“I have frequently wondered if the majority of mankind ever pause to reflect upon the occasionally titanic significance of dreams, and of the obscure world to which they belong. Whilst the greater number of our nocturnal visions are perhaps no more than faint and fantastic reflections of our waking experiences […] there are still a certain remainder whose immundane and ethereal character permits of no ordinary interpretation, and whose vaguely exciting and disquieting effect suggests possible minute glimpses into a sphere of mental existence no less important than physical life, yet separated from that life by an all but impassable barrier.”
~H.P. Lovecraft, Beyond The Wall Of Sleep
This is the game I was hoping for, for years, without even realizing it.
And, to be honest, this isn’t the first review I’ve typed up for this game – the other one wasn’t so much a ‘review’ as a rambling constellation of thoughts. That’s what this game does – it latches onto your brain and isn’t going to let go by the power of anything short of an industrial crane. The art direction, the omnipresent feeling of absolute dread, the pitch-perfect combat – it all comes together. I’m more than happy to coin Bloodborne not only the best game of the year so far, but the best piece of entertainment media in 2015 so far. Let me see if I can’t take some time out of your day with this review and justify that lofty position.
(While I’ll try to keep the endgame out of it, this will contain numerous spoilers as I’d like to probe fairly deeply and specifically into why this game resonated so well with me, so proceed accordingly. Also, because this is on a console with a Share function, I’ll state that none of the following images were taken by me.)
You’ll see it mentioned in a lot of reviews – that Bloodborne isn’t for everyone. That its high challenge level will drive off most people except for the hardcore. Well…I’m going to let you in on a secret. I do love Bloodborne, a lot; I would probably consider it one of my top 20 games of all time, amongst such untouchable company as Super Metroid. But, to be honest, I shy away from the Hard settings of most games. I generally consider the experience of playing a game more valuable to me, personally, than the sheer challenge of the thing. I don’t fit the demographic they’re talking about at all.
And yet I love Bloodborne. This warrants further study. Quick, get me a ten thousand dollar research grant from the government of Ontario.
The thing is, with most games where you can scale the difficulty up to Hard, their idea of challenge is typically to buff up the enemies’ defense and attack power, essentially just taking the game mechanics you’re used to and handicapping them. Bloodborne is challenging, but it’s proper challenge: there are no handicaps here. Fair warning, once you really get deep into Bloodborne, you’re going to notice flaws in other games’ difficulty philosophies that you never noticed before, or at least couldn’t put into words before. It’s the difference between being challenging, and being mean.
For example, in the wake of Bloodborne, how does a game like The Evil Within justify itself? Its idea of difficulty is to make ammunition vanishingly low and yet make even common enemies bullet-sinks who take up to three direct headshots to kill. There it is again: handicapping the variables in order to manufacture challenge. But that’s not proper challenge, it’s the illusion of challenge, because the playing field has been artificially tilted against you.
Or take the early Resident Evil titles, where the character control is so far beyond unintuitive that it’s deliberately like controlling an RC car. In an EGM interview for the Gamecube remake of Resident Evil, the developer stated that the controls are obdurate because it “wouldn’t be scary” if you could just run past the snarling, clawed zombies like a normal person. Now, that actually is a game that has a wonderfully frightening atmosphere just by the art and sound design alone, so it’s a shame to see that the director didn’t have enough faith in his own vision to scare people without admittedly sabotaging the controls.
But Bloodborne is different. You’re given a combat system that I found to be astonishingly organic and intuitive. Sure, you’re not Kratos, mashing square until the thing in front of you is a gory puddle. (Not that there’s anything wrong with God Of War’s quick-gratification combat; time and place, after all) Rather, combat in Bloodborne is all about strategizing, figuring out the best way in which to handle a given encounter, reading an enemy’s distinctive tells and punishing them for over-committing to a missed attack (knowing that they can do the same should you mess up). There’s no programmer behind the scenes playing with the variables to tilt the game against you; there’s only you, your enemies, and finding the right strategy.
Yes, in the course of finding that strategy, you’ll die quite a bit – but someone else put it best: you can’t look at death in Bloodborne as a failure state, like most games do. Rather, it’s used in Bloodborne like a teaching experience. What did you learn? Now apply that knowledge, because there’s nothing holding you back from finding the right stratagem and applying yourself.
Of course, whether you’re a Souls veteran or if you died six times in the castle level of Demons Souls before reaching the boss and never touched it again, you’re familiar with FromSoft’s combat formula, but Bloodborne encourages a more proactive style of play: while the Souls games offered a more stately, call-and-response method of combat, the complete lack of shields (except for that one dinky thing you find at one point – don’t use the dinky thing) means that you’ve got to make rolling an essential part of your combat vocabulary in Bloodborne. The ‘regain’ system lets you restore lost health if you land attacks right after being hit, and unlike in the Souls titles, you can actually move around (albeit slowly) while consuming healing items. That was one thing I always thought was weird about the Souls games (sans DS2’s lifegems) – like, if the savior of the realm needs a sippy-cup to be able to move around while consuming liquid without spilling it, the realm is kind of screwed.
So the combat emphasis is on aggression and mobility, lending to an experience that should please fans of Souls’ combat while at the same time being quite a bit more exciting and engaging. Souls’ combat is what I call ‘intentionally obdurate’: it’s a slap of realism rather than a power fantasy. You’re wearing heavy armour in those games, and you roll slower than you think and your stamina drains faster than you think, so while the combat system feels rigid, you actually need to think fast because once you do an action, you’re committed to that action.
So if you’re coming to Bloodborne from Souls, you’ll notice that the rigidity has been loosened up. I find Bloodborne’s combat a bit more user-friendly than Souls, although combat still adheres to a very specific calculus that you’ll need to learn if you want any hope of progress. This Gamasutra article spends its first portion talking in extreme depth about the combat system, and I’d prefer to link it for your enjoyment rather than paraphrasing.
The same system of losing XP is in effect here: if you die, then you drop any blood echoes (used for leveling up and buying items) you’re carrying. You’ve got one shot to run back from the lantern and get ‘em back, but if you die on the way, they’re lost forever and you have one shot to retrieve the echoes you dropped on your latest attempt. I like this system. It balances the fact that dying needs to have some kind of gravity to it, without being so overly punitive that the player has no hope.
Bloodborne, then, takes the wheat from its predecessors, does away with the chaff, and comes up with a gameplay system that’s been burned in a crucible, leaving a foundation of nothing but honest, real challenge that will test you, and try you, and will feel great.
So, I mentioned that I don’t fit the demographic that some reviewers and journalists say FromSoft’s fans fall into. Well, to sum up my first week with this game…I couldn’t figure out what to think of it. It took me a long time to reach the Cleric Beast. A long time. In comparison, in the last stretch before I beat the game for the first time, there were days when I was slicing through two bosses a night.
For the uninitiated, the intro segment in Central Yharnam is the game’s first true gauntlet: enemy after enemy will come at you, some solo and some in daunting hordes, and there isn’t another lantern until after you beat the Cleric Beast, the first boss most will see in the game. I’m of two minds on this segment. It’s certainly a trial by fire, as a single mistake will see you re-trying the whole thing again. At a point when Souls veterans are still re-adjusting their muscle memory (“Dammit, didn’t mean to use that blood vial! I keep thinking triangle two-hands the weapon like before!”) and From newcomers are still getting used to everything, new players in general are going to be re-doing this section a lot. I certainly was.
At a certain point, I think I even stopped enjoying it proper. That was when the other review started to come together, where I likened the experience to being Tom Cruise in Edge Of Tomorrow and how it became less than the sum of its parts when your only viable strategy was to memorize everything (“Okay, that guy’s going to jump out from the right, so roll there and kill him, then go down the stairs just enough to bait those three enemies into the choke point, then go kill the guy on the far side, then…”), which reduced the game to a series of mechanical motions rather than a really enjoyable experience.
My biggest hangup was on the two werewolves clamoring around on the bridge. Not only do they block the access to Central Yharnam’s big shortcut back to the lantern, but up to that point, you had only fought a single werewolf, and one who had half HP at that if I recall; I lamented that I just wasn’t being given the appropriate chance to practice on these two werewolves (who can easily kill you in seconds thanks to you having zero mercy-invincibility after being hit), where I desperately needed it.
I looked for alternate routes, and while I missed the mini-shortcut, I did find my way into the sewers and grabbed the Hunter’s Garb, which was a happy accident. But those werewolves were such a stumbling block, just because I hadn’t the opportunity to practice on them to get better, because I’d have to go through the whole of Central Yharnam again upon death.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one. Of the people who bought the game purely because of the AAA hype (Yes, I did hear that a lot of people actually did do this, stop snickering), I wonder how many copies these werewolves were responsible for being returned to the store.
I kept on, trying and trying even though I really wasn’t good at it right just yet. Maybe it was the incredible atmosphere, or the fluent combat system, but I could feel that there was something there I didn’t want to give up on. At no point did it feel cheap; every death felt like a reflection of my current strategy not panning out. That was why I didn’t give up: it was as though the game itself was saying, I’m not screwing you over, so you know you can do this.
I was this close to shelving the game and putting it on the backburner, maybe pulling it out in a month or so to give it another passive, half-hearted go.
Then I thought, “Why not just run past the wolven bastages?”
So I did. I did what I came to call the NOPE NOPE NOPE run between the werewolves, past the brick-brute further on the bridge, and ultimately came face to face with the Cleric Beast. It was an adrenaline rush: finally, something new!
Two tries later, I emerged victorious, and the PREY SLAUGHTERED message triumphantly flashed across the screen. As I activated the new lantern, such a feeling of relief washed over me.
Of course, being relieved that you accomplished a goal isn’t the mark of a good game. But what happened next, is.
The further I progressed in the game, the better I got at survival skills and combat. The YOU DIED screen became sparser and sparser, until I would see it maybe once or twice a session, if that (unless fighting a boss whose tells I had yet to learn). And as I went deeper, and I activated more lanterns and shortcuts, each new portion of the game felt like I really earned it. I felt excitement every single time I opened up lanterns and shortcuts, flinging my light that much deeper into this interconnected, dark world.
Wait…that almost sounds like-
That’s right: playing Bloodborne gives me the same feeling of discovery and immersion as good ol’ Planet Zebes. Part of it has to do with the challenge – if you’re getting somewhere in this game, it’s not because you exploited a mechanic or trudged past by getting lucky, it’s because you put your nose to the grindstone and your mind to the task – but also because of the world’s immensely well-built nature. Yharnam and its outlying regions set the stage for what I would call the most fascinating and excellent Metroidvania in at least a decade.
Other reviewers have touched on this at length, but this game’s atmosphere cannot be over-praised. The world of Yharnam is endlessly ominous, frightening, and nerve-wracking. You will be made paranoid by the constant ambient sounds, every creak and footstep that may or may not be an infected villager whose spine has been distended to gross proportions, face wolven and wielding a giant spiked lance, or a shrieking hooded claw-beast that will lunge through the wall at you like the Kool-Aid Man from Hell. In short, in addition to having a more intuitive combat system than most fighting games, Bloodborne is scarier than most horror games.
And that’s no easy feat. The graphic and sound design teams really came together in perfect harmony on this one.
To say that Bloodborne has a minimalist narrative would be both inaccurate and correct. The basics are made clear: the eerie, isolated city of Yharnam is both feared and famed for this thing called ‘blood ministration’, which is rumoured to be able to cure any disease. Your character has traveled to this dark town seeking a desperate cure, only to be pressganged into becoming a Hunter, a vanguard against the monstrous creatures that rise in Yharnam’s twilight…
You can go through the entire game and end without a clue of what’s going on, or you could really take your time and piece together what’s happening. (Such as the fantastic 90-page dissertation of Bloodborne’s story that I recommend you read – but only after the final boss lies in ruins behind you, so that there’s nothing left to spoil.)
FromSoft’s classic use of small details to tell a story is used to spectacular effect here, and the bosses are a perfect example. Take Father Gascoigne, for instance, whose inferred family drama lends a tragic air of humanity to a character who is rapidly losing his own. (It’s not spelled out, but it’s very obvious as far as FromSoft effect traits go) Or perhaps Micolash, who upon being killed in the Nightmare, laments that he’s waking up and will forget everything – oblivious to the fact that he hasn’t had a body to wake up in for a long time, as it’s now sitting decayed in Advent Plaza. (I find that one very chilling for some reason.) Or take Vicar Amelia, who is found praying in the Grand Cathedral when she transforms, via a bloody body-horror scene, into a gigantic dog-elk-thing. Watch her attacks as she howls through her newly feral muzzle at you: watch how she clasps her claws and raises her arms as though still praying to the Gods that have abandoned her, before slamming them down to hit you with a shockwave. (So what I’m saying is watch her attacks from a good distance)
Bloodborne has a reasonably coherent backstory and plotline, assuming that you 1: are willing to scour non-conventional places such as item descriptions for essential lore, 2: are willing to connect the dots that aren’t necessarily spelled out for you, and 3: employ a working knowledge of the philosophies underpinning H.P. Lovecraft’s literary canon.
Oh, that’s right – while plenty of games co-opt delicious Lovecraft-lite imagery (Mass Effect’s Reapers), Bloodborne might be the finest example of “pure” Lovecraft influence, both aesthetic and thematic, since Eternal Darkness on the Gamecube.
This review is already a little bit spoilery, but the things I could say here would splatter the whole thing wide open, so there’s your warning. Fans of Lovecraft will find a lot to love here, because clearly Miyazaki has done his homework: the game deals heavily in layers of dreams, which are implicated to exist objectively and be passages into other dimensions. The Great Ones, the celestial beings which may either be interdimensional or from deep in space, take serious aesthetic influence from Lovecraft’s bestiary.
Incidentally, the art-book that comes with the Collector’s Edition doesn’t touch at all on the Lovecraftian angle, so I almost feel as though this was a deliberate attempt to keep from spoiling fans who eagerly flipped through the artbook while installing the game (as I did). But if they were to put out a full-size, comprehensive artbook of Bloodborne, I’m sure it would be absolutely terrific.
The system of Insight is an interesting one, because it feels like an attempt to actively quantify the phenomenon of ‘Lovecraftian madness’ that a lot of protagonists in these cosmic horror stories succumb to. Essentially, the further you peel back the curtain of normality and come closer to the eldritch truth of the cosmos, you’re inclined to go mad from the revelation, much like if an ant were to suddenly realize its own insignificant place in the universe.
You collect Insight by consuming Madman’s Knowledge, discovering new areas, discovering bosses and by killing bosses. At first blush, it doesn’t seem to do much, and you will probably begin to wonder what it even means by Insight being “your depth of inhuman knowledge”. But collect more and more, and…
So shall you see things, dear adventurer, that you might wish you hadn’t. The rain-cloud is peeling back to the eldritch truth.
And, like any Lovecraftian protagonist, the deeper your depth of eldritch knowledge, the more susceptible you are. There’s a status effect called Frenzy, which will build up in a fashion similar to poison, and if the meter fills up, a huge chunk of your health will get taken off. Well, the higher your Insight, the lower your resistance to Frenzy. That will become relevant once you start encountering the Winter Lanterns (pictured earlier in this review; an enemy I’ve heard referred to, not inaccurately, as ‘those freaky-ass singing brain things’), horrors beyond description that cause Frenzy build-up just by looking at you.
(I saw someone speak of Insight as “eldritch knowledge that you gain willingly”, and Frenzy as “eldritch knowledge forced upon you”. Sounds legit.)
Much like all the Souls games, the multiplayer element takes the form of inter-game cooperation or invasion – hopping into another player’s world to either fight them or help them beat the boss. I can’t really say much about it other than that people are having fun with it. I’ll tell you why I don’t factor multiplayer into my reviews: to me, good art is good forever, but anything that has to do with multiplayer is always going to be in flux; your experience will depend entirely on who’s on the other end. Plus, a great single-player mode will last long after a multiplayer community has dried up, and/or the hosting servers have been shut down. If I can digress, that’s why in forty years, people will still be playing Super Mario World and saying, ‘ah, this is great’, but Titanfall will be a distant memory because the developers were too short-sighted to justify its long-term value with a single-player campaign. In terms of what will last and be a constant rather than wax and wane, Bloodborne is terrific.
There’s also the Chalice Dungeons, which are essentially a multi-tiered labyrinth deep underneath Yharnam, where you go through many floors of increasing difficulty. Each level down is punctuated by a boss; some are recycled from the main game, while others are completely exclusive to the Chalices. This mode is a nice addition, but to be honest, I think I’d have preferred a full-blown dungeon crawling section integrated into the main game proper. Still, it’s fun and satisfying for what it is.
Now, even a masterpiece can still have flaws, and deep ones at that; after all, the Mass Effect trilogy would easily make my top-ten shortlist, even though the sidequests in ME1 are mind-numbingly thoughtlessly designed and the ending of ME3 became the most hated event in entertainment media since Spider-Man made a deal with the devil.
Bloodborne’s flaws aren’t nearly as deep as all that. A lot of it is just little nagging things, such as having to go through the Hunter’s Dream every time you wanted to visit another area, as opposed to just traveling to a new area from the lanterns, like a lot of fast-travel systems in other games (including Dark Souls). That’s just a bit annoying because it means two loading screens instead of one, although the one-month patch that reduced the loading time helps.
And there are a lot of optional areas – some would say, too many. Not counting transitional/non-“level” areas like the Lecture Building and Hunter’s Dream, there are six major areas you absolutely need to visit, versus five optional areas of equally considerably breadth. And I’m only saying this because I love it, and wouldn’t want a player to accidentally miss some of these areas for not scouring every crevice.
Granted, the game does balance it somewhat, by giving certain incentives that will be denied if you skip these areas: skip the village of Hemwick, for example, and you’ll never be able to work with Runes, which are a whole other upgrade system on top of blood echoes and blood gems.
And then you have the Newb Wall, my name for the phenomenon that manifests itself in the first act for new players. I talked about my personal experience with the gauntlet that sees players into Bloodborne, but I left out one very important detail.
In Bloodborne, to level up you need Insight, as mentioned above in that section about Lovecraftian influence. You start the game with zero, and you typically get your first Insight once you encounter the Cleric Beast, or maybe Father Gascoigne. Until you gain this Insight, you have no ability to level up.
See, the thing with the Newb Wall isn’t that a game is just hard; it’s that a game is making you feel like nothing you do is even helping. That your effort is just wasted, and therefore there’s no hope. Once you feel like you’re making actual progress, in any capacity, you’ve broken through the Newb Wall.
I really wish that FromSoft had let players level up from the jump, rather than turning it into a reward for making it as far as the first boss. There’s a psychological effect that comes from leveling up: a feeling like you’re actually getting somewhere, even if you haven’t actually made hard progress. Because being able to level up suddenly was a big part of my feeling like Bloodborne suddenly ‘opened up’ for me after encountering the Cleric Beast.
I do have to mention the lack of a pause button. Because it’s something of a FromSoft running gag at this point, almost as though, “Let’s see how many design fundamentals our game can dodge and still come up a masterpiece!” Bloodborne isn’t a game you can play while waiting for a delivery, that’s for sure: “Sorry, Mr. FedEx, I know you have two hundred more houses to hit today, but FromSoft wanted me to either finish killing that werewolf or lose my fifty thousand blood echoes. You understand. Hey, come back here with my package!”
I jest, but in all seriousness, there’s really no excuse on a system where the controller has enough buttons to allow it, to not have a pause function. Defenders of this will tell you that you can just go into the menu, quit to the title screen and load it up right where you left off, but why on earth would you wanna do that instead of press a button and pause the action right there, like every other game in existence right now?
And it’s kind of a double-minded thing, because subjectively, I find myself not really yearning for a pause button while I’m knee-deep in a Bloodborne session; it doesn’t hurt the experience. But on an intellectual, objective level, I can’t help but feel like us just accepting this from FromSoft is us creaking open a door that we might regret not being able to close later.
And before things start to sound like the crinkling of a tin-foil-hat, remember the gaming industry’s habit of taking the whole mile when given an inch by fans, as the whole DLC mini-industry proves. If we demonstrate that something as rudimentary as a pause function is something we don’t mind giving up for no reason, what next? Maybe there’ll come a game in the future where you can try to shut it off, and it can decide, you know what, maybe you haven’t played enough for one session, and it’ll refuse to shut down until you play to the next checkpoint or wherever. For – of course – reasons of “artistic immersion”. They’ll try and sell it as a positive, tell us that we need to play [x] amount of minutes more in order for the developers’ vision to really sink in.
Bottom line, have a pause button.
Getting away from criticisms, I have to say that the final boss of Bloodborne is remarkable. Well, there are technically three bosses that could be the final one, depending on which ending you’re getting; I’m referring to the boss you fight second-to-last in the Childhood’s Beginnings ending. And I’m being so vague because even his name is a spoiler, but here I go without spoiling the actual fight:
From a mechanical perspective, a bad final boss fight will discard what you’ve learned throughout the game and force you into a gimmick mechanic that isn’t used anywhere else. This is a good final boss fight: it’s like a final exam. To beat him, you need to demonstrate functional mastery of Bloodborne’s combat system.
That means knowing when and when not to lock-on; knowing when and when not to parry, and doing so with precision; reading an enemy’s distinctive tells; knowing when to start a combo, see it through or break it off and roll away. If you beat this boss, it is because you have mastered what Bloodborne has to teach you.
And emotionally, it’s one-of-a-kind. It’s an intense fight, taking place in a gorgeous setting, and the soft, melancholy music contrasting against the intense combat just seals the deal. They probably could have gotten away with a more standard ‘epic Latin choirs’ song here, but the serenity of the setting and the music just takes it to the next level. Most Bloodborne boss fights will make your hands clammy, but this one gave me chills.
Now, I’m not saying that playing Bloodborne will literally make you a better person – but I am saying, once you’ve latched on to the ebb and flow of From Software’s latest opus, it will instill in you a number of good habits that you can easily carry forth into the real world.
You’ll be taking honest responsibility for your actions; when you come upon that YOU DIED screen, you’ll probably be able to pinpoint the way in which you screwed up, and hopefully you’ll be willing to adapt your strategy so that it doesn’t happen again.
You’ll be employing savvy, smart resource management. By the time the credits roll on whichever of the three endings you’ve earned, you’ll have gotten quite good at knowing when to spend and when to save your blood echoes, and how to budget them out so that you aren’t carrying a whole slew of them into the ominous and the unknown. Now time to start on that checkbook.
And, hey – if this is your first exposure to Lovecraft-inspired work, maybe it’ll inspire you to pick up one of his anthologies.
And I had attempted the Souls games before Bloodborne, yes, but it’s thanks to Bloodborne that FromSoft’s Souls series well and truly clicked with me. So I owe Bloodborne for getting me into one of modern gaming’s most interesting and immersive series as a whole.
Bloodborne isn’t the first great game on the PS4, but I do feel comfortable calling it the first great PS4 exclusive, and (as of this writing) the best game of the current generation.
To me, a perfect score on a piece of art doesn’t mean absolute perfection, because then nothing or almost-nothing would ever reach that star. Rather, I look at a score of one-hundred percent as being a reward for art that succeeds with flying colours at everything it attempts to convey, even if there are little nagging flaws here and there.
With that in mind, and for using a pitch-perfect combat system, a true understanding of honest challenge and wonderful level design as a springboard for a harrowing cosmic horror adventure that will stay with you long after the PS4 has been turned off, Bloodborne easily earns four out of four eldritch umbilical cords. Congratulations, Miyazaki-san, on this dark masterpiece.
Seek paleblood, and transcend the hunt…