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.

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