Straight Outta Yharnam
The dreamscape of nightmares is so terribly different for each of us. For some, personal loss and pain is at the forefront of our fears. For others, blood soaked beasts with sharp claws keep us awake at night. Others, still, dread the cosmic terror of an unavoidable apocalypse. It’s a testament to From Software and director Hidetaka Miyazaki that they were not only able to create a world that encapsulates all of these fears into a universally horrifying experience, but to also make one that begs to be explored, and plays as tightly as it does.
For those of you familiar with the Souls series, the core of Bloodborne looks quite familiar. It’s a third person action/RPG hybrid that places an emphasis on patience, timing, and sharpened skill. You’re a Hunter cleansing the grimy streets of Yharnam of the mysterious plague that tears at its inhabitants and transforms them into horrid beasts. It’s a very dense, pointed game that boils down all of the previous games mechanics into an incredibly absorbing thirty-plus hour experience.
Bloodborne initially seems more stripped down than its predecessors. The world of Yharnam is more focused and less diverse, there are only a handful of weapons and even fewer spells, and the stat screen has been pruned down – yet the game still manages to feel exhaustive. It explores every possible inch of its world, beasts, and inhabitants, and constantly unravels new strategies and tidbits of story that will be the source of years of speculation. Your Hunter’s limited weapons have alternate “trick” forms that broaden new strategies, shortcuts connect the world in entirely surprising ways, and each character you come across has motivations of their own. The streets, graveyards, and buildings are all tightly packed and filled to the brim with items and bits of lore to uncover, which makes exploration an ongoing, enticing experience. This is all wrapped in a sparse gothic narrative that gives the world a strong sense of cohesiveness, even if the details are hazy at best.
What Bloodborne may lack in the more interesting sprawling dark fantasy worlds of its predecessors, it more than makes up for in pure horror. Each step is terrifying, each swing of the blade carries so much weight, and every enemy brings a new heightened fear to the nightmare. It’s a Lovecraftian loveletter, teeming with ghastly creatures and otherworldly beasts that are not only awesome to behold, but serve a purposeful role in this bloodsoaked world. Clerics who tampered with blood turn into foul creatures, old gods unleash hellish monstrosities, and underneath it all a tiny shred of humanity still holds hope that the curse of Yharnam may yet be lifted. Bosses this time around are of particular note. Each one is vastly different from the last and offer some of the most grotesque offerings the series has ever seen.
This nightmare is a difficult journey, and at times may seem even impossible, but From Software made some key gameplay choices that always keep things fair. Throw out any strategy you may have used with the previous three Souls games. The movement and pace of combat has been increased and the lack of shields means you better learn how to dodge and counter enemy attacks.
Firearms comprise your off-hand weapon slot, but don’t expect them to do any significant damage for most of the game. Instead, using them for crowd control or as a way to riposte enemy attacks leaving them open for a charged visceral strike still makes them an invaluable tool. Additionally, after receiving damage, you have a small window to regain your health by doing damage to your enemy in return. This aggressiveness is new to the series. Previously, receiving significant damage meant you would roll away, raise a shield, and heal. Instead, Bloodborne tempts you to get closer to the beast, fight back, and claw your way to victory.
This stressing risk vs. reward nature is right in line with the rest of the series. Exploration is tempting, and the desire to push forward to see what’s down that next alley or behind the next door is always being weighed against the safety of returning to the Hunter’s Dream to level up and resupply. It’s a dizzying, heart pounding experience that is heightened by exceptional sound, creature, and level design.
Bloodborne also includes procedurally generated Chalice Dungeons. These levels have you exploring forgotten underground ruins and are isolated from the main part of the game, but ultimately feel under-designed compared to the rest of the world. I’m sure many challenge seekers and completionists will love the expanded content the dungeons provide, plus they provide a nice distraction and let you hone skills and gather items if you find yourself stuck.
The game was patched during my first playthrough, and any trepidation you may have towards long load times has been mostly alleviated. This is helped by the item descriptions on the load screens that help you catch up on lore and make the down time feel useful. Still, the patch hasn’t improved some stuttering frame-rate issues in the first half of the game, and having to warp back to the main hub to go anywhere else is a nuisance, but those are very minor gripes compared to what is a very complete and astounding game.
Newcomers will find Bloodborne an easier entry point into the series than its predecessors, if they can make it past the first hurdle, and returning Souls experts will find the gameplay changes refreshing and new, even if it doesn’t seem as deep as Demon’s or Dark Souls. Regardless of where you’re coming from, it will become increasingly evident that the nightmarish world of Bloodborne is a paradox. It is disgusting, brutal, and exhausting, but filled with a peculiar dark beauty and curiosities that demand exploration. It spills over into your own world, in your idle thoughts, and deepest dreams. Terror is at the heart of the game, and you’ll be studying each and every facet of this nightmare until it drives you mad.