While Bloodborne and its ilk may get treated like their main appeal is the difficult design by the popular cultural osmosis, everyone who has truly experienced these games know these hardcore boss fights are just one of many pieces in building a top-class atmospheric experience. Nothing quite makes each area as foreboding as a killer climax demanding the best of your abilities. But there’s so much more substance to this experience. I’m not the type who ever enjoys being asked to repeat the same segment again and again, so the fact someone like me can be this fond of the Soulsborne concept shows there is something more.
As much as I love the original Dark Souls, the setting is rather familiar. This is expanded upon within the lore and the level design itself is phenomenal, but the general aesthetics have never been the main draw. While Bloodborne also draws from familiar sources, such as Lovecraft and gothic horror, this is much rarer in the video game industry and especially in this particular, action-oriented form. Additionally, From’s obscuring take on narrative presentation perfectly matches the inspiring material. This form of horror works best when the audience can’t quite wrap their head around every detail.
Bloodborne stands out among the games which followed Dark Souls’ footsteps due to a massive change in pace. Where the original Dark Souls rewarded a methodical approach, Bloodborne expects constant confrontation. There’s no shield to hide behind here – the only line of defense is dodging or well-timed parries. Yet there are also rewards for this frenzied approach. The rally system is an excellent mechanic, allowing the player to briefly heal after being hit by hitting the enemy back. Thus, there’s a choice between retreating to safety and popping a blood vial or staying in the middle of the fight.
Yet the exploration itself captures the same methodical magic of Dark Souls. Little corners might hide enemies and traps, with entire sections of the game hidden behind obscured paths. There’s reason to search every inch of the map, and what you find is generally rewarding. Enemies are perfectly-placed – while it can be easy to pass this design off as trial-and-error, an observant player will recognize when an ambush is inevitable. The gothic architecture of Central Yharnam is wondrous, and the game only goes to more extreme and nightmarish designs. Yahar’gul feels especially malicious, forcing a frantic sprint with regenerating enemies. This will likely be your least favorite area, but for very good reasons.
While I typically prefer the exploration in this genre, the boss fights in Bloodborne are truly exceptional. They combine fascinating designs shrouded in mystery with largely unique mechanical designs – few of these bosses feel like one another. Father Gascoigne proves this game is going to be a challenge throughout, starting as a hunter vs. hunter battle before transforming into something else entirely. And if you followed a specific side story to this point, there’s a neat little trick. This battle gets the extra ambience of a graveyard setting.
The Shadow of Yharnam provides the extra challenge of having to manage three tough enemies simultaneously. Oddities like Micolash turn the concept of a boss fight on its head. Their arenas all stand apart. Most feel perfectly balanced, where the first few attempts involve learning their strategies, then slowly adapting as applying the counter is also a challenge. But everything feels manageable in the same way as the other From games – if you truly feel stuck, you can always call a buddy for help.
The sheer scope of this game is what I find most surprising. Bloodborne borrows from some specific literary influences. Despite this, every single area has a unique atmosphere and feel. This explores seemingly every genre of horror it can manage, even trailing off into ghosts and what might be aliens. And the detailed design throughout is simply awe-inspiring.
I feel like I need to emphasize the exploration aspects here, as I truly feel this is the big selling point. When one is looking for a game to give a sense of discovery, it is easy to jump toward the open world genre. But in open world games, getting from point A to point B is largely as simple as walking in the right direction. Bloodborne makes the player earn their trips to these locations. Some of these places are simply off the beaten path. Stumbling across the Abandoned Old Workshop is as simple as making a precise leap. Meanwhile, finding Ebrietas is an engaged process with multiple steps, a secret inside a secret. Reaching my favorite area in the game, Forsaken Castle Cainhurst, first requires taking a side path which circles back to the first area of the game. Many developers load their games up with content, but so much of this can end up feeling like tedious busywork. Every stray location in Bloodborne, meanwhile, has a proper reward, whether it be additional lore, a cool new weapon, or literally an entire new area which adds several more hours to the experience. There may not be as many locations here, but this is a clear example of quality over quantity.
The From formula might be popular to imitate, but few pull off the central mechanics better than Bloodborne. Even if the fights can be frustrating and knowing where to go next can be dizzying, this all fits perfectly with this specific setting and atmosphere. In a game where ‘insight’ is a central currency, finding secrets properly feels like crossing the threshold into madness.