of the genre can’t get through them all. We’re still talking about 50-100 hours’ worth of S-tier Soulslike gameplay being released per year, which is a lot compared to some other genres but still very easy to get through with six months left to fill with stuff like Morbid.

That’s obviously not the highest recommendation possible, but Morbid came along with Raji and Kingdoms of Amalur in the November Humble Choice (along with Eldest Souls, which I passed on because I doubted the creative vision of a game so blatantly aping FromSoftware, and some others I don’t care about at all), and after Raji was a flop and Amalur I had only picked up out of academic curiosity, fully expecting it to also be a flop, I was concerned that maybe November was a flop entirely and I needed to let some months just have no new games at all. While I do still want to keep in mind that it is possible that there will be a Humble Choice with exactly zero games I am interested in, I do think Morbid saves November from that fate. It’s not my new favorite or anything, but I’m glad I played it.

Morbid’s Seven Deadly Sins?

Morbid: The Seven Acolytes is a video game where you are a demon hunter sent to slay seven particularly nasty demons, the titular seven acolytes. From Steam acheivements, I can see all their names in advance even though I’ve only killed three of them (although judging by the Steam achievements for reaching new areas I am something like 2/3s to 3/4s of the way through the game – I’m guessing that while the rest of the game has sprinkled in some lesser demons as boss fights, the last area will feature the final three acolytes as the entirety of its boss inventory).

So here is the list in full:

-Lorn the Blind, Lord of Loneliness
-Lady Tristana, Mother Grief
-King Cornelius, the Heir of Regret
-Maestro Bibe, the Anxious Prodigy
-Vulgus Calia, the Mass of Terror
-Bile Toad Putrus, the Spawn of Disgust
-Inquisitor Odius, the Scholar of Hate

Each one mentions a character trait of some sort, which come together to form a sort of seven deadly sins, though they have little in common with the Catholic set. Some of them don’t even seem to be sins, particularly, like loneliness, grief, and anxiety, but rather just negative emotions that you could have.

But the plot thickens: In the game’s lore, demons need a host, and therefore each of the seven acolytes is a possessed mortal. Demons don’t seem to be limited to just one host, though, as there seem to be only three demons active in the region (if not the world). The traits associated with these three are fear, sadness, and anger. Seven is also the total number of combinations you can have of three unique elements, assuming order doesn’t matter, i.e. you can have fear by itself, anger by itself, and a fear/anger hybrid, but fear/anger and anger/fear are considered the same combination. Does this match up?

Using Hate as the combination of all three is pretty safe, particularly since the ordering of the achievements (on top of the evocativeness of the word itself) suggest the Scholar of Hate is the final acolyte. Grief may well be possessed only by the Sadness demon, and Terror is probably pure Fear, but none of the seven scolytes seem to be keyed exclusively to Anger except maybe Hate, if we remove that from the crossroad of all three. Disgust works pretty well as Fear/Anger. Now we start matching up traits based entirely on process of elimination, though, and it falls apart a bit. Anxiety as Fear/Sadness isn’t terrible, and likewise Loneliness as Sadness/Anger is maybe justifiable, but that leaves Regret as either pure Anger or, if we say Hate is pure Anger, it’s the culmination of all three. And the Heir of Regret is only like halfway through the game.

There’s enough going on here that I do wonder if this is supposed to be an Ultima virtues thing but evil and it just wasn’t communicated well – while the game’s visuals are good, its writing is often clunky, so this isn’t too much of a reach. I might just be seeing patterns in chaos, though.

Vulnerable Characters Make Me Feel Stronger

Morbid: The Seven Acolytes is a game where you’re some kind of demon slaying badass sent to an island taken over by a Lovecraftian curse to badassily slay seven powerful demons. Hollow Knight is a game where you are an adorable little bug exploring the ruins of a fallen arthropod kingdom, slowly unraveling what happened to this place and how to stop it from spreading.

Now, I’m biased in favor of Hollow Knight because it is my favorite video game and Morbid is a game that is pretty okay. But I think part of the reason why I like Hollow Knight better is that the protagonist is small and cute and I think this better suits the high-ish difficulty and threatening atmosphere the two have in common. In Hollow Knight, my avatar seems small and vulnerable compared to the world I’m exploring, so if I get my ass kicked by a boss a couple of times, then I feel like that’s a pretty reasonable result under the circumstances, and when I get good enough at a boss to breeze through, I feel like a tiny and adorable god of war. In Morbid, my avatar seems like she should be pretty good at this right off the bat, and while the dodge-roll-and-strike gameplay isn’t unfamiliar to me so I’m able to chew through the early content with only a bit of effort, whenever I do get killed, it feels like more of a failure.

Logically speaking, the odds are pretty equally stacked in either game (and whether you say they’re stacked against me or in my favor has a lot to do with how much you weight win:loss ratio versus which side of the conflict is ultimately victorious – that I get infinite retries is a minor advantage in the first context but overwhelming in the second). But in Morbid, the presentation of the game feels like success is to be expected and defeat is a failing, whereas in Hollow Knight the presentation makes me feel like defeat is to be expected and success means I’m an absolute legend.

There’s People Here

Morbid: The Seven Acolytes is one of those games where you wander the cursed landscape of some great calamity, piece together what happened, and clear away the haunted debris so that something, perhaps, can one day grow over the ruins. Your first encounter with another living being is, like, five minutes in, when you find a single mutated acolyte of the demon-slaying order you work for who’s retained enough sanity to get you up to date on the situation (there are seven demonic acolytes causing a ruckus and you should kill them). You sporadically encounter other NPCs as quest givers here and there, but for the most part you are wandering a hostile wilderness, which is usually how it goes in these games.

And then, maybe a third of the way in, you encounter a village. A fully populated honest-to-god village with, yes, a couple of side quests lying around, but also some NPCs with no particular function except to make it clear this place is indeed fully inhabited. As compelling and novel as the “the plot already happened, you’re just discovering it after the fact” concept was when I first encountered it in Dark Souls, at this point it’s actually kind of a twist that there’s a population of survivors, and that defeating the evil doesn’t just benefit some hypothetical future people who might take root here once the menace is cleared away, but will save an actual still-existing community from a terrible fate.