“Go on, throw yourself to the wolves!”
Around the time I ate that one third of an umbilical cord, Amygdalae just started showing up all over the place. Named rather aptly after the part of the brain that processes fear, Amygdalae(singular, Amygdala) are humanoid-arachnid hybrids bigger than most houses, with eight spindly limbs, and a head that is somehow yannic, phallic and utterly alien at the same time… and now they just hold themselves to the walls and stare at me with their hundred eyes. If I try to make an attack, nothing happens. I can’t even aim at them. Perhaps they’re too far up so I can’t get a lock on. Perhaps they aren’t really there. After all, I only gained the power to see them by consuming insight from the skulls of madmen and the umbilical cords of dark gods. It is well within the realm of possibility that I am, in fact, a gibbering lunatic. Either way they have yet to make an aggressive move so I walk past one, feeling not exactly safe but confidant. Slayer of Beasts is the closest thing I have to a steady job after all. I am immediately punished for my stupidity. Moments before I literally explode from the terror of an Amygdala holding me in it’s hand, it occurs to me they were always there watching me, I was just lucky enough not to know. But now they know that I know.
This is easily one of my favorite games in years.
Bloodborne is an action rpg on the PlayStation 4 with an emphasis on fast, brutal combat, punishing difficulty and good old fashioned terror. It was developed by From Software, the creator of the Souls games (Demon Souls, Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2) and feels more like a spiritual sequel than a new franchise. This is not to say it’s a simple retread of old ideas, however; Bloodborne remixes every element of it’s predecessors to be a faster, leaner, more sinister beast with a style as similar to The Binding of Isaac as the works of HP Lovecraft.
Like all Souls games, the lore and setting start simply but are deceptively powerful and subversive if one really looks into it. It’s contained almost entirely through conversations, item descriptions and educated guesses. The story is not told to you. You have to find it. These are games that not only have a great story, but are told in such a way that only a videogame can do justice to it. In the city of Yharnam(modeled after Victorian London), there is a religion known as the Healing Church that can cure any illness with the power of their special blood. The source of the blood is unknown to any outside the church, as is the blood’s dark side effects. Those who imbibe the blood risk turning into terrible beasts, with those in the church becoming the most dangerous. To safeguard the city and, presumably, cover their tracks, the Church organizes hunts of the beasts. They recruit the uninfected townsfolk and special, nigh unkillable warriors called Hunters. It is not enough however, as the townsfolk and Hunters both imbibe blood to bolster their powers. The line between man and beast blurs. During the worst hunt yet, one almost certain to destroy the city, you come in. A pilgrim hoping to cure your unnamed disease, you are given a transfusion to become a Hunter. You are instructed to seek the Paleblood, and sent on your way.
This is not so different from the other Souls games: a corrupted power structure with a ruined city and the player being given a vague goal. Veteran and new players alike can guess that tragedy will befall most of the characters just from the tone. What they may not guess at is From Software’s new found glee at injecting such a revolting and mean spirited horror into it all. I say that as a compliment. This game will make you feel. You have been warned. Graphics and art direction are a much bigger shift for Bloodborne. Dark Souls had okay graphics that managed to look beautiful on account of the fantastic art direction. The color pallets, design and direction are all surpassed by Bloodborne however. Bloodborne is also one of the very few next gen games that feels like you couldn’t replicate it on a PS3. The game is just lousy with small, exquisite details and beautifully subtle animations. Capes and cloaks flow realistically but somehow always look cool on your character. The blood flows are rich and intoxicating as one tears apart werewolves and eldritch horrors with animations that convey a dancer’s grace as well as a beast’s savagery. Every Souls game has a boss monster made of a bunch of human corpses put together, but only The One Reborn from Bloodborne made me want to gag.
The gameplay runs at a fixed thirty frames per second but, for once, I can barely tell since it’s all so well done. That being said; if they can do all of that then why they can’t make the NPC’s mouths move is beyond me. Either way, the bar has been risen pretty high, not just for Souls games but for anything on a PS4.
The music is also a big highlight. It’s similar to the fantastic soundtrack from Dark Souls with an intense orchestra and high operatic vocalizations that really sells it more than even the visuals that you are an epic hero battling literal gods. The catchiness of the melodies is right up there with the old school greats. I’ve had this game for a while now, and still can’t get Father Gascoigne’s theme out of my head.
That being said, combat is the biggest and best shift from it’s predecessors. The previous games had an exquisitely crafted balance towards offense and defense, observation and action. Dark Souls is surprisingly contemplative for such an intense brawler. Bloodborne on the other hand takes that careful balance and tweaks it hard towards speed and offense. Weapons use less stamina, and lost health can be partially regained by counterattacking so the fear a lot of Dark Souls players have of naked aggression (myself included) is mitigated. On the defense side, shields are a literal joke, armor is better for roleplaying than defense, and ranged attacks can parry far more easily than in previous games. Also, everything is happening about twice as fast as in previous games. I actually kind of dread going back to the old games for fear I’ll find them too slow. Combat now has a speed and viciousness that is almost overwhelming at first but then feels oh so satisfying when one gets the hang of it. It really adds to the roleplaying of a skilled but desperate pilgrim, half mad with terror and bloodlust.
Now as much as I can’t stop heaping praise on this game, I have to warn you that this is not for everybody. From Software is absurdly proud of their refusal to explain anything. Combat, upgrading, weapons, armor, story and even what the hell your supposed to be doing is given only the most brief, half hearted descriptions that you can easily miss. This game is meant to be played with a wiki nearby. Thankfully, help is easy to find online as many YouTube personalities have literally made careers explaining this stuff. The Souls games have a surprisingly great community behind them and Bloodborne is no exception.
Bloodborne is also the hardest Souls game. It gives you everything that makes the old games hard and asks you to do it at double speed. It’s jarring for veterans, maybe even moreso than it is for new players since it’s just different enough to require you to unlearn a lot of muscle memory.
Bloodbourne is also the darkest and ickiest of it’s kind. I won’t go into this too much as it spoils a lot of great lore, but if The Binding of Isaac puts you off, you will not like Bloodborne.
Even with these small quibbles, I would recommend that anybody with a PS4 at least try Bloodborne. All of that difficulty and obtuseness gives a feeling of satisfaction and “I earned this” when the hurdles are finally jumped that no other AAA game comes close to. I’ve often thought that the Souls games are the true heirs to the Castlevania franchise; and if so, Bloodborne is it’s Symphony of the Night.
Fear the old blood indeed.