6 years ago I happened to pick up a copy of a game called Demon’s Souls, during a lull in PS3 releases. I went through the opening stages of that game expecting a Devil May Cry clone, and proceeded to get my arse well and truly handed to me. I was stunned. Actually, I was a little disturbed by it. It was morbidly difficult and obtuse, making me feel like I shouldn’t really be playing something this opaque and hostile. I looked up some websites and was told that I should be patient, that this game was very hard. I kept playing, and kept dying. I looked at the websites again. It was full of people who were entranced by it, had devoted hundreds of hours to playing it, were talking about how they would dream about it in sleep. I was perplexed: how can people be so taken with a game that was clearly not enjoyable? I was weaned on a diet of Uncharted and Fable 2; my hardest boss battles were in God of War games. I kept playing, more because of a lack of other things to do than any enjoyment. The deeper I delved into the castle, however, the more my thoughts changed. The mystery unwrapped itself so slowly and deliberately, the layers peeling off like some arcane oriental puzzle. The atmosphere was molasses-thick, never laying out an easy vista, but rather taking over the gamer’s mind with the intricacy and consistency of its level design, as well as the sheer physical sense of the enemies occupying the same tangible space as you. And this was still the first ‘level’. Eventually, after bloody-minded progress and countless f-bombs dropped at the screen, I reached the first boss, Phalanx. And then I died, over and over again. Phalanx was as far as I got in Demon’s Souls – I just wasn’t prepared to play the whole game with my nerves jangling and tension at fever pitch. But the one abiding memory I have of the game is the pure euphoria of beating Phalanx, the incredulous feeling that I had overcome a foe that seemed so insurmountable, after the arduous, unnumbered slog through the damned skeleton army. THAT was an achievement.
Fast forward 4 years: I am playing Dark Souls on the PC, more out of curiosity with a game everybody is raving about than any serious desire to experience it fully. Again, the first ‘level’ is driving me crazy: the most basic undead enemies are dispatching me with the ease and frequency I find unacceptably dispiriting. I plow on: I start to learn the layout of the environment, the movesets of the enemies, when to attack and when not to, and so on. I even take care of the black knight that’s standing sentinel in a hidden corridor, with first-rate cowardly tactics. I finally reach the Taurus Demon, and am promptly killed. I try again, but as in Demon’s Souls that means having to go through the whole level again. After countless deaths and my Xbox controller in danger of disintegrating, I finally slay the Taurus Demon. But after crossing the battlements of the castle and reaching the next area, I see an armoured warthog waiting for me and decide to give up. The prospect of more of these fights just doesn’t appeal, and like the first Souls game I only experience the very beginnings of what has gone on to be universally recognized as a masterpiece.
I’m happy to say that I not only persevered for longer in Bloodborne, but have actually played the whole game and beaten the final boss(es) to see the true ending. From the start it becomes apparent that this feels very different to the previous Souls games. The moment I faced off against the werewolf thing in the clinic with no weapons, I realized that my character is far more nimble and perceptive than the wet blankets that are its predecessors. I almost killed the werewolf with bare hands before being sent shuffling to the Hunter’s Dream, a peaceful hub where you can level up your character and your weapons. Now armed with an impossibly cool-looking retractable saw and a pistol, I challenge the werewolf again and dispatch him first time with a panache that was never part of the brochure in my past trips to From Software’s worlds. I step out into Yharnam proper with a vague mission to ‘end the nightmare’ or some such (though there’s apparently an extremely interesting ‘Lovecraft meets Berserk‘ story to be found in the margins).
Bloodborne is still a hard game, but there are certain concessions made to the player which make it a much more inviting experience to begin with. You move faster; you can reclaim lost health with successful return hits; your main weapon has two modes which can combine to increase its range and damage; and when locked onto the enemy you can dash sideways which will evade hostile strikes and give you room to launch a flurry of counterattacks. This last feature in particular can make you feel like a truly skilled warrior and turns each fight into a consistently exhilarating experience. These abilities are there with you from the very first fight to the very last, and more to the point, are equally useful throughout the game. The combat mechanics, needless to say, are almost always logical and never less than a pleasure to use. Bloodborne doesn’t discriminate between the weakest minions and the mightiest bosses: they can all deal significant damage and force you to pay attention and stay on your toes. Even deep into the latter stages of the game I died at the hands of run-of-the-mill foes because I became complacent and tried to play like I was Kratos. Every encounter is full of danger and tension, and given what’s at stake in the event of death is having to trek a long way from your last lit lamp there’s added spice to the fights and greater elation when you come out on top.
What makes these battles worth fighting, and what makes progress feel imperative despite the repeated punishments, is the sprawling world of Yharnam. An ultra-oppressive, nightmarish exaggeration of Victorian London that feels like Jack the Ripper would just be one of the inhabitants, Yharnam is compelling and curiosity-inducing like few other game worlds. Streets are paved with sickly glistening cobblestones and lined with destructible coffins and body bags, while claw-like spires frame imposing domes on ghastly structures of impossible size. Narrow, crumbling paths open out to cavernous cathedrals, elaborate castle ramparts hide entrances to forbidden upper layers, and grand stone bridges seductively suggest new obscene dangers – and opportunities – beyond. Later environments become even more atmospheric, with Byrgenwerth and its moonlit lake a particularly moody (if curiously curtailed) highlight. The consistency and integrity of level design which run through the whole game are nothing less than exemplary. Ico is a clear and abiding influence (something acknowledged by creator Hidetaka Miyazaki): areas are ingeniously interlinked, later paths lead to opening doors which were locked earlier, and despite From’s reputation Bloodborne always rewards hard and sustained progress with shortcuts back to the nearest lamp so that needlessly repetitive gameplay is kept to a minimum. This, together with the ability to upgrade your character with the amount of ‘blood echoes’ you earn through killing enemies, creates a delicious balance – between the risk of death and losing all your hard-earned blood echoes and progressing just a little further to activate the shortcut.
Making progress in Bloodborne, though, is not a simple matter. Especially in the early goings enemies take multiple hits to go down and tend to gang up on you if you don’t crowd-control with awareness. You rarely feel totally helpless, which is one of the game’s strengths, but you do have to be on your better form more often than not. You run the gauntlet from simple rake-wielding peasants and annoying hounds to hulking behemoths capable of eradicating your health bar in a couple of hits. They all have distinctive attack patterns and movement speeds, making every encounter a trial of timing and on-the-spot strategizing. You then graduate to facing off against hardier and more complex foes: teams of cloaked assassins, each with different attack patterns and hit ranges; Lovecraftian monstrosities who eat up your health just by being in their field of vision; snakes that burst from their hosts’ heads a la Dead Space, but which attack with shocking ferocity very much unlike the plodding necromorphs. The bosses in Bloodborne, meanwhile, tend to split into two camps: massive and terrifying beasts with slow(er) speed and long reach, and fallen hunters who can move quickly and dash, and pretty much fight just like you – with retractable main weapons and gunshots from distance. While fights with the former types present an awesome sight and provide you with considerable sense of accomplishment upon victory, it’s the struggle with the hunter foes that are the truly exciting experience to be had in Bloodborne. It can get dizzyingly fast and unusually cerebral: since the essential characteristics are so similar and both of you can dash out of hits, a fight with other hunters can be exquisitely tense exchange of attacks, counterattacks and counter-counterattacks. Even better, once you defeat a hunter you gain the ability to buy the weapons they used, and some of them are real pleasures to wield.
Bloodborne‘s intricate level design, the consistent satisfaction its combat mechanics yield, and above all its intimidating difficulty mean that you tend to repeat each section multiple times. Enemy placements always remain the same, so after a few run-throughs you memorize where and when attacks come, where to go and which lever to pull. The whole experience quickly becomes rather hypnotic, as you control your character almost automatically and learn how to expertly speedrun through a level without consciously realizing that you are getting better and more potent. The experience is very much akin to what Bill Murray goes through in Groundhog Day or more recently Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow: your death is a near and regular certainty, but while the world and its occupants remain the same and go about their business in the same predetermined manner, you change. You learn a little more about the environment, you suss out the patterns of enemies a little better, and you get a little wiser and stronger. Eventually you become good enough to make a breakthrough, and then you push on until you light the next lamp, from which you repeat the cycle. It’s a difficult, maddening, intoxicating ritual.
If there’s a flaw to be found in Bloodborne, it’s that the game paradoxically becomes easier as you get further into it. The game strongly motivates you to get good and powerful so that you will gladly grind for blood echoes to level up. You also come across numerous blood stone shards which upgrade your weapons. A reasonably diligent player will have become strong enough and skilled enough from a certain point onwards to challenge and beat the later bosses after only a few tries (sometimes even on the first go), despite the fact that they are stronger and have much more varied attack patterns than the ones you run into in the early stages (and no, this wasn’t due to the boss memory bug). The third boss I fought, Blood-starved Beast, was so teeth-gnashingly difficult that I came perilously close to stabbing out my eyes with the blunt end of Dualshock 4, but after that I never had too much problem with bosses even though they were more interesting and intimidating. While this makes you feel pleasingly overpowered like a Super Saiyan, it does take away some of the sheer bloody-minded sense of achievement of earlier. Another issue is that the heart-in-mouth combat strategies get thrown out of the window, as you become strong enough to just sit right next to some of the bigger bosses and hack away, knowing that any damage you take will be replenished with your attacks and your blows are potent enough to fell the bosses sooner rather than later.
These, however, are issues that other games would kill to have. Right up to the end credits Bloodborne sustains its dark, twisted, melancholic power. I now understand what the fuss was about with the Souls games. Bloodborne is a stone-cold masterpiece, a game so rich in atmosphere and so deep in gameplay that most others pale into triviality. It’s a perfect blend of Lovecraftian themes, Ico‘s level design ethos, the heart-pounding thrill of Ninja Gaiden‘s best fights, and the addictive stat growth of JRPGs from the 1990s. For many people, Bloodborne is the first vital exclusive for PS4; for some, it’s the only one they will need for a long time.