If you've played Hidetaka Miyazaki's latest game, it won't be too surprising that so many people keep talking about it. If you haven't, maybe it's worth a closer look. I was hesitant to pick up Bloodborne because of everything I heard, and learned first hand, about Demon's Souls and Dark Souls. They're difficult, demand a huge effort up front from the player due to the unique nature of its gameplay and complete lack of hand holding in any way. The hype surrounding the game and desire to see the latest in graphics on my new console were too much to resist. Besides, Metacritic average and critic scores seemed ridiculously high, either everyone reviewing it was a fan of Souls, which is highly unlikely due to the niche appeal, or the game truly broke new ground and was able to please a wide audience.
If you haven't played it, what might help to explain Bloodborne's new found success would be comparing it to my experience with Capcom's Resident Evil 4. When I first popped the disc in my GameCube, it was to watch someone else play through. I knew I wasn't good at these games, but I still wanted to enjoy the experience so I just intended on watching my friend go through it. It's the same reason a lot of people will just YouTube a game nowadays. To my surprise, he was dying over and over in the first area for an hour straight. He was ready to give up, but I wanted to take a stab at it. Even though he finished the previous four games, and I was all thumbs when it came to RE, there was something here that made me think I could do better.
"Why are you going so slow and methodically? These guys are just mobbing you!" I just rushed straight into the thick of trouble and started capping zombies left and right, drawing them out towards me and picking them off. My friend sat there bewildered as I was easily making progress using a method that contradicted his entire approach. Despite his assurances it would result in virtual suicide, I had found a successful strategy. Past games had enforced certain concepts so rigorously that it didn't even occur to him to play a different way. Once he got over these preconceptions, he was easily able to fall into the game's fantastic new groove, and as for me, I was hooked on a Resident Evil game for the first time.
Bloodborne is similarly a game changer for the Souls series. It doesn't make the game more accessible in a broad sense, but it does open it up to a different audience via the presentation. Firstly, the Victorian setting and heavy influence drawn from the works of H. P. Lovecraft brings an aesthetic not too often used in recent games, attracting those who may snub a medieval fantasy setting typical of most RPGs. More importantly however, is the focus shift towards speed that encourages taking the initiative and lunging at an opening, instead of fending off advances and slowly waiting for the right moment to strike as in past Souls games. This truly makes it feel like a different game.
This change of pace spins on its head the formula most players used to claim victory in previous Souls entries. No wonder "Souls" is nowhere to be found in the title. It may share a lot of similarities, but here Miyazaki has completely disrupted expectations. There are certain newcomers who will snap in easily in a way that they just couldn't with previous entries, and while veterans can certainly adjust, they may have to shift strategies and learn some new tricks. Bloodborne has something special to offer to old and newcomers alike.
As you learn how to deal with situations that get iteratively more complex, you get procedurally more proficient with your move set and weapon so by the end of the game you feel like you've really mastered something. The key is in how the game design facilitates the development of your skills, introducing new concepts gradually and then pulling the rug out from under you so you have to use the same moves in a different way. This is somewhat similar to the formula used by Shigeru Miyamoto in Super Mario Bros' level design philosophy.
Bloodborne keeps you on edge in a way that other games don't, you'll find yourself worrying about what's around the next corner and advancing cautiously. Jump scares and dark brooding areas actually work here because you already feel afraid. This engagement with your character and the surroundings is certainly a result of fearing consequences for sloppy play. It's amazing how much more immersed you get when your next milestone is practically in the palm of your hand, but at the same time you dread any surprise that may snatch away victory. I've escaped ceilings that caved in on me, flaming boulders that came tumbling down a circular staircase, and dodged giant guillotines after accidentally setting off a trap. Paying attention and reacting swiftly are greatly rewarded, and there's nothing like the sensation of success and even pride from overcoming.
I normally play games on easy, hate frustration, and don't want to hit any unbalanced difficulty spikes down the road. With Bloodborne, you're stuck with the game's only difficulty level. This may seem like a setback to some, but really it's allowed the developers to hone the experience, making sure the entire thing is fair and balanced. Let's also get this out of the way, Bloodborne is not punishingly difficult. True, if you're just going to give up after trying the same exact thing five times in a row, you probably won't have a good time. If you're willing to focus completely, observe closely, and experiment if you meet with failure, then you'll easily meet success.
The experience is completely rewarding, and it's refreshing to expect that the player approach things thoughtfully. All of the tutorials, repetition of blatant cues, overt telegraphing, hand holding and exposition that allow even the most detached gamer to succeed are not going to be found here. If you missed something, well too bad for you. Things might be a lot more difficult than necessary.
After 70 hours of game time, I've only had about two frustrating moments*, which involved optional bosses. I felt the resolve to continue, because I was having so much fun otherwise that it wasn't worth it to let these moments stall me out. I've now gotten the platinum trophy, my third ever. Typically, achievements and trophies are usually the furthest thing from my mind while playing a game, but Bloodborne becomes an obsession. Having it out of my system is bittersweet, I can freely move on to other things, but on the other hand I completely savored the moments I was able to dedicate to the game, becoming completely intoxicated by the experience.
Being so hooked, after completing Bloodborne I found new reason to go back to Demon's Souls and Dark Souls. I gave these games a few good hours each. Due to all of my training, I was able to open up shortcuts. I could take on enemies easily, dodging at the right time, and striking when I saw a weakness. Using the shield as I had my gun in Bloodborne, I was able to defend myself properly. Everything seemed to come naturally, instead of feeling like I hit a brick wall when I originally tried my hand at the Souls series. I still don't think I'll continue with these games, the graphics have aged poorly, and the generic fantasy styling isn't engaging me the same way the horror themes did. Still, I'm confident I could do well should I continue.
I'm completely excited for what's next in the series, and hope that Bloodborne gets its own sequel, or that there's a new Souls spinoff with a different setting. I hope that as many people as possible are exposed, because there is something truly unique and special here that is now more accessible than ever. Are you interested at all in Bloodborne? Were you hesitant for the same reasons? What type of setting would you like to see in a Souls game? I'd like to hear your thoughts, please let us know in the comments!
* (Minor Spoilers) I've since learned that I would have had a much easier time if I would have finished the game and started again under New Game+, retaining my progress in the chalice dungeons, and gaining many more Blood Echoes from enemies the second time through. This would have allowed me to level up faster and overcome some of the challenges in a brute force way. Still, I was able to take these tougher enemies on at a lower level and succeed without too much trouble once I found the proper approach.