When having a discussion about the Souls series, the topic will, inevitably, turn to their (often overstated) difficulty. Let’s make one thing clear – I have no interest in being that guy that rushes to his keyboard to declare that the games “aren’t that hard”, but I think the reason the games are difficult can often get lost in these conversations. I’m as guilty as anyone of initially putting Dark Souls in the same category as the droves of masocore platformers and romhacks that I no longer had time for. It wasn’t until much later that I learned why I found the game so impenetrable, and why that is, ultimately, to the benefit of the player.
For me, the Souls games are about two things – obfuscation and subversion.
These two concepts, of course, fly in the face of everything we know and understand about most games. Not only do we expect to know the reason for our quest, but we are constantly told that we are the only one strong enough to complete it. To be placed in a world that tells you nothing, that also “demotes” you by putting you on a mostly even playing field with everyone else, it triggers this very visceral (no pun intended) reaction from within us. The problem is that, after multiple games, Dark Souls became a known entity and that obfuscation became harder to maintain. It became familiar to the point of essentially creating its own genre. How do you continue to subvert, to keep an audience guessing, while also retaining that addictive feeling one gets from slowly peeling back the curtain to reveal the unknown?
Bloodborne feels like it was created specifically to answer that question.
I’ve always played Dark Souls in the most idiot-proof manner possible – a big dumb knight with a big dumb sword hiding behind a big dumb shield, winning most of my battles via sheer attrition. As you’d imagine, my first few hours with Bloodborne were… rough. Something as simple as taking a shield away completely recontextualizes the way combat is approached, forcing you to be more aggressive. One of the more critical combat mechanics requires to immediately lash out at threats after they’ve dealt damage to you, as if you were some sort of mindless animal. This isn’t accidental. After all, you are a Hunter, looking to quell the beastly scourge, all the while seemingly close to falling victim yourself.
This is where the subversion goes beyond simple gameplay. It’s a new world with new rules. See, Bloodborne is a Gothic horror story about a Victorian town, but, at the same time, it isn’t. At risk of spoiling a two year old video game, you eventually uncover something far more sinister than just werewolves. What results may very well be my favorite story of the loosely-defined series, partially due to its palette of influences, but also because the trademark obfuscation, while still present, doesn’t seem as insurmountable. By the time I had beaten Bloodborne, I actually felt as if I had a solid grasp of what happened and why, even before taking my customary dive into the Wiki hole for more info.
Part of this has to do with Bloodborne feeling like a much more personal story, taking place over a much shorter time span than the Souls games. Because of its firm commitment to the horror genre, you also see these people react with more than just sorrow. Like most Souls settings, Yharnam seems to be the centerpiece of a rather crapsack world, but the people within it feel more human, less desensitized to their horrible fate since the status quo hasn’t existed for nearly as long. Fear is not only based in the unknown, but in the possible dangers of consequence. People in Bloodborne actually fear dying. Some of them fear something even worse, and by proxy, you fear along with them, not knowing when the next subversion is around the corner.
It’s a testament to how well the elements in place work considering other aspects of Bloodborne feel half-baked or flat out unfinished. While I did eventually get used to the different flow of combat, there are parts of the old games that I found myself missing. Even though I never much deviated from Strength builds, Bloodborne doesn’t offer much in the way of variety, at least in that initial playthrough. You are expected, and essentially forced, to play in a rather specific way, flat out ignoring several of your stats until very late in the game. It makes sense in regards to the recovery mechanic not really working for a gun or magic user, but options and self-imposed difficulty have always been at the heart of the games. There are also constant hints at a “beasthood” stat that is ultimately a non-factor. I beat every boss in the game and got the best ending despite never once engaging with it. It feels like a placeholder for something that was never fully implemented, referring to a “transformation” that your Hunter is never actually capable of doing.
I could also complain about certain plot threads here and there that were left dangling, but further research indicates to me that The Old Hunters DLC takes care of a lot of that. As it stands now, I’m not sure when I’ll get around to throwing down the extra $20 to see that journey through. Even on a New Game+, I feel like there were a lot of things I missed, and there are always the Chalice Dungeons if I really can’t get enough combat. Sadly, the Chalice Dungeons kind of suck. They’re really just bonus levels made of prefab parts, sprinkling boss encounters here and there, many of which never appear in the main game. There are also promises of lore implications that initially drew me in, but the rewards are mostly nonexistant. The only things you’ll ever get out of playing Chalice Dungeons are opportunities to play more Chalice Dungeons and a trophy for one of the bosses. As someone that really didn’t care for either, my time with Bloodborne ended with a bit of a whimper, letting my NG+ Hunter sit until I decided when we’d embark on our next adventure.
I think that’s the most important takeaway from Bloodborne for me. It’s a question of “when” and not “if”. I will, undoubtedly, play through the whole game again at some point, maybe with an audience so I can replicate the experience of discovering Yharnam’s secrets for the first time, going on to then discuss the potential that they hold for the future. Aside from general politeness, one of my favorite aspects of the Souls community is the need to constantly find more doors to open, even if there’s something horrific and dangerous inside. They are a group that thrives on being played with, on having their expectations subverted. And when they overcome, they know that they’ve earned it.
While I’d certainly like another Bloodborne game at some point, I don’t know what form it could possibly take, even if, narratively, I have a few ideas of my own. Those ideas are probably the safest and most boring of all the possibilities, so I can’t cling to those concepts any more than I was able to cling to a shield for those 40 hours. If I had my way and From Software had to accept my proposal for a sequel, I would have to distill my favorite parts of Bloodborne into a short sentence and trust them to take it from there.
“Please, surprise me again.”