Ginger Nuts of Horror
How do I even begin?
I have avoided From Software's uniqely masochistic range of video games for the longest time, despite being lured by their imagery, intrigued by their mechanics and design; the accounts of players who proclaim them epitomes of excellence.
Then, Bloodborne. A title ostensibly in the same family as the company's iconic Darksouls, Bloodborne is an entirely new franchise set in a new environment, with similar but subtly different emphases in dynamic, and an atmosphere and mythology that ers more towards gothic and Lovecraftian horror than the twisted fantasy tropes and subjects of the Souls series.
Again, despite being intrigued, I more or less ignored the title on first release; far too busy with this and that in my waking life to put in the time and energy that I'd heard the game required.
A chance taster of the game at a friend's house led me to seek out some play-throughs on line, not to mention a brief delving into the lore and imagery.
As a lifelong fan of cosmic and body horror, I couldn't help but be immediately hooked.
Set in the decaying, diseased and impossibly gothic city of Yharnam, the game begins with a brief cut-scene in which the player character is administered blood by an extremely wizened and not entirely salubrious looking gentleman, in settings that appear less than conducive to health and healing. Following a nightmarish vision involving a skinless, demonic werewolf rising from a pool of blood beside the bed, the player wakes and the game begins.
This is a fantastic example of the storytelling in Bloodborne; one of the many, many, many areas in which it excels beyond expression: this cut-scene is one of the very few in the game and, like most, it is not expositional; it does not belabour itself attempting to explain what is happening. Instead, it treats the player with a great deal of respect; as though they are a sophisticated and imaginative entity, able to fill in the gaps or extrapolate their own conclusions.
As you'll come to discover, framing, implication and inference are all-important to discerning story and back mythology in Bloodborne. The game very rarely pauses or cuts away from the action, and when it does, very little is betrayed other than to set up an immediate situation: you will not find characters who will talk at length about what is happening, about where the various beasts and lunatics strewing Yharnam's streets come from: you need to figure that out for yourself from various ambient and environmental details. What becomes clear from the get go is that nothing is arbitrary; everything from architecture to statuary, from ornaments to pennants, even enemy and NPC placement, serves to tell a story; to enhance the sense of atmosphere, which is so treacly-thick you can scrape it from the screen and devour with a spoon.
Yharnam is immediately a deliriously beautiful setting; the most unlikely architecture, in terms of its insane elaboration (essentially, layers of gothicism piled atop one another) enhanced by its decay; the state of anarchy and collapse into which the player emerges.
That is, assuming you survive the first encounter.
Upon making your way through the clinic, passed many, many beds, all complete with straps and drips and various surgical instruments (not to mention universally stained with testaments as to what happened to previous occupants), the player comes across their first beast, squatting atop the torn and tattered remains of what might be the gentlemen from the opening cutscene (again, open to interpretation).
This encounter is designed to teach the player how the game works; what it is going to put them through. The encounter is almost impossible; unarmed, inexperienced as the player is, they can only slap and punch and kick the immense lycanthrope, which darts and shifts and lopes around the setting, knocking over tables, lurching away from the player's attacks. Though it is possible to defeat the entity (especially if you happen to have played the game before, and therefore know its tricks and tells), the encounter is designed to be next-to-impossible for the Yharnam virgin, the “newly blooded:” it is a fantastic example not only of how the game's storytelling works (i.e. via placement and setting of characters, objects, situations etc), but also how it teaches players: not through on-screen instructions or reams of redundant text, but via demonstration: the game hurls you headlong into the fray, informing you from the get-go that this is not some coddling, skirt-clinging escapade: you are going to die. And die and die and die and die. Then die some more.
Fortunately, being “blooded,” and therefore designated as a “Hunter” of beasts, your character does not die. Rather, they wake in an Edenic garden; a fenced off space littered with flowers and overgrown gravestones, a great, sealed building looming over all.
This is “The Hunter's Dream,” the place where Hunters go when they are slain; where they can gain some respite from “The Hunt” before “waking” again and returning to the fray.
The Hunter's Dream is a key part of the game's mechanics; this is where players go to level up, to tend to their weapons, to purchase equipment, gain advice etc, but it is also, cleverly, part of the game's stoy and back mythology: the dream is simultaneously a real and fantastical place; a transitional state between worlds whose origins and nature do not become entirely apparent until much, much later. Two characters inhabit this area; the wizened, wheelchair-bound Hunter known as Gerhman, who provides advice and direction to the player, and a bizarre, living doll, who, likewise, offers advice but also allows the player to spend “blood echoes” to level up certain characteristics.
The nature of the dream and its very existence throws into question all that the player experiences: given that the game begins with them on a hospital bed, it's entirely possible that all they experience is some form of vivid hallucination as a result of the blood they've imbibed. That theme continues throughout the game, with the distinction between what is “real” and what is not stretching, distorting and, ultimately, breaking: certain latter areas consisting of nightmares made true or cobbled together from lunatic hallucinations, hideous memories and febrile visions.
In Yharnam and its surrounding environments, the distinctions between dreams and reality are almost redundant; a factor enhanced by the mechanic of “insight:” certain encounters and the use of certain items (“Madman's Knowledge”) enhance your “insight” level, the state of which subtly or dramatically changes the game and provides fresh, well, insight into what might genuinely be happening: as insight increases, certain things become more apparent: enemies change visually and gain different abilities, the player suffers certain enhancements and vulnerabilities. Most significant of all are the environmental shifts: certain elements that are entirely invisible upon initial encounter, but which the player might catch ephemeral glimpses or hints of, become apparent depending on your level of insight. This is as much a mechanic of horror as it is of storytelling: the knowledge that there are things at play, always active and present in the environment, but that the player can't see or discern, escalates the atmosphere of derangement and paranoia that pervades the entire game.
It also allows for moments of breath-stealing shock, when you return to familiar areas after gathering certain degrees of insight only to find the environments changed, altered or revealed in some hideous fashion.
Initially, the affliction that pervades Yharnam (some disease of the blood which turns its victims into raving lunatics and, ultimately, beasts and monsters of various sorts) is the source of the game's horror and the pivot of its mythology: your purpose as a Hunter is to slay the afflicted, to cleanse the streets and return the city to some degree of stability (though it becomes clear from the get-go that this is all but impossible).
However, as the game progresses, it becomes clear that there are number of deeper conspiracies afoot, and a mythology that goes far, far beyond the merely lycanthropic: The Healing Church, which the player will find mention of throughout the early quarters of the game, and which seems to exercise something of a stranglehold over Yharnam culture and politics, being the source of “Blood Ministration,” seems to be involved in far darker and loftier practices than any could have ever imagined: the culture of “Blood Minsitration” (which, as the text for a certain item points out, has become more pervasive in Yharnam than the use of alcohol, owing to it being more intoxicating) seems to have given rise to the plague of beasts, not to mention called down some of the darker forces at work.
What becomes apparent as the game progresses is that the “Old Blood” which the church uses in its rites, and which has spread throughout the city and beyond, originally derives from some highly questionable sources: entities which the Church has been in contact with since its inception, and which it hopes to call down as a means of elevating humanity into higher states of being.
However, those entities (refered to as “Great Ones”) are entirely alien in nature, not only in terms of their anatomies, their spheres of operation, but also their intentions: though there are hints and suggestions throughout the game, it is almost impossible to discern what the various “Great Ones” intend or even if they operate according to common goals: all distinctly Lovecraftian entities, the “Great Ones” are manifestations of other-worldly madness and alien monstrosity; their presence alone foments lunacy and mutation and discord, and it is to them that the various cults, churches and colleges throughout Yharnam generally owe allegiance.
This is a significant synthesis and generalisation of the plot and back mythology, as there is very little set in stone or absolutely concrete: most of what can be derived is left open; as matters of implication and inference, meaning that no player comes away with quite the same notions or mythology; it becomes personal, a matter of what each individual player brings to the table as much as what is communicated or imposed upon them. The subtlety of storytelling within the game is one of the areas in which it has marked itself out as a firm favourite and a sincere work of genius: despite very little being specifically noted or detailed, the background is rich and complex, with various depths of elaboration and engagement: the player can treat it or delve into it to what degree they wish: those wishing for merely some surface detail to provide background for the action have that, whilst those looking for something richer, denser and deeper will find one of the most toothsome mythologies of cosmic horror available in video games. As an experience in atmosphere, aesthetics and story-telling, the game is sublime: there is little that can compete with its style, its grace; its wit, its utter nihilism: this is not a hopeful or happy game, in any sense: from its horrific beginning to its many and varied ends, the mythology it draws is one of hideous abandon; terrible and ineluctable possibilities, from which death is the only release one might find (and, often, not even then). It is a tale of diseased and lunatic Gods, of their diseased and lunatic worshipers, of mad men and cruel churches and monstrous violence; of blood letting and cannibalism and the most hideous of births. If you enjoy intense, visceral and transgressive horror imagery, you will find little in all of video gaming more beautiful than this.
As for the game itself, one of the elements that is a primary source of my admiration is that it is deliberately alienating: unlike so, so many software companies and game developers in recents years, From Software do not attempt to cater to the widest possible demographics: they know their fanbase intimately and do everything to appeal to them, to the exclusion of all others. This game will not appeal to or fulfil everyone: it is deliberately and consistently difficult, to the point whereby certain situations and encounters seem almost impossible until you've died a number of times and figured them out (don't expect the game to help you, either; you'll get no tips or tricks to make it easier. You have to LEARN). This is simultaneously part of the game's appeal and the source of its repulsion for many: it is a genuine learning experience: combat is subtle and complex; almost dance-like in its rhythms; you have to learn each enemy, in terms of their patterns, their weaknesses; their tricks and “tells,” until you know how they are going to respond and how best to take them down. This means each encounter, from the lowliest blood-maddened Yharnamite to the highest and most abstract of the Great Ones, is an exercise; you must engage, observe and alter your tactics accordingly. The game is thus endlessly new; it is never the case that a tried and tested tactic for one enemy will work against others. Depending on your proclivities when it comes to video games, this can either be a point of engagement and admiration or it can be what singularly turns you off from the game: particularly early on, before you've had a chance to learn how the game works, it is likely that you will die and die and die and die again, often to the same enemies, until you begin to understand; until you get that this isn't like most games, even of its particular, action-horror type: it, along with its Darksouls cousins, is designed against the grain; it does not coddle or cosset to make things easy for the player; to get the best out of it, in terms of both story and gameplay, you need to engage with it and provide your own input to the process.
That said, if you are willing to engage with it; if you are one of the very particular demographic it is designed for, then it will redefine how video games work for you; what they are capable of in terms of story telling, teaching basic mechanics, exploration and adventure, aesthetics...the experience is so rich, so deep and fulfilling, taking down an enemy that has been plaguing you for maybe days at a time is beyond description; a point of genuine celebration, as you have accomplished something in ways that most video games do not allow for: it is an exercise in skill and observation and dexterity; the game rewards engagement in ways that so, so few do and punishes assumption, arrogance and laxity (no matter how high level or well equipped your character is, the first enemies you encounter in the game can take you down, without the requisite consideration).
Another factor that makes the game deliriously fun is its encouragement of exploration: not only is the game ENORMOUS (Yharnam itself contains various sub-sections and surrounding environments, and this is before we even get into the numerous hallucinatory or “dreaming” segments, especially after the release of the “Old Hunters” DLC), it encourages and rewards exploration and returning to areas already trodden after certain events have transpired: each area has its own warren of hidden ways, shortcuts, links to other areas, secret rooms and tunnels and monsters and characters, their contents often opening ways to entirely other (and entirely optional) areas of the game or conistsing of monsters and encounters that you'll find nowwhere else. This makes the game feel like a gigantic, darkly hallucinogenic playground; after the first area (designed to introduce you to the game's aesthetics, mechanics and to provide a taste of what is to come), the game opens up, with various points of exploration and progression becoming possible. The order in which you tackle areas and encounters has a significant effect on the game's many and various character stories and progressions, how the game itself manifests in latter stages and the relative difficulty of those areas.
For example, defeating a particular boss-encounter causes the night to shift from dusk to midnight, the moon swelling, the shadows deepening. This has the effect of making a certain titanic and extremely threatening enemy in the Cathedral Ward area become somewhat placid, as they go to their knees either in mourning for the creature you have killed or out of fear or worship of the moon. Alternatively, an area known as Hemwick Charnel Lane (an entirely optional area, that I didn't find until much, much later in my first playthrough) becomes extremely hazardous as, under moonlight, demonic shadows manifest, hampering and harrying you throughout. Combined with the changes brought about by the “insight” mechanic, this can make familiar areas seem entirely new, depending on how and when you visit them. This also provides the game a great deal of replay value: you can play the game through again and have an entirely different experience, depending on how you choose to tackle it; what bosses you choose to kill first, what areas you traverse, items you pick up and equipment you carry. The game also has another mechanic to enhance replay, in that, upon completing the final encounter (which has many and varied outcomes, depending on certain decisions you make), the game will automatically switch to a “New Game +” mode, which is the same game, but much more difficult and with subtle differences from its previous incarnation. You will also start this game with all of the equipment, upgrades and experiences from your previous playthrough, meaning that your character can continue to evolve and develop.
But, aside from all of the technical brilliance, the challenge, the aesthetics, the masterfully conceived and communciated back story, what truly sells me on this game and what first snared my attention, are the monsters. Beyond any pretence of sophistication this review might pretend, it was originally the monsters that captured my black and suppurating heart and continue to do so: this game has some of the most beautiful and brilliant creature design I have ever come across in any medium. Derived from an entire wealth of backgrounds and traditions (from gothic to Lovecraftian, cosmic horror), the monsters are not only designed to be disturbing or horrific (which they are), but also to be expressive and characterful.
Each entity is framed in such a manner that it not only makes sense in its location, but seems to be interacting with it in some way: you'll often find monsters gathered around a particular corpse, feeding upon it, harvesting its blood or organs, even lamenting or venerating it. Alternatively, you might find packs of particular enemies gathered in particular types of ruins, around particular trypes of altars, offering worship or sacrament to their lesser kin. Though there are consistent enemies from area to area (such as the various blood-mad citizens of Yharnam), each area also has its own unique encounters that are derived from the environment and seem to be a natural part of it: exploring the Cathedral Ward's grounds, you'll find pairs of Church Doctors, pale-skinned and emotionless hulks who seem to be some creation of the Church, designed to protect its grounds, to hunt down infected citizens etc. They not only fit perfectly in the locale, but seem to be engaged in patrolling and protecting it; maintaining its sanctity etc. After finding yourself lost in the Forbidden Woods surrounding Yharnam, you'll find yourself set upon by packs of gigantic, demonic snakes, some of which lurk in the long grasses or behind gigantic gravestones, others of which erupt from the ground in answer to their fellow's summons or drop from trees onto the player's head. Dropping down into certain caverns and crevasses in this area will bring you face to face with gigantic specimens of this species, not to mention a particular, isolated valley in which you'll have what is likely your first encounter with the entites collectively refered to as “kin.” The placement and framing of enemies (particularly the unfathomably gorgeous boss entities) lends them personality and character and back story without the need to belabour them with reams of text or self-explanation: it is up to the player to interpret what they are, why they occur where they do.
For example, quite late in the game (depending on which path you take), you'll encounter a creature known as Rom, the Vacuous Spider. From some vague clues picked up from earlier stages in the game, you know that Rom has some link to the wider mythology occurring throughout Yharnam and its surrounding environments. However, what is never explicitly stated is who or what Rom is; you only know from the encounter, its setting and its effects on the game itself. Rom is fought in what appears to be another dimension; a strange non-space that is discovered by leaping from a high balcony into a moon-lit lake. Your character will find themselves wandering an immense and empty ocean, able to walk atop the water, Rom and its many, arachnid children (or protectors. Or gaolers. It's left deliberately ambiguous) on the opposite side of the playing arena. Defeating Rom (no mean feat; one of the more difficult bosses in the game) results in a highly symbolic but also extremely open-to-interpretation cut scene in which a babe can be heard crying, in which a spectral and highly regal woman appears stained with blood, as though from a recent and abortive labour, the moon suddenly swollen, hanging low, lowering deep red. Returning to the waking world following this encounter moves the night on to its penultimate phase, and changes a great deal of the familiar playing areas whilst opening up numerous others. Nothing is explained or made explicit, but, owing to Rom's nature and what its defeat precipitates, we can infer that she is some sort of warden; that she is maintaining an occult veil that keeps the mysteries and powers at work within Yharnam concealed. As to why and where her loyalties lie, who can say? Though the matter has become a point of rampant and rabid speculation amongst the game's fans.
I find it difficult to express what a sincere joy, what a profound revelation this game has been. From the subtle and respectful storytelling, the deliriously beautiful design, the exquisite combat, level design, atmosphere, soundtrack...it is a sincere example of video game art; a vehicle of profound beauty and even more profound ideas and conceits, that has obsessed me in ways that very, very little media of any kind does.
Faults?; If you're playing an unpatched version of the game, the loading times are ATROCIOUS. Absolutely atrocious. Also, owing to the game's nature, many, many, many will find themselves frustrated with its level of difficulty, the engagement that it demands. It is highly reccommended that you try before you buy, to get a sense of whether or not this style of game is for you. As previously mentioned, it is deliberately alienating, and will frustrate and repel certain demographics as much as it will morbidly enchant others.
Similarly, the game's themes and contents is highly distressing, disturbing and, at times, utterly disgusting: there is very little shyed away from, here: the game explores encroaching madness and disease, murder, mutilation, monstrosity...there are also over-arching themes of pregnancy and birth that are highly distressing and manifest, in the game's latter portions, in the most hideous and obscene ways, which may prove “triggering” for some.
But these are the most nit-picking and incidental of complaints weighed against what this game has achieved; the profound and sadly rare respect with which it treats its audience and the manner in which it engages imagination in order to draw players into its bleak and hostile world.
At present, I am near the final chapters of my second play-through; one in which I have discovered whole areas of the game I simply never found originally, in which I have encountered characters and story arcs and bosses and enemies I never even knew existed.
It will be something of a melancholy experience when I have finally bled it dry and have to put it down, but until that moment, I am happy to be swept up in Bloodborne's nihilistic delirium and have it become part of the influences upon my imagination and state of mind; as profound a recommendation as I can give.