This will be the last entry in the series. Planned (though not on schedule), it is very much related to the upcoming Sevenfold Gyre chapter.
The notes end here, but you notice an additional page, wrinkled and of diminished quality, tucked behind the final entry. It reads:
The officer we killed in the riot at LaSein’s house had this back in his desk. Looks like they would have been ready for us if we’d got here any later. The business with her father is spooky too, but we’ve looked, and there’s no sign of him anywhere around here.
Anyway, the plan is working so far. Ham and I are ingratiating ourselves with the smugglers in the lower-barges. Marilyn has reestablished connection with her father, and now that LaSein is dead, there’s no one to contest her “miraculous survival” story. I should be able to get the city’s underbelly amped up pretty soon, and then I understand she’ll be able to persuade her father to back a crackdown. Riots, I get it. It’s all a bit fucked, but I get it.
The shit with LaSein was a bit more fucked, though, and if it didn’t mean my own ass if we failed, I would have refused. When this is all over, we don’t intend to ask much of you, but know this: I’m looking at what happened to her as a warning. I’ve been warned, I know what to look for.
Having read the final page, you put it back in its place at the end of the bundle and place it all back in its place on the shelf. As you do, a small scrap falls out from between the pages and lands at your feet. There are only a few sentences written on it, but they are written in an exquisite, ornate script:
Little Hawk, see the pattern, see the machinations that lie beneath. They are but carrion, still walking only because they cannot see what we have seen, that their race has died and now begins to rot. These intrigues, their greed, their righteous indignation, it is by these tools that we shall craft a more convincing image of humanity. In its shadow, they will have no choice but to be convinced.
At the bottom of the page is a mark resembling a bird’s foot with a long back claw.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
We are nearing the end of this series. Thank you for those who have followed over the past few weeks!
The symbol resembles a spiral with four blade-like appendages.
Captain LaSein’s trial is a mere two days away, but it seems there has been a fire at the LaSein estate. Reports from the guards indicate that the captain remained inside as the house burned. In her condition, I fear there is little hope she made it out alive. I am amidst preparation to visit once again, though I understand there is little left of the structure.
A few inches below, there is more written in a different hand.
Commissioner. I shall take this opportunity, in your absence, to bid you farewell. Despite my hostility during our last encounter, I do believe you come far closer to understanding me than the rest of your city, and I, perhaps in maudlin hope that my daughter was right, see you as something of my last hope that a cycle I’ve long believed inexorable might in fact be broken. Perhaps you know this cycle, perhaps you are still coming to understand it–you see it always begins in a particular way: Dissonance. Betrayal. Destruction of the harmony which reigned before, will reign after, and, somewhere beyond, will be shattered again. It has always been, and I wonder whether you can prove to me whether there is some chance, a glimmer of hope that its course might even temporarily be averted.
As you are no doubt aware by now, my daughter is dead. Though my material circumstances made a typical paternal relationship difficult, I’d like you to know that I still pinned a great deal of my hope for the world to her and her success. She was a better human than most, far better than me. I have little doubt that her death will be repaid in kind, but the betrayal which presently bears scrutiny is different. It is the one that arose from her own countrymen, unconsummmated but very certainly noticed. It is not for me to speculate at the circumstances from which this dissonance arose, but I have become quite capable of measuring that Vengeance which restores harmony. Understand me, Commissioner: Euphonia devoted her life to this city and its Federation. Every action she took, even under threat from those she would defend, she took with Thago in mind. For this betrayal, the Old Gods should burn. Perhaps an extraordinary outpouring of goodwill might prevent this.
Forgive my brevity–I wish this upon you with the utmost sincerity: Good luck.
The same altered-knife symbol as the previous entry, appended with two tally marks.
The events immediately following my previous entry are rapidly decaying to something of a blur in my memory, but I will endeavor to recount them as accurately as possible. Upon realizing my oversight (which, in retrospect, could hardly have been blamed on me despite my feelings of foolishness), I rushed to assemble a unit of guardsmen, and, having done so, I proceeded to the LaSein estate in order to apprehend the old man I now understand to be Arman LaSein.
My greeting there was not so warm this time, though not for any hostility on the part of the estate. Perhaps it was our lack of appointment or the armed demeanor of the guards, but beyond distant acquiescence from the servants, we were not greeted at all. Rather, on our own, we found Arman LaSein in a far-flung parlor, playing some sonata on an old grand piano. He informed us, without interruption to his melody, that the Captain was unwell and would not be able to entertain that day.
I of course replied with the truth: We were not there for the Captain. As he nodded, still playing his music, I directed the guards to arrest him, but they would not. The sergeant just shook his head at me and departed. His subordinates followed, leaving me dumbfounded in the parlor when, at last, LaSein stopped playing. Unnerved but undeterred, I asked him a number of questions there, but still I cannot help but feel that his answers have not substantially enhanced my understanding of the situation.
I asked him what he had done to the guards–he said he showed them the truth. I asked why he was here in the city–he replied it was to persuade his daughter to cease her patriotism. I asked him what any of that meant, and he just sneered, asking me in return why I thought he was bothering to answer my questions at all. Without waiting for my response, he began to play again, a cyclical series of variations, alternating between dissonance and harmony. After a few moments, he elaborated:
He stated that he had devoted his life to the study of a particular pattern, and he had returned to Thago to answer the question of whether that pattern might be able to be broken if its components were simply made aware of their preordination. I remained bewildered as he bade me farewell, but then he issued a pointed suggestion: “Why don’t you write it down?”
That is what I am doing now, though I must confess I feel no wiser and all the more discomfited by Captain LaSein’s impending fate.
Another date symbol, altered only slightly from the previous one.
It seems Captain LaSein has additional secrets the Shareholders would prefer buried. I met with Prince Cotnoir today to raise my concerns regarding the timing and publicity of her trial. He was not receptive, but as he understands my concerns to be related to his own safety, he did share with me the reason for his beliefs.
This is, according to the Prince, the third time that Euphonia LaSein has emerged with her life from a massacre, each one very costly to the Federation. The second was, of course, the incident with Ignigoet, but the first predated it by nearly twenty years, well before my time, indeed before any of the present Shareholders had reached their current positions. LaSein was only a child, but it was then that her father, Arman LaSein, was put on trial for unlawful magical experimentation.
The crime is familiar to me: I have known Riverwalkers to occasionally develop an unhealthy interest in the occult, and I have personally presided over investigations into those uncommon cases of mages acquiring an interest in the dissection and other subjection of human specimens in their research. The penalty for such actions is of course death, and this was precisely that prescribed for Arman. According to the records, he was executed in the third week of the harvest, nearly forty years ago. I was aware of this conclusion, aware as well that Captain LaSein’s military career was no doubt stunted by her inauspicious parentage. I did not hold it against her. What I did not realize was the extent to which the former Shareholders had been able to obscure the true narrative of Arman LaSein’s execution.
The Prince was in the audience on the day of the old mage’s hanging, had been brought there by his own father, and all seemed to go according to plan until the moment the block was kicked from under LaSein’s feet. As he dangled there, the Prince told me, Arman LaSein did not kick, did not thrash, indeed, did not die. He simply stared with “eyes like coal” upon the crowd, and as he did, the hangman, the guards and magistrates, all in attendance who facilitated the execution fell to their knees and died with rope-marks about their necks. Amid the screams, the Prince did not see what became of LaSein, but when the commotion finally settled, the old man was gone.
It is his opinion that a pattern has emerged, and the danger posed by Euphonia LaSein’s continued citizenship in Thago is greater than any possible threat she may profess regarding the defeat of her float.
I do not know if I agree with him–I feel that Captain LaSein’s account still merits preventative action–but it does not appear the point is negotiable. Even so, I am far, far more concerned by the fruits of my visit to the records office following my appointment with the Prince. I sought to glean background on his story in a report on the precise crimes of Arman LaSein, but my eye was taken by sketch of the man appended to the main document. I have seen this man before, in the LaSein estate, barely a week ago. I mistook him for the butler.
Charges were brought against Euphonia LaSein today by Prince Cotnoir on behalf of the Shareholders. I understand their reasoning. News of defeat means the riverways aren’t safe. It scares investors, or it would if it were a sign we were not handily winning our war. Thus, the reason for the destruction of Captain LaSein’s float must have been isolated incompetence on the part of her crew, and as her crew is entirely absent–almost entirely confirmed dead, by her account–the scapegoat must be Captain LaSein herself.
I do understand, and I understand as well that the Federation’s fortunes may have a bearing on the outcome of this war beyond the Shareholders’ personal profits, but the particulars are most inconvenient. From a strategic perspective, the LaSein account may indicate an actual threat from the Diarchy of Spar that we ought to mitigate. If Captain LaSein’s credibility is crushed here, I will lose most of my ground for argument on that point. Unfortunately, I fear that is exactly what will happen.
My research subsequent to my meeting with the captain has yielded a disturbing connection. The current commander of the Diarchian pseudo-military in the Revián is a man who goes by the name Selenus Ignigoet, and though it is not widely spoken of, he served in a security company in Thago some decades ago under the command of the very same Euphonia LaSein. Evidently he betrayed his unit, leaving LaSein as the only survivor, stole a cargo skiff, and bolted north. Though it is clear from the record that LaSein was in no way involved in this mutiny, it remains a point of curiosity that Ignigoet did not kill her as well. I did not have to search hard for this information–I have little doubt it will be raised in her trial.
Also, though Captain LaSein did not raise this connection as a factor for her concern in her most recent report, I suspect it is very much relevant.
At the top of the page is a smudged symbol that may indicate a date.
I have received word of a costly skirmish in the northern reaches between one of our peacekeeping floats and an enemy raiding party. Diarchian, according to the scouts. The presence of the troublemakers in the area is of course no anomaly, but the outcome was apparently dire: They sunk the entire float. Barring the amassment of a far more significant force than we anticipated–a possibility the scouts’ report attempts to discredit–this is highly irregular.
The captain of the vessel was one Euphonia LaSein, and it seems she escaped with her life. The scouts found her maimed and delirious. Her recovery will likely take some time, but I am eager to hear her report as soon as possible.
A second symbol marks the top of the next page.
I have decided that I will compile these notes separately from my regular reports to the Shareholders. Captain LaSein’s account unsettled me, and I fear spreading it might induce a panic in the barge-districts we ought pointedly to avoid.
I had an opportunity to visit the LaSein estate on the northern plaza two days hence, and I found the captain there in a sorry state. She was confined to an infirmary chair, wheeled by her butler, as during the battle for her float, her leg had been crushed beyond any hope of healing. The scouts amputated it in the field. This war is a sordid business, and I shall be well glad to be rid of it when Spar is finally crushed. Still, though, the captain spoke very little of her physical state beyond those spare facts explaining her disposition. Her worries seemed to lie elsewhere.
She confided in me a disturbing theory. That her forces were defeated in the first place she was able to explain: The Diarchian raiding party attacked in the midst of a mutiny by the float’s slaves. However, that they were ready and waiting for the opportunity, indeed that they were even aware of the mutiny merits further examination. Captain LaSein posited that a portion of the slave crew–a group of ten or so that the float had captured while following a lead in the Windwood–had been deliberately planted by Spar. The slaves, in her opinion, had an unusual level of military training and cooperation, and the timing of their revolt alongside the raiding party’s assault could not have been a coincidence.
It is clear she fears the Diarchy may attempt a similar tactic closer to the Federation’s primary holdings, perhaps even within Thago itself. While I do not wish that such exaggerated fears should spread among the populace, I do think her story merits cautious concern: I intend to immediately undertake an evaluation of my subordinates’ loyalties, in case some sort of infiltration has already begun.
Of course, I attempted to relay the same measured concern in my feedback to the captain, but it seemed she found my reaction insufficient. After a time, she lapsed into an angry silence, and her butler, an elderly gentleman in conspicuously plain clothes, asked me politely to take my leave.