The Fishtank: My Favourite Games, Part XII: Bloodborne

It should go without saying that there are full spoilers for Bloodborne in this article. And yes, believe it or not, there is a big ol’ twist in this game.

If Dark Souls was medieval fantasy, Bloodborne was Jack the Ripper through the mind of HP Lovecraft. Boasting significantly faster gameplay than the Souls trilogy, with a heavier reliance on offense (indeed, there are no viable shields to speak of), Bloodborne forced players’ fight-or-flight instinct into overdrive, with the intention of ensuring you would always choose fight. I love the “rally mechanic”, wherein you get restore parts of your lost health if you continue to attack, and the way in which enemies would throw in combo attacks, rather than just a simple swing of their werewolf-like arms, or octopus-esque faces. These combos never felt unfair, such as in Dark Souls III (which in fact I played before Bloodborne), due to the players enhanced manoeuvrability and the rally mechanic, leading to frantic fights which you may only escape by the skin of your teeth.

There were slightly fewer weapon and armour options than the Dark Souls trilogy – a tragic loss for those of us that find style far more important than stats – but that means that every weapon and clothing set has a purpose. Weapons are each good against a sub-set of enemy types, and can be imbued with fire or lightning (good against things with fur, or things from the deep, respectively). Through the Souls series, I often opted for the biggest sword I could get my hands on, but the faster paced combat of Bloodborne called for a more refined approach, and I never felt like I was lacking in a strong enough weapon to defeat a mob or boss. More pointedly, I felt obliged to try out every new weapon I found just in case it was better for any situation than what I was currently using.

When writing about Dark Souls, I mentioned the epiphany I had when first wandering around Anor Londo – that no, the game wasn’t poorly designed with doorways and staircases far too large for the player character; the player character was just very insignificant in this land of literal giants. The same thing happened in Bloodborne, but to a far stronger degree. When wandering through a dark forest below the tainted churchyards, a single, alien-like creature steps forward, and it becomes frighteningly clear that this game is no longer just about hunting werewolves in a Victorian England city. The word “Celestial” becomes all too common in enemy and item descriptions, and enemies begin to trade in their furry, blood soaked designs for off-putting, almost-but-not-quite human forms, with tentacles and elongated limbs. Best of all, when replaying the game in New Game+, you realise this twist was never hidden at all, if you knew where to look.

It is in this first replay of the game that you notice what the hinted story was trying to say all along. The story takes many cues from HP Lovecraft, a favourite author of mine for long before I played this game. Throughout the game the utter inconsequential nature of the people of Yarnham becomes clear, and features the idea of dealing with knowledge not meant for lowly humanity. The history of the churches and schools is where the fun begins, as there are hints of ancient wars and generation spanning grudges, and the battles between those who want to elevate humanity through science, and those who made deals with something much darker. Infamous characters from Yarnham’s past are mentioned in passing, or worse still discovered by the player, and it is clear that were you to find them in their heydays, the fights would be significantly less even, and not to your advantage.

I love the various environments in Bloodborne, from the High Gothic architecture in the city of Yarnham, to the literal mountains of flesh and eyeballs that you’ll come across in the Nightmare. In the early game, the wider streets of upper Yarnham make for larger group battles which as mentioned never feel unfair, but are still able to involve that feeling of helplessness Lovecraft was known for. The dark and twisted Forbidden Woods can easily cause the player to get lost and turned around, or cornered by any number of writing snake-headed monstrosities. The seemingly impossible layout and location of a small Fishing Hamlet (a gorgeous and terrifying homage to Lovecraft’s The Shadow over Innsmouth) seem almost at odds with the horrors experienced by the townsfolk, or what has become of them. I’d argue that Bloodborne is the most diverse and cinematic of all From Software’s games, with ever area worthy of a painting to be hung on the wall.

And not to be outdone, once the base game has been completed, the DLC pack for Bloodborne is simply one of the greatest of any ever released. The locations, boss battles and weapons introduced in The Old Hunters are among the top of almost every players’ lists. My two personal standouts, Ludwig, The Holy Blade and Lady Maria of the Astral Clocktower, are among the best bosses from any From Software media, and the Whirligig Saw (colloquially referred to affectionately as the ‘pizza cutter’) a mainstay in my games whenever I get to it. The aforementioned location of The Fishing Hamlet is full of environmental storytelling, and plays host to another boss, one of the toughest in the entire game, the Orphan of Kos. Not only are these bosses exhilarating fights in themselves, but they are so important to the story of Bloodborne that I could make entire posts on each of them and barely brush the surface.

I’ve written before about my love of Dark Souls, and by extension From Software’s game design. From the punishing but deliberate combat mechanics, the clunky but necessarily so control scheme, and the secret plot behind the scenes only for those willing to look for it, Dark Souls was almost perfect. But then I played Bloodborne.

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