The Old Hunters is awesome.
Bloodborne is the game that began my love for the Souls series, and of From Software as a developer. Admittedly, there’s less of it than its predecessors: the Dark Souls games have a wider variety of builds and equipment, more bosses, a more robust covenant system and a larger explorable game world. That said, I believe Bloodborne’s explorable world is precisely as large as it needs to be, and that while it’s smaller than the staggeringly big Dark Souls II, every area is honed to atmospheric supremacy, in part due to the jump in raw processing power on the PS4, and in part due to the thought and detail put in by Miyazaki’s design team. If it came down to a game world of Bloodborne’s size and sure quality, or a much bigger game world with some less-inspired sections, I’d take the former any day. Besides, Bloodborne still kept my attention and took longer for me to finish than most titles these days.
I say this because, if you think Bloodborne could have used a larger explorable world, The Old Hunters DLC should sate your thirst. I’ll let you in on a completely unspectacular secret: I actually pre-ordered this DLC, for the first time ever (the cool Bloodborne desktop I got for my PS4 out of the preorder didn’t hurt either), because FromSoft is one of the companies who take this easily-abused content delivery method, and they do it right.
(I’ll say up-front right now that I’ll just be pulling images for this review and that none of the following captures were taken by me.)
If you’re just interested in the brass tax, The Old Hunters boasts three new areas, five new bosses, and a bunch of new outfits and really interesting new weapons. Ever see one of the Amygdalas and wanted to rip one of their arms off and swing it around as a whip or a bludgeon? First, who said you could go off your meds? Second, that’s exactly what you get with the Amygdalan Arm weapon, so go wild. Oh, yeah, and there’s a new Covenant as well. Whenever you have the Milkweed covenant rune equipped, it turns you into…this.
I believe, absolutely, that if you’re a Bloodborne fan, that the DLC is worth your time and money. But if you want things broken down honestly and clearly, here’s my breakdown of the new areas. Obviously, SPOILERS lay ahead, because this is my leave-it-on-the-ice, stones-unturned impressions from start to finish. If I make ruminations about difficulty, here’s the context: while I played through it in New Game +, I was leveled highly enough that damage input and output felt pretty much equivalent to a New Game level of difficulty, so I wasn’t making it harder on myself by going NG+ or anything.
As soon as you warp into the Hunter’s Nightmare, you’ll notice certain similarities: this is a nightmarish, demented otherworldly version of the Cathedral Ward, using a similar aesthetic and the ‘bleeding graveyard’ assets you’ll recognize from the Nightmare Frontier. You might initially feel a twinge of disappointment, perhaps fearing that From has used the DLC format to just repackage previous assets and designs, but hold on a tick before you take to Twitter.
The Hunter’s Nightmare plays very differently from the real Cathedral Ward, or really anywhere else in the game. Your main enemies here are fellow hunters, while the actual beasts in the area are known to cower before you, as though they know that they don’t stand a chance with this many hunters in one place. As you run through these uncannily-familiar, yet different streets, you’ll face hunters with a brutal serrated version of the Threaded Cane, hunters with an extravagant Powder Keg Hunter weapon called the Boom Hammer (the name is pretty self-explanatory if I’m being honest), and those who have set up gunnery traps.
Once you hit the blood river, which is exactly what it sounds like, the level’s aesthetic and even its geography stops being identifiable as a reflection of Cathedral Ward, and feels unique again. Fighting through the blood river will lead you eventually to the DLC’s first boss, and it is as much of a doozy as you’re ever going to get.
Ludwig, who guards your way out of the Hunter’s Nightmare, is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done in a video game. I didn’t say bosses – I said things.
But it’s hard for all the right reasons, as any good Souls boss is. His first phase is so feral and psychotic that it’s worth joining the League covenant and summoning Valtr outside the boss room just to divert the aggro; his second phase switches things up in a big way, changing his fight style entirely as well as bringing in an absolutely ripping musical score. I almost wish that this fight had been part of the base game so that it could have been included on the OST. It’s that good.
It took me what must have been around twenty tries to best Ludwig, going from getting roundly bollocked in the first half-minute, to surviving long enough to figure out his attack tells, to getting to the second phase reliably, to finally dealing the killing blow. What a fantastic, challenging, grotesque, amazing boss.
(By the way, about my missing an update two weeks ago…yeah…but seriously, I wanted to do a week-one article about The Old Hunters, but I didn’t want to do an article based on Youtube videos; I wanted to experience everything the DLC had to offer before hunkering down to write. Hell, this is a company that puts so much detail into their games that this happens if you’re wearing a certain helm, so I owe them the same attention to detail.)
Also, you can come back to the Hunter’s Nightmare a little later and face off against Laurence himself in the Nightmare version of the Grand Cathedral, and he takes the form of another Cleric Beast – but with a few surprises this time around. (He’s optional, though)
And don’t worry – from here on out, the next two areas get progressively more original. If the whole DLC had been a variant on existing layouts and assets, then we would have maybe had cause to say, ‘well…’, but taking it for what it is, the Hunter’s Nightmare is harrowing, unsettling and, as I’ll talk about below, great for the lore.
Past Ludwig, we come to the Research Hall. Imagine what the Lecture Building might have been like if it was a full-fledged area and not just a glorified transport hub from Yharnam to the Nightmare, and you might land on something like the Research Hall. Actually, this is more like what I built up Byrgenwerth to be in my mind while on my first playthrough – a labyrinth of twisted experiments and rotating stairs that take you to hidden crannies – until I got there and it ended up being a fairly small area that housed a couple of beasties on the outside, a Choir enemy on the inside, and then boom, a boss. (Not that that’s bad – Byrgenwerth is perfectly good for what it is)
The nature of the Healing Church’s disturbing experiments here have certainly gone to their heads.
Seriously though, there’s a right and wrong way to play this area, because these guys can be tough despite being easily staggered: their ‘rush and flail’ attack can easily stunlock you to a few hits from death, and with how many there are in the first phase of the area, it quickly becomes clear that From wants you to try a stealthier approach.
Of course, there are plenty of ways in which to play this – or, at least, there should have been. I’ve seen people do just fine with the blue elixirs that make you undetectable, although those, I’ve observed from personal experience and on Youtube, that sometimes its effectiveness depends on whether it wants to cooperate or not. Trying to walk slooowly works just fine until one of them decides to aggro anyway.
I admit, I did have one “Oh, come ON!” moment: my Last Of Us instincts kicked in at one point and I tossed a pebble at the wall…only for the freaky things to rush at me instead of at the wall.
See, the thing with stealth sections is that there are typically, in a well-designed game like Bloodborne, a myriad of methods in getting from place A to place B. If you fail to account for a perfectly logical solution like using sound as a distraction, the player’s immersion breaks. But the quasi-stealth element lasts only for the first half of the area, and I found the second half much more palatable. I’ll say this about the first half: I didn’t hate it, but I was happy to put it behind me.
The Research Hall is also the area where you gain that Milkweed rune. The covenant rune doesn’t just look cool – it increases your item discovery, so when you’re running back through chalice dungeons looking for ritual materials, an astral cauliflower is the thing to be.
At the end of the Research Hall, you face two bosses one after the other. Don’t worry, though – there’s a lantern between them, so you do have all the time you need to replenish consumables used in the first battle, spend your hard-earned blood echoes and change your loadout accordingly. Battle the first is against the Living Failures, who echo the Celestial Emissary in both lore and appearance (though the Emissary and its ilk appear surprisingly ‘silly’ for such a dark game, while the Failures’ smaller malformed heads put them right back into Bloodborne’s wheelhouse of creepy).
It’s a multi-boss battle where you’ll be assailed by up to five of the Failures at once, but you can summon the League hunter Yamamura if you found the key to his cell and then killed him.
(You can only summon him after you’ve killed him. I know it makes zero sense, but that’s how it is.)
The battle is, again, awesome. You’ll pit your dodging, your spatial awareness, and your combos and parries against their physical attacks and their arcane bursts (you find a shield in the Research Hall that is designed to defend against arcane; hmm…). Despite the five-on-one aspect, I found it a really balanced battle so long as you take the right gear and keep your wits about you.
In the next room over, you have my personal second-favourite fight of the DLC next to Ludwig: Lady Maria.
She’s fast, she’s formidable, and she has three phases, each one building on the last. The battle’s progression feels so organic. You have a couple of options for this fight: she’s extremely parriable if you want to dance with the risk-reward always inherent in parrying a boss, and she can be fought as you would an enemy hunter, with crafty dodging and constant nimble footwork. I ended up using a lot of parries, because my main weapon – a plus-ten Hunter’s Axe – swings slower than her blades, but both strategies are valid and sure to get your blood pumping.
Next up is the third and final area of the DLC. It’s also the area with the most original assets and largest level design, sprawling out while the Research Hall was more vertically inclined. Welcome to Innsmouth the Fishing Hamlet. Enjoy your stay, and don’t drink the water.
Right here, guys. Just to get here, you’ve fought through three bosses and two other areas, but this is the highlight of the DLC: as soon as you arrive, you’re struck by the overwhelming bleakness and ominous air of the place. There’s an oppressive sadness in the air that you probably don’t pay much mind to as you walk down that first narrow way, and you come to this deformed fish-man who’s rambling about the dreadful sins of Byrgenwerth, and you know instantly that horrible things happened here.
The Fishing Hamlet is classic Bloodborne down to its marrow: the multiple twisting paths leading to pickups and shortcuts, the near-constant feeling of unease that a new horror could lurk around any corner, and the myriad of ‘oh, shit!’ moments that all FromSoft players eagerly await with that inimitable mix of trepidation and excitement.
The Hamlet also bucks the Bloodborne tradition of enemy NPC hunters simply existing in the game world as opposed to the faux-invasions of the Souls games, as the NPC Brador – a hunter who went mad after being forced to do an incredibly heartbreaking thing in the name of the Healing Church – outright invades you at several points during the Fishing Hamlet, providing a wicked challenge with his too-damn-big spiked club.
The final boss of the DLC is the Orphan of Kos; this is again a totally different kind of fight than Ludwig, the Living Failures or Lady Maria, and this time you face off against a maneuverable, fast foe who is quite staggerable, whose fight style transforms into something yet again unique partway through the battle, which I took to referring as ‘doing his Green Goblin thing’, if that gives you any hints. While this wasn’t necessarily the pulse-pounding, epic affair that it was to fight Ludwig, or the perfectly balanced hunter-duel that was the Lady Maria fight, I enjoyed it.
One final note: you’ll be happy to find that a Blood Rock – that super-elusive upgrade material that lets you max out a weapon to +10, of which there was previously only one in the main game world – can be found underneath the Fishing Hamlet near the boss. So now you can upgrade more than one weapon to +10 on a single playthrough without digging deep enough into the Chalice Dungeons to wake a freaking Balrog.
And that’s The Old Hunters!
The Souls games have this way of integrating their DLC content into the game world proper, and you can’t expect to start up a new file and jump right into the DLC. (To reach Frozen Eleum Loyce in Dark Souls II, you had to wait until opening the Shrine of Winter!) It can be frustrating for some players if they’re a ways behind the ‘unlock point’ in their file and want to hurry and play the DLC so they can see what’s in it and join in the fan conversation while it’s a hot topic, but it really is better for the long-term health and integrity of the games this way, because it’s integrated fairly organically each time, rather than being tacked on like a vestigial limb.
In this case, you’ll need to defeat Vicar Amelia and trigger the ‘fear the old blood’ cutscene, thus changing the world-state to night, after which you can grab the new items given to you in the Hunter’s Dream, then get grabbed by that Amygdala hanging around in Cathedral Ward (finally, that dude has a purpose beyond the ‘hey there…’ jumpscare at 40 Insight) and it will take you to the Hunter’s Nightmare.
And, of course, this DLC does some interesting things with the lore. The Hunter’s Nightmare is where hunters who have gone mad and blood-drunk exist in this purgatorial wasteland, fighting and dying and killing over and over again. Ludwig’s death can be surprisingly bittersweet if you’re wearing the right garb: do you tell him a lie to sate his soul and let him die contented, or lay bare the truth and expose him to his greatest fear?
And the Fishing Hamlet, as it turns out, is the key to everything: the more you connect the threads once snapped, you’ll find that these are the beleaguered people who harkened to the Great Ones for vengeance against the sins of Byrgenwerth, and their descendants, as in the Hunters: the atrocities committed against this poor fishing village are the reason hunters exist in the bloody purgatory of the Hunter’s Dream.
It actually is consistent with the Souls tradition of putting major, crucial plot elements in DLC: you fight Manus, the closest thing the Souls series has to a Big Bad, in Dark Souls’ DLC, and you find a (limited) cure to the Undead Curse, AKA the thing that your Undead traveled to Drangleic to find in the first place, at the end of Dark Souls II’s DLC. In most series, I would call this an overreach of what is acceptable to put in expansion content rather than the base game…but it actually fits FromSoft’s more esoteric storytelling style enough for me to give it all a pass.
At the end of the day, it’s twenty bucks standing between you and an expansion to what remains the PS4’s best game so far, which adds a bunch of really interesting new weapons and doodads, and most importantly three new areas, which use progressively original assets, and five new bosses, four of which are completely new (And even the one that isn’t original has some surprises for you as the fight goes on). If you work any kind of job with a constant income, of course it’s worth the price. Go buy it and support one of the few companies who does DLC in a way that doesn’t make us feel like we’re just being taken for a ride.