Playing Bloodborne is like smashing your head against a wall, a very gory, slimy wall, again and again and again and again. It’s hard. You cry out like a Canadian curler on the ice screaming to the heavens, “HARRRRRRRRRRD.” Fighting a Bloodborne boss is your own private Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise learning by dying over and over, you as Tom in a blood-slicked waistcoat, axe in hand, repeatedly crushed and beaten and mauled. But sooner or later, mostly later, the patterns click, strategies emerge, and at last you vanquish the horrific beast before you, gouts of blood splaying through the air. When it happens, the feeling is pure ELATION. The sheer dopamine rush of joy when you pound that fucker out of existence is immense, a wave of happiness bigger than Kanye’s ego suffusing your entire being. And then it’s onto the next and the gruelling hunt begins anew. Exclusive to the PS4, Bloodborne is one of the best games of the year. But for the horror-loving gamer on your Christmas list, is it all masochism?
Bloodborne‘s story revolves around the grim Victorian town of Yharnam and its ghastly inhabitants. You are the Hunter, and you awaken in the mysterious town on the night of The Hunt. The town’s denizens are shut up inside their homes, a strange bloodborne illness afflicting the people you encounter on the street. The disease transforms them into beasts, and your job is to hunt them down, eradicating the illness infecting the gloomy city. As you hunt for the paleblood, perhaps a cure for the disease, you uncover the evil secrets that haunt Yharnam, and the dark Lovecraftian entities that blight its soul. The design is stunning, dank and suffused with palpable dread. It’s gross and unsettling and beautiful in the purity of its vision. Uncovering the twisted history of Yharnam is fascinating, as you master the quirks of Bloodborne‘s difficult combat.
Bloodborne director Hidetaka Miyazaki is renowned for his brutal, old school gaming sensibility. His Dark Souls games are similarly crushing, plunging players into forbidding worlds with virtually no guidance, few checkpoints and relentlessly hostile and challenging enemies. Just like the old quarter gobblers in the 80s arcades, in a Miyazaki game you’re going to die a lot before you figure it out. No tutorials, no friendly walkthroughs, just bam welcome to destruction and good luck kiddo. Playing a Miyazaki game requires a spirit of indefatigable exploration, some pretty deft joystickery, and yeah a lot of looking shit up on the internet. Any time you hit one of the many sticking points in the game, YouTube is your friend. The Dark Souls games rewarded cautious play, turtling back whenever you encountered a tough foe, going for quick strikes and then reverting to the defensive. Bloodborne is deliberately designed to force players out of that comfort zone, to drive you to the offensive. As you hack and slash at your enemies, you inevitably take damage. A line in your health bar appears somewhere above the point where you’ve lost health, showing you could win some of your lost health back. If you strike back quickly, your health bar refills to that line. It’s a clever system, rewarding you for getting up close and deadly, taking punishment and dishing it right back again. It’s also completely counter to how most people play these kinds of games, so you’ll likely find yourself having to rewire some of your typical gaming habits.
On the upside, Miyazaki gives you some very cool weapons to slice and dice your foes. The saw cleaver is among the most unique, but there’s a bunch of great ones, including the hunter axe, the sword/maul called the kirkhammer, and the threaded cane. These trick melee weapons have two states, their regular right-handed attack, and an extended two-handed attack with greater reach and power. Each state allows for unique strategies, and you can switch between them on the fly. You also have a weapon in your left hand, such as a blunderbuss shotgun or a cocked pistol, used to stun enemies before you move in for a deadly critical melee kill. The setup makes for very cool, fluid combat, and it’s mesmerizing as you extend, slash, sidestep and roll. You pick up other items as you explore like molotov cocktails and urns of oil. They’re super helpful fighting nastier bad guys and bosses. As you kill enemies you’ll collect their blood echoes, which can be used to level your character up and buy/upgrade weapons in a strange place called the Hunter’s Dream. You can only visit the Hunter’s Dream via checkpoints at lanterns you activate in the town, but they’re few and far between. Every time you use a lantern to visit the Hunter’s Dream, you revive all the monsters you’d killed before. So while upgrading is very necessary, you’re always mindful of the difficulties should you have to backtrack. Whenever you die, you lose the blood echoes you’ve collected, but you can go back to where you died and reclaim them. They might be lying on a pool on the ground, or they might have been sucked up by an enemy you’ll have to kill in order to get the echoes back. As you explore the city, you open up short-cuts that let you skirt the foes you’ve faced before, and the city itself changes as the evening’s nightmare unfolds.
Bloodborne is one of the most unique games I’ve ever played. Publisher From Software recently released the expansion The Old Hunters, adding a new playable storyline delving into Yharnam’s ugly origins. That will set you back an extra $19.99. If you’re into gothic horror, H.P. Lovecraft, and bracingly difficult gameplay, you will never find a better game. It’s definitely one of the creepiest and most violent games out there. It’s rated Mature 17+, so keep that in mind if it’s going under the tree. Just remember when the going gets tough, throwing that controller might feel good for a millisecond, until it hits the TV. Play safe, and have yourself a scary little Christmas!