I never got through more than an hour of Dark Souls, the beloved and famously difficult predecessor to Bloodborne. Among other things, I was intimidated by what felt like dozens of initial choices and mechanics, all in a world that felt strangely empty. I just didn’t get it. So I started Bloodborne in hopes that I could experience some of the magic that other people seemed to see in Dark Souls.
I know I’m late to the party here, and everything I want to say about Bloodborne has probably been written in some form about Dark Souls. It’s a meticulously detailed fantasy landscape where a single misstep can destroy you. It’s a paragon of environmental storytelling, with a narrative delivered through things as subtle as the name of an enemy or the description of an item. It turns what could be a cliche quasi-Victorian landscape into something utterly bizarre, from the city of Yharnam’s endless tide of crow-headed dogs and hunchbacked wolf-men to the fact that everything important requires — as the name suggests — blood rocks or blood echoes or fermented blood or some other nonsensical blood-related material.
You can rarely defeat an enemy, only learn its patterns
Bloodborne is a satisfying exploration of repetition, thematically and mechanically. It’s a single, endless night of executions where nothing can truly die, since your own death resurrects nearly every enemy in the world. The idea of a place stuck in time is a classic fantasy convention, but it’s especially effective here because you spend so much time enacting the cycle yourself. You’ll become intimately familiar with every creature you kill, even when they’re visually interchangeable — watching for the one that plays dead next to a carriage, or the one always waiting to jump out from behind a wall. There’s no trick for permanently getting rid of them, just a methodical process of learning and leveling up as you traverse the city over and over. After fighting them enough times, once-formidable enemies start to feel pitiable, incapable of the same evolution you’ve made.
Yharnam’s inertia makes every change you can effect seem monumental. Exploring the world doesn’t just mean finding new territory, but also looping back constantly, opening shortcuts to your starting point. This is another familiar conceit, but instead of simply being an added convenience, an opened door is one of the few things that your death won’t reset. Boss fights reward you with a clear progression of time, which feels almost more meaningful than any tangible benefit.
It’s hard to say precisely what made Bloodborne more approachable for me than Dark Souls, but it might be a combination of the beautifully rendered grotesquerie and the fact that Bloodborne didn’t make me feel like I was irrevocably setting my destiny with a particular class of character. Your weapon and skill choices matter, but there’s always a feeling that you could switch paths if you truly wanted. Despite From Software’s reputation for unrelenting sadism, the game has few moments that feel absolutely insurmountable; you can always slink back and collect souls — sorry, blood echoes — until you’re strong and fast enough.
Bloodborne's world produces more theories than it ever could coherent answers
While it doesn’t affect the narrative at all, any equipment you choose has a history and some kind of factional affiliation — making your character an aesthete attempting to stay above the beasts she’s killing, or a brutally effective executioner. (I was the latter, ignoring all manner of mystical weaponry in favor of huge, blunt sweeps with a progressively deadlier axe.) All the pieces of Bloodborne hang together loosely like this, building a puzzle box of a world that produces more theories than it ever could coherent answers. One character statistic was so mysterious that it took weeks for players to determine whether or not the game let you turn into a literal werewolf. Browsing the Bloodborne Wiki’s entries on vanquished foes became an integral part of my gaming experience, not because I needed answers but because I wanted to see how deep the speculation would go.
Bloodborne isn’t the kind of thing I can spend dozens of hours relaxing in — that honor goes to Fallout 4 in 2015 — or a tightly crafted piece of fiction, like this year’s truly fantastic Soma. But it’s an open-world game with direction, a hard game that’s accessible, and a narrative game that balances exposition and play. In a good year for video gaming, it still stands out as the rare piece of work that feels truly, perfectly well composed.