There was a graveyard at the top of a set of stairs, near a church, that rested, forgotten, in the cold. Trees bared naked sat bordered by tombstones, clawing with branches in the wind. And everything there, even the birds and the old wood that lined the crypts to the side, was silent and still–save for a thunk ringing rhythmic in the dark from a man in black. He wore a coat and a wide hat–his eyes, wrapped with gauze–and in his hand he held an axe.
Squish, squish. The axe cleaved a body and the body lay in the dirt.
“Beasts all over the shop,” he says. “You’ll be one of them sooner or later.”
And as he turns, he breathes out a chilled, thick fog, in a growl that sounds inhuman.
Bloodborne is a third-person action role-playing game for the PlayStation 4, and in it you play as a unique individual caught up in the night of “The Hunt.” Watch any old monster movie with werewolves and vampires and you’ll probably feel at home in the setting, but what Bloodborne does beautifully is what it does with the familiar and how it gradually shifts that over time. The Gothic Yharnam, where the game takes place, was once a great and proud city, but a sickness took hold that twisted its roots and bore something dark into being. Beasts of all sorts roam the streets and the people are out in droves, brandishing pitchforks and torches, scouring the city, to cleanse the blight upon it. From there, the setting shifts from the traditionally familiar to the gradually more creepy before settling into the downright weird, taking cues from the eldritch horrors of Lovecraft and whatever mad, dark corners the creators continued to dig into.
It’s creepy for sure, but I wouldn’t call it horror; it’s something more psychologically centered. The world is crumbling under the weight of a mistake that mankind made at a point in the past, and the people, the environments, your mind itself, is a hostile holding cell for your character. And “hostile” is a good word to describe most things because this game is hard. But anyone with any interest in this or the number of other recent titles by From Software are sure to be expecting that.
In fact, they’re probably praying for it.
Bloodborne, Dark Souls, and Demon Souls before it have all been a magnet for the masochist. The games are known to not only challenge, but mock, the player who has the misfortune of trying to play them. They punish the familiarity we have with other games and teach us to think differently, which is good in the age of gaming we’re in, to switch up what we know.
The downside to this is that From Software has made a name for creating inaccessible games: games that are too hard, too frustratingly unfair, and too unapproachable for the casual gamer. And in some ways, the people thinking these things would be right in their assumption, but, as is true with these games and the worlds you explore within them–there’s more to it than that.
I never played a Souls game until Dark Souls II, and there was really only one reason why: I thought the game would destroy me every time that I played it and I would be better doing something else. And while the games are challenging, they aren’t unfairly so, they just expect you to figure it out. There’s no handholding, no easy mode, just you and this world and you are expected to flourish.
It’s the developer saying, “I believe in you. You’ve got this. Just think, and you’ll get it.” Which is a refreshing thing to see.
Now, are these games for everyone? No, not at all, but they’re for more people than you’d think. And if you asked me which game would be good to jump off with, it would be Bloodborne. This isn’t because the others aren’t good, or even better, but rather, for reasons unique to Bloodborne.
The man at the beginning is Father Gascoigne, one of the first bosses in the game, and the reason I used it to set up this review is because of what it represents. Dark Souls is known to be slow and methodical, rewarding you and your patience. Strike too quick, or miss an opening, and the game could be over—just like that. But Bloodborne is different in that it praises your aggression, encouraging you to get in there. Health can be regenerated shortly after getting hit if you simply go up and hit back. The game also utilizes a parry system of sorts that allows you stagger your foes, testing your timing, your observation, and your ability to relinquish your Dark Souls reliance shields. Father Gascoigne is probably the first time you realize that this game is very different and that parries and speed are something you’ll need as you progress along through the game.
Bloodborne is perhaps one of the most frustratingly beautiful experiences of the year so far. Newcomers may be scared away by the difficulty that the game builds its base on, and Dark Souls fans may find it too easy or too different to like, but for anyone who digs down deep enough to really see what this is about, they will find something great below the surface for exactly this reason: the game relies on the player, not tutorials, to contest it and its rules, to thrive through a descent into madness and blood and cryptic mission objectives. It is an experience bordered by thumb twitches and horror, and a rewarding experience at that, and requires, through the rain and the woods and the burned out city streets, that we press onward through the darkness. It’s a grand adventure spanning an imposing world, but a world that begs your attention.