For years, From Software remained an obscure gaming company for North American gamers. Rather than any large following, they garnered a small cult in the states, primarily for their Armored Core mecha combat series. But as far back as the PlayStation 3 era, the company tried a new game, themed after dark medieval fantasy. It was call Demon’s Souls. And even then, gamers who discovered it claimed it was something special.
Demon’s Soul was later reborn as the Dark Souls series and grew in reputation, thanks to its followers and appreciative critics. The second installment of this series was acknowledged by the mainstream, but it was Dark Souls III that finally blew the lid on its popularity and launched From Software into the spotlight. Between the second and third games however, was an obscure title, a PlayStation 4 exclusive that took the Dark Souls spiritual essence and gave it new flesh, new meaning.
That game is Bloodborne.
Set in the cursed city of Yharnam, the player begins the game on the operating table. Suffering from a condition to which there are no alternatives, they are given a transfusion of Paleblood that cures their condition. But after sealing a contract, they are forced to serve the Hunter’s Dream, slaying beasts to continue the blood ministrations and unraveling the mysteries of a town gone beyond mad.
Exploration makes up half the game play and ultimately drives the tale forward. The levels are cleverly designed, with expansive secrets that often lie right before your eyes, lost in the myriad details of beautifully carved statues and fountains, piles of refuse and garbage, rocks and bodies. From the city streets plagued with corrupted hunters to the witch-infested woods and the distant, winding mountains, each area is an enigmatic circle in which progression rests on unlocking shortcuts and discovering new paths back to lantern checkpoints. But for every carcass looted, every chest opened and each shadow dispelled by the hunter’s torch, there awaits a fresh foe.
The monsters of Bloodborne are an eclectic mixture of the familiar and the new. Twisted hunters and dull-witted ogres make up the earliest types, but exploration suggests that they are undergoing transformations of their own, evolving into long-limbed werewolves and beings outfitted with thick plate armor and executioner’s axes respectively.
But these are merely the beasts of flesh and blood. Further on awaits enemies more extraterrestrial, more other worldly than previously seen. Director Hidetaka Miyazaki has borrowed of the Cthulhu mythos with foes like the Brainsucker and the Mi-Go-esque Gardens of Eyes. And waiting behind their ranks are the massive, cosmic terrors of the Great Ones.
Combat is naturally the hallmark of the Dark Souls series, and this remains true of Bloodborne. Fast-paced and vengeful, fights are a dance that reward hunters for knowing their enemies’ move sets and patterns, and harshly punishes those who do not. A hunter’s gear is unique as they utilize both a gunpowder firearm, useful for stunning or finishing off weakened foes, and a transforming trick weapon that dramatically changes combat styles. Hand axes become full halberds, walking canes extend into bladed whips. Each weapon is as stylish as it is functional. And if players struggle they can invest Blood Echoes, the game’s currency, into improving their base statistics.
This last point also adds to the game’s horror. Death drops all Blood Echoes, and the hunter has a single new life to reclaim them before they’re lost forever. Since exploration yields a variety of lethal traps and discovery of a new fiend classification punishes us for ignorance, players must be willing to accept losses in order to advance and push on. While death is never the end, it is still rightly feared.
Bloodborne is the Castlevania gamers have waited years to realize. A masterpiece of imagination stoking story threads, a rich combat system and the most beautifully environments that this 20-year gamer has ever seen. This gamer must also confess a fear that, given console gaming’s tendency to leave games in the past, years may yet bury this treasure.
So taste it while it lives, for there are no guarantees of an afterlife.