I won’t lie, I’ve been waiting to cover this game for a while now! I won’t deny it, I’m a huge fan of From Software’s line of brutally challenging fantasy-horror games! Since 2009, they’ve delivered punishing, but fair action strategy games which force the player to study the environment and learn from their continuous failures. The previous Soul series in particular relied on defending yourself from danger while striking the foe at the right time. You could shield an enemy’s devastating attack while delivering one of your own. And lucky for you, your armor can sometimes absorb some of that pain. Of course, this is all to reflect those worlds’ faux-Medieval fantasy analogue. Bloodborne discards many of those concepts, while still keeping a lot of familiarity. The land of Yharnam is one emerging into an industrial age. But, before modernization truly takes off, a sickening plague has washed over the lands. Of course, this concept should seem familiar to Souls fans everywhere. However, this one plays it up a bit differently. Instead of a curse that drains life from the world, this infectious plague spread madness and mutation. If Souls is gritty pulp, Bloodborne is a hybrid of Gothic and Lovecraftian style horror. Does it live up to the legacy? Does it do something different? If so, is it too far or not far enough?
As mentioned above, Bloodborne is the 2015 successor to 2009’s Demon’s Souls. Both games were made exclusively for Sony’s Playstation consoles as a console selling exclusive. And by all means, both have shown to provide quite the driving power. In many ways, Bloodborne feels more similar to Demon’s Souls over Dark Souls and this was by all means intentional. For one, both have a dimensional nexus that allows for players to travel. In addition, Bloodborne has tons of little easter eggs that might imply that it’s within the same universe as Demon’s Souls! Perhaps the eldritch beings in this setting are tied to the demonic invasion of its predecessor.
The predecessor has been associated with a gritty dark heroism. You’re still an expert in this game, but there’s more focus on skill over being a mastery of a class. Instead of a class, you’re just a person sent to deal with the impossible. Also gone is the Souls D&D-esque class system. So no, you’re not a Knight! You’re just an everyman/everywoman forced to deal with an eldritch entity that will make you shit your organs out of pure madness. You’re not a knight or a wizard; you’re a soldier that’s slowly eroding from the same blood that fuels your enemies. Now we have a variety of storytelling backgrounds to create your character, cementing the shift in tone. But, more on this ahead.
While the Souls games made you tense before going into battle, they gave you a sense of accomplishment and empowerment as you defeat your foes at their own games. However, Bloodborne seems to have more so a feeling of lurking dread. This feeds into the Gothic themes ever present in this game. Not only is the horror right in front of you with enemies nearby, but the environments and atmosphere become enemies themselves! You are never truly at ease, as your resources feel very limited. This feels akin to old school survival horror games and adds a fantastic touch to this game, truly enhancing the desperation over just being a brutal anti-hero. Your actions are pondered similar to protagonists in games like Silent Hill and Resident Evil. While fighting off foes seems like a decent idea, it’s sometimes better to escape and conserve your resources. And considering even your stamina is limited, this is a wise choice more often than not. Besides, your ability to spend your blood points can be cut short by one foolish encounter. Now, the Souls games had moments of this. For example, take the disorienting Undead Burg. There were quite a few times I felt somewhat scared within that area. Now, Bloodborne stretches that uncomfortable feeling to the whole game, which really immerses me into the dark ambiance of the world.
And speaking of ambiance, the world of this game is as haunting as it is beautiful. Even though the world looks grey and dull at first glance, it’s filled with a variety of color use. Sure, everything is muted to fit the gothic aesthetic, but there’s still quite the range; setting sunlight cast upon spiraling structures, ominous blue tones illuminating your way, ethereal green tones to signify a dark magick, glowing red to really sell the pervasive blood theme, etc. The setting itself is as visually pleasing as it is disturbing. This decaying beauty spans beyond Yharnam; into several ominous chapels to country villages to even the sloping pine forests. Its faded glory reminds me of other horror titles such as 2007’s BioShock, which is set in the collapsing city of Rapture, an underwater city that was originally created as a “utopia” for the knowledgeable, privileged, and idealistic. Granted, Bloodborne doesn’t really carry that sort of community. To me, Yharnam was a community populated by a mostly working class trying to keep up with innovations around them, before corruptive influence took sway of them. In a sense, the backstory brings to mind Resident Evil 4’s attempt at making its universe fresh. That said, I love RE4 and wonder if it had a role in the development of this new world. Even if it’s a pure coincidence, there’s something about isolated communities that just leads to a terrifying setting.
This leads me into another thing about the game I found interesting, the use of some great horror themes. In terms of Lovecraftian horror, there’s a cosmic menace that doesn’t make itself known for a good chunk of the game. In addition, when killing great creatures associated with these eldritch powers, you gain a form of insanity-like power called “insight”. The more insight you have, the more mental strain it puts on the protagonist. Too much can even kill the character! And even when these Great Ones aren’t around, you feel like you’re being observed by them. And since the corrupt blood is likely their fault, it seems like you’re observed through all the infected mutants. Perhaps you’re merely a puppet in their insidious agenda as well? Either way, there is certainly something horrifying piercing the thin veil of reality and warping it for the worse. And despite being quite heroic and capable of stopping many mutated locals, you’re still an average person on the brink of madness. Now of course, there’s a more gothic side to this game as well. For starters, the macabre landscapes that populate the world are pure Gothic horror at its best! In a sense, the cities and beyond almost resemble a giant cemetery or tomb. Physical and mental disease run rampant as corruption and depravity have taken hold of nearly everything around you. On top of that, no one trusts you and you have no trust in anyone else. The supernatural presence seems implied at times, but other times the menace is exactly in your face. Either way, it always feels like it’s lurking and preparing to attack. In fact, the lurking horror has the potential to be you! The deranged and diseased villagers carry the same insanity that dwells through you. Its corrosive corruption could one day warp you like them, if you don’t try to put an end to the madness.
In general, there seems to be a greater focus on mystery than Souls games. Souls embodies empowerment over impossible obstacles and a growing familiarity with your environment. Bloodborne is mystery, confusion, and the sense of uncertainty. What’s behind this door? Do I want to find out? While both games enforce that constant failure can make the game more devastating, Bloodborne quickly shows progress is more of a challenge. You need the blood echos to improve your inventory and build up your character. The more you take in, the more horrible losing all of them is… especially if your encounter proves to be nearly impossible. The controls in general reflect this change. No longer do you slowly trek around in armor that gradually becomes more awesome. Now you’re more mobile, with limited buckshot from a shotgun to repel enemies, so you can make a quick getaway if need be. Your own dexterity and environment replace shields, beyond your firearm at your side. In fact, the only shield is a gag item that you see early in the game. All around, the game feels more fast paced; from both player and computer perspective.
That said, I have a couple of gripes with Bloodborne that will hopefully be patched or altered soon. For one, the loading times sometimes border on excruciating. While this pushes the player to find ways to die less, the occasional death still becomes a chore to wait for the game to reload. Considering that Demon’s Souls didn’t receive too many patches, I have a fear that Bloodborne will fall victim to a similar problem. In addition, I’m starting to get the feeling that FromSoft likes a certain amount of tropes that they spam through their games. While they’ve ditched waves of people in armor, they still have mashed up shoggoth-like abominations or lots of people and things mashed together. It was cool the first couple of times, but I want to see FromSoft try to avoid that in favor of more unique creatures. That isn’t to say some of the bosses in this game aren’t still pretty awesome.
All in all, I love this game! This title combines my favorite aspects of the Souls games with aspects of some of my favorite horror titles. It has fast paced action, in addition to limited-resource based survival, as well as lurking suspense and horror. The rich gothic world and lovecraftian style lore compliment each other to create a truly ghoulish environment to traverse. And of course, the punishing difficulty mixed with all sorts of fun strategies always keeps me coming back for more. Bloodborne receives 9.5 pints of tainted blood out of 10!