My last post was on two bad games so I thought it appropriate to follow up with an article on an objectively good, subjectively great game.
I'm the kind of person that will either be very casual about a game and only play when I have time and few priorities; or I'll be obsessive and make time to play (perhaps even when I shouldn't). Bloodborne falls into the latter category. I've easy put over 400 hours into this game over the year and a half that I had access to it, which is more than both XCOM games combined or my Final Fantasy X game (which I played as a teenager with the dangerous concoction of an abundance of time and shortage of games).
The point of this little spiel is to function as a disclaimer. Bloodborne is one of favourite games and the article that follows is nothing more than me being a fanboy. That being said, I aim to discuss the games quality from a critical perspective. A quick heads-up: this post will contain spoilers so if you haven't gotten around to playing this masterpiece, you may want to refrain from reading until you do.
All good? Let's dive on in then!
Bloodborne is the embodiment of style done right. Everything about the game feels considered and complete. The only awkward feature (I'm looking at you Chalice Dungeons) is completely optional and not a core part of the gameplay experience. Because such comparisons are inevitable: it's like Dark Souls with the fat trimmed off. And because Dark Souls is so obsessed with inevitability, let's unpack that a little.
Or a lot...
One of the main points of debate I've seen in the Dark Souls/Bloodborne (Souls-borne) is the idea of 'Style versus Substance' and that Bloodborne represents the former, Dark Souls the latter. Choosing style over substance is generally seen as the more 'shallow' approach; that choosing aesthetics and dynamics over deeper, more meaningful gameplay somehow lessens the lasting value of the game. We see this time and time again with things like the interchangeable Call of Battlefield games where each year regurgitates another one to meet that year's standard of graphics and patriotism, where the most interesting thing about the story or gameplay is that maybe John Snow is in it this time (the irony being these games have so little definitive style about them that I can't even tell them apart). Although I would agree that Dark Souls has the "deeper" meaning; putting players through an experience that deals with the fading glory of a once-great age, the lack of permanence in everything and the inevitability of death; Bloodborne certainly has more style.
Bloodborne is a game that deals with dreams, nightmares, instinct and madness and takes on an appropriately dream-like quality in its aesthetic. And like I've said before; do something well enough and people will love it.
In game design there is a term called "conveyance." Put simply, it is how the game organically teaches players how to play without breaking immersion from the game. It is often a signal of good design when a game can teach you how it works without screaming "Hey! Listen!" at you or pausing the action mid-stride to jam a controller map down your throat. The best conveyance is that which the player doesn't notice but takes on-board. Generally speaking, the Souls-borne series handles conveyance rather well. There are notes on the ground that tell you what to do as things become relevant but you can literally just walk over them if you're not interested. The point where these games shine is how they teach you about their death mechanics. Both Dark Souls and Bloodborne open with a mysterious cutscene and then an overwhelmingly difficult first fight. In both cases it's 99% likely you'll just die if you try fighting head on. And this teaches you two of the most important lessons right off the bat:
1. This game is hard and you will die (a lot).
2. And that's totally okay.
One of the main differences between Bloodborne and Dark Souls after this first encounter is that in DS, the first item you pick up is a shield. The player is immediately able to use the item to defend against an archer, quickly learning "hey, these things keep you alive." Bloodborne on the other hand, gives you a Tim Burton bone saw and a motherf****** blunderbuss. This tells the player something very different. The combat in DS is slower paced and more dire, whereas Bloodborne's is highly aggressive and frantic while still being calculated. Before long both games have their players suitably equipped and itching for revenge on their tormentors without any dialogue or leash-tugging occurring.
An example of good conveyance specific to Bloodborne is the rally mechanic. I didn't even know it was called "rally" for my entire first playthrough because at no point did the game freeze to spoon feed me. "Hey! Did you notice when you got hurt part of the damage is lingering in orange? If you strike now you might heal some of that back." Instead I simply saw the colour shift because the rest of the environment is dark by comparison and when I hit the monster that hurt me I saw an effect and heard a sound very similar to those that happen when I heal using a blood vial. And whaddaya know? Some of my health came back! Ta-da! Rally mechanic successfully conveyed.
On a similar but not strictly related note is the narrative style. Although it may not be unique to the Souls-borne series, it was certainly mastered by it. These games are famous for how little direction they provide the player. You're given a nifty cutscene at the beginning that tells a bit of history of the world (or just homeless Santa letting you know you've got a job) and then you're are told to ring some bells or go hunt beasts "because that's what hunters do." Then it's up to the player to figure it out from there. Most of the story is buried in vague item descriptions; the sheer quantity of which allow for a surprisingly deep and detailed mythos to be established. Enough is left out that players are given room to speculate and reach their own conclusions (so much so, that a thriving online community exists solely for discussing the lore of these games - people have even made Youtube careers out of it). Players are free to engage with as much or as little of the story as they want.
Something I found quite staggering is the amount of detail buried throughout these games. Take the humble pebble for example. The description is basic and not particularly helpful but it's pretty hard not to notice how eye-like it looks. You acquire some of these very early in the game and at the time it's simply a weird observation some people might make, but as the story develops beyond its initial facade to acquiring insight and seeing the truth behind the world, the imagery of eyes becomes much more prominent and significant. This kind of detail is not necessary but present all the same.
The one major flaw in narrative design is that both Bloodborne and Dark Souls have excellent stories but so little of it is present on the surface that to the passing eye (or indifferent flatmate) the Souls-borne games "are just about killing stuff." And to a point, yeah. I'm certainly not kicking chickens here. It's very easy for the games to degrade to the simple process of eliminating boss fights off a checklist. For less observant players or those unwilling to gather items like a kleptomaniac, it's easy to miss some of the most impactful moments. Using Dark Souls boss Chaos Witch Quelaag as an example, she is introduced with a sly smile and a brutal fight. During the whole fight she doesn't say a word, nor is she really talked about by other characters (with the exception of her sister who is hidden away in a secret room that no new player has any reason to know about). Quelaag as a key character in the tragic events that unfold in Izalith, yet to the passing player she's just tits on a spider...
Bloodborne, on the other hand, involves the player more heavily in the narrative. In Dark Souls you're effectively some guy who comes in the morning after a party to clean up after everyone else's mess but in Bloodborne events unfold to which you are the key instigator. The story is happening to you, making it much harder to miss and much easier to get invested in.
The subtlety of Dark Souls is still there in many regards. The history of places and people is still established through item descriptions, the wealth of which is completely optional to engage with, but when the sky turns red from the Blood Moon because you killed an Old One's kin and have acquired enough insight to see the truth, it's hard not to feel responsible/invested. With the Souls-borne stories being as good as they are, this is definitely a point in Bloodborne's favour.
Another trick of Bloodborne's storytelling technique is the glorious mechanic of insight. This is where FromSoftware earn maximum style points in my eyes. Here we have a little number that sits in the top right corner right under the game's currency. When you kill a boss you're rewarded to a bunch of blood echoes and while they're ticking in you might also notice "oh hey, my insight just went up as well." Very quickly this number unlocks special items in the store and more dialogue for NPCs, and can eventually be spent on unique equipment. It's pretty natural for players at this point to think that this insight resource is pretty groovy. By earning it from boss fights and exploration it becomes somewhat of a meter for progress parallel to levels and gear upgrades. However, what players may not realise straight away is that insight is exposing them to more of what the world truly is. Creature's appearance and behaviour change as more insight is acquired, some only appearing when a certain threshold is met. The player begins to hear sounds they couldn't before and see (horrific) things that were previously invisible to them.
The progression of insight and synchronises beautifully with the narrative's shift from a Gothic beast hunt to an H.P. Lovecraft expedition into cosmic horror. The change is gradual, subtle and completely complimented by mechanics like insight. The player goes from slaying rabid men and werewolves to celestials and eldritch abominations without ever skipping a beat. This progressive unveiling of the invisible world is punctuated with the discovery of arcane arts, weirder and more outlandish enemies, the erosion of sanity of NPCs and the shifting phases of the moon. All of these elements are presented on the forefront of the Bloodborne experience; they're all things the player interacts with. It is this masterful use of aesthetics and play dynamics that have convinced me that a game that is predominantly style over substance can still be exquisite. The story may be simpler and arguably less original, but that by no means diminishes the entertainment value that comes with it.
Moving on, something Dark Souls was praised for is being is "open-world spaghetti." I say this within quotation marks because not only does it make an otherwise grammatically awkward sentence more readable, but also acknowledges that this is not 100% true (the 'open-world' part, not the 'spaghetti' part - that's completely accurate; have you tried drawing a map of these areas?). While all the immediate areas are available for the player to explore, the hardest ones are arbitrarily locked off by giant glowing fog walls until the player completes specific events. It seems strange to me that a game that's been boasting its difficulty up until this point would hold our hand on this one.
Knit-picking aside, one aspect of this design choice that actually hinders the game is that many of these areas are designed to account for the player going through them from multiple directions with no way of knowing what level the player might be when they do. The areas the player has access to at the start are all similar difficulty which means that when the player chooses a path and runs it to the end, when they return to the hub and try another path what was once challenging has become laughably easy without the player getting the chance to experience it properly. The best areas in Dark Souls; Anor Londo, the Painted World and Cen's Funhouse, are all the ones where the player comes in from one direction and when they leave they are done with the place. They feel more like levels in a traditional gameplay sense but it's a point in their favour rather than against. The majority of traps and ambushes in these games require the player to approach them from a specific direction otherwise they are spoiled or simply don't work.
Bloodborne takes this kind of world building and strings areas all together into something that gives the illusion of being open world while simultaneously having more focused level design. The reason Dark Souls felt like it had such a huge world to explore is because it was presented as such. It's one of the few games I've played that grants you a view of a spectacular castle that then goes "oh, you can actually go there. Follow this path and you'll reach it without a single loading screen." Bloodborne has the same 'if you can see it, you can reach it' sense of scale while strategically locking that player into a more secluded spaces. The majority of the time the player's field of view is blocked by the towering structures of Yharnam but in those moments when you emerge (often to a boss arena or just after) you'll be granted with a spectacular view of what's to come. It's this balance of claustrophobic, tight-focus level design with more relaxing exhales of space that grants you the feeling of exploring this expansive, and sometimes convoluted, city while gently guiding you through a set path.
It's not uncommon to hear complaints about linearity in games and that people want more freedom of choice (which would explain the abundance of bland sandbox games where the action is reduced to following objective markers on an overhead map), yet you never hear of anyone complaining about movies not changing every time you watch them. To be honest, I would much rather play a game with a intricate, well-crafted linear experience because it leads to games like Doki Doki or Spec Ops: The Line where you have choices spread throughout an otherwise on-rails experience (narratively speaking) but the story that is told is so engaging that it doesn't matter that the events aren't diluted by square kilometres of beautifully rendered rocks and two-dozen re-skinned fetch quests.
Another complaint I heard that completely baffled me was that Bloodborne doesn't have the variety of equipment Dark Souls has. In defense of Dark Souls, it does have an obscene amount of weapons, but comparing it to Bloodborne is a case of quantity versus quality. Bloodborne's trick weapons would have to be one of the coolest things I have ever seen in a video game. Each weapon has two forms, doubling the player's moveset with the press of a button which can be incorporated into an attack combo. Complete with satisfying clicks and clacks, it's so stylish even Danté would be impressed. The least interesting item, the Boomhammer, is the closest thing to a Dark Souls weapon and it's a hammer that literally explodes when it hits stuff.
Before I wrap up I would like to clumsily segue into talking about the sound design. This is far from my specialty as a game designer so I can only really speak as a fan in this regard. Something the Souls-borne series has always done well is complementing the player's journey with excellent audio. In addition to the points I've already made regarding sound, there are two in particular that I think Bloodborne nails. The first is the sound effects made by the beasts. These creatures sound utterly horrifying. Never have I heard such monstrous shrieking and wailing in any game before. Amnesia had some pretty spooky monster mumbles and necromorphs from Dead Space always put me on edge. But Vicar Amelia roaring as she leapt across the area to crush me into bloody pulp had me recoiling from the screen. The second point of sound design I wish more games did was the swell of music during the climax of a boss fight. Several times I've noticed during the last 20% or so of a boss fight the music seems to get louder and more intense as if they've added another layer to it. Maybe it's just me thinking it does because I'm generally more focused at that point and I'm just making stuff up... If that's true I might be onto something brilliant...
...I need to go see if that idea is patented...