Fried Take - "Bloodborne" (2015)
As I write this, my eyes are bloodshot from sinking several hours into Bloodborne yesterday. My mind is occupied by it. I want to just jump back in and tackle the last area that killed me, and if I get killed again, then I wanted to keep trying and trying until I get past it... then do it all over again in the next area. I'm hooked, to say the least.
I'm thinking of new weapon combos, new strategies to get through areas, new shortcuts to find. Only a few days after release and it's a bit of an obsession already. Is that a bad thing? I'm not sure, but I am sure of one thing: Bloodborne is the furthest thing from something "bad" that I can think of. It's actually the best thing to happen to video games in years, and the best thing to happen to the PS4, period.
That may sound hyperbolic, but it fits the outrageous atmosphere From Software has crafted. And yes, outside of the difficulty and core gameplay (more on that in a second,) "outrageous" is the only word that can accurately describe the acid trip that is this game. From the get-go, it doesn't care what you think about it, or whether or not it makes sense. Giant shaving razor as a weapon? Sure, yeah. Elderly men in wheelchairs with gatling guns? Why not? What about little skeleton demons that teleport you places that you can adorn with top hats? Perfect!
The tone wildly swings between humorous and horrific, never signifying what, exactly, will be next. This results in something that's downright bizarre, in the vein of strange gaming oddities like Deadly Premonition or D2. It's grotesque and hilarious in equal amounts, and to me, it's a game that feels like it has completely lost its sanity... if it even had any to begin with. But then, for a game about a werewolf/zombie/monster virus corrupting the sanity of humans, maybe that's appropriate.
And while, yes, Bloodborne is hilarious at times because of how absurd it all is, the sparse narrative coupled with the dense lore ensures that players are never without some interesting curio to think about. While I can't necessarily explain the story present here, I understand it, if that makes any sense. All of the collective notes, cryptic NPC dialogue and visual cues in the world combine to craft a cohesive experience that you can't easily summarize, but seems logical and easy-to-grasp if you really let yourself be taken in by the world.
To me, the overarching narrative of Bloodborne blows most modern games out of the water. Without trying to artificially insert emotion or shock value or romance or some sort of misguided social commentary, the story is compelling and kept exciting me to unravel more. Nobody is marginalized, nothing is hamfisted, no elements are "cinematic." It's just a game with an accessible, fascinating story that shows and doesn't tell. Nothing more, nothing less. More games could learn from this style of storytelling. Just saying.
More games could also learn from the complex elements that lie at the heart of Bloodborne's deceptively simple gameplay, because frankly, it might be the best game I've ever gotten my mitts on in terms of raw mechanical craftsmanship. While I've always enjoyed the Souls series for its unrelenting commitment to precise, calculated decisions, I've also been in the minority who finds the control schemes between the three games to be a bit oblique and unwelcoming.
There's a definite appeal to that, I admit, with so many games today content with mollycoddling the player up through most of the experience, but I also feel there's something to be said for having accessibility and a steady difficulty curve. Bloodborne has both, but still doesn't sacrifice the signature challenge of the Souls series that it's a spiritual sibling to. Because of that, I would defend the position that it's an overall better experience than any prior game thus far. It starts off easy enough to grasp, but as you progress through the sprawl of Yharnam, you need to be quick on your feet and constantly demonstrate mastery of the controls if you hope to get anywhere.
Fortunately the controls are simple enough to pick up, but complex enough to facilitate deeper learning of how everything works. Dodging, a much bigger deal than it ever was in the Souls games, will eventually become second nature to you. Learning enemy attack animations so you can stall them with gunfire becomes key to survival. Perfecting the art of knowing when to keep your weapon extended or contracted helps to keep more dangerous foes at bay through either rapid slashes or slow, concentrated strikes. Basically, Bloodborne is what happens when you crash a game like Devil May Cry into a Souls game, and the result is something that is fast and furious, but quick to punish any sort of lazy button-mashing.
This ends up making the game work on two very different levels: as a pure action title and as a punishing, strategic RPG. Playing it too strictly as either will spell an early demise. If you're too tactical and focused on perfecting your technique, you'll find yourself getting gored by werewolves or deranged gunmen or giant pigs (!). On the same token, more "hack n' slash" approaches will leave you blindsided and vulnerable to all sorts of nastiness, which could have been avoided had you paid more attention. Balancing action and strategy, Bloodborne feels like a very different breed of game, despite hewing very closely to the established Souls formula.
And it's because it feels like a different breed, a new sort of hybrid, that it ultimately works in the gameplay department. "Works" is actually a severe understatement. It would be more accurate to say that Bloodborne houses some of the, if not the, best gameplay I've encountered in all my years of gaming. Everything works how it ought to. Players are in complete control of every step, stab, shot, etc., and every death happens for a reason. In a way, this doesn't really feel like From's game when you get to a certain point. It feels like your game, based entirely around how you want to experience it. To give players that degree of autonomy is no small feat.
It's also no small feat what the developer has done with Yharnam and its surrounding areas to make everything look and feel so astonishing. It's funny, too, because most of Bloodborne is rendered with greys and browns, two varieties of color that have become synonymous with too many games trying a bit too hard to be "realistic." From Software has proven that it's not about the colors themselves, but how they're used. Instead of creating generic "realism," they've instead opted to craft an atmosphere of what can only be called macabre beauty.
Everything feels dark and sinister, and even when the sun hangs above you, the sky has an eerie brownish-orange tinge to it, making even the "safer" times of the game feel a bit unnerving. "Unnerving" could be used to describe the rest of the visual offerings, too, but in a sort of awe-inspiring way. You could be fighting for your life against some oozing abomination above a bottomless chasm, but you'll find yourself hard-pressed not to admire the sweeping vistas comprised of gleaming towers rising hundreds of feet in the air that serve as a backdrop. At least, you will until it gets you killed.
Yes, the art direction here is superb, impeccable in its ability to use a worn color scheme to such wonderful effect. The aesthetic here is what happens when you take the worlds of Harry Potter and Castlevania, then crash them into each other with the utmost precision. And all of this is backed up by some amazing processing power, allowing players to see where they were an hour ago while simultaneously charting out their next move. It all looks so good, and the only visible slowdown happens with stuttering enemy animations on rare occasions; it never affects gameplay. Also, if you're a fan of the dumb/awful/beautiful rubbery ragdoll physics of Dark Souls, they make their return here, and they're just as unintentionally hilarious as ever. So there's also that.
There's not much else I can say about Bloodborne, outside of giving a mention to its masterful sound design and score. What else can be said for a game that hits every criteria I have for a good game? It not only does that, though. It breaks those criteria and forces me to raise my subjective standards by a sizable amount. I'm not quite sure I've played a game of this caliber on either the PS4 or One, and at the rate things are going now, I doubt I will again for at least another several years. A golden standard has been set, and if other developers want to catch up, they'll have to find a way to hurdle the bar that From Software has set thousands of feet above.
Everybody who seriously plays games will tell you about their personal great gaming moments. Whether it's getting the Master Sword in Ocarina of Time, the final confrontation with The Boss in Metal Gear Solid 3, or the lighthouse sequence of Bioshock Infinite, we've all got them. But Bloodborne? Bloodborne doesn't just have great gaming moments. It is a great gaming moment, as a cohesive unit, from start to finish.
Bloodborne is, to me, as perfect as a game can get, and a new high point for the medium.
Plus, come on. Wheelchair gatling gun guys. You just can't lose.