AlchemicaVania

This is nominally a review of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, but only so much of it is actually about the game.  The title is a convenient intersection: The events of the game proceed from the activities of an Alchemists Guild, sure, but alchemical principles also give me a basis for describing the game to an audience that I perceive to lean more literary than nerd-cred (if only slightly).  To clarify, reviewing the game to an audience familiar with Castlevania is very, very easy: Bloodstained is Castlevania to a T, it’s absolutely lovely (if short), you should probably play it.  If you’ve never played a Castlevania game, well, your conclusions may be different for one, and also, [deep breath], it’s a side-scrolling, [mumble] exploration, [mumble]…combat…You may or may not have any idea what I’m talking about, but you’re sure as hell missing the point.  So put on your Plato Hat because today we’re dissecting shadows.

I.

“Metroidvania” isn’t really a precise term, and a lot of people hate it for that reason, but counterpoint: You got something better, asshole?  You probably don’t, because genres are hard to define in the best of circumstances, and our circumstances are fouled significantly by the relative lack of art theory dealing with the parts of games unique to the medium, hence blunt taxonomic buckets like Metroidvania and “Souls-like” (pardon, having a stroke) that people vaguely dislike but use anyway–they work for Steam, what can you do?

This brings us to the alchemy.  There’s a certain poetry in Igarashi achieving Bloodstained by transmuting his legacy with the Castlevania series, but that’s the principle: exchange.  You turn one thing into something else. It’s a straightforward start, but an alchemical transmutation is actually an argument (I’ve written about this before).  For it to succeed, you have to have that first thing, duh, but you also need to persuade the world that what you’re ending up with was always the same thing as what you started with.

Think back to Plato’s cave (or consider it for the first time, I don’t know your life).  We’re only able to see the shadows on the wall, but somewhere, Truth, the Form of Truth, is casting those shadows.  So if the cavedweller knows what Truth looks like, he can move the light to cast the shadow he wants. The would-be alchemist, of course, needs some reference for what Truth is in order to make his argument: The hermetics used geometry, Igarashi (as a demonstration of real demand) used Kickstarter, and our oft-disdained Steam taxonomists seem to like “game mechanics”, which strikes me as sort of like categorizing paintings by the chemical composition of the paint.  It’s valid, I guess, but on second thought, maybe we actually can do better.

II.

“Wait, what are we trying to…transmute…?”  A game you like. “From what?” Another game you like, try to keep up.

In case the metaphor is too soupy, here’s an exchange that actually happened: A friend mentioned to me recently that while she does not enjoy the Dark Souls series itself, she does enjoy games like Dark Souls.  Aside, this is a common claim, it’s almost always wrong or misleading, and the “Souls-like” designation might actually be the worst-used category in games.  Naturally, I asked what she meant by that, and she gave an example: Hollow Knight.  

I was pretty confused.  I had played Hollow Knight, liked it quite a bit, but I didn’t feel it was anything like Dark Souls (to my shame, I had mentally categorized it as Metroidvania).  On further reflection, Hollow Knight does tell its story in a way fairly similar to Dark Souls, but other elements of the game are way different in a way that limits words.  I can describe differences in the exact mechanics, but again, I feel like I’m just offering up that the paint is made with egg yolk instead of acrylic as a shitty, garbage proxy for saying that the point of the game feels really different.  The trick is that the Point really seems like the Truth, both in that it’s crucial to our judgment of equivalence and that it’s fucking impossible to identify.  

It isn’t the side-scrolling versus third-person perspective–Salt and Sanctuary is a side-scroller and perhaps the only non-From Software game that deserves the “Souls-like” distinction.  It isn’t the art style (duh). It isn’t any of the various slight differences in mechanics either–Sekiro threw out most of those and still feels very Dark Souls.  If you must look at it from a component point of view, it’s probably tied up somewhere in the advancement systems–and sure, watercolor does generally evoke a different image than ink-printing–but I think we’re probably wrong to be looking at the components.  The differences are higher level, in what the games are about, and while we may not be able to reliably zero in on that Point, we can at least change our taxonomic structure to be looking at the right types of things.

III.

So what is a Metroidvania game?  This is just a stab, but I’ll posit it will be much more useful for deciding if you like Bloodstained than the mumbly alternative: It’s a game about exploring a big-ass castle/spaceship/cave system/dungeon, ferreting out its loot (as opposed to the hack’n’slash paradigm where you peruse the contents of the loot piñatas exploding around you), and expanding your arsenal of weapons/spells to kill shit-tons of demons/monsters/aliens that engage you in much the same way as inanimate traps (they aren’t very smart, but they can still hurt).  This matches with Hollow Knight along the first two criteria, while lacking Hollow Knight’s historicity and feeling of dereliction (both characteristic of Dark Souls) as well as the focus on actually moving through the space (platforming is difficult in Hollow Knight–it tends to be trivial in Metroidvania).  The third criterion is key: Metroidvania is about killing stuff, to the point that the game is not designed to be fun without it, and the specific stupidity of your targets means that the feeling you get as you’re facing them down is way different from the experience of fighting comparatively smarter enemies in other genres.

Where does that leave us?  Well, hopefully, we’ll all try to be a little more methodical in our efforts to classify things, but it also gets me to a point where I can talk about the specifics of Bloodstained to a broader crowd.  As my half-sentence review in the first paragraph of this post would imply, I enjoyed it quite a bit.  Beyond the Metroidvania template, there were some…odd aesthetic decisions that feel mostly like bad anime.  I’ll admit to a pet theory that the vibe of “bad anime” in any medium (including anime) has a lot to do with Japan’s window to Western culture centering on Victorian Europe and getting muddled by bad translation, but the main character’s atrocious “Chun-Li meets Dracula in a miniskirt” outfit meshes with it far too well.  Also, the villain’s name is Gebel, which is German and traditionally pronounced with a hard “G”, though localization for the game either did not know this or opted to ignore it for the express purpose of inducing facepalms each time its English-speaking audience has to reconfront the fact that they are fighting against a guy named “Gerbil”.  

Does that matter?  Probably not a lot, though I’ll admit I don’t relish tacking onto Bloodstained’s Point that it’s not a game about taking yourself seriously.

Top Image: Screenshot from Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. I don’t own it.

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