Seek Paleblood to transcend the hunt
Regular listeners to our podcast will probably know I have a certain reputation around NGB Towers. No, not the one where I’m a mad Nintendo fanboy (look, I like a good Mario and Zelda – who doesn’t?) but the one where I have a strong love for FromSoftware’s SoulsBorne series, despite that completely flying in the face of popular opinion around these parts. Opinions, amirite? Well, consider this “Games of the Generation” article my opinion on why SoulsBorne games get an unfair rap from the gaming community and why Bloodborne itself is one of the finest console exclusives of this generation.
“A Hunter must hunt.” – Eileen the Crow
I didn’t always like these games, you know. When Demon’s Souls hit PS Plus I jumped in feet first, having heard many good things about it. I bounced off – hard. This game was difficult! Where were my respawn points, why couldn’t I damage enemies when I wanted to and why the hell couldn’t I even reach the boss in the first area?? Dark Souls came along and I thought I’d give that a go; it was cheap on Steam and I had a friend who was willing to help guide me through. I made it to the Taurus Demon before I gave up. So I left this series, thinking it wasn’t for me.
And then Bloodborne came along.
At first I wasn’t sure about Bloodborne. I played it a bit at EGX before it launched and, while the atmosphere had me intrigued, I thought it felt far too close to those previous Souls experiences for my liking. So I left it alone. And then I started reading more about it. About the story, the influences, the fact that it took a more aggressive and accessible tact than the previous games From had made. The GotY edition came out and I thought “sure, why not”. It was an epiphany.
It’s easy to see why people don’t like these games looking back at my own experiences. They’re esoteric, often making the player feel like the reason they’re failing all the time is that either the mechanics are broken, or that they’re being obtuse. But when Bloodborne clicked for me, perhaps after my sixth attempt at the large town square full of enemies early in the game, I realised that these games aren’t meant to be played akin to something like Devil May Cry, or more forgiving action RPG fare such as The Elder Scrolls games; at that point Bloodborne felt more like a puzzle, something to take slow and steady rather than rush, to observe how the game world exists around me and how it reacts to my every move. I decided to pay attention to when enemies attack – what patterns did they have, what were the tells, what moves could I stagger them out of and what moves should I be avoiding lest I get staggered myself or even one shot killed. I started looking for shortcuts and hidden items, started to understand how the gun worked to parry enemies out of attacks, how to farm for healing items and ammo. It clicked, just like that. And just like that I realised what I’d been missing from the previous games.
“Beasts all over the shop… You’ll be one of them, sooner or later…” – Father Gascoigne
Bloodborne has a tutorial, just as the Dark and Demon’s souls games had before it, but this is largely designed to show you the basic controls and concepts. You have to learn the rest for yourself. Feel like it’s unfair your start without a weapon? Talk to the messengers when you die (honestly, I didn’t realise how many people missed this part!) Struggling with a particular group of enemies? Try finding another route round, or even try rolling a character with different stats if you’re early enough in the game. These are RPG’s which present the player with many many options; some of these options could potentially stymie beginners, some may not be so obvious without experimentation, but these are games that almost demand to be played over and over again.
Of course, the best way to enjoy these games is always with others, be they friends or rando’s. Bloodborne builds on the traditional Dark Souls summon and invasion system in its own way, perhaps a little too obscurely, but certainly in a fashion that fits its world. Not only is playing multiplayer a great way to observe how others tackle challenges, it’s also a brilliant way to get help with tricky bosses and areas or even help others yourself. There’s also the intense sense of community you find as you play with others and turn to YouTube for play-throughs and build ideas. Yes, I know that SoulsBorne has a somewhat toxic reputation in its community of “git gud” but that has largely dissipated over the years as the more “elite” gamers have fallen off. Sure, you’ll still get dickhead invaders who are running vastly overpowered builds, but there’s also a sense of players wanting to help. Being on the side of a helper, identifying a player who is perhaps struggling with certain mechanics and using the games built in emote system to teach them how to overcome odds is a rewarding experience in itself and while the online activity has certainly waned as the game has aged, you’ll still find regular community events organised on Reddit, and the peer to peer passworded system allows players to easily connect to their friends whenever they want.
It doesn’t hurt that Bloodborne still looks fantastic, five years after its initial release. The cyclopian spires of Yharnam, the dark and twisted roots of the Forbidden Woods and the decaying streets of Yahar’gul all pop from screens with a consistent design that evolves as the player progresses through the story, with certain events triggering changes in the world that fits in with the myths producer Hidetaka Miyazaki has crafted. Okay, so there are moments that show the games age, from the uneven frame rate to the lack of anti-aliasing in some areas, but the game world still pops with life. And even through it’s still a far more linear game than the original Dark Souls, it’s probably the game that’s come closest to creating the idea of an interconnected world that papa Souls introduced, with paths leading back to previous areas and key landmarks visible from other parts of the map. All of this just adds up to the key reason why Bloodborne stands out for me as one of the most important releases of this generation – the story.
“Ahh, Kos, or some say Kosm… Do you hear our prayers?” – Micolash
“But Andrew!” I hear you cry, “Souls games have such obscure stories! I don’t want to read item descriptions to figure out what’s going on!” Well, yes, you snarky ass, that’s still quite true. These worlds thrive on being as esoteric as possible, forcing the player to dig deep into both the lore that’s presented to them as well as how the world behaves around them, paying attention to seemingly meaningless detail to draw conclusions as to what is going on and why. But then, that’s a traditional story telling method for visual medium – show don’t tell – and Bloodborne mixes this with the written tradition of providing depth through prose to create a rich world that shows all its influences proudly on its sleeve.
On the surface, the story of Yharnam is one of traditional gothic horror. Here is a city which is plagued by monsters – zombies, vampires and werewolves all roam the streets and every evening a hunt takes place with “Hunters” stalking the alleyways and squares, murdering any deviants they come across to cleanse the blood of the population from its curses. But the player is a new Hunter, from outside of Yharnam, tasked with finding the secret of the “pale blood”, something that can uncover the truth behind these cursed souls. As the story progresses, Miyazaki throws the world wide open to tell a story of not simply gothic horror, but of cosmic and surrealist horror as well, drawing from the likes of H.P. Lovecraft in addition to those of Stoker and Shelley. The player uncovers a disturbing tale of blood rituals, of research by a nearby university into cosmic entities that has welcomed something horrifying into the world, of creeping, overwhelming insanity and a madness that is tied into the reproduction of offspring from dark and unwelcoming dimensions.
It’s a heady mix, and not only does Miyazaki play into the world building with these themes, they also instruct some of the more intricate mechanics of the game, particularly the “insight” system. As the player encounters more horrifying enemies and areas, they build insight. The higher their insight, the more horrors they will bear witness to in the world and the more damage certain enemies will be able to deal them. Insight, however, can be spent in a special shop to acquire rare materials and items, as well as being the key currency to summoning for multiplayer. So the in-universe explanation for this is finding a balance between sanity and madness to overcome the world, a direct lift from Lovecraftian mythos in a way that even Lovecraft adaptations have struggled to achieve.
But then it’s world building that I feel stands FromSoftware’s games apart from most others and even adds another layer of multiplayer into the mix. Not only are people playing together, they are also exploring together, digging into the item descriptions, playing archeologist with the world at large and gradually piecing together not only the aspects of the story that outwardly present themselves to the player, but also those intriguing details that lie underneath, that instruct a much wider world and, in the case of Bloodborne, a far more horrifying one.
“Farewell, good Hunter. May you find your worth in the waking world.” – The Plain Doll
8 months after its release, Bloodborne received DLC in the form of The Old Hunters, a brutally challenging side quest that introduced even more items, enemies and lore into the world. It remains an essential part of the experience but is unfortunately not frequently distributed with the game in its releases on PS Plus and PS Now. Following the release of this, FromSoftware moved onto the development of Dark Souls 3 and Sekiro, with the announcement of Elden Ring soon after the release of the latter. Bloodborne remains a complete package, a static moment in time that exists on a closed system. There’s no sequel and the nature of its platform means that there are no mods available as there are with the PC releases of From’s other titles. Bloodborne simply is and always shall be.
I credit Bloodborne with changing the way I look at playing videogames, for introducing me to a sub genre that I had all but rejected. It gave me knowledge and skills that I could go back and apply to those Souls games I’d thought were not for me, to make progress in them and to make me realise that this was tantamount to my gaming utopia. Here was a multiplayer game I could enjoy without being lambasted by obnoxious kids over voice chat, an experience that I could revisit time and again and a deep, rich lore that I could pore over through the various videos and articles available online. I felt like I was both discovering something for myself as well as reading the accounts of those who had travelled the world before me and it was wonderful.
As gaming evolves into the next generation, more and more titles have taken influence over Hidetaka Miyazaki’s revolutions in game design, but for me Bloodborne stands as the most pure example of this formula. An action RPG distilling some of the finest concepts of horror literature into a fully formed world that has the capacity to both enthrall and terrify with its iconography and concepts. Despite its technical issues it is as close to a perfect game as I have found in many, many years and is an absolute stand out not only in the PlayStation 4 library, but in this generations game releases in general.
An absolutely essential game; play it, and fear the Old Blood…