Continuing in the spirit of this erratic blog, I felt the need to review a video game that’s been out for years and reasonably well discussed. I like it, though, and I’ve been dying to get my thoughts on the game out on the page so, without further ado, My Thoughts on Bloodborne:
Bloodborne came to me in a strange manner. In seeing early previews I was not particularly enchanted by the game, despite loving its predecessors Demon Souls and Dark Souls. I think I had grown tired of Victorian flavoring due to the prevalence of steampunk at the time, and as a result the game fell on my list of play priority until a friend offered their copy to me on the day after launch. They said the game wasn’t quite their style, but that I’d probably like it. I bought it from them and started playing sometime that week. While I found the game surprisingly unsettling, it actually took me some time to play the game through, and I ended up watching my girlfriend play it extensively before I dove in again.
Now I am approaching the end of my third play-through of the game, and I feel safe to say that Bloodborne is one of the best games of this console generation. [From here on out there will be MASSIVE spoilers, so if you don’t want to be exposed to the Eldritch Truth, skip this blog!]
Bloodborne is a real trip. Somewhere around the one-third point of the game on a standard playthrough it smoothly transitions from a Van-Helsing monster hunter game with a lot of Dark Souls flavoring into a Lovecraft-inspired nightmare parade of aliens, tentacled horrors, and disfigured monstrosities from the abyss beyond. It was at this point that I truly fell in love with the game. Somehow, Bloodborne manages to take two genres which have been pretty played out in gaming recently, mash them together, and leave them all the better for it.
While I consider the first third of the game to be considerably subdued in comparison to the rest, observant players will find enticing hints of what is to come. The best example of this being the Eldritch Horror, Amygdala, who lurks just outside one of the only safe places in the entire game, invisible to the player until they have attained enough Insight, or knowledge of the Great Ones (a collectible item that increases the difficulty of the game as it is collected.) While the player cannot see this enormous being, it is possible to bait it into an attack, which reveals the hints of its form at the cost of usually killing the player. This occurs at a very early point in the game and marks, for me, the point at which I knew this game was something more than a mere re-flavoring of Dark Souls.
The turning point of the game is the acquisition of 40 insight, where all of the horrors of the Great Old Ones become visible. The city, once a plague hellscape now crawls with alien beings that are jarringly different in aesthetic to the monsters encountered so far. From that point on, the game becomes a mess of blood and flesh, of madmen and mindless beasts fighting for their lives against horrors greater than their minds can grasp.
And it is fucking incredible.
Undead miscarried Old Gods made of scrap body parts, poison-spewing squid-like aliens, and once-human extraterrestrials with bulbous heads and eyes characterize the latter 2/3rds of Bloodborne. There are ongoing themes of disturbed birth, of mutation and human experimentation, of orphanage and genocide that ensure that the game runs your soul through a meat grinder of emotional upset. It is not a clean game, and the necessary actions you take as a hunter are just as unclean. Bloodborne is a disgusting mess, and that’s why it’s so fantastic.
Many of the themes of the game are reinforced incredibly well by the gameplay mechanics. The lack of any real block mechanic (which was core to Bloodborne’s predecessors,) the viciousness of enemy attacks, and the inclusion of a time-sensitive health recover based on successful player attacks pushes the player to be aggressive and skillfully dodge. Insight is foist upon the character by merely witnessing the horrors of the Hunt, which is a mixed blessing. Insight can be spent to purchase unique items, but hoarding the amount of insight necessary to purchase the most valuable items comes at a cost; high-insight characters encounter enemies with more complex move sets and, additionally, are increasingly vulnerable to frenzy attacks, which cause a player to go mad and take a catastrophic amount of damage.
Villainy is not straightforward and gameplay choices always have consequences. Talking to townspeople generally results in spitted disgust and stubborn stonewalling, but persistence can yield options. Some townsfolk are willing to communicate (and some to make demands.) How a player chooses to interact with the citizens of Yharnam can make drastic differences in later game play, and none of the characters have completely transparent motives. Characters who can bring you great rewards often victimize other characters in order to do so. Some kindly characters can end up blocking advancement in side quests because of their actions. More complicated yet, unlocking the true ending of the game means meting out terrible injustice in the name of an end that is not even necessarily good in the traditional sense. Bloodborne does not let you sit back on tough choices with cutscenes or the like. If you choose to kill a helpless individual for a needed item or to prevent an unwanted outcome, you’ll be the one swinging the axe.
Enemy resistances are diversified, encouraging the player to keep a wide arsenal of tools prepared – like a true hunter. No one weapon is a slay-all in Bloodborne, and the diversity of enemy move sets means that even min-maxing characters will have to get creative to overcome certain beings. Some enemies adapt and will respond to different tactics, meaning a single-skill cheese is nearly impossible.
This, however, brings me to the game’s greatest downfall: farming. In a game about brutal, punishing challenge one of the biggest missteps in design is the severe limitation of two of the most important resources in the game: blood vials for healing and quicksilver bullets which allow parrying. Blood vials have a default maximum of 20, which is more than reasonable for the battles in the game; however, blood vials are not an infinite resource. They have to be stocked up on. This means that a particularly challenging boss that requires a lot of practice could result in multiple farming runs just to re-fill your box with blood vials. Blood vials for purchase are notably expensive, meaning that progression is often blocked by the need to spend currency on an essential resource.
Quicksilver bullets are almost more frustrating. Quicksilver bullets are essential for parrying, ranged damage, spells, and utility tools. It is practically impossible to play the game without quicksilver bullets because battle was designed with parrying as a core mechanic. On its own, parrying is great: a player must learn their enemies’ attack patterns and the ideal moment to fire a quicksilver bullet such that it results in a stun. Some stuns require remarkably precise timing, and therefore a lot of practice. The frustrating aspect is that, despite an enormous amount of the game’s items relying on quicksilver bullets, quicksilver bullets are, like blood vials, expensive and only drop from certain enemies in small bundles. A chunk of health can be sacrificed in exchange for five bullets (a number which cannot be modified by any in-game upgrade), but most spells or tools require more than five bullets.
As a result of the scarcity of bullets and blood vials, the game seems to encourage one of two paths: over-level the bosses you are going to fight so that they are much easier, or farm, a lot. I find this to be an overshadowing issue on some bosses. A prime example is an elite hunter-of-hunters at the end of one of the side quest lines. This enemy is remarkably difficult. Over-leveling him isn’t really an option as his difficulty scales decently well through a large number of levels, and his move set is adaptable enough that no single skill leaves him particularly vulnerable. To beat him, a player needs to memorize his attack patterns and learn to time his stun windows precisely. This usually means a lot of death. Unfortunately, a lot of death means a lot of time spent running through the bullet- and vial-rich areas of the game over and over in order to stock up on a resource that could have been limited only by carry capacity instead of total inventory stock.
Tracing the same wound, the Chalice Dungeons, randomly generated, themed caverns full of enemies and treasures, are repetitive and self-fulfilling. The treasures they grant are mostly re-used for further dungeon creation, which also costs currency. While they contain a number of unique bosses, these seem like diamonds in the rough when compared with the drab slog that the Chalice Dungeons represent.
Despite these two very present weaknesses, Bloodborne still sticks with me as an incredible work. It manages to bring a breath of fresh air to well-trodden flavorings by using them as inspiration as opposed to a foundation. Bloodborne is Lovecraft-ish, not based on the Cthulhu mythos. It is steampunk-ish, without taking place in Victorian England. As a result, it is tweaked and corrupted in all the right ways. It is a fucked up, bloody mess that makes our hearts scream in protest and excitement and everything else in-between. Despite its flaws it is a work of beauty that stands out among its fellows as a piece truly inspired, truly horrific, and truly experimental. I can’t think of a game since Eternal Darkness that quite captures the same element of horror, and I can’t think of a game since the original Dark Souls that quite captures a specific flavor so well.