About a month ago, one of my fine patrons requested that I go through Bloodborne’s The Old Hunters DLC. It wasn’t a huge ask since I’d fallen in love with the game last year and needed a good excuse to go back for more. The only real issue was that I’d already beaten the game and the process for accessing the DLC, in true Souls fashion, isn’t exactly straightforward.
To enter The Old Hunters, you need an item that only becomes available after defeating the Vicar Amelia boss. This is roughly a quarter to a third into Bloodborne, depending on how much time you spend dying, leveling, and well, dying again. To see the new content with my character, using all the fun weapons and upgrades I’d earned up to this point, I’d need to start a New Game +. On paper, that didn’t sound so bad, as I’d already conquered the worst that late-game Bloodborne had to offer. Surely it would be a relative sprint to where I needed to go, no longer letting the mystery and apprehension of an unknown world slow me down.
That mystery is really at the core of Souls design; the feeling of utter helplessness as you encounter an enemy with patterns you’ve never seen before. It’s also why I’ve always found the difficulty of the series to be a bit overstated. The path to success was usually one of patience, even for someone that isn’t the most mechanically skilled. The games were balanced in a way that punished you to where you train yourself to never make the same mistakes again. It took a while for everything to click, but eventually I was convinced that the games actually wanted you to win.
As I made my way through the opening hours of Bloodborne once again, I felt that message get away from me. By the time I’d encountered the Bloodstarved Beast, it became obvious that something was very wrong. It was a boss that I’d easily dispatched in my first playthrough, now brushing off my hits as if they were nothing. It didn’t matter that I could masterfully anticipate and dodge most of his attacks – I wasn’t hurting him at all.
As it turns out, New Game + is kind of bullshit.
While not a new feature to the series, this was the first time I found myself needing to engage with it. By the time I’d made any progress with the original Dark Souls, the DLC had already been installed and was part of my original journey. In Dark Souls III, I found myself a bit under-leveled for Ashes of Ariadel, but I was also confident it was doable at some point later in my playthrough. In Bloodborne, I felt inept before I took even a single step into The Old Hunters. All of that progress I’d made up to this point was meaningless. The character build that had conquered the main game was now ill-equipped for this new setting.
It’s worth pointing out that New Game + only affects the health and damage values of enemies; everything else is identical. While the feature in most games allows you to relive your adventure as an overpowered content tourist, in Bloodborne, it intentionally makes the game harder. In my case, it was now reaching the point of too hard. For the first time, the difficulty felt artificial instead intricately balanced for me to eventually overcome. Still, I persisted. With help from NPCs and other players, I brute-forced my way through the Bloodstarved Beast and then Amelia, opening my path to The Old Hunters.
Three guesses how well I fared.
The DLC is host to five additional bosses, three of which are more difficult than anything in the main game. The very first one you encounter is Ludwig, a stunningly gruesome horse-man with deep implications to the greater Bloodborne lore. Once again, I found myself unable to do much to Ludwig, even after committing most of his attacks to memory. My endgame +10 bolt sword could barely faze him and even outside help proved incapable of distracting him for very long. Eventually, I did slay him, but the victory was hollow. I’d spent all of that time learning the fight, but still needed two NPC helpers and a lot of luck. It was the opposite of what had made me fall in love with Bloodborne to begin with. I no longer felt connected to the world and empowered by its challenges, now more concerned with barely scraping by so I may see it to its conclusion.
The area after this fight is a long staircase leading to a pair of human enemies. I thought nothing of it when they killed me; the exasperation and fatigue of finally conquering Ludwig making me an easy kill. Upon my comeback, I parried one of the hunters and hit them with my visceral attack (a powerful counter-hit that is often a one-shot on most enemies). To my surprise, they got back up.
I then did it again.
Five visceral attacks on the same non-boss enemy, resulting in about a quarter of their life bar. I was streaming at the time and a very confused chat watched as I tried to kill this seemingly immortal enemy, running out of bullets and blood vials before falling to them once again.
It was clear that I was under-leveled, but it appeared that I’d somehow built a weak character as well? One of the biggest criticisms of Bloodborne is the lack of build variety, so it seems almost impossible to spec a character that couldn’t complete the game. In my particular case, my level 110 Huntress was enough to run through all that the main quest offered, only calling for help a handful of times. Now, suddenly, it wasn’t enough to advance at all.
Was there something I was missing? The answer was one I was dreading – The Chalice Dungeons.
Unlike the rest of Bloodborne, The Chalice Dungeons are unique in that there is really nothing else like them in any of the other Souls games. Conceptually, they’re fascinating – a series of bonus areas filled with loot and special boss encounters; a way to extend the life of the game long after you’ve conquered the main story. Unfortunately, in execution, they are easily the worst part of the game. The dungeons themselves are a slog through similar hallways full of similar enemies offering similar rewards. Some Chalices are randomized, but the ones that aren’t are indistinguishable from them, somehow making the act of hunting gruesome beasts into a hollow, sterile experience. The rare time something surprises you, you can be guaranteed to see it over and over from that point forward. In one particular case, I’d watched an enemy burst out from a coffin to attack me no less than 20 times in the same dungeon.
While the extra bosses are often incredible (one of whom should have been in the main game to begin with), the time and stress invested isn’t remotely worth it. Most of the time, the only reward for doing a Chalice Dungeon is an item that will let you do more Chalice Dungeons. Hidden in obscure corners are the materials I would need to somehow make my underpowered Hunter viable again, but after only a few hours of farming, I’d determined that I’d rather start a completely new save than continue down that path.
The failings of the Chalice Dungeons only serve to underline what the rest of Bloodborne is able to accomplish. They also answer the question of whether Soulsborne gameplay can thrive in absence of design. The whole ethos of the genre relies on this idea that nothing is accidental; that every item description and NPC clothing choice is worthy of analysis. Without that, it doesn’t matter how difficult the enemies are, the game becomes downright unpleasant, and not in the morbid way that would typically draw a player in even closer.
There’s nothing to discover in the dungeons, just as there’s nothing to learn from New Game + outside of an inhuman level of patience. Both feel tacked-on, out of place in a world that’s otherwise so full of intent. They reduce an artistic work to a series of numbers, pulling back the curtain that all games at their core attempt to keep shut. It’s something beautiful left to the mercy of an algorithm, as if it were no more important than your social media timeline.
The real tragedy of it all – I really like The Old Hunters and want to go back for more, but when I do it won’t be as the same person I was. I invested 70 hours in a character and her relationship with a weapon that could always be trusted to get the job done. Now, I have to pretend; to optimize in a way that will hopefully meet the game’s approval. True to how things are supposed to work, my time through the opening hours of Bloodborne have been a relative cakewalk due to my own experience, but even when I reach the point when I can go back to the DLC, I’ll still have more leveling to do. Scenarios like mine should be a perfect use case for the Chalices, but I’d rather repeat story content I’ve already seen than have to go back.
I don’t like that feeling, of having to intentionally avoid a significant part of a game that I love so much. If we ever do see a Bloodborne sequel, I’d like to see them try again. It would no doubt be a challenge to make them somehow tenable in the context they’ve been offered, but I can’t think of anything more appropriate than to have From overcome their own roadblocks; to see them make it through the same way their games have encouraged me to do the same.