2015’s Best Games: Bloodborne
To round off the year, we’re taking a look back at our favourite games of 2015 – it’s been a hell of a year! Next up, the single bleakest game on PS4…
There are a lot of words that can be used to describe Bloodborne, but ‘fun’ sure as hell isn’t one of them. That’s the best thing about modern gaming, really – gone are the days when the only gaming options ran on coins and wowed crowds by moving a few coloured boxes around, and games have evolved and found new ways to entertain. Some eschew traditional gameplay in order to tell involving stories, others hark back to those golden early years and have us banging our heads against leaderboards for months and more still serve little purpose beyond filling downtime with brief bursts of colourful entertainment. That’s not From Software‘s style, though. This is a team that wants you to suffer, wants you to die, wants you to really push the limits of your abilities. And when you finally manage to overcome one of the many, many obstacles the team has laid out for this revolting obstacle course, you’ll discover something even better than fun – you’ll discover the thrill of pure satisfaction, and it will make all the abject horror seem worth it.
Bloodborne’s grim tone and setting really cannot be made light of or downplayed. It’s aggressively oppressive, to the point where we actually found ourselves having to take breaks from playing, like it says to do in those funny jokes that developers like to put in game manuals. It can be hard to muster the strength to return to something so bleak, especially after ending a session with a few consecutive deaths in the same place. But you have no choice, really. As in the Souls games, all of your currency – Blood Echoes in this case, used for levelling up and general shopping – drops where you died, forcing you to face your fears and return to the scene of your own murder to retrieve the stash or lose it forever. In a particularly cruel twist, one of the nearby enemies (usually the one that killed you) might actually devour your dropped Echoes, meaning you have to kill it next time to get them back. The glowing eyes make it easy to see which is the culprit, but the added pressure turns these encounters into mini boss battles of sorts, often with a five-figure wager on the line.
The reason we say that is because this isn’t like Dark Souls II – you can’t just expect to find bonfires spaced generously throughout Yharnam. It’s not that kind of place, man. The lamps, which serve the same purpose as DS fires in as much as that they’re checkpoints and fast travel beacons, are far fewer, From instead using some ingenious level design to place the emphasis on unlocking shortcuts and new routes to and from existing lanterns. It all just adds to the sensation of helplessness and futility brewed by the general atmosphere of the game – many times, you’ll make great progress only to find that even if you do make it, all you’ve done is unlocked a door back to where you started. Well, we say ‘all you’ve done’, but this seemingly menial task is actually the cause of some of Bloodborne’s most euphoric moments, letting you return to the hub area to bank your Souls (via consumerism and self-improvement – there’s no actual bank) and then get back to where you previously were in a fraction of the time and with way less horrible beasties in your way. You’ll praise the hell out of the sun when you find one of these routes, not that that’s even a thing anymore. There’s no sun to praise. That’s how bleak Bloodborne is. It’s never even bloody daytime.
Combat has evolved a good deal from the Souls games and while similarities still exist, the most notable alteration is the new focus on speed and aggression. Patient players could hide behind shields and pick their moment in Dark Souls, or keep a safe distance and abuse overpowered spells or cheap poison arrows to drop many foes, but that ain’t gonna fly here. There is a shield in the game but it seems to exist purely as a cruel joke rather than to facilitate class Souls sword-and-boarding – the emphasis here is on mobility and pace, the invulnerability window on dodging widened somewhat to make up for the fact that it is your only line of defence. Even the regain system, a new mechanic where recently lost health can be partially restored by spilling blood, is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the extra healing is welcome when the right opening presents itself but on the other, it’s a downright rude way to coax overeager players into putting themselves in harm’s way. Learning when to counter-attack and when to cut your losses is a core skill to learn thanks to this, but it’s still easy to get carried away and throw everything away even after hours and hours in Yharnam.
That’s how long it will take, too. While it can be speed-run, the labyrinthine layout and numerous optional bosses and areas mean that it’s easy to get lost for hours in places that technically don’t even matter. Well, unless you’ve permanently got a wiki open in a browser window while playing, in which case, congratulations on ruining your experience – save that shit for subsequent runs. The thrill of discovery and joy of sharing stories and experiences with fellow players who may have done things differently is such a key part of the Souls experience, and Bloodborne is no different in that respect. This advice might arrive a little late for you (you know for next time now, though) but if you haven’t started it yet, do yourself a favour and do your first run blind. The more you know, the less impact it has and it’s borderline criminal to scupper the great work From has done by spoiling yourself. There’s so much mystery to every aspect of the game that it’s only natural to want to discover as much as possible, but do not underestimate the sheer elation of getting through with minimal help.
That said, a similar summoning system to the Souls games still exists in case you hit a wall with a particular boss and while using that is unlikely to harm your enjoyment as much as using guides, you should know that even this mechanic – one designed to offer a helping hand, no less – can be fraught with danger. Ringing a bell to summon help can also alert potential invaders to your location, allowing them to join your session as hostiles. Given that you can only be invaded before the area boss is defeated, we fully expect many sadistic intruders to set up shop in the streets and alleys leading up to the trickier bosses, as they’ll find most fresh meat that way. Thankfully, though, you’re finally able to set up a password for matchmaking, meaning you can summon people you know as long as they’re within range of your level (the permitted distance between characters being ten plus ten per cent of your current level, as in Dark Souls). Might make things easier, or it could just give skilled invaders two scalps for the price of one.
Co-op and PvP are both also possible in the new Chalice Dungeons, sprawling tombs that exists beneath Yharnam and soon come to present some of the game’s stiffest challenges. Rather than scaling with your current game cycle (an early Chalice will be the same difficulty on a first run as on NG++), these have their own grading via the Depth stat. Clear a dungeon and you’ll usually unlock a new Chalice that lets you create a randomly generated variant, where all sorts of horrible things can happen. Story bosses might show up in different settings (or there are a slew of bespoke Chalice-only bosses to face if not), weapons and gems can be found if you get lucky and it’s a way of offering long-term endgame play with random encounters and rewards. Just as well too, since New Game+ offers little beyond a greatly increased level of difficulty – no new items, encounters or story stuff (well, that we know of yet – the community is still working the game out) mean NG+ is purely a place for veterans to show off skills and Chalice Dungeons are the real endgame here.
Bloodborne is a horrible game, and one where everything and everyone is bleeding, crying, screaming, cackling, dying, or doing some/all of those things in some grim combination. The Lovecraftian lore and pseudo-Victorian setting are incredible, as is the way in which From has stepped up its game dramatically for its PS4 debut, but it’s just not nice. And it isn’t supposed to be. This is a game that psyches players out within mere minutes and revels in their fear, desperation and misery, and naturally, that’s not going to be for everyone. But when you come to learn the air-punching, controller-throwing satisfaction of felling a boss that has murdered you more times than you care to remember, you’ll get it. From Software is a studio that has mastered the fine balance of challenge and reward, and there’s an argument to be made for this being its finest effort yet. Fear the old blood? Whatever. We fear the new blood. It’s far more terrifying.