Written by Laird Allen
Through a Soul, Darkly
The insane, fractal Victorian ruins of a blood-drunk city on the precipice of madness. A moon, pitilessly huge, and staring like the eye of a lunatic god, gazing down on a cathedral steeped in corruption. Looming gothic towers thronged with the violent inebriates who sought healing and found only demoniac madness. Castles thronged with the unquiet dead who alternate between sobs and screams at the knowledge of their fate in a mountainous baroque of ice and stone. The scene is set for “Bloodborne,” From Software, Inc.’s latest issue, and the omens are deliciously terrifying.
For the unschooled, From Software, Inc. is the developer of the “Souls” series, consisting of “Dark Souls,” “Dark Souls II,” and “Demon’s Souls.” Their signature combination of stylized high fantasy and profoundly difficult gameplay has won them extraordinary success over the last four years. “Bloodborne,” developed by From Software but published by Sony, is a new IP (part of the deal required for a PS4 exclusive), but it is thoroughly a From product, and with it comes all that From has come to symbolize.
The storyline in From Software games is always shown more than told, appearing only in snatches of deliberately and hauntingly cryptic dialogue and in utterly missable background text in the descriptions of certain items. What is made clear is that you, the silent protagonist, have traveled from foreign places to the city of Yharnam, a crumbling gothic beast of a city that’s as riddled with disease as it is with Victoriana, to seek treatment for an unspecified malady in the secret rites of blood ministration.
The process begins, and you pass out; when you awaken, it is nearly nightfall, and you are murdered by a beast. Thence you reawaken, finding yourself in a soft graveyard called the Hunter’s Dream, where you begin to learn things about the world with the help of a patient, painted doll and a wheelchair-bound old man who instructs you in the art of the hunt. From this starting point, you plunge directly into a nightmare of Lovecraftian horror under a changing moon where, over the course of one night, you explore the secrets of Yharnam and fight the monsters that dominate it.
The game itself is an action game in the third-person view. The mechanics will be familiar to those who have played any of the “Souls” games, although there is considerable rebalancing in “Bloodborne” as compared to the older titles. The basic game structure is built around the following elements: combat, using a series of weapons against increasingly horrible opponents; the exploration of a world that only becomes more twisted and horrible with time; the collection of resources to empower yourself and your weapons; and the finding of shortcuts, which make it possible to travel further and faster into the darkness.
When you are slain, the world resets, almost all enemies are replaced, and your accumulated currency—“blood echoes” in this game, as opposed to “souls” in the previous games—lies where you fall or is gathered up into the body of an enemy. You must fight your way back and regain this currency or, if you die again, lose them forever. These simple mechanics are the core of the experience, and what makes it so transcendently frustrating and rewarding—the choice between recovery and exploration, going back or going forward—is always up to the player. Inevitably, you will make bad decisions and rage yourself blind in the aftermath.
What is different in this game is the balance. “Bloodborne” prioritizes the frenzied violence of a knife fight whereas the first two “Dark Souls” games prioritized armor and shields, and timing and patience. There is only one shield in this game, but it does not work and comes with a warning (again, in the easily missed background text) not to use it.
If the “Souls” games were competition Judo, “Bloodborne” is Muay Thai in a phone booth. Instead of shields, you have guns that can be used to parry enemies by shooting them in the face; you can then savagely attack them while they’re stunned. The game has another new feature: the concept of “rallying,” which is basically a pool of hit points that can still be recovered after you take damage, provided that you hit somebody (again, ideally, in the face). This encourages fights biased toward the rapid and brutal. It is both rewarding and, if you have missed the theme so far, maddening. Armor is almost nonexistent, and the weapon selection, while much smaller, is much more distinctive and interesting.
Where “Bloodborne” truly shines is where From Software games always shine: the design is beyond reproach. The real story and lore all come from the way the world is presented, not from the trembling words of the doomed souls inside it. Beginning with Frankenstein monsters and wolf men and proceeding to otherworldly and eldritch horrors that become more obvious as you learn (or, perhaps, go insane), the enemies are beautifully constructed. From the flutter of dandelions to the idle curl of a mad goddess’s pedipalp, every detail is magnificently realized.
The insane Victorian drama of Yharnam calls to mind a feverish Charles Dickens seeing the world as a hell of brick and soot-stained cobbles, his fellow man turned to beasts—first in mind, and then in body. Like the first “Dark Souls” game, “Bloodborne” is almost all of a piece, the whole world mostly being a single location that you can walk through, from the high cathedral towers to the stormy sea, all of it under a moon and sky that change as the night progresses.
“Bloodborne” is without a doubt the scariest game I have played in years, and it is not due to any particular violence or monsters leaping out (although both are abundant). It is the sense that the world you are in is insane, gibbering with feverish insight. The statues change as you advance through the world, going from solemn pietàs and weeping women to towering, screaming, fleshy horrors of twisted bronze. The weapons are brutal, the monsters are horrifying, and the consequences are dire. It is a game that lacks any restraint, and it is beautiful.
There are some new multiplayer and single-player elements for this game. In particular, the ability to generate and share random dungeons—called “chalice dungeons”—and raid them together for loot is a fantastic innovation. The multiplayer system of twinned co-op and player vs. player mechanics, along with (profoundly obscure) covenants that provide different rewards for certain kinds of play (hunting other players, for example), will be broadly familiar to anyone who has played the “Souls” series.
There are issues in “Bloodborne.” Most importantly, if you don’t enjoy a game you have to work at, you will not enjoy this one. It’s challenging and unforgiving, and you can become mired in certain plot beats. The placement of shortcuts is sometimes obscure, or—more likely—deliberately terrible: some locations have multiple shortcuts to save a few hundred feet; others make you run a quarter mile of snake pit every single time you challenge a boss. The delirious stylization is good but can be over the top, first bordering on pastiche, then blowing past pastiche and peeling out in the front lawn of parody. It takes itself incredibly seriously, but that makes it more refreshing. A game with the courage of its (insane, gibbering) convictions, “Bloodborne” will deeply satisfy just about as often as it enrages and never fails to look good doing it.
“Bloodborne” was developed by From Software, Inc. It is available only on PS4 and retails for about $59.99. It is only suitable for mature audiences.