“Why exactly did you volunteer to review this?” my girlfriend asked. I had just finished recounting the havoc Bloodborne was wreaking on my body and mind. My head was cloudy. My frayed nerves continued to tingle hours after each session. I was sweating through my wardrobe at an alarming rate. Still, I knew this kind of adverse reaction was likely. I’ve been through it before, struggling through and falling for the other esoteric, punishing games in From Software’s Souls family, of which Bloodborne is the latest.
“Nowadays, this is the only kind of game that makes me feel anything.”
There’s truth in that joke answer. The games I find myself clinging to and fawning over are the ones that do this to me. The ones that make me sweat and swear and toil for my triumph. I’ve been numbed to most anything less. It’s a curse, and Bloodborne offered the rare chance at a remedy—even if it’s only a temporary one. The frustration? That’s just the price you pay for a cure.
From Software is well aware of the pox it has cast upon its fans. More than any of its predecessors, Bloodborne is both a Souls game and a reflection of the experience of playing a Souls game. Just as we are cursed to search Bloodborne for any thrills its city of Yharnam might hide, your character (a “hunter”) runs headfirst into the dilapidated streets seeking a cure for your own mysterious illness. That pursuit lasts for dozens of hours, and even in the face of seemingly insurmountable, bloodcurdling monstrosities, the only thing to do is march toward that mythical panacea—whether it’s the cure for super-lycanthropy or the satisfaction of plundering a game as masterfully constructed and cruel as this.
And a crueler game may never have been made. It’s not just that Bloodborne is difficult. Bloodborne is also repellent. You are not welcome in Yharnam. You are an invader, and everything in this twisted Victorian city—living, inanimate, and in between—airs its disapproval of your meddling loudly and violently. From Software’s audio warlocks have created a choking cloud of sonic horror, shrieks and gurgles and clanks from threats both seen and unseen. (If it’s the latter, they’ll probably turn up eventually.) Your time in Yharnam is spent in constant menace, and by the time you’re adapting to the game’s overbearing horror and hostility, it starts to expand beyond the city limits in unexpected and jarring ways.
In the case of Yharnam’s murderous citizenry (most of which are, thanks to some plague that has spread through the city, in various states of transformation between creepy, lanky humans and disgusting, lanky monsters), the anger is direct and verbal. They scream in fear and beg you to leave as they assault you with makeshift weaponry. One boss monster—who transforms before your eyes from a praying maiden to a giant, vicious weredeer—spends the lengthy battle crying what sounds like “GET OUT.” These fearful protests add a more meaningful layer of discomfort to your exploration (and exploitation) of Yharnam. And that’s on top of the immediate, visceral repulsion to Bloodborne’s ceaseless audio-visual grotesqueries. They call out your otherness and cast doubt on your violence.
It’s unclear whether Yharnam’s current strife is just another in a string of hellish nights or the last gasp before an accepted, long-looming collapse. Either way, the city is a palpably autonomous entity with untold culture and history. This nightmare is its own, brought on by greed, pretension, and zealotry. What right do we—driven by those same selfish tendencies—have to barge in and muck things up even more?
That this horrific city might elicit anything remotely close to sympathy is a testament to From Software’s creativity and attention to detail. The studio has built an astonishing, cohesive world from all manner of Gothic horror conventions. Yharnam is a mysterious Victorian sprawl with fog spewing from its sewer grates. The streets are littered with coffins and the flaming pyres that await them. As you fight through the city—and eventually everything around and beneath it—its plazas and pathways connect, opening up priceless shortcuts between neighborhoods and revealing a meticulous network of environments. But unlike Dark Souls, which was From’s prototype for this kind of intricate and interlocking level design, Bloodborne doesn’t kowtow to the fantasy tropes that demand separate, distinctly themed areas—a lava level, a poison swamp level, a catacomb level. For the most part, the regions you visit follow and expand on a single architectural and artistic direction. Everything feels like it belongs.
But it wouldn’t be a Souls game if it were that straightforward. Yharnam holds many secrets. There’s the benign, like hidden townspeople who have stories for you to unfold over the course of the game. Then there’s the sinister, like the dense, engrossing mythology that hints at what happened in Yharnam and, in another deft evocation of Gothic horror tradition, the unseen forces controlling it. The biggest hints are easy to miss and difficult to piece together. (Many of the game’s bosses and areas are optional, revealing themselves only after careful exploration and backtracking.) But even players who don’t actively seek out Bloodborne’s secrets are bound to come across some of the delightful, strange surprises lurking just beneath the game’s Dracula-inspired surface.
More than anything, it’s the promise of those wild sights, monsters, and twists that make the struggle of Bloodborne worthwhile. Like From’s other Souls games, when you die, you lose any currency you’ve accrued from killing enemies and are sent back to the last checkpoint you visited. If you die again before reaching the spot of your previous death, that money is gone forever. While checkpoints are sparse, the shortcuts are plentiful and easy to notice.
The final shortcut in every level gives you a quick route to that region’s boss fight. You’ll need it. These are the game’s main events. They’re lengthy and tense, and each one requires careful observation as you hone your strategy. For most players, that means you’ll stare down these humongous monsters over and over again. Even with sloppy play, you can still stumble through Bloodborne’s lesser minions, but boss fights demand perfection and practice. Given the opportunity, most can strike you down in a few seconds. Backing away to heal up with your “blood vials” is never all that difficult, but the supply of these healing potions is limited to what you have found around the world or purchased. If you run out completely, you’ll have to spend time building up your reserve by killing the fodder that yield vials.
Unless you learn to answer the aggression of Yharnam’s self-defense system with aggression of your own, even that fodder will prove to be a problem. Bosses and minions alike will often run and lunge toward you, siphoning away huge chunks of health if you’re hit. After getting struck, there’s a short window of time when you can lash out and steal back some of your own vitality. If you retreat, you’ll miss it. Thankfully, your Hunter is agile. Many attacks can easily be side-stepped, opening up opponents to swings of your own. Or instead of dodging, you can pop off a shot from your firearm. It won’t do much damage on its own, but if timed correctly, it will stagger your foe and leave them open to a debilitating follow-up attack.
The countless defeats and time spent butting heads with a single boss (in my case, upward of two hours) can be dispiriting. Even when things seem to be at their most difficult, though, the unpredictable sights waiting beyond your current hurdle prove to be an enticing enough reward. But Bloodborne will try its damnedest to scare you away from them. Yharnam is not some obstacle course waiting to be exploited for a cheap thrill. It’s alive and well aware of its allure. That cure we all seek is in there somewhere, but this city isn’t going to give it up without a fight.
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 4