The Blood Moon rises. The Hunt begins. The Nightmare never ends. And you, Hunter, are stuck in the middle of it all. With blade, with gun, with blood, slay the Beasts. Slay this Nightmare.
…Alright, now that I’ve gotten the obligatory “talk like a member of the fandom” intro out of the way, I’m here to talk about Bloodborne, which was free during PS Plus’s March rotation.
So here I am reviewing a game which has been out long enough for a fandom to pop up and mine every bit of lore out of it.
And which is no longer free as of the time of this post.
While being a complete and total newbie to From Software RPGs.
I’m sure this will go GREAT!
What Is Dark So- Bloodborne?
Simplest answer: It’s like Dark Souls, but less Medieval, more Gothic.
Detailed answer: Bloodborne is an action RPG made by From Software, the team behind Dark Souls (and, for the true fans and mecha enthusiasts, Armored Core!).
And, much like Dark Souls, it is characterised for the following shared characteristics:
- Open-ended and indirect stories with lore left in item text, telling players very little.
- An emphasis on exploration of the world around you to get all the details and hidden treasures.
- Simple combat mechanics: Light attack, heavy attack, special move/shoot, dodge, use items. No matter how you build your character, it all comes down to this.
- And of course: Punishing difficulty notorious for killing off players as if they were grunts. Whether it’s environmental hazards, aggressive enemies, or tough bosses, the world is out to kill you and it’s very good at using the simple fundamentals against you.
So that’s the gameplay. Now what about the setting?
The Clot Thickens
This is Yharnam, a place where miraculous blood can cure and treat almost any wound or disease. And in this world, there is a mysterious curse which turns people into Beasts, stripping away their humanity as they grow into twisted animalistic abominations. And so, to quell the beasts and restore order, a Hunt is called to cull their numbers. That’s where you come in.
You are a Hunter, an individual dedicated to slaying Beasts, one of a wider organisation made of multiple groups. With your agility and arms, you slay those lost to the madness of the Blood Moon, seeking the biggest monsters and slaying them so that the people huddled in their homes can wake to a new day safely. But that’s not all; your greatest advantage is the Hunter’s Dream, a realm parallel to the waking world, and where you are sent when you die, only to return. There, you have respite from the Hunt, a moment’s peace as you mend your wounds and prepare your weapons, along with two mysterious allies.
It is a nightmare of murder. Kill or be killed again and again, facing the stuff of nightmares. An endless cycle of violence, sure to drive even the most stalwart minds mad given time. So what can you, hapless outsider, do to end it? Only one way to find out: A Hunter must Hunt.
OK, But How Is It?
And with that, I’ve given you a spoiler-free explanation of the setting. So…how does it play? And before we get into anything, I would suggest you take my words with a grain of salt: This is my FIRST experience with a Soulsborne RPG, so I have NO attachment to the fandoms, theories, and strategy builds. In other words, I am a filthy casual.
First, let’s get into gameplay, because that’s going to be the more conventional opinion. Short answer: Fun, easy to learn, but hard to master, while throwing you into harder situations. Simple enough that you feel like you have a chance, more than tough enough to challenge you.
So, all the core gameplay mechanics are certainly the only things you’ll need, and they’re easy enough to pick up: Attack, dodge, use your gun to parry attacks, and use healing items. Everything else is a matter of consumable items which can offer advantages but aren’t necessary, unless you’re using special builds or countering certain enemies.
And combat itself uses this simple foundation as your arsenal against a wide variety of enemies. Like any Dark Souls game, EVERY enemy has the potential to be dangerous if you get careless or unlucky. This isn’t some RPG where you can raise your defense statistic to be invincible; here, no matter how tough you are, even the lowest enemy can carve through you with ease if you let them.
When facing enemies, setting aside your different movesets coming from the different weapons, the main things you’ll be doing are these: Learn their patterns, avoid those patterns, and strike back. Attack swiftly enough and you can even stop them from attacking, but beware: The same applies to you, and a mob that lands even one hit can gang up and hack you to pieces. And some enemies are either too fast to pressure, or are just too tough to stagger.
And as for the bosses, the meticulously designed player killers of such notorious difficulty that they become the icons of the game? Surprisingly, not much to say: Everything I said before applies to bosses equally, just on a MUCH LARGER scale, because they are faster, hit harder, and swing to cover WIDER areas.
Think of it as learning how to use a sword, and it’s all you need. Except now you’re thrown into a battlefield, and you have to learn how to use it against multiple enemies. In different conditions. While trying not to get hit. By catapults.
But don’t worry if you die; you essentially get infinite continues, and your only penalty is losing any unspent experience points which you have the option of reclaiming. That being said, I wouldn’t necessarily advise grinding your levels to raise your stats; while some weapons DO have stat requirements, it’ll take QUITE awhile before you start to gain noticeable dividends. What matters is your equipment’s strength and your ability to hit-and-dodge.
So what does this equal in terms of the experience? Well, like I said, I thought it was fun. At the very least, it’s easy enough to learn that you can get into it quickly without worrying about Advanced Counter Unblockable Triple Combo nonsense (though doubtless some hardcore fans might be able to tell me that such a thing IS possible). The HARD part is learning how to do it in different conditions: When you’re fighting more than one enemy, when you’re fighting in tight spaces, when you’re fighting near cliffs, when you’re fighting one BIG strong guy, or all of the above.
What this means is that, because it’s simple, you can get into the MEAT of each and every stage of the game very quickly. And because even the enemies follow simple but persistent attack patterns, you CAN memorise them and learn how to avoid them without too much effort (learning how to DODGE them is a different matter, though). And consequently, what you learn for ONE situation builds your knowledge and tends to apply to FUTURE situations: You learn how to be cautious against mobs in open spaces, so you learn to lure fast enemies into tight ones. You learn how slow big enemies are, so you learn to stay away from them and deal with smaller ones first. All while making sure you have space and stamina to dodge.
All of this happens at a very FUNDAMENTAL level, as opposed to needing a specific build or move or weapon or unstoppable combo to fight the toughest enemies. Therefore, although the odds are often STACKED against you, at least you feel that everyone is equally ARMED, where everyone is bringing a sword to a sword fight. Really, only the bosses will feel like they’re bringing a lightsaber to a sword fight, then you realise it’s still wielded the same way as a sword: Get in melee range, hit.
So whatever you may feel about the difficulty level or the unfairness of the situations, there is a certain sense of FAIRNESS. And THAT sense of fairness is what helps to keep players coming back for more; if you feel that you faced an utterly imbalanced fight that you weren’t meant to win, then of course it won’t feel satisfying. But if you feel like you’ve got a chance, you have hope that you can power through. That you can memorise EVERY attack, and after getting hit by them 50 times, that you can finally learn how to DODGE them.
Of course, one other thing iconic to Soulsborne games is its character customisation. Which is ironic considering that it almost always amounts to the same thing: Make a fellow to dodge/block, then hit back with weapons. With a few exceptions like Magic builds, that is. And I’m sure more dedicated fans will be sure to tell me how WRONG I am.
In Bloodborne, setting aside your health and stamina, the main stats that you will focus on when you level are your Strength, Finesse, Bloodtinge, and Arcane, for Big, Quick, Gun, and Magic weapons respectively.
These stats are crucial for unlocking equipment, and said equipment will encourage you to level those corresponding stats to deal more damage. And there are a WIDE variety of weapons available for you to use, some of which are SO specialised that you won’t be able to get all of them in a single playthrough. Especially since you won’t know what their requirements are until you find them. Oh, you made your guy use nothing but STRENGTH? Well, tough luck, looks like you’ll never get to use these hybrid magic-agility weapons.
These weapons, of course, are the most iconically FUN part of the game. Your weapons have two modes, a one-handed and two-handed stance, and each has its own moveset determined by how you’re moving at the time. And while most of them follow the same system (Light one-handed swings! Heavy two-handed swings!), there are enough subtleties and differences between movesets and statistics that each can feel quite different. For instance, one weapon’s two-handed stance might focus on thrusts, making it useful for hitting things at range. Another might focus on broad slashes, lacking distance, but being useful for fighting crowds as you spin to win. It all feels very nice, essentially getting two weapons in one, and it has an undeniable cool factor.
Equally relevant though less prominent are your Guns and Tools. Most guns work the same: They’re there while you’re in your one-handed stance to fire and interrupt or even parry an opponent, the main differences being how fast, wide, or hard they hit. Meanwhile, although your universal tools are just mundane means to scope out situations, buff damage, or get an enemy’s attention, if you search high and low you might find some rather COOL tools for your hunter where, for the cost of some ammunition, you can unleash some useful effects like speeding up or summoning magic attacks.
All of the above, however, are restricted by one thing: Your character’s stats and build. Granted, there is a lot of freedom to build, especially in hindsight or if you’ve been saving your experience and waiting for new equipment to see what they need. And to be fair, someone who makes a well-rounded character will have access to a LARGE amount of the armoury. But all the same, I couldn’t help but feel a little pigeonholed by the builds, where if I wanted to make use of a certain tool, I might have to suddenly put TEN points into a stat that was largely useless to me before.
And once you level up a stat, it’s there for GOOD, and your next level ups will cost more and more, making it harder and harder to explore customisation the deeper into the game you go. So although there is A LOT you can do, the game ironically puts up such costs and conditions that once you start down a path, it’s easier to STAY on it.
However, for what it’s worth, the point is that there is A LOT for you to choose from, and much of it is actually quite EASY to get, with very few items needing a sizable 15 or 20 points to qualify for them. Just be ready to either sacrifice things you can’t use, or to do some research so that you can plan in advance whether you want the Maximum Strength Warhammer build or the Agile Magic Dual Blades build.
And with those, I believe I’ve covered the gameplay. On the whole, think of it as Monster Hunter’s bloodthirsty cousin and contrast the two. They are similar in some ways: A wide variety of weapons to learn, a steep learning curve from enemies that can suddenly get VERY tough or VERY lucky, and direct, simple gameplay fundamentals and goals (go here, hit the thing, dodge the thing). But the main difference is that Monster Hunter focuses on a BOSS battle with a lot of DEPTH in your weapons where you don’t have to worry about the world. Bloodborne, like Dark Souls, focuses on fighting EVERYTHING in the world, using movesets which are SIMPLE but essential. Fun, yes, but also challenging.
But wait! This is a blog about writing and…stuff. So…what about the story?
Build Your Own Adventure
So, now we come to the most controversial part of this review: The story.
I won’t give spoilers, but I WILL be talking about From Software’s storytelling style. And that is essential because, not only do they do it in their other RPGs, but it’s basically the make-or-break deal because it’s SO prominent.
So firstly: What IS From Software storytelling?
For those of you not in the know, From Software’s RPGs are not direct stories. What they share are these traits:
- A blank slate player character with NO personality, and NO interaction with the world except as a solver of problems. You have no backstory except for something to determine stats, and that doesn’t even influence how the world sees you.
- NPCs have no connection to you. They may have their own personalities, and they may acknowledge you (especially if you’ve helped them), but they never really play that crucial a role in the game except as side quests and easter eggs for people who are REALLY looking for them. None of them are your mentors, rivals, or allies with strong emotional arcs and personal connections.
- NO explanation for the world. They have cutscenes, and they unlock areas for you to explore, but there is no single NPC telling you “Thank you, hero, for slaying the dragon which held us under a curse! I pray thee go to the Forbidden Woods, for there the Witch holds the key to your Great Mystery!” Instead, what you’d get is you fight the dragon without knowing what it is, which unlocks a path leading to the Forbidden Woods, and then you kill the Witch without knowing what she had.
- A LOT of background material and clues…mostly hidden in items. It’s often the case that in order to get the full picture of, say, Organisation X, you must get EVERY piece of equipment from them: All their armour, their weapons, their special tools. THEN you get all the equipment from the people fighting them, and MAYBE you get the full picture of ONE part of the world. So in order to learn about who the Dragon and Witch were, you would have to search the world for the King’s Armour to learn that he enslaved the dragon but it cursed his land, and then get the Priest’s Robes to learn that the Witch was persecuted and exiled by the church. And naturally, those items will be in the Royal Dungeon that is nowhere NEAR the aforementioned bosses. Oh, and naturally, the Royal Seal item hidden in the Lava Dungeon reveals that the King commissioned the Priest to exile the Witch to secure his reign.
ALL of the above combines to form From Software’s signature storytelling and the key feature which has spawned their EXTREMELY devoted and passionate fandoms: It’s up to the PLAYER to put the story together.
There is putting it together in terms of the DEFINITE pieces, of course, which is to say fans assembling ALL the clues hidden in the items to get the ACTUAL story hidden by the developers, feeling like something of a treasure hunt. Bloodborne is no different, and there is a deep, disturbing tale broken apart and hidden behind every item you can find. For example, take my illustration for starters, and then you can see the narrative: Before the game started, a King tried to secure his reign with the help of the church. He did it by enslaving a dragon and banishing a witch, but something went horribly wrong. Now the dragon is the tyrant of his ruins trapping everyone with magic, while the witch holds the key to discovering what went wrong. This then gives context to the world you see around you full of ghostly knights and cursed trees.
But the other way this manifests is in filling in the GAPS. Soulsborne lore leaves a lot of sinister mysteries unanswered; they just tell you WHAT happened, maybe with a BIT of motivation, but never the full context. And so, it’s up to the players to decide for themselves what is going on. In other words, it THRIVES on the speculation of players. So, let’s go back to my example: Let’s say that when it comes to the king, the only bit of motivation we get is that “He did unspeakable things in a desperate bid to bring peace and justice to his people”, which is itself an ambiguous statement. All the players have are the actions in the game (enslaving a dragon which just became an immortal tyrant) and the items (worked behind the scenes to wipe out his rivals and threats). How, then, should a player interpret it? Should they take it at face value and say the King was a power-hungry tyrant who caused everyone’s problems? Or do we speculate even further and suggest that the Dragon and the Witch were ALWAYS evil, and the King was trying to CONTAIN them so that his people wouldn’t be in danger? THAT’s the sort of thing that From Software encourages in their fans in Soulsborne games.
No NPCs to arrive and tell you exactly what happened (“His Majesty was good at first…but the weight of the crown drove him mad…”), nor deep, meaningful connections to point you in any direction (“OK, Witch, I believe your tragic tale because MY family was ALSO persecuted by the church!”). Nothing is explained, only revealed, and everything is up to YOUR interpretation.
THAT is the From Software formula which has inspired so many fans to passionate debates and speculation. And as you can see from my examples, the LACK of information means a WEALTH of possibilities.
But what do I think about it?
What ABOUT The Story?
Alright, and here we reach the finale of this review, the part related to story. And MY controversial opinion is: They did what they wanted to do masterfully. But it’s not to my tastes.
First, let me explain what I mean by doing it masterfully. Having played through the game and looked up a few informed comments about it, I can certainly say that they have put in A LOT of effort into their game: Everything from the items to the enemies, bosses, and even environments is FULL of details that tell a story without spelling it out in full. And even WITH everything, there are plenty of spaces for players to fill in their OWN theories.
And in order to pull it off masterfully, they needed the following ingredients:
- KEY plot points that are VISIBLE: They don’t offer FULL explanations with exposition, of course. But even if you ignore all the optional bosses and item descriptions, even if you don’t bother with all the bonus materials and side quests, they arranged the game in such a way that the player WILL find the key plot elements on their MANDATORY road. The bosses that you MUST face and the roads you MUST take to reach them will explain the bare minimum to give you an idea, a foundation for all future speculation. If they didn’t have them, you’d just be very confused at the final boss fight. …Well, at least MORE confused than usual. So going back to my example, fighting the Dragon and the Witch, even with ZERO backstory about the King and church, will still tell you the key points: There are magical problems cursing the land, trapping people in nightmares, and they have a HUGE grudge.
- Enough raw material to work with: They provided A LOT OF LORE AND WORLDBUILDING. Even when they keep it vague, even when they hide it behind hidden items, even when they don’t even put it all together, the point remains: There are A LOT of clues that cover A LOT of story. From Software’s lore tends to briefly cover EVERYTHING about the world’s mythology, giving you hints about its ancient beginnings and certainly a lot more in its recent history. If they didn’t provide any of it, there wouldn’t be anything to build on. What they did required A MONUMENTAL EFFORT, akin to an author creating the entire cosmology for their fantasy world, then deliberately hiding it from the characters. And again, going back to my example: If the items had just been items, imagine how shallow and one-dimensional the Dragon and Witch would have been, just problems for you to kill. But they gain more depth if you learn about their relationship with the King.
So yes. With these two aspects, along with skillful execution of a Gothic Horror setting and more besides, Bloodborne is an excellent example of indirect storytelling. The developers had enough DIRECTNESS to communicate “HEY GUYS THE STORY IS ABOUT THIS”, enough MATERIAL to actually have a RICH story, and enough MYSTERY to get fans to hunt it down and put the pieces together.
So yes, Bloodborne’s story was done masterfully. Which brings us to the controversial part: It’s just not my cup of tea. And here I shall DEFINITELY reiterate that all of the following are MY opinions based on MY tastes, and NOT statements of fact.
I can appreciate it on an INTELLECTUAL level. But on an emotional level? I felt NOTHING for this game. And that’s setting aside the superficial level of not being a fan of Horror atmospheres, which meant the entire setting was wasted on me.
I felt nothing for my character, who had no personal stake or personality. He was just a blank slate to move along hunting in the world, and any personality projection was in my own personal imagination, as there were no meaningful choices to define him.
I felt nothing for the bosses and monsters I killed, because I had no connection to them. I could occasionally see glimpses in those with a few words to say, but they were mostly talking to themselves; almost NONE of it was related to me. So, the boss making ominous, prophetic statements? They’d be a lot more meaningful if my character had a personal stake in them instead of being “Immortal Player Character Destined To Succeed”.
And alas, although the NPCs had more personality put into them than most of the bosses who were too monstrous to emote, I didn’t really feel connected to them either. There were one or two which I felt SYMPATHY for, sure, but that was it; they otherwise offered very little of worth other than various hidden side quests and conditions.
Heck, even my most STEADFAST ally in the game, the ONE character who consistently treats me with gentle compassion and patience? As much as I APPRECIATE having such a nice ally, it would have meant more if I could have seen my Hunter NEEDING that support. Expressing doubt, shedding tears, needing a shoulder to cry on, actually needing the soothing healing of compassion. But because my Hunter was silent as the grave with no personal stake in this, no better than a stereotypical Square Jawed Blockbuster Protagonist, that made the NPC’s kindness a lot less meaningful, as she might as well have been a generic Potion Vendor repeating lines.
So, to be sure, ALL of these things went through the From Software Soulsborne formula. ALL of them were rich in hidden details and speculation, giving comments that are RICH in mysterious meanings and allusions.
The key problem was: I had no personal connection to any of those.
The whole thing felt like I was playing in the sequel to someone else’s RPG campaign. A TREMENDOUS campaign with TONS of lore and an INCREDIBLE cast of characters, each of them contributing MAJOR plot points.
And the sequel is BUILT on that! It features the FALLOUT, the CONSEQUENCES, all the hidden clues and references. It has all-new NPCs and even a few returning ones coming back in to give references made JUST for the previous players. If THOSE players had been the ones to play through this campaign, either as their PREVIOUS characters who lived through it or as NEW characters with PERSONAL KNOWLEDGE about it, then THEY would be seeing the meaning behind the world (“Ah, so that’s what became of the prince we saved!”) and caring about the NPCs (“I care about this priest’s welfare because he’s a descendant of the cleric we met in the last campaign!”).
And therein lies the problem: I’m NOT one of those previous players. I’m just a new player who has to sit through an entire WORLD of references I do not get. I’m the guy who goes in saying “Hi guys, I’m an idealistic paladin who wants to do good!” only to learn we’re playing Call of C’thulhu and Nyarlathothep has already plunged the world into chaos. And I’m playing ALONE, with NOBODY to help give me context or a reason to care.
So that’s Bloodborne, as well as my ENTIRELY SUBJECTIVE opinion on it.
VERY well done, achieved what THEY wanted.
Not something I’D want to play more than ONCE.
In other words: It’s my Logan of videogames.