Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Hunter’s Dream: From Software’s Bloodborne

I reviewed From Software’s famously difficult Dark Souls four years after its 2011 release date, and was similarly late in getting to its spiritual successor, Bloodborne, released in March of last year. The gaming community was absolutely smitten with this dark and evil-looking follow-up to one of the hardest titles of all time – which struck me as odd. Dark Souls was a somewhat niche experience, suited only to those with extreme patience and perseverance, so why did everyone love Bloodborne? Was it that much easier than its predecessor, allowing a broader audience past its lower barrier of entry? That didn’t bode well at all. I don’t play From Software’s games to have my hand held: I play them to be tested, as a player and as a person, and to emerge from their fiery crucible a stronger and more accomplished gamer. If Bloodborne wasn’t offering that kind of challenge, I couldn’t see why anyone – especially a Souls fan – would give it the time of day.

Then, I played it.

Bloodborne is hard. It’s very, very hard. It’s at least as hard as Dark Souls, and definitely harder than Dark Souls II. Its gameplay has a different rhythm than the previous titles in the series, and it introduces many new mechanics that change the way the familiar formula works – but make no mistake, this is a worthy addition to the Souls canon, and then some. In fact, I’d rank it as my very favourite of the series so far. I understand now why series fans rejoiced upon its release, and though I’m so deep into my experience with the series that I can barely see the other side, I recognize why so many casual gamers love it too. Its design is exquisite from the ground up, in terms of both practical mechanics and artistry, and it’s able to introduce the lay-gamer to its brutal difficulty the same way Fifty Shades of Grey introduced sheltered squares everywhere to the thrills of sadomasochism.* It might not be a game everyone can finish, but everyone is likely going to want to give it a try.

This must be due in large part to the game’s visuals, which feature among the most brilliantly detailed and highly stylized art design I’ve ever seen. I’ve praised some games for their high graphical fidelity and others for their inventive, if lo-fi, appeal – but few have ever inspired the same jaw-dropping awe as Bloodborne, in all its disturbing Gothic beauty. The game’s fictional Victorian city, Yharnam (inspired by real Romanian and Czech architecture), comes alive in every twisting cobbled street, wrought-iron gate, and spiked stone pinnacle; its buildings are clumped in a madman’s array of chockablock towers and bridges, as if the city itself is an ornately-detailed organism growing out of control; every wall and walkway is lined with broken stained-glass windows and grotesque statuary that leer at you against the pallid moonlight. Just as Dark Souls provided a view into the Japanese psyche with its distinctly Asian interpretation of western medieval iconography (with knights, dragons, and castles blown out to cartoonishly-stylized proportions), so too does Bloodborne reveal what a foreigner might make of our finest works of Gothic horror fiction, from Stoker to Lovecraft. Yharnam is one of the most horrifyingly beautiful settings I’ve seen in any medium, and it’s clear at a glance why so many people were drawn to its appalling splendour.

Those same works of fiction inspired Bloodborne’s story, too, which has you take control of a nameless Hunter, tasked with cleansing Yharnam of its many terrible beasts. These beasts are the product of a mysterious plague which has transformed the city’s residents into murderous, blood-hungry abominations, sending those who are not yet afflicted into hiding, and turning even your fellow Hunters into corrupted fiends, unable to tell friend from foe. As you progress and attempt to unravel the mystery of your presence in this horrible place, and what the source of this sickness might be, the story takes on a much more deliberately sinister cast, treading out of the mundane ghouls-n’-goblins stuff and into the realm of true cosmic horror. The game’s narrative often touches on the idea of forbidden knowledge – “that which man was never meant to know” – and the terrible cost that comes with intellectual hubris. It’s a fascinating evolution of the more obfuscated storytelling in Dark Souls, which communicated its (comparatively pedestrian) medieval fantasy tale through context clues and sparse dialogue. In Bloodborne, the setting itself nearly screams its mystery into the air, inviting you to plunge into its depths and absorb every abundant detail you can. It’s much more engaging, and much more rewarding as a result.

The same can be said of the combat system, which – despite some small personal quibbles – elevates the established Souls formula to near-perfection, through three major changes. First, the pace is quickened considerably, making the enemies fiercer and giving you quicker attacks and a more nimble array of dodging maneuvers to compensate. Second, your character’s left hand, which throughout the Souls series would often carry a shield, now wields a firearm: a handy way to stagger foes and interrupt their attacks, providing a window for a powerful riposte. Finally, a “health regain” system is included, that lets you reclaim lost vitality if you manage to counterattack your foe quickly enough. These three main changes give Bloodborne its uniquely swift and savage feel, which rewards a much more aggressive playstyle than the other Souls titles (which emphasized patience and opportunity). No more hiding behind a shield and waiting for a chance to attack – in order to claim victory in Bloodborne, you’re forced to throw yourself screaming into the fray. Smaller changes were less welcome, like the inclusion of single-use blood vials for healing (instead of the refillable Estus flasks of Dark Souls), which often necessitated a repetitive grind in order to accrue enough of them to survive – an unnecessary annoyance which was probably included to balance out the additional aid provided by the health regain system, but which is a much less elegant solution than Estus, which integrated smoothly into the core gameplay loop. But in spite of its shortcomings, the combat – which is inarguably the most crucial part of any From Software experience – cribs the best combat elements of every Souls game, from the timing and precision of Dark Souls to the inventive boss encounters of Dark Souls II, blending them into a tight, cohesive, and satisfying system.

Oh, and those boss encounters. All these games trade on their big, show-stopping boss fights, which in previous titles had you facing down everything from a flame-spitting dragon to a trio of animated gargoyles, but Bloodborne cranks this tradition to eleven. From the first boss – a crazed Hunter named Father Gascoigne, who flings himself at you with the same speed and savagery that you yourself inflict on lesser enemies (and who uses the same weapons as you, too) – it’s made very clear that the developers were interested not just in challenging the player, but in presenting them with something they’ve never seen. It’s trite to say that words fail me in describing some of these fights, but until you’re face-to-face in the Grand Cathedral with Vicar Amelia, ripped forth from the skin of a crying girl and howling at you as her bandages flow like water around her massive canine frame, you won’t really understand their impact. And trust me – by the eighth, or fifteenth, or thirtieth time you’ve fought them, these enemies take on an entirely different personality. Some are seemingly purpose-built to cause you misery. You can imagine what it feels like, then, on that thirty-first try, to finally land that fatal blow. You can imagine it – but until you earn it for yourself, you’ll never know the thrill.

So the setting is gorgeous, the story is inviting, the combat is visceral and rewarding, and the bosses are brutal and memorable. All this is great, but it would be for naught if the world that From Software designed was difficult or unintuitive to navigate. I’ve mentioned Yharnam’s sprawling appearance, as though every cathedral and house was built on top of the ruins of another, and that may give the impression that it’s confounding and easy to lose yourself there. The opposite is true: Bloodborne, like Dark Souls, ushers you into a brilliantly-designed system of areas that are all cleverly interconnected, leading you down a linear path that eventually spits you back out right where you started (which is a mercy, given that the entrance to an area is often your only portal to safety). It lends the game world a feeling of cohesion which many games lack; even Dark Souls II was criticized heavily for moving away from this type of design and creating disparate areas that you travelled to via a singular hub location, making the world feel large, but disconnected. It’s immensely satisfying in Bloodborne to fight your way through a hellish gauntlet, only to turn a corner and see a familiar building – a sign that sanctuary is near, if you can only make your way back to it (and with the game’s incredible soundtrack ever-looming, those moments can be fraught with tension).

I’m still playing Bloodborne, and it’s still finding ways to surprise me. Every time I think I have its mechanics mastered, it throws me a curveball in the form of a new enemy or threat I couldn’t possibly have anticipated. Every time I think I’ve seen all the visual glory it has to offer, I enter a new area and I’m flabbergasted anew. It’s an embarrassment of riches for the dedicated gamer, and moreover, an excellent introduction for more casual players into the world of the hardcore. A friend who had beaten Bloodborne without playing any other Souls game beforehand was frustrated to hear of my quick progress, but he doesn’t understand the respect I have for his accomplishment. He rose to the game’s challenge, and through significant time and effort (and probably a few tears), he claimed his victory. I know exactly what that feels like, and so will you, if you take a chance on one of the most unique and richly rewarding games ever made.

* I never thought I’d make that comparison, but there you have it – life is full of surprises. To be clear, I believe Shades is a literary disaster and a poor ambassador for sexual liberation, and that Bloodborne is a near-masterpiece. I don’t want you to think I was citing two works of equal quality: I’m just pointing out that they both introduced many a doe-eyed innocent to the joys of punishment.
– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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