In a strange turn of events, I have been playing Bloodborne as Harvey Dent. Not Batman’s two-faced villain, but a rather strange man with blue hair, large eyes, the bodily features of a purple duck, and a rather messed-up pair of glasses (the character customisation options are a marvel). Harvey and I have seen it all: the devastating highs and lows of a nightmarish city and its surrounding dimensions; blood-hungry beasts that send shivers down spines, and creepy inhabitants that can provide frights with a few simple lines of dialogue; the fist-pumping victories, and of course, the countless deaths and tragedies that plague the world of Bloodborne time and time again. Every moment has been an experience of endless emotions, delights, fears and satisfactory smiles. From Software have been able to develop a game that is at once brutal and beautiful, and I have certainly learnt to love it.
Like the Souls games before it, Bloodborne takes on the form of a third-person action role-playing game. This time around, however, hacking and dodging are no longer the slow and monotonous efforts from before, and are instead tinged with an awesome amount of speed. Enemies can be rushed effortlessly with quick jabs, or can be evaded with a short sidestep away from death. Faster reflexes are extremely useful in a game so focused on dying and difficulty. When you die, you are transported away from the fodder (usually a long distance), and back to the nearest lamppost. Monsters and beasts that you have killed will respawn at this point, but the speed of the combat means that retracing your steps often only takes a matter of minutes.
The vulnerable slog of Dark Souls has been removed here, but that does not mean the weapon options have become any more limited. While the short versions of swords and blades may be more suitable for the quicker movements of Bloodborne’s enemies, heavy variants are also available. If you prefer to take on a slower approach, and therefore much more punishment, then an array of large hammers, spears and long swords can be used for a higher damage. Guns are also present in the place of the stalwart shield of Dark Souls, but these armaments are still very much defensive mechanisms. They are used with the purpose of performing visceral kills; shooting an enemy before they finish an attack to stagger them, then hitting them with a speedy slice to perform a devastating parry attack. Bloodborne’s weapon diversity encourages a large level of choice when approaching any creature. This serves to emphasise the element of experimentation that makes the game shine. There is no single way to tackle an enemy, and therefore numerous play styles are thoroughly inspired.
Just like the combat, Bloodborne’s RPG mechanics have also been streamlined. The number of skills available when creating a character have been significantly reduced, and weight encumbrance is no longer an issue. The ability to use magic has been reserved for a few specialty items, placing a greater focus on a more specific skill set. Nothing here feels wasted, and most, if not all skills are useful at some point throughout the game. Character upgrades can be bought using blood echoes, Bloodborne’s Gothic equivalent to the souls of From Software’s previous efforts. Runes and blood gems are also used to bolster your Hunter’s skills, by strengthening weapons or character traits. These become a necessity throughout, and are sometimes essential for beating the most demonic of enemies. The removal of Dark Souls’ complicated player development system increases the game’s accessibility, lessening the barrier of entry and prioritising the player’s dexterity over a series of superfluous abilities.
Practice makes perfect when facing off against Bloodborne’s antagonists. You may be able to learn some of their patterns quite quickly, especially those of the ragged denizens in the beginning sections, but most of the time, they can get the better of you with a brutal ferocity. Death comes coupled with repetition, and while dying over and over again until you progress may feel like an arduous process, there is a huge satisfactory payoff when you are finally able to best that brick-tossing idiot after an hour of fruitless failure. The brick ogres, giant executioners and slithering crows, or any lesser monstrosity really, eventually become easy pickings after a few attempts. This is brilliant game design. It allows you to learn the movement patterns of enemies through repeated attempts, while enabling you to become stronger as a result. The game’s beginning starts out as quite a challenge, but by the end, the pitchfork and torch wielding crazies are easily felled with one sweeping hit.
There may be a large level of satisfaction when getting through a particularly difficult section, but nothing compares to the glory of receiving the “Prey Slaughtered” screen when defeating a boss. Bloodborne’s various areas may hold a number of frightening beasts that can cut you to shreds, but these battles are something else entirely. Take my most feared and hated boss: the Blood-starved Beast. This thing is half dog, half horrible mesh of flesh and fur. It screeches fiercely, sprints like a whirlwind, and can poison you in three hits or less. Time and time again I would get it down to half health, only to be poisoned, having life drain effortlessly out of my purple body. I would try adding fire to my weapon, going in close, attacking from far away, utilizing visceral attacks and stocking up on antidotes. Defeating it took many, many, many attempts, but I finally put it down by using a gem that fortified my poison resistance. The Blood-starved beast is now gone, and while Bloodborne didn’t hold my hand through a ridiculously tough battle, it gave me the tools with which I could adapt my tactics. Knowing that I had used my initiative to progress then doubles the satisfaction of killing a painfully troublesome monster such as this one.
The only downside to this system of trial and error is that the load times are gargantuan. Every time you die, or wish to travel between locations, a 40-second long screen that reads “Bloodborne” is your reward (or should I say punishment?). While this wasn’t necessarily a problem when dying, as this kind of wait every so often provides ample time to go to the bathroom in a game that doesn’t allow you to pause, but my main gripe with this is when you need to need to visit the hub world. Everything from levelling up to buying healing items takes place here, so visiting it often is a necessity. Having to travel there and back for a few seconds of bartering time is a heavy hindrance for such a short activity.
The long load times are understandable however, as the world of Bloodborne is truly massive, and beautiful to boot. From the game’s opening, the city of Yharnam is sprawling, deep and highly detailed. Life teems around its broken alleyways and cobbled districts; every location has an atmosphere of chaotic brilliance. There are no areas that seem dull or empty, and even the little things such as werewolves pinned up on flaming stakes, or the shrieks of madwomen locked up in their homes, adds to the insanely Gothic aesthetic. This improves upon the general visuals of Dark Souls immensely, as no space feels vacant or wasted. This is thanks to the twisting nature of Bloodborne’s pathways, where secrets and horrors are to be found around every corner.
Its Gothicism may be well established through the use of ferocious beasts, crumbling architecture and an intriguing fascination with all things bloody, but the city’s hidden pathways further add to this motif. Shortcuts are useful links between neighbourhoods, but they also emphasise the fear of the unknown already cemented by the physical terrors that scream in the night; you never truly know what is behind each jagged bend. This sense of unpredictability is rampant throughout the game. At one point, the brilliant sunset sky changes to a dark and gloomy grey, replacing the sun with an ominous moon. This change is not just visual however, as enemy placement and difficulty changes with this celestial occurrence. Bloodborne is constantly shifting as you progress, and while it can be argued that this goes against the idea of learning a set pattern, it means that you are constantly adapting to the shifting world, and therefore the gameplay is anything but stagnant.
Bloodborne’s story is just as elusive as its diversifying environments. It starts out quite simple, but eventually divulges into a cryptic tale of hidden narratives strewn throughout the land. You play as a Hunter, sent out to Yharnam when the moon is at its closest to earth in order to kill a number of human changelings that have become terrifying werewolves. Any sane citizens that are left have been locked up in their homes for safety. Blood is obviously important in a game that literally uses it as currency, but the lore to be found surrounding it is immensely deep and thoroughly engrossing. Not to spoil too much here, but the themes of scientific expansion, ideological purging and human regression are all major facets of the city’s ghastly scenario. This then shows that not only do the visuals take cues from the Nineteenth-century grotesque, but that its story has a rich depth within the Gothic sphere as well. Bloodborne’s Victorian horror show is a genuine experience throughout.
Playing the game solo may be the preferred method for experiencing the game’s sadistic edge, but multiplayer is also included. It takes on multiple forms: asynchronous notes left by other players in order to help or hinder you, two-player co-op, and player versus player invasions. I find the former two to be extremely useful, especially during some of the more difficult, or confusing, situations, while the latter can increase the tension in an already manic game. Invading someone else’s world is always fun though, and watching another player cower in fear over your level 100 character is particularly enjoyable.
While co-op is a convenient tool for the main game, it is highly recommended during some of Bloodborne’s Chalice Dungeons. These are randomly generated areas that take place in catacomb-like structures below the Yharnam streets. They’re an ideal spot to farm for loot or some extra blood echoes, but are some of the most difficult sections that the game has to offer. One specific dungeon halves your health bar, making the bosses brutally tough, perhaps even a little too tough. The reward for beating each dungeon is generally not worth the effort that is required to conquer them. They are simply a distraction and a change of pace from the creeping nightmares of the main game.
Bloodborne is a game that shouldn’t be loved. It throws out countless hours of maddening difficulty, horrific yelling and far too many enemies that look like ugly spiders. However, I can’t help but be enamoured with it. Every time I remove myself from a play session, I am continually thinking of my next move. How I can deal with that huge dog in the dungeons? How I can overcome that horde of Michael Myers-faced gravediggers? How I can get past the next piece of that labyrinthine puzzle? It melds together horror aesthetics, feelings of dread, insatiable satisfaction, heart-rending highs and lows, and a system of progression that screams at you to play more and more. Bloodborne is a beautiful monstrosity, and it should definitely be played by all.
"We are born of the blood, made by the blood, undone by the blood".