It’s tempting to ascribe human emotions to Bloodborne: it hates you, it’s sadistic, it revels in your suffering. That’s because, like the Souls games that serve as its spiritual forebears, Bloodborne is a nails-hard title that requires a level of perseverance and patience most games simply do not.
Adding to the action-RPG’s challenge is the opaque nature of many of its systems. Modern games are notorious for their hand-holding, constantly reminding the player that action X is a good idea here or that item Y is best against these enemies. Not Bloodborne.
It will curb stomp you and take your hard-earned money so frequently, you will be emailing From Software begging forgiveness for whatever perceived slight brought this hell down on your head. Then you’ll probably dive right back in to Yharnam for more punishment, because Bloodborne is that good.
It’s impossible to talk about the game without mentioning director Hidetaka Miyazaki’s Souls titles, as the similarities are legion. The stories of each are obfuscated and hallucinatory, the combat fine-tuned and unforgiving, the style of each unmistakable.
In fact, Bloodborne is aesthetically the best game I’ve played this year, and probably last year as well. The tone is grim, but there’s also a melancholy and mysteriousness that permeates the city of Yharman, and more than a tinge of the psychedelic, too. It’s a weird dream that’s not quite nightmare, but is unsettling in the extreme.
All you know going in is that you must travel through Yharnam to find a cure for an unspecified ailment, but the city has been thrown into perpetual night and its inhabitants transformed into grotesque and aggressive beasts of a Lovecraftian nature.
Death comes swiftly and often, particularly if you’re unfamiliar with the cadences of the Souls games. Enemies deal brutal damage, and the game punishes any mistakes made in its exacting combat. Swing your axe a second too soon and you’re certain to bleed for your sin. Take on more than two enemies at once and you’ll likely expire before your blood hits the cobblestones. Back to the start with you.
It’s not just the 10, 20, or 30-plus minutes of play you just lost that stings. The Souls mechanic wherein you drop all your experience points (which double as currency) upon your demise applies here too, and you have but one shot to get back to that point and pick them up without dying, or they’re gone forever.
The tension a run back to a substantial amount of XP adds – even when you’re picking your way through relatively weak enemies to retrieve it – cannot be underestimated. It’s the same 10, 20, or 30-plus minutes you just played, but the stakes are so much higher.
Then, an epiphany: just run past enemies to get back to where you were! They only follow for so far, and you are faster than many. In this manner, your experience points (“Blood Echoes”) are gradually pushed forward through the game, as if the designating the front line of some macabre unholy war. Then they are lost. Then you push harder.
It takes a while to undo the habits accrued from other action games. Rather than cut a swathe through a level as something resembling an all-powerful and vengeful god, you must inch forward, scanning the landscape for traps and enemies. Many will rob you of your life in ways that feel unfair; they’re too strong, too fast, too many. They aren’t. Fleeing is a legitimate and necessary tactic. Learn attack patterns. Improve.
But the odds do feel overwhelming; unassailable, even. When you are crushed for the thirtieth straight time under the foot of a towering behemoth with a health bar that spans the screen, and it takes you seven minutes just to get back to him, Bloodborne can feel decidedly evil. And when you lose focus and perish on the path back to said monstrosity, losing all experience points in the process, you may wonder why you willingly endure such punishment.
Usually when you expend this much effort perfecting something you get a degree, or can at least play the guitar solo from “Sweet Child of Mine”. Even so, Bloodborne does not hate, it’s simply a mostly-absent instructor. There is a lesson in every death, but it’s up to you to work out what it is. Sometimes this process hews too close to trial and error. Sometimes it feels like the definition of idiocy.
I said in my preview of Bloodborne that it looks like a system-seller, but having spoken to a number of people who have tried it – all of whom are experienced gamers, I might add – now I’m not so sure. For a good portion of those I spoke to, the game simply doesn’t provide enough positive reinforcement to justify the agony it invokes. And besides, it’s possible to miss things that make the game much easier (although still very challenging) thanks to From Software’s obfuscation.
Even as one of those intoxicated by its play, I will freely admit Bloodborne can be incredibly frustrating. It is the very definition of an acquired taste. But for those whose palates align with the game's inscrutable and labyrinthine levels and gloomy vibe, it's a Gothic triumph. After all, you appreciate victories more when you have to work for them, right? Right? Remind me I said that in the inevitable event that you find me huddled in a corner weeping, PlayStation 4 controller clutched in my stupid, shaking hands.