Bloodborne is horrible. Decaying bodies in rotten sacks litter its streets, pieces of bone and smeared blood are their set dressings. But despite the vile backdrop, Bloodborne is beautiful, a warped vision of London with the kind of sunsets and imposing architecture the real place lacks.
Bloodborne's enemies are lumpen, misshapen monstrosities, often barely able to drag their deformed bodies along. Dead-eyed crows skid across cobblestones on their bellies, bandage-wrapped ogres that look like roid-obsessed mummies almost topple over as they try to hit you with a brick. But for all their ungainliness, Bloodborne's enemies are perfectly balanced, tough but relentlessly fair in the way they force the player to move, adapt, and win.
From Software's action-RPG is a game of contradictions. It's harsh, and obtuse, and sometimes so upsettingly cruel that I wanted to eject the disc and throw it from my apartment window, to where it could never hurt me again — but I think everyone should play it. It's made by a Japanese company, but draws mostly on European mythologies. It calls you a hunter but makes you feel hunted. It was masterminded by a man without a dream who "wasn't ambitious," yet rose to become company president.
It gives you almost nothing, but it's more rewarding than any other video game I've played.
Born from the blood
More rewarding than any other video game, bar two. Bloodborne is the spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, sharing the same creative lead in Hidetaka Miyazaki. Like those games, the player is an interloper in a vast, dark, unwelcoming land, and like those games, the player has to work out how to survive — let alone succeed — in a world that wants them dead and won’t readily explain why. Like the Souls games, Bloodborne is unrelentingly difficult, and like the Souls games, you will die a lot.
All three games share similar controls, but guns are fresh additions to From Software’s newest release. Compared to the serrated and slicing melee weapons you can wield, firearms aren’t particularly lethal, instead used primarily to parry incoming attacks and interrupt enemies as they wind up for a strike. Hit a foe with buckshot just as they’re about to embed an axe in your arm, and you’ll knock them to their knees. Sidle up to them as they catch their breath, and you’ll be able to perform a "visceral attack" — plunge your sword arm into your foe and rip, pulling entrails and pints of blood from a hole in their belly.
If you get hit, you lose health. Human instinct is to retreat to lick your wounds, but Bloodborne wants the opposite. Strike back, hit an enemy in the moments after being hit, and you’ll recover a portion of your health. Lead designer Hidetaka Miyazaki explained the new mechanic before Bloodborne’s launch, arguing that the inclusion of shields in Dark and Demon’s Souls made players too passive, too content to hide behind slabs of wood and metal. Bloodborne strips you of this final safety blanket, forcing you to confront foes head-on, another contradiction as attack becomes the only sure form of defense.
Bloodborne is a constant battle of risk versus reward
Bloodborne’s combat is a tactical and responsive game of risk versus reward. Death isn’t simply a minor inconvenience and another loading screen: die, and every enemy you’ve just killed springs back to life. Die, and you lose all the currency you’ve worked so hard to pick up. Bloodborne calls this currency blood echoes, while the Souls games appropriately call them souls, but both can be spent on making your character and weapons stronger. Blood echoes (and souls before them) are near-vital to finish the game, but can only be earned by killing enemies. They're recoverable only by returning to the scene of your murder, or by dispatching the same lethal justice to an enemy who’s happened to pick up your stash.
The further you push out from the bonfires and lanterns that mark the games’ only pinpricks of safety, the more precious cargo you carry. Each room becomes an internal four-way negotiation between sensible, confident, rash, and nervous parts of your brain. I have the health items to recover if I take an unexpected hit, but can I afford to lose 40,000 blood echoes right now that I could use to make myself more powerful? I’m good enough to take down everything I’ve seen so far, but what the hell is that huge thing moving in the dark just over there?
Bloodborne, and the Souls games before it, subverts accepted game design philosophies. The player should be directed, helped, shown where to go by flashing arrows or quest markers or something. Bloodborne gives you nothing but the city and warren of routes through it, each one patrolled by increasingly more imposing beasts. Dark Souls offered only slightly more: the directive to ring two bells, one above, and one below.
But another contradiction. Bloodborne breaks the rules of modern game design that say the player should never be confused about what to do next, but epitomizes perhaps the most important game design philosophy: show, don't tell.
You're a hunter, sent into the blighted city of Yharnam to kill beasts. You've come on the night of the hunt, but you don't really know what the hunt is. Your job title suggests you regularly engage in the act of hunting, but if that's the case, then why are roving gangs of tall men with decomposing faces and tufts of straw-like hair chasing you? And why are the majority of the apparently healthy people left in the city inside their homes, their doors locked tight and their eyes shifty on the friends and family locked inside with them?
You'll find these people occasionally. Glowing windows indicate occupied houses, but you'll find very little comfort in a friendly ear here. Some offer words of advice, but most Yharnam inhabitants usually just laugh at the player's predicament. Why are you here, in this forsaken place at this most inopportune time? Don't you know it's the night of the hunt? You'll never make it out alive.
Nuggets of information about the world can be extracted in conversation with some of these unfortunates, but it's their actions that tell the player more about the world. I found a man on a rooftop hunched over a corpse, his torso bare and his head covered in blood-soaked rags. He sprung up when I spoke to him, startled, and asked for a safe haven he could rest at. I knew of two — a church watched over by a legless, shriveled woman in a red rag dress, and a clinic run by an unseen scientist with a penchant for sinister cackling. Which one would he be safe at? Do I even want him to be safe?
Dark Souls pulls similar tricks. A man in gleaming golden armor is locked up in a prison. After hours of sallow-skinned zombies and hulking, ragged knights trying to kill you, a friendly face is a light in the dark. But perhaps he's in a cell for a reason? A giant snake with the face of a goofy Chinese dragon rises up from an impossibly deep pit and asks you to kill the closest thing the world has to God. Another snake appears with a different proposal: become God.
The player is a pawn to both. There are no right answers to these decisions, no "good" or "bad" endings, just decisions and their outcomes. Bloodborne autosaves constantly, forcing the player to live with the consequences of their actions, be they the result of gut feeling or careful deduction.
Observe the worlds of these games closely, read the short item descriptions in the menus, and you'll be able to piece the history together. In Bloodborne's Yharnam, a girl behind a window asks where her parents are. Her mother, she says, is recognizable by a distinctive piece of jewelry. Hours later, the girl almost forgotten, I fought another hunter driven to beasthood by whatever plague afflicted the city. He ducked and weaved around me, firing blunderbuss shots to stun me just as I'd done to Yharnam's other beasts, dodging my own strikes with rolls and leaps. Eventually I killed him and found a body in the graveyard he called home — a woman, carrying a red brooch.
Knowledge is power, and time spent in Bloodborne gives the knowledge to make the player feel powerful. The game is filled with secondary systems: runes that can be learned to score more blood echoes or carry more bullets, gems that can be inserted into weapons to make them stronger than before, chalices that can create randomized dungeons to keep the game replayable long after the main storyline is finished. Few of these are explicitly explained, but I started to understand how they worked through experimentation. I started to understand why I was there, making me feel at home in a city that wanted to kill me. By explaining little, Bloodborne, and the Souls games before it, made me want to learn a lot.
Dark Souls asks you to kill god, or become god
Much of this is thanks to the world Miyazaki has created. Where Demon's and Dark Souls' worlds were bleak, Bloodborne's Yharnam is cartoonishly grotesque, the kind of thing Tim Burton might produce if he grew up listening exclusively to Burzum. Underpinning the city is a Lovecraftian bedrock of old gods and hidden tombs in which witches and scientists mix and drink tainted blood to build inhuman oddities. It's a dark and fascinating setting that — in perhaps Bloodborne's most impressive feat — somehow makes werewolves scary again after the lycanthropic indignities of Twilight. Finish the story, an exercise that could easily take upwards of 50 hours, and players can start again in New Game+ mode, a more advanced challenge that makes enemies harder and reveals more about Yharnam's mysteries.
Or you can ignore the story altogether. Take it as suitably gothic window dressing and steam through the steampunk Yharnam in a dervish of blood and blades. Bloodborne's combat, faster than Dark and Demon's Souls, is sharp and nuanced enough to rival genre luminaries like Bayonetta and Devil May Cry. Weapons offer huge variety in their application, asking players to develop their own impromptu martial arts to suit their play style. The standard saw cleaver folds out into a scythe-like device for long-range duties; the Kirkhammer transforms from speedy silver sword to anvil-esque warhammer to finish opponents with overhead blows. The rifle spear and the stake driver are more exotic, combining gunpowder weaponry with old-fashioned sharp edges for two very different applications of violence.
The biggest stumbling block for first-time players of all three games is their difficulty. The first section of Bloodborne is a trial by fire, forcing players to trek through a gauntlet of enemies they'll kill, kill, and kill again to reach a boss who can erase the last 20 minutes of progress in a single swipe. It can feel like a hopeless endeavor — the boss is 20 feet tall, with claws as long as your cleaver — but if you need motivation, pause for a second, and you'll see you aren't alone.
All three games feature constant reminders that you are but one soul in thousands. Play Bloodborne in the standard online mode, and you'll see shimmering white figures fighting, resting, and dying as you have been. These are other players, appearing in your game as phantoms, giving ghostly versions of their real-time actions. Activate bloody marks on the floor, and you can watch these other players die, transparent red phantoms that spring from the ground to offer warnings from beyond the grave about traps and nearby enemies.
Certain items let you give these player-controlled phantoms corporeal bodies and pull them into your game. Ring Bloodborne's beckoning bell, and other players can be summoned to help you with tricky sections or bosses. But, because this is a game about contradiction, the sound also attracts the attention of a sinister bell-ringing woman, a malevolent figure that opens your version of the world up to invasion by human hunters with murder on their mind.
Even with a little help from your friends, Bloodborne's relentless darkness and death will be repellent to some. Miyazaki's games think nothing of dropping a log on your head, of sending you plunging through a trapdoor into a punji pit. Understanding comes through multiple deaths, a piece of empirically bad game design that nonetheless makes success, when it does come, all the sweeter.
Video games are a medium where the player is the de facto hero, messiah, and chosen one. Bloodborne trashes this idea and treats you like any one of its citizens, always inches from death. They're a medium where players are taken by the hand and led forward, helped up when they fall down. Bloodborne cuts that hand off at the wrist. If you succeed in the world, then it's only thanks to your tenacity, your skill, and your perseverance. If you do persevere with Bloodborne, play through the pain, the death, and the long load times; you'll find both its disgusting dark heart, and a beautifully rewarding game.
Bloodborne is out now on PlayStation 4.