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Welcome to Yharnam, a city defiled by a curse, turning its citizens into mindless beasts. You are an outsider, a Hunter charged with finding a cure. Fueled by the blood of the damned, a desperate need drives you; to leave this nightmare, before it claims all you know.
Inheriting the cryptic nature of director Hidetaka Miyazaki’s Souls series, Bloodborne throws the player into the deep end. Plot motivations and world knowledge are, initially, very nearly non-existent. A basic weapon and a brief set of instructions is all you get. Setting out into the night of the hunt, you learn on the job, subtly guided by the game’s incredible level design.
The first area of the game sets the scene perfectly. A crowd of townsfolk stand at the foot of a roaring bonfire. A monster burns, casting flickering shadows over pitchforks and rusty blades. Charging in means certain death. With no other immediately clear options available, players will often choose to advance towards this group. However, a bullet in the back sends an instantly clear message; danger lies around every unchecked corner.
After killing this skulking assailant, the player finds themselves at the foot of a flight of stairs, leading them up to a vantage point of the entire mob. Working your way around the pyre allows you to draw out enemies one or two at a time, slowly but surely carving your way through a gate of flesh and bone.
The genius of Bloodborne lies in these details. By stripping away directional arrows, quest logs and even maps, the player has to rely on exploration, patience and trial-and-error. Thanks to the careful placement of environmental details, items and enemies throughout the world, an observant player always has a defined point of reference as they battle through the game’s labyrinthine levels. The discovery of shortcuts, new characters and items, all of which slowly unfurl the dense lore of Yharnam, is still an intensely satisfying experience almost three years after the game’s release.
The environments compliment a detailed soundscape, grounding and immersing the player in the world of Bloodborne. The lamentations to the recently slaughtered, the hysteria of those driven mad and the snarls of demonic beasts assault the hunter at every turn. Generally, there is only music during one of the game’s many boss encounters, where a sustained string and choir assault creates a nightmarish soundtrack to the fight.
When faced with the unrelenting aggression of the game’s enemies, it can be easy to become overwhelmed. Enemies hit hard and fast, often in groups, and leave little room for error. Mistakes are punished brutally, with the lack of a pause button and real-time healing forcing the player to be “in the moment” for every combat interaction.
Bloodborne even gives death a stake. The game’s currency, blood echoes, drop upon death. Fail to kill the monster responsible or collect them from your bloodstain, and they are gone for good. By combining this rogue-like element with limited healing items, the game naturally creates a strong sense of tension; do you return to the safety of your checkpoint and reset your progress, or press onwards into the danger of the unknown?
Ironically, in the face of all this adversity, the key to mastering the combat of Bloodborne is slowing down. By observing the chaos around you, a player can memorise every attack an enemy makes, learning exactly when to attack or dodge, fire or retreat.
As well as this, a variety of trick-weapons offers a high skill ceiling to players willing to delve deep into the intricacies of Bloodborne’s move-sets, timing and stamina management. Bloodborne’s boss battles are a triumph. The difficult, multi-stage fights against these grotesqueries are visceral experiences that unfold like fast-paced puzzles.
After countless attempts, finally beating one of these monsters is an intensely cathartic experience. As the final blow lands, your heart continues to race, hardly daring to believe that the fight is over. Only when you hear the last despairing wail, delivered as the music slowly diminishes, can you release your iron grip on the controller.
It’s definitely true that the game demands the constant attention and discipline of the player, the source of the ‘hardcore’ tag attached to Bloodborne and the rest of the Souls franchise. However, pushing through the game’s unforgiving difficulty barrier gives you a sense of mechanical mastery unparalleled in modern gaming, earned through blood, sweat and tears.
The combination of Yharnam’s towering gothic architecture with the richly detailed culture of its inhabitants creates the sense of a real, breathing world, one capable of evoking strong emotions. On the one hand, awe. After battling your way through a chapel full of deranged cultists, you find yourself in front of a long-sealed door. On the other side, an entirely new portion of the world unravels before the player’s eyes; the awe-inspiring vista of a collapsing city, tangled vines wrapping their way around the towers of Old Yharnam.
On the other, sorrow. During the hunt, you encounter a young girl hiding from the hunt. Alone in her home, she begs of you to find her mother. The only clue you receive from her is a tiny music box with the names “Viola and Gascoigne” engraved upon them. She asks you to give it to her mother; “It plays one of daddy’s favourite songs, and when daddy forgets us we play it for him so he remembers. Mum’s so silly, running off without it!”
Later on, in the ruins of a chapel graveyard, you encounter the game’s second boss, Father Gascoigne. Infected with beast blood himself, Gascoigne sacrificed his family and his humanity in his attempt to rid Yharnam of its curse. A deranged werewolf, Gascoigne serves as the self-appointed executioner of Yharnam, slaughtering anyone he encounters, beast or not.
After a long, difficult battle, you find another body lying on a nearby roof, a woman in a red dress. Viola. As you pick up her brooch, the question presents itself; do you tell the young girl that she is now an orphan, by your hand?
These details reveal themselves gradually, as you piece together the rubble of a decaying world. For such a hostile game, Bloodborne carries with it a mythos and history that makes it painfully human.