There are certain games that are praised so universally that you can’t help but expect the world of them. I happened to buy two of them—Dark Souls and Bloodborne—on a whim based on this universality, figuring that I’d play through Dark Souls first to allow me to appreciate and assess the two games’ similarities and differences. After several hours of Dark Souls, however, I came to realize that it really wasn’t my type of game. Despite the incessant claims of its fairness I’d seen littered around the internet for years, I managed to kill a skeleton through a wall. Despite the gameplay being lauded to the point where many people would show up on forums to insist that X game and Y game copy Dark Souls’ allegedly sublime formula, I found it incredibly clunky, with a special call out going to the stupidity that is mapping center-camera and lock on to the same button and having the game decide which of the two you’re trying to do based on whether an enemy is nearby or not. Then there was stupidity like one of the items you can choose from in the beginning having an item description that’s patently untrue. How this hasn’t been patched out is beyond me. Eventually I realized that I wasn’t having fun, and fighting through a game for 10-20 hours in the hopes that it eventually “clicks” (as is said to happen after a groan-inducing period of not-fun) wasn’t something I was in the mood to do. Where I began expecting Dark Souls to pull me into Bloodborne, I was suddenly in a situation where I hoped the reverse would end up being the case.
First impressions and story stuff
Bloodborne clicked for me almost immediately, in contrast to the dozen or so hours required of new Dark Souls players. The controls took some getting used to at first, and the center-camera button ended up still being the same as the lock on button (so much rage), but I’m a sucker for steampunk, so the steampunk-and-werewolves aesthetic won me over almost immediately despite it becoming apparent mere minutes in that Bloodborne is just Dark Souls with a new coat of paint and faster, more offense-based combat. Ignoring the reused animations, similar character creator, identical “you died” message, and other vestigial Souls elements, I promptly chose an axe as my starter weapon—which later proved to be the right call given its versatility throughout the entire game—and began to carve my way through the city of Yharnam.
It was definitely challenging early on while I learned all the rules and quirks (like how my gun couldn’t hit an enemy a level below me for some reason, but they could shoot up), but that’s coming at the series as a complete outsider unfamiliar with the “correct” way of playing such a game. After a boss fight or two, I picked up on where the invincibility frames in the dodge animation were and had much more success from there. It began to dawn on me while playing, however, that my character had no story reason for continuing forward apart from it simply being where more content was. Bloodborne begins with an ominous-looking man in a wheelchair rambling on about “paleblood” and “blood ministration” and talk of you being an outsider.
What’s brought an outsider to this place, though? I’ve finished the game and received all three endings and I honestly still don’t know. How about the identity of ominous wheelchair guy (named “blood minister” in the credits)? Also never explored. In fact, you’ll never see or hear him outside of the very first cutscene, after which he disappears forever. This “lots of random things thrown at the wall to see what sticks” approach to storytelling is a recurring thing that pervades the game; Bloodborne technically has a plot in the same sense that a Michael Bay movie has a plot, with just enough details coming together toward the middle and end to give you a sense of the city’s history and the chain of events that’s necessitated the beast hunt that the playable character is technically a part of, but with many threads being left to dangle without resolution, weird little story quirks that don’t really fit together neatly into anything coherent enough to cause an “oh, I get it now” moment. Even the motivations of major characters are left uncertain, which is great if you want to fuel a year’s worth of online theories about how everything fits together, but it doesn’t make for anything resembling a good story. The entirety of the game is just too devoted to vagueness, hiding everything behind it so that the closest you can come to understanding the story is an intuitive belief that this-and-this was how those two characters really knew each other, or a firmly-held conviction that so-and-so wanted this-or-that and that’s what their faction of characters were really after. It’s wiki bait, pure and simple, a lot of buildup that never resolves into anything concrete enough to be fulfilling, even after reading the collected insights of hundreds of users online.
That being said…
The story may be vague and unfulfilling, but the atmosphere is absolutely fantastic. Walking the streets of Yharnam, fighting off mobs who can stun-lock you into a quick death if you’re not careful while fires blaze in the streets and the occasional resident taunts you from the relative safety of the indoors is a great early experience. It’s also incredibly lonely, with the rare friendly NPCs typically being out of the way and many being easily missable (Eileen the Crow comes immediately to mind). This loneliness continues even once you venture out beyond the streets to the more dilapidated Old Yharnam, the creepy Forbidden Woods where the steampunk vibe fades in favor of a Cthulhu-monster bent (something that somehow manages to mesh with everything that preceded it without being jarring), and even into a surprisingly pretty nightmare, broken up only by your visits to the Hunter’s Dream, a hub area that can be accessed from any lit lamp. Which are bonfires, basically. Since this place is connected to your lit lamps, you can teleport back to any you’ve used, making the game’s occasional backtracking much more bearable. The Hunter’s Dream also has Gehrman and The Doll, the former being a mysterious “friend to hunters” who offers you advice and disappears for a huge chunk of the game if you attack him (as I found out) and the latter being a soft-spoken living doll who comes to feel like your only real friend in the entire world. She makes for a great contrast, and since speaking to her is required to spend “blood echoes,” the currency with which you purchase items and level up your stats, you’re bound to see enough of her that you become strangely attached.
The gameplay is mostly solid, but the rules are rarely explained
Bloodborne hands you “trick weapons” to use against the many enemies you’ll face, with that just being a fancy way of saying that your possible weapons transform with a press of L1 into a different form. For the axe I leaned on for the majority of the game, this meant changing from a smaller hand axe to a two-handed monstrosity. Both have their pros and cons, of course, with the two-handed variant having better range, but requiring putting away your gun to use. The charge attacks of both forms are different, as well, with the one-handed version smashing an opponent down in place, while the two-handed axe’s charge attack flings enemies away and hits twice. When I later switched to an expensive sword-type weapon, my approach to gameplay had to evolve with it; in its untransformed state, it’s a simple sword that strikes fast but doesn’t have a lot of pushback, but once transformed, it turns into a behemoth every bit as powerful as it is slow. Those are just two weapons, too, with there being several other types that can be used over the course of the game, and that’s just talking about right-handed weapons. There’s also an equally impressive assortment of gun-type weapons for your character’s left hand, from shotguns to pistols to flamethrowers. Needless to say, there’s a lot of variety that allows you to find a setup that works for your unique play style, and I found Bloodborne’s approach much more intuitive than picking a weapon in Dark Souls.
That’s possibly the last time I’ll mention Bloodborne and “intuitive” in the same sentence, though, because despite the game taking pains to litter the Hunter’s Dream with notes that teach you how to do absurdly simple things like run and heal yourself with blood vials (basically, expendable Estus flasks that can be replenished by finding them on enemies or by buying them), it leaves you to figure out just about everything else for yourself. For example, my blood vials replenished automatically when I visited the Hunter’s Dream early in the game. Then all of a sudden they didn’t. Later, they did again. My notes around this period consisted of all-caps demands that the game makes up its mind already. Then it dawned on me: when my blood vials were full and I picked them up off of enemies, they weren’t just being discarded, but were actually being sent to storage, and when I would visit the Hunter’s Dream, the blood vials would automatically be put into my inventory unless I had none to draw from in storage. It seems so painfully obvious now, but it’s one of those things that I can’t remember ever being told about.
Insight is similarly vague. Described in-game (and even then, only if you look it up on the stat screen) as “depth of inhuman knowledge” with a mention that it’s needed to “ring [a] special bell, but induces frenzy,” I was completely and utterly lost when trying to figure it out: “So insight is ‘inhuman knowledge,’ but what does that even mean in the context of the game? What is frenzy? Should I be avoiding it, or is it and insight good?” I honestly only know the answers because of all the time I spent perusing wiki pages that do a far greater job explaining Bloodborne than the game itself does. As it turns out, insight has an effect on difficulty (lower insight = lower difficulty, basically) and allows you to see some hidden environmental details before their visibility is unlocked as part of the story. It can also be spent in the Hunter’s Dream to buy certain things. Where insight can be seen as a good or bad thing depending on circumstance, frenzy is all bad, with certain later-game enemies being incomprehensible to your character and driving them mad to the point where they lose a huge chunk of health once the frenzy bar is filled entirely. Of course, this is never explicitly stated in-game, so you can easily make it to the end of the game, only to suddenly come across a situation where you’re insta-killed by an enemy despite it being nowhere near you. It’s a huge failing of the game that so many of its mechanics have to be learned by scouring the internet rather than playing, especially given the fact that the concepts aren’t even particularly difficult to grasp. They’re just hidden, like so much else, behind the game’s incomprehensible vagueness.
Rough edges and inconsistency
I’ve already covered the lock on button being the same as the one that centers the camera, which is awkward, but I eventually got used to it. What’s truly stunning is that this isn’t the biggest problem with locking on to enemies, with the camera once you’ve locked on being far more of a problem. In fact, some boss fights are actually best completed without locking on at all because of how it whips the camera all around and makes it difficult to get a sense of your position in the world. If you back up against something, the camera swoops forward to zoom in on you, and this tends to happen a lot during boss fights against large enemies in smaller spaces (which there are just enough of to be a problem). This can lead to awkward moments where you try to dodge to the side, only to hit an obstacle you couldn’t see and find yourself in a vulnerable position because you were backed up trying to avoid an attack. That’s hardly the end of the problems, either, because when this happens, the frame rate has a bad habit of dropping down into slideshow territory and eating your controller inputs. Slowdown is a problem for Bloodborne in general when the action starts to ramp up, but for some reason it’s especially prone to happening when you’re backed up against something, and this can make a difficult boss fight all the more maddening.
But I grew up on old consoles; the Nintendo 64 Zelda games ran at something like 20 frames per second, so unlike some modern gamers who demand a 60 FPS minimum or else they’ll complain bitterly on the internet about headaches and eye strain, I rolled with it. What bothered me so much more was when the game refused to play by its own rules. In one section of the game, you have to make your way down a pit by falling to lower platforms and trying to land in certain areas so you don’t take too much fall damage. First off, I hate this with a fiery, biblical passion. Dark Souls had this, too, and these games simply aren’t platformers. They’re barely functional as one, so I wish they’d quit showing off their weakest element by putting in sections that amount to little more than platforming. It’s annoying, jumping doesn’t work very well (you have to run and then let go of the run button to quickly tap it, and even then you’ll only actually jump about 50% of the time—either that or roll to your death like an absolute idiot), and it makes certain sections of the game needlessly frustrating.
Bloodborne has a weird series of difficulty spikes that cause it to alternate between being maddeningly difficult and profoundly easy, though, and I found myself having a lot of trouble against enemies in a late-game area. Seeing a drop-off with what appeared to be platforms below, I relished the possibility of skipping past some troublesome enemies and decided to gently fall and use the lame platforming to my advantage. Instead, I slipped off like the area I intended to land on was covered in Vaseline and fell to my death. This wasn’t a rare one-off, because I tried it several times in the hopes that it’d eventually work given the right angle. It didn’t. Where earlier parts of the game were totally fine with platforming and even encouraged it, I was suddenly faced with a situation where attempting to engage in the very same type of platforming caused me to instantly fall to my death. There’s no logic to this, and the lack of anything resembling consistency is rage-inducing. It was around this time that I began to seriously consider giving up on the game, something that was incredibly appealing given the difficulty spike and the fact that I simply wasn’t having fun anymore.
One boss fight later, I came across Micolash and really did abandon the game. Not for good as originally planned, of course, because I’m far too stubborn and prideful to admit defeat, but I can’t stress enough just how much I hated the game at this point. Micolash is an annoying boss who runs around a maze with skeletons, and once you finally corner him, he can pull off an attack that one-shots you. It’s just such a tedious, cheap boss fight that I was blown away by the sloppiness. Many of the other boss fights are difficult, but wonderful. Micolash is a sea of mediocrity that threatened to drown my previous enjoyment of the game outright. However, pride, combined with the fact that I was nearly to the end of the game, saw me eventually pick the controller back up and throw things at Micolash from a distance until he died. It wasn’t fulfilling. I didn’t feel like a great obstacle had been overcome. Mostly, I was just sick of the game and desperately wanted it to end so I could move on to something better.
And then the game decided to be more awesome than ever
Everything after Micolash was incredible. The next area was full of difficult enemies who were actually enjoyable to fight, and the next boss fight was also surprisingly enjoyable. The game sports three endings, and I figured I’d get the easiest one to obtain, which would mean this was my last boss fight. However, I copied my save onto a USB stick before choosing that ending—which is important since the game moves immediately from the end credits into new game + mode—and eventually got curious about the other two. One required fighting only one more boss, so I copied the save from my USB drive and figured I’d give it a try. After all, you can’t not fight an end game boss who’s just sitting there, begging for a beatdown. It took several tries, but I eventually bested him and got the second ending. Reading up on the third, “best” ending, the requirements weren’t as steep as I had expected, so I copied the save yet again, explored a little, and easily obtained the necessary items. This final ending required beating the second ending’s boss plus another one immediately after that, but it’s forgiving in the sense that you can die between fights and not have to repeat both. Eventually the final ending was mine, and I felt a strange sense of contentment with the game. I really wish the rest of Bloodborne was as beautiful and entertaining as the very end, because that would be every bit the game everyone convinced me this is. I even enjoyed those final fights so much that I went back and made a point to finish both of them without a death between, just to see if I could. Managing to do so was a great feeling, and it makes me sad that the middle of the game is as wildly inconsistent as it is, because more gameplay like the end content would have made for a much more solid, much more recommendable experience.
The “bugs, and stuff I hated because of my subjective tastes” section
Just because the game’s charms finally won me over in its final seconds doesn’t mean I’m about to turn into a raging apologist; Bloodborne is incredibly buggy and wonky in various ways, and there’s really no way to candy-coat that. Take the above videos where enemies get stuck in the side of the mountain instead of falling to their death. I used these particular enemies to do a little grinding for blood echoes before fighting Micolash, so I had them get stuck in the same place something like four or five times and fell to my death trying to unstick them the exact same number of times. The fact that they can hit you through the ground is incredibly cheap, as well. I’ve also heard that a certain optional boss can get stuck in the ceiling during the fight and make it impossible to complete, and we’re just dealing with the tip of the iceberg here.
There’s the minor stuff like prompts not showing up when you try to choose a lamp to teleport to, causing you to run around like an idiot until the game decides to start working properly. This happened a bunch of times, but I only got two videos of it (one and two). Another problem: during the annoying difficulty spike, I ran past an enemy who throws boulders at you and hid behind a wall. Imagine my frustration when the boulder hit me through the wall. Before that, another grabbed at nothing and held its nothing over its head, which culminated in me getting hit by an invisible boulder. Sadly, I wasn’t recording when this happened. Another thing I wish I had captured on video was when I ran to an elevator in an indoor area, only to discover that the entire wall was missing and I could see outside. For a moment, I thought this was some kind of intentional late-game development. Seconds later, the wall and elevator popped into existence, revealing that it was a graphical bug all along.
Then there’s the stuff that’s not too terrible, but that rubbed me the wrong way because of my tastes. This is stuff like dead enemies becoming ragdolls who flail around wildly when you run through them, which is a quirk that Dark Souls had that somehow hasn’t been fixed. The wonky physics can become a problem when they fall in such a way that they twitch wildly on the ground, making it appear that they’re still alive when they’re really not. The physics can also lead to some weird moments that cause you to wonder why they put certain elements together, like when a giant is near a hatch in the ground, but can’t actually fall through it, instead walking on an invisible platform above you. This kind of thing just comes across as sloppy, and given the fact that these kinds of physics problems have been around since Demon’s Souls, From Software should have figured out a solution by now. Series should better themselves over time, not retain the exact same problems every iteration.
Finally, jump scares. I hate them, and the game doesn’t need them because its atmosphere is more than creepy enough on its own. Sadly, the more I played, the more I found that having something jump out and scream at me cheapened the experience. Creating an atmosphere that’s something between chilling and asphyxiating and then filling it with jump scares is like going to a steak house and ordering a burger. It defeats the purpose of building that atmosphere in the first place. I suppose this gripe in particular comes down to personal preference more than the others, but it was enough of an annoyance while playing that I felt it had to be mentioned.
Graphics and music
Before I went into the game, I remember reading something about how Bloodborne is colorful. It isn’t. Not really. For something like 75% of the game, the colors are drab and washed out apart from the frequent splattering blood, with most of the game being shades of black and red. It’s only once you hit the difficulty spike that drove me crazy that the world suddenly becomes more colorful, and even then, not by much. That said, the late-game nightmare area is absolutely gorgeous, and I came to appreciate the way the edges of the screen have subtle blurring. What I didn’t come to appreciate was the motion blur. It’s seriously overused, and it makes some of the more hectic fights frustrating because so much is happening that the entire screen ends up being a blurry mess. The worst part is that lots of motion blur seems to be one of the factors that causes the frame rate to drop, and a perfect storm of motion can occasionally cover up enemy visual cues.
Music fares similarly, being understated and forgettable for most of the game with the exception of the cello music that plays while you’re in the Hunter’s Dream. This track is beautiful, but it’s also the only track I can actually remember. Watching some of the videos I’ve embedded, I suppose boss fights have a kind of bombastic orchestral track backing them, but there’s nothing particularly unique or memorable about that. It does its job well enough, but all things considered, I’d have appreciated some more memorable tracks like the one in the Hunter’s Dream, or just anything that stands out and commands the player’s attention like that.