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June 4, 2015

Bloodborne. Just Bloodborne.

This is Cross-Up’s s 600th post (don’t ask how it happened, because I don’t know either).  So to celebrate, let me start by asking a question.

Why is this game significantly better than most of the other games I’ve played in years?

Well, I have my own possible answers to the question, but I just thought I’d get anyone reading this thinking about why Bloodborne has earned the praise/sales/hype that it has from the get-go.  Granted, I’m not 100% in love with the game, and I wouldn’t add it to my personal (largely non-existent) Top 10 just ‘cause, but it’s still really, really good.  And as always, knowing why something is good enhances one’s enjoyment of that good thing -- and helps a person find something as good or better in the future.

Whatever the case, I’ve been saying for over a year now that there isn’t a single game on the PS4 (and the Xbone by extension, though it’s in an even direr state) that justifies its existence.  There are good games out there, of course -- Guilty Gear Xrd and Wolfenstein: The New Order -- but as it stands there hasn’t been anything that would make me recommend a new console purchase…unless that console is the Wii U, but whatever.  So has it finally happened?  Is Bloodborne the game that justifies the PS4?

…Nah.  But it comes closer than anything yet.  And it’s still a must-own if you have a PS4 -- and now it’s up to me to explain why.  Such is my way.

Full disclosure: this might as well be my first Souls game.  Like, I started a file in Dark Souls II -- using my old standby and game-hopping avatar of the ages, Blackules -- but for one reason or another I let it slip from my mind.  My brother’s the Souls fan among us, though, so he’s gotten a lot of mileage out of the series; when I asked him about whether or not Bloodborne was the best yet, he ultimately came to the conclusion that it was.  I didn’t ask him how many times he died, though, for fear that it’d inevitably lead to him asking me how many times I died…in the first area.  (In my defense, the number’s not that high -- but a number of those deaths sure were preventable.)

So I guess my issue -- my assertion that the game doesn’t justify the PS4, despite its quality -- is the same issue that plagues Xrd.  For one: graphical quality aside, Bloodborne could still conceivably appear on the PS3 without too much lost.  (I’ve actually heard that it’s a smaller game than the entries prior, so take that as you will.)  On top of that, I’m concerned that the game is still in a pretty deep niche; maybe I’m generalizing, but my gut instinct is that not everyone will buy into what Bloodborne’s selling -- and even those that do aren’t guaranteed to stick around with it.  The assumption is that “it’s too hard”, I’d bet, and anyone that wants to clear it without too much of a hassle -- thanks to other modern games softening them up -- will drop it if/when Yharnam proves uncooperative. 

With that in mind, let me make something clear: Bloodborne is not a hard game.

You heard me.  Bloodborne is NOT a hard game.

That’s not to say that the game’s a cakewalk, of course.  The thing about Bloodborne -- at least from the perspective of a Souls greenhorn -- is that it’s a punishing game that requires concentration, preparation, and composure.  It’s more than possible to get wrecked within minutes of starting the game (partly because you start without a weapon, and you can’t even make it outdoors without making it past a werewolf just hanging out), but having played through the game some, I’ve never felt like the challenges presented are insurmountable.  I’ve never thought “I’m not good enough” or “there’s no way I can beat this”.  You CAN beat it, as long as you’re careful…well, in theory.

I won’t pretend like there aren’t some bullshit-ass enemies in the game -- nerf dogs plz -- but even then, I can’t say there’s been a moment yet where I could blame the game for my deaths.  Every death I’ve had so far has been entirely my fault; things don’t always go your way, but even when the odds aren’t in your favor you can still do reasonably well.  You can make your way to the next area, whether you make a quick run or fight your way there by launching an assault on a dozen plague-infested villagers.  It’s more than possible to succeed as long as you don’t panic and keep your cool.

It’s a lot easier than it sounds, though.  And that feeds directly into one of Bloodborne’s greatest strengths: it’s one of the scariest games I’ve ever played.

I can’t help but think back to last year’s “survival horror” “game” The Evil Within.  I don’t have any qualms about admitting that I dropped it, primarily because it didn’t even try to deliver on the thrills and frights it promised.  I’d bet that a big part of that has to do with the fact that the player had more than enough tools to trivialize the nightmarish enemies (by which I mean more zombies and spooky scary madmen) within the first couple of hours -- with a decent arsenal, the bog-standard stealth kill, and the Agony Crossbow -- the game’s marquis weapon that lets you wreck the enemies you’re supposed to be afraid of.

In Bloodborne, you can’t rely on instant kills or super-weapons to see you through encounters.  That’s not to say that there aren’t instant kills, but you can’t just go “All right, time to press the I Win Button” and be done with it.  One of the game’s big wrinkles is that there’s a sort of counter-hit mechanic; if you time your gunshots just right, you can cancel out enemy attacks and leave them in a staggered state.  Land an attack in that brief window, and you’ll do insane damage in one shot. 

Sounds useful…except that requires you to pay close attention to the movements of one enemy (not to mention that you have to learn their attack patterns beforehand or on the fly), and it’s not uncommon to be facing multiple enemies at once.  And even the average crazed villager can do huge amounts of damage to you -- to say nothing of the range, aggression, and even combos they can make use of.  And that stagger window is a lot shorter than you’d expect, to the point where if you aren’t aggressive, you can miss it entirely…and walk right into a big guy’s furious attack. 

Basically, instant-kills aren’t a given.  They’re a reward for smart play -- how they should be.

Again, it’s important to keep your composure in the game -- because if you choke, you’re dozens of times more likely to bite it.  Whether it’s from you planning out your course of action for an encounter (which is a lot more common than I expected), or dealing with an ambush from both sides (which is also plenty possible, to my dismay), you can get overwhelmed in a matter of seconds from enemy numbers, enemy attacks, or both.  BUT in most cases, you have just enough tools to handle those situations.  Your melee weapon gives you light and heavy attacks, and your gun lets you fight from long range (albeit with an ammo count you have to be wary of).  You can roll and quick step to get out of some situations, though you’ll have to eye your stamina gauge, or else you’ll be left without the energy to attack.  Basically, even if Bloodborne is supposedly a more offensive game than the other Souls entries, it still asks that you pay attention and fight with skill and a cool head.

If you can’t keep a cool head, you won’t just die; you’ll die in terrible, awful, spectacularly hilarious ways.  Here’s a sample of my greatest hits (complete with music):

--Getting mauled by dogs!
--Throwing my last Molotov three feet short of a werewolf -- and attracting two of them at once!
--Pulling a half-dozen villagers at once!
--Dying just yards away from a checkpoint thanks to a mob I already knew was there!
--Fighting a big troll guy -- and then trying not to fight a big troll guy!
--Getting my halberd lodged on the scenery and punished because of it!
--Ambushes all over the place…that I should have really learned to expect by that point, but whatever!
--Backing away from villagers so much that I fall into the sewers I just climbed out of!

It’s not easy to keep your cool in Bloodborne.  Like I said before, it’s a punishing game; you can’t count on lanterns to bring you back to a safe haven, or even checkpoints that keep your progress from being nullified.  On top of that, if you lose your life, you lose the Blood Echoes you need to buy items and level up -- meaning that one bad run could lead to you being borderline unable to make another one. 

And, you know, gamer instincts demand that you walk away with something to show for all the horrible monsters you’ve slain up to that point.  So while other games can’t be arsed to give you a reason to fear death -- and in some cases reward it because now you know exactly how to prevent it -- Bloodborne makes your life count by making sure you lose EVERYTHING if you mess up.  Resource management’s a hell of a drug.

Also?  Try to keep a cool head when THIS is the first boss.

I’m at a point where I’m ready to declare that the deadliest enemy in Bloodborne isn’t the villagers, the troll guys, the gunmen, the giant rats, the crows (that bark, for some reason), the sewer zombie lepers, the giant pig I didn’t even try to fight, the other gunmen, the super-infected demon spearmen, the Cleric Beast, or even those pain-in-the-ass dogs.  It’s the player.  Playing and succeeding at Bloodborne may very well come down to defeating you, the one in control -- overcoming your fears, failings, and bad habits to turn the tables on the monsters infesting Yharnam.

And when you do succeed -- when you defeat even a single enemy and earn your respite -- it offers up rewards that not a lot of games can match.  In that sense, you gain more than just some measly resources or the right to progress through the game; knowing what you had to do just to avoid that dreaded “YOU DIED” message, taking even a single step forward feels like a massive accomplishment.  I’d wager that point for point, clearing the entirety of some games can’t compare to one minor Bloodborne victory.  For obvious reasons.

It certainly helps the game’s case that the world therein is actually something anyone would want to explore -- despite, or maybe because of, its horrors.  Remember how I said how Bloodborne’s apparently a smaller game than some of the other stuff in the Souls series?  My response to that is a resounding COULD’VE FOOLED ME.  I’ve played the game off and on for weeks now, and not only have I not left the first area yet, but it seems like every time I deviate from my usual route, I find an entirely different, sprawling area just waiting to be explored.  I hope I don’t have to explain to you how awesome that is.

How paradoxical it is that the place players are told to explore is also the place that they (in-universe and out of it) want to desperately escape from.  Setting aside all of the nightmarish beasts knocking around, Yharnam is an oppressive place that -- combined with the threats faced every other minute -- unsettles you from the get-go.  Visually speaking, it’s a game that has every excuse to lack a good color palette, but that doesn’t stop Bloodborne from packing in all sorts of shades and hues -- albeit for the sake of building a world full of horror.

I don’t want to be that guy, but I’m gonna go ahead and be that guy and say From Software is making The Order: 1886 eat shit.

I could go on about the visuals, but what I’m more concerned about is the sound design -- and just how much it enhances the experience.  Landing good hits feels satisfying as you hear bodies get torn; when you miss and hear your weapon hit the ground -- or worse yet, hear your empty gun click rapidly -- then you know immediately that you’re in for a bad time. 

Critical hits cause a verifiable explosion of ruined flesh, coupled with an echo that’s at once awe-inspiring and terrifying.  And while I can’t say much about the music right now (most areas are silent or ambient), the music that does play is pretty good.  The Cleric Beast’s boss theme is a GREAT way to kick-start the soundtrack, and makes better use of that chorus than half a decade’s worth of Final Fantasy games.

I'm not done being salty yet.  I need a week or eight (trillion).

But the sound design isn’t just for decoration; in a lot of ways, it’s a gameplay mechanic.  If you listen closely, you can make out the presence and motions of nearby enemies.  Example: there’s one spot in Yharnam where there are tons of dogs in cages -- but if you can parse through their barking, you can hear those that are actually able to attack you patter their foot pads on the ground as they run patrols. 

Likewise, it’s hard for a big troll guy to sneak up on you when you hear one moaning on the other side of a gate…though that has the side effect of making you fret the next encounter/chance of death.  Also, speaking personally?  When I first started out, I always got freaked out when I read the messages left by other players.  They do this creepy-ass laugh that made me think enemies were sneaking up on me.  I guess that’s an instinctual holdover from Killer7.

My takeaway from Bloodborne is that thanks to it, I can finally understand a little better what the appeal of horror fiction (games, movies, whatever) is supposed to be.  Speaking specifically about games, it works best if the developer trusts that the player can accept moments of vulnerability -- if not a constant reminder and mentality.  This is a game that made me spend minutes at a time trying to plot a plan of attack against a bunch of sewer rats -- sewer rats, of all things! -- and ultimately deciding to blow every last bullet I had so I wouldn’t get mauled before I even reached the bottom of a ladder. 

But it’s not just about the fear.  It’s about what comes afterward, if and when you can clear a skirmish.  Overcome the fear, and you get to feel that catharsis.  The expulsion of fear.  The release.  The relief.  And with it, a sense of accomplishment -- the sudden realization that, even if you’re in a bad situation, you can still be a Pretty Cool Guy.  It’s the sort of thing that makes you appreciate the moments of peace that much more; for one reason or another, I’m practically enamored with the Plain Doll because she’s a signal of peace and warmth…well, that, and she levels you up.  Can’t hate someone who offers that.

Whatever the case, Bloodborne almost seems like an anti-game in this day and age; by rejecting a lot of modern-day conventions, it’s left as a significantly-stronger game.  It’s a dark and brutal world rendered purposefully, skillfully, and affectingly, as opposed to games that go grim and gritty just ‘cause.  It’s got combat that lets the player fight back, but gears the mechanics so that domination is a privilege, not a right -- if it happens at all.  It may be a game that can use jump scares (i.e. ambushes all over the place), but the fear is generated via atmosphere and the player’s immediate understanding that this isn’t a world about loot and glory.  It’s about struggle.  Survival.  Desperation.

So why do I want to keep playing it?  Why would anyone want to keep playing it?

Short answer: masochism, probably.  Long answer: because even if the world is uninviting (to say the least), Bloodborne offers up a world.  It offers up something different -- something that, even if it’s less than pleasant to explore, is still worth exploring.  When I die in game, I get frustrated because it means I’ve lost precious time and resources.  But I’m frustrated even more because it means -- since I couldn’t keep my cool, or choked at a critical moment -- I’ve denied myself the right to keep exploring.  More than anything, I want my adventure to go on for as long as possible.  Even if it means fighting those dogs.

So.  You know what?  I changed my mind.  This game DOES justify the existence of the PS4 -- because there might not be another game in the next decade (barring a sequel) that does what Bloodborne does.

…Shame about that Xbone, though.

And that’s about all I’ve got for now.  I’ll probably keep playing Bloodborne (even if I need chasers to calm my nerves), so maybe this won’t be the last time I talk about it.  Either way, thanks for reading.  Hope you enjoyed it, and I hope you’ll stick around to read more of my stuff.

You don’t know how good it feels to be free of Type-0.  Now I can talk about stuff that’s actually fun.


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