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December 7, 2015

PS4nukkah: Bloodborne

I’m an idiot.

That should be blatantly obvious by now, because collectively I’ve blown about a hundred hours on the modern-day Final Fantasy games, and cleared one of its latest entries before I even touched Bloodborne.  I remedied that eventually, and while I’ve already said some stuff about the game already -- good things, no less -- I can’t emphasize it enough.  Bloodborne is a good-ass game.  If you haven’t played it and you have a PS4, go play it.  Especially now, since the DLC expansion The Old Hunters is out, AND there’s a game of the year edition that has it packed in.

But let’s get back to the matter at hand.  See, it’s been months -- literal months -- since the last time I booted up Bloodborne.  I pretty much forgot how to play, so I figured it’d be best if I started over with a new character and file.  As such, I made a new version of my old mainstay, Blackules; I just barely made it to the second boss (on accident) the first time around, but I hoped I’d do much better with a new hunter by my side.  And the initial run would have gone a lot better if I wasn’t a complete idiot.

I forgot how to heal -- and ended up assuming that I couldn’t heal until later in the game.

And you know what?  It might have actually made me -- if not the game in general -- even better.


Before I go any further, let’s set the stage a bit.  The whole theme of this little miniseries (besides PS4 games) is “elements”, in honor of the Stratovarius song of the same name.  Said song focuses on wind, fire, water, and earth…or, more appropriately, Fear.  Anger.  Sorrow.  Joy.  So each game I’ll talk about will deal with one of those four elements.  And as you can guess, Bloodborne nails one of those elements pretty much perfectly -- to the point where you can call it I Don’t Wanna Be Here Anymore.

True to its name, Bloodborne is a bloody, gory game.  Attacks are weighty, and tear the viscera out of anything unfortunate to taste your blade.  The sound design is immaculate, whether it’s so you can rip apart foes, or so you can double over in terror as hellspawn rush your way.  (Seriously, what the hell is up with those giant crows?)  With the threat of death tucked away behind every corner, you can’t help but clutch your hard-earned Blood Echoes close to your chest -- and then blow all your items with one panic-born decision after another, until you take irreversible damage thanks to a single sloppy move.

Paradoxically, Bloodborne is built on fear -- and thrives on it -- but I’d say that the whole point of the gameplay is to conquer that fear.  Control it.  Master it.  That’s easier said than done, I know, but I’m pretty sure it’s possible.  You just know there’s some expert out there who blasted through the game in a couple of days.  I think his first name started with a J.  Justin?  Jeff?  Eh, something like that.


No one will get this reference.

In any case, Blackules.  Much like Link from the Zelda games, there are many forms of Blackules; no two of them are alike.  Sometimes he takes on the form of a wizened old man, travelling the world in silence.  Other times, he’s a stalwart and virile warrior whose strength lets him manhandle any and all challengers.  This time around, he’s a strong guy -- aaaaaaaaaaaaaaand I proceeded to shoot myself in the foot.  In theory, at least.

I chose the Military Veteran origin, not so much because of the stats (good strength and endurance at the cost of magic power, IIRC), but because it sounded like something that’d suit the character.  BUT because I chose the axe last time of out of the 3 starting weapons, I went with the Threaded Cane.  I’ve heard that the axe is the n00b weapon -- which is entirely justified, because its transformed state has a STUPID HUGE attack range -- and the cane is comparatively worse, but you know what?  I kind of prefer the cane, because it feels like I’m zoning out baddies like I’m Axl from Guilty Gear.  Well, assuming that I don’t bang my chains against a wall.


Now here comes the silly part.  Since it had been such a long time since I’d last played the game, I had to re-learn the controls from scratch.  The four triggers are the attack buttons, which is a departure from the norm (albeit one that works overall).  Once you slot in stuff from your inventory, items are managed via the D-pad.  That ended up leading to a problem: see, I had assumed that I could heal myself with Blood Vials once I started getting them, and thus keep my hunter alive for a little longer.  But despite my furious attempts, the D-pad denied me my tasty drinks.

“Okay, that’s weird,” I thought.  “Oh, do I have to equip it first?”  But I couldn’t equip the Blood Vials.  Molotov cocktails, sure.  Pebbles, of course.  But the one saving grace I desperately needed eluded me.  I ended up learning that the healing button wasn’t on the D-pad, but on Triangle, AKA the one button I didn’t think of pressing for some reason.  At the time, though, I worked under a certain assumption: by choosing to play as a Military Veteran, I’d accidentally chosen a version of Hard Mode; with my Insight locked at zero, I figured that in order to use Blood Vials, I’d have to find some Madman’s Insight first.  In other words?  I thought that in order to heal, I had to fight my way toward the right to heal.

And guess what?  It actually made me play better.


There’s no scientific proof of it, of course.  All of the variables are different; different stats, different weapons, et cetera.  Plus, even if I didn’t remember every detail from the game, I’d done that opening area enough times by that point with my previous character (Suplex) to know a number of the ins and outs.  But the thing about Bloodborne (if you’ll let me be so bold) is that even if you know where some of the sneakiest enemies in an area are hiding, there’s no guarantee you’ll blast through every foe on your way to the goal.  You can still get ambushed.  You WILL face impossible odds.  Your plans can fall to pieces in seconds.  And of course, there’s always the issue of human error.

Obviously, Bloodborne is a hard game.  But it isn’t impossible, and (barring what I suspect are design choices and enemy placements hand-crafted to ruin your day) it’s a fair game.  If you die thanks to some enemy coming out of the woodworks, it’s not entirely your fault, even though you should probably know better by that point.  But if it keeps happening -- if “human error” is the sole reason why you’re forced to make the same run a thousand times over -- then it’s probably your fault.  You need to do better.  And as cruel and as terrifying as it can get, Bloodborne provides.


When I restarted the game with Blackules -- and thought that I couldn’t heal -- I assumed that I wouldn’t accomplish much.  I figured that I’d have to start over, but I might as well see how far I could go.  As it turned out, I did better without healing items than I ever did with them.  In the span of about an hour and a half (not even that, because some of that time included character creation), I reached a point where I was willingly taking on three and even four guys at once, and without getting hit.  I dealt with ambushes as they came, even when crazed Yharnam dwellers rushed in from off-screen.  The dogs that terrorized me in the past went down in two hits.  Dodging enemy gunfire became second nature.  At certain points, I went from going in and hoping for the best to willingly rushing down mobs of opponents.  And I won.

That’s not to say I went full ham every time (or that I never died again).  I still managed to pick my battles by thinning out the masses -- either by pulling foes with pebble tosses, or by gaining the edge with the tried-and-true tactic of “hit ‘em while their back’s turned”.  Blackules is a noble and valiant fighter, but I’m not.  In a pinch, I can get pretty pragmatic and exploitative.  If you have a weakness, I’ll take advantage of it.  Just ask my brother and his poor Little Mac.


Ultimately, the first run of my return ended in something not unlike abject failure.  I had forgotten where the other lamp/checkpoint was in the area, and so I figured it had to be past a couple of werewolves lycanthropes on a bridge.  Just like before, I couldn’t take them out.  But I got frustratingly close; I actually managed to kill both, but I traded blows with the second and bit it.  So ended Blackules’ career, albeit temporarily.  Still, if it WAS going to end there, I don’t think anyone would have been disappointed in him.  He put up a hell of a fight.

I guess that’s the thing about Bloodborne.  Yes, it’s scary and nerve-wracking as all get out, and that’s in the opening hours; I don’t even want to imagine what else might be in the game when the Cleric Beast is the first and presumably least From Software’s latest has to offer.  But it’s what makes the rewards all the sweeter.  The challenge level is through the roof, and when you can reach a point where you’re gliding seamlessly from one skirmish to the next, overpowering your foes while remaining untouchable, it’s quite the feeling.  It’s not acting in the absence of fear, but in spite of it.  Maybe even because of it; the will to survive and succeed makes you stronger than you could have ever thought possible.

Put simply?  I think Bloodborne is a game that can do more than inspire fear (as capable and as powerful as it is).  No, this game can actually make the player go beyond that.  It makes players ascend.


My sheer bumbling made me catch glimpses of that plateau, but it’s there.  It’s appreciable in a world where power fantasies and indulgent design are practically the norm.  Too many games have put too much power in my hands, and I’ve come to resent them for it; in those, I’m a walking armory, an unstoppable killing machine, or a big fish in a pond the size of a spitball.  There’s no justification for “tension” when I have a fully functional flamethrower, and even then I practically have an instant-kill button on lockdown.

It’s true that once you get into Bloodborne’s rhythm, things get easier.  But that ease comes from understanding; when you get into that rhythm, it’s because you’ve learned fundamentals -- spacing, mobility, punishment, and more -- that wouldn’t be out of place in the average fighting game.  And while the game could be compared to, say, Street Fighter, the example that springs to mind is Bayonetta.  There’s a huge difference between it and Bloodborne, for sure (speed being one of them), but they’re still on the same axis.


You could argue very successfully that something like Bayonetta 2 is also a big dumb power fantasy.  With that said, it’s at least much better at being a power fantasy than its contemporaries; the style and spectacle make every second of climax-filled action totally worthwhile.  But as I’ve noted before, what makes the game special is that once you get a grip on its systems and feel the heat of battle rush through you, you enter that ascended state.  They call it “the zone” in some circles; suddenly, you’re able to focus intently on the game and execute commands with thoughts that are more natural than breathing.  You don’t have to think anymore.  You just feel.  And then you do it.

I never would have guessed that a game as terrifying as Bloodborne could allow me to find my groove and stay there.  Yet, here I am.  In my first session with the game after months of inactivity, I managed to make it to the lycanthrope bridge and put up a convincing fight despite being woefully outmatched -- after three or four deaths, all while under the assumption that I couldn’t heal.  In my second session, I only died once; I cleared out the lycanthropes, cleared the streets of villagers, took on whole mobs (with dogs included), traversed the sewers from start to finish (minus the giant boar tucked down a dark tunnel, because what the hell is a boar doing in the sewers), beat down heavy-hitting trolls, beat down another troll despite it launching a preemptive ambush, AND made it back to home base with two Insight gained and about 5000 Blood Echoes in the pocket…along with full bullets, full healing, and only minor durability loss to a weapon I’d already upgraded once.

Everything in that second session happened in less than an hour and a half.  And it felt so good.


I’m not so presumptuous to say that I’ve reached a higher plane of Bloodborne existence.  I still haven’t beaten a single boss, and I’d assume I’ll be right back to shivering in my seat (and getting scared by Blackules’ shadow) as soon as I enter the completely-unknown second area of the game.  On the other hand, I’d think that some of the skills I’ve picked up along the way will transfer over into the challenges I’ll face later on; if Bloodborne’s like a fighting game, then I can scrape up victories by using the fundamentals I’ve learned.  So I should be okay.  I’ll be scared, but the fear and pressure are guiding me -- pushing me towards that ascended state instead of forcing me to cry in a corner.

Maybe now I can focus on what really matters: seeing what Bloodborne is actually about.

As far as I can tell, the goal of the game is to not only push forward into new areas, but also to find Madman’s Knowledge -- the reason being that downing one of the items gives you a boost to your Insight stat.  (I’ll guess that there are other ways to boost Insight, but this’ll do for now.)  While the other stats determine your combat effectiveness, Insight is apparently such an important stat that it’s in the top-right corner of the screen at all times.  What does it affect?  Nothing special.  Just your very perception of the world.


You level up in the game by giving your Blood Echoes to the Plain Doll nestled in your ethereal home base, the Hunter’s Dream.  The trick is that, even if you can heal with zero Insight, you CAN’T level up; the Plain Doll is immobile, and won’t respond to anything you do.  Come back to the Dream with one Insight, and you can talk to her freely (and she’s such a nice lady!).  But more stuff changes than that.  If you scrape up a whopping two points of Insight, you’ll be able to uncover a secret.

See, there’s an elevator a ways into the first area of Yharnam -- and despite the lever that’s sitting right next to it, there’s nothing you can do.  The lever doesn’t work, so the elevator doesn’t work; that’s less than ideal, because it creates a HUGE shortcut between one area and the next.  If you have enough insight, you don’t even need to use the lever.  You see for yourself that there’s a switch inside the car you can activate just by stepping on it.  Fine and dandy, but that switch definitely wasn’t there before.  I checked.  So it’s a safe bet that things aren’t what they seem in this game.  And naturally, that just adds a whole new layer of terror into the mix. 

It’s you versus the world in this game.  But if you can’t even trust your senses -- or yourself in general -- then who can you trust?


Uhhhhh...preferably not that.

At one point (after killing an old man in a wheelchair, because he’ll shoot you if you show mercy) you can find an old book on a shelf.  It mentions that Yharnam, or an old version of it, at least, burned to the ground.  Interesting bit of backstory, for sure, but that raises an important question: if Yharnam burned down, then where am I now?  Sure, that could just imply that I’m in the rebuilt version of the town (in the same sense that Chicago still exists despite a brutal fire way back when), but what if?  What if I’m only in an imagined version of it?  Or, more realistically, what if burning Yharnam in the past unleashed the beast-making plague that rocks the populace?  What were the circumstances?  The consequences?

I guess the only way to know for sure is to find the truth for myself.  Or I could do the lazy thing and read the wiki…but I probably won’t.  I’ve gone this far without knowing what’s in the game even a few steps past the beginning (barring the Best Friends mentioning offhandedly that there’s some “Cthulu shit”), and it’s with good reason.  I want to see the game for myself.  I want to see the truth for myself.  And most of all, I want to press onward in spite of -- or maybe because of -- my fear.

It might have something to do with Bloodborne being my personal candidate for Game of the Year.  But let’s not get too hasty.  As of writing, I haven’t touched Xenoblade Chronicles X

Yet.


In any case, that’ll just about do it for now.  Bloodborne = fear, but Bloodborne = fun as well.  It also confirms I’m an idiot even further, because I should’ve played Demon’s Souls and the Dark Souls games a lot more than virtually not at all.  Oh well.  I’m fixing that now.

So, what’s next on the list?


Hmmm.  Would it be too grating (and obvious) if I ended this post on “Kept you waiting, huh?”

Yes?  Okay.  Then I’ll end on that.

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