FromSoftware’s best Soulslike? Maybe — if you don’t let it get to you
Initial release: 2015
Platform: PlayStation 4 (so far)
Did you know I used to dislike Bloodborne? It’s true. I’d muddled my way through Demon’s Souls (the original PlayStation 3 version) and the Dark Souls cycle, but when first I fired up Bloodborne about five years ago I was immediately in trouble. The gameplay was fast, brutal and uncompromising in a way that the Souls games before them simply weren’t. I’d managed to get as far as the giant spider boss before I finally threw in the towel — I wasn’t having fun.
I came back to it around Christmas recently. I was filled with dread, because I had tried Sekiro in the spring and bounced off of it badly (I might have stuck with it if not for the dragonrot mechanic — heaping extra punishment on players for failure just feels like insult to injury) but I also had hope, because I had gotten through French developer Spiders’ Steelrising just a few months ago and that had taught me the rhythm of parrying, a mechanic I thought I’d never be able to master.
I can now say I’ve added Bloodborne to my list of completed Soulslikes. Let me tell you what I learned on the way.
If you haven’t played a Soulslike before — also called Soulsborne, or Ringborne (after FromSoftware’s recent open-world smash hit Elden Ring) or any other combination of their major titles, though I prefer the simplicity of “Soulslike,” calling to mind the roguelike, that once-venerable genre of dungeon crawler, now absurdly bastardized to refer to permadeath and randomization — they operate on a fairly simple principle: death is cheap and abundant. At their core, they’re action RPGs — you create a character, level stats, make choices — but their primary focus is killing monsters. Lots and lots of monsters. In a way, Soulslikes are a modern incarnation of the old fantasy RPGs of yore, just reconfigured to a more modern design sensibility. Indeed, FromSoftware has experience in that kind of game, what with King’s Field being a launch title for the PlayStation in Japan. High difficulty comes with high reward, and conquering a difficult boss is often considered to be worth it simply to say you’ve done it. (Which might be part of why some people find this genre so impenetrable…)
Bloodborne is at heart a Soulslike, but after three dark fantasy games with knights and dragons and shields and all that FromSoftware saw fit to make some changes to the formula. Where Dark Souls was a brooding medieval fantasy set in ruined kingdoms for dead gods, Bloodborne is gothic horror, frequently erroneously described as Victorian (the aesthetics are much more in line with the early 19th century, a good couple decades prior to the English Queen Victoria’s reign, in particular drawing much inspiration from the French action-horror drama Brotherhood of the Wolf. Terrible movie, by the way.) Where Dark Souls demanded a slow, deliberate approach, Bloodborne takes away your shield and tells you to get in there and make a mess. Aggressive play is the order of the night here, encouraged by the implementation of the rally system, in which any damage you take has a brief window to be regained by scoring melee damage on your enemies. Guns also play a major role, and even if you don’t level Bloodtinge — the stat that governs guns, the damage they do, and which ones you can use — you’ll likely still be using your gun on a regular basis, as they’re the key to the parrying system, in which you shoot your enemy just as they attack, staggering them and leaving them open to a brutal counter-attack.
Dark Souls was always kind of scary; in general, if you wanted to make a survival horror out of a fantasy RPG then Dark Souls was probably what it would look like. FromSoftware leaned completely into the horror for Bloodborne, thrusting you into a nightmarish world resembling a half-remembered fever dream of Prague, filled to the brim with monsters right out of the gothic canon: werewolves, vampires (some of them quite disgusting and monstrous in their own right,) werewolves, ghosts, werewolves, witches, werewolves, mad scientists, and werewolves, plus plenty of cosmic horror beasties to drive you mad. It’s the night of the Hunt, in which the braver citizens of Yharnam venture into the streets with guns and blades to hunt down the monsters who have overtaken the city, monsters who were once just the unlucky humans who contracted the beast plague… not that the hunters are exactly immune, themselves. You’re just an unfortunate foreigner, thrust alone into the streets with naught but a gun and a simple trick weapon, with your only hint as to what to do next being to “seek paleblood and transcend the hunt.” Blood will flow copiously, and your character will be covered in it if you go a while before resting at the nearest lantern (the game’s equivalent to Dark Souls’ bonfires, though functionally they’re more akin to the archstones from Demon’s Souls in that they bring you back to a disconnected realm where you can level up, buy things and maintain your gear.)
In general, Bloodborne isn’t too different from its predecessors, though the addition of multi-phase boss fights is a big change from Dark Souls 2 that would continue on to Dark Souls 3. The lack of shields may certainly catch people out, and the game makes no bones about how FromSoftware feels about people who hide behind shields — some flavor text has a rather mocking note about it, which I thought a bit tasteless as a fan of the sword-and-board method in Dark Souls. But even with that, it’s not that different, just faster. Probably the biggest change, however, is that unless you’re determined, you’re not going to get far without learning to parry. It’s this that helps contribute to Bloodborne’s uneven difficulty curve; where the Souls series tended towards a somewhat gentle upward curve (albeit starting already high,) Bloodborne’s difficulty is more of a staircase, and that first step is a doozy.
Let’s talk about Father Gascoigne.
Bloodborne has some of the most memorable bosses in FromSoftware’s entire catalog. Vicar Amelia with her horrifying transformation, the aggressive Orphan of Kos who will flatten you over and over, Lady Maria and her flaming blood swords — all are memorable, perhaps especially because some of them are quite difficult. But most of them feel expertly placed and designed. Not so with Father Gascoigne. As the first mandatory boss in the game (Cleric Beast can be fought first, but he’s optional) he is a brick wall that determines whether you keep playing, or you realize you blew $60 on a game you’ll only see 5% of. Having beaten almost every other boss in the game, some of them two or three times thanks to the Chalice dungeons (which I’ll talk about in a bit) I don’t think I’m out of line by saying that Gascoigne breaks the game’s own rules. He exists to force players to learn to parry, sure, but his parry windows are erratic and less obvious than most other bosses.
This would be fine if he were the second or third mandatory boss, or perhaps swapped with Cleric Beast or some other optional boss, but as-is, It’s like having to take a midterm exam on the first day of school. Placed where he is, with an arena that isn’t conducive to fighting an aggressive enemy (one who can easily combo you to death after his third-phase transformation if he so much as touches you once) — I think Gascoigne is an example of how FromSoftware aren’t always the design geniuses some people pretend they are. How is anyone supposed to learn to parry him when he can destroy you in 30 seconds and it takes three to five minutes to get back to him as the nearest lantern is across the map, even with the shortcuts opened up, and not counting the load screen? At least Orphan of Kos (famously considered the hardest boss in all of FromSoftware’s games) had you back in the fight inside of a minute if you booked it.
If you can get past this hurdle, however, the rest of the game is pretty rewarding, provided you come to grips with its peculiar rhythm. While it has its additional difficulty spikes —absurdly tough bosses, the occasional bullshit enemy, and the rare spot of just plain bad level design — it’s a brilliant evolution of the formula that FromSoftware created. And if you can’t get enough Bloodborne, you should give the Chalice Dungeons a try. Initially accessed by defeating the Bloodstarved Beast optional boss, then conducting a ritual with the chalice you retrieve, you can open a way into the ancient ruins beneath the city of Yharnam, a series of randomized* dungeons full of loot and monsters to kill and bosses to fight. Essentially it’s a sort of dumping ground for enemies and bosses that FromSoftware were forced to cut from the main game, but it’s a great way to level up and improve your gear, as some of the best gems that improve your weaponry can be found in the lower depths. And if the stock “story” dungeons weren’t enough, there’s 2300 other dungeons you can access, all of which can be accessed directly via a “glyph” (a brief randomized character string you input.)
* Except not really — see here for more.
And on top of all that, if you need blood echoes (the game’s equivalent of souls) fast, one of these dungeons is the infamous “Cum Dungeon,” so named for its completely coincidental glyph of cummmfpk, in which due to how the game procedurally loads distant assets spawns an NPC enemy in a distant room who is then killed by a trap within thirty seconds of you loading the map provided you don’t venture too far, earning you a whopping 83,000 blood echoes. It’s a great way to level up in a hurry or grab some quick cash for items or working on your gear; some people might consider it cheating, especially as the dungeon was created via an edited save, but I don’t see it that way, but rather that it’s a useful alternative to grinding, which not everyone sees as fun. Given how much I chafe at FromSoftware’s attitude towards shield users in this game and the removal of a choice in gameplay, I’m going to celebrate player choice in this game any way I can, and that means that if you want to spend time grinding up echoes the hard way that’s entirely your lookout, but I have no shame in running the Cum Dungeon a couple times to help me surmount Orphan of Kos (as an example.)
The Chalice Dungeons are a great little sideshow to the main game, in a lot of ways resembling what I had in mind when I fantasized about a Soulslike Diablo 1 remake; but I would be remiss if I didn’t add the caveat that if you decide to do the “story” dungeons and don’t spread them out a little bit, they run the risk of grinding the game’s progression to a halt, especially once you start doing the later ones like Defiled Chalice, which cuts your health in half, making you easily one-shottable by most enemies. (There is an identical version of Defiled Chalice that removes the health curse — I have no regrets in doing that one instead. I half wonder if Defiled Chalice being a mandatory dungeon to access the final dungeon in which you fight Queen Yharnam herself might not have been an oversight.)
Bloodborne is a great game with great atmosphere; the many parallels to Demon’s Souls (which remains my favorite Souls game) only helped cement Bloodborne as one of my favorites in the genre. But boy howdy, if you’re not prepared, you’re not gonna make it — and fully 35% of players never got past Gascoigne. But if you can make it, it’s one of the greatest games in the genre. Now if only we could get a PC version.