Screen Critics Sam revisits FromSoftware’s Bloodborne, the spiritual successor to Dark Souls and one of the most terrifying gaming experiences ever.
Welcome to Yharnam, a city wreathing with the foulest of townsfolk and nightmare creatures. Around every corner drips the stench of rotting carcasses and the ungodly sight of decrepit buildings set amidst the backdrop of a very bleak, Gothic Victorian era. Where the Hunter walks, death and despair follows, be it in the form of a ghoulish disease-ridden villager or the very monsters under your bed your parents warned you about. Nobody wants to live a peaceful life in Yharnam, and none should. As the Hunter, with a transforming axe in one hand and a blunderbuss in the other, it’s your sacred oath to ensure the darkness spreads no further than the dark corners of its infested alleys and woods – no matter what price you may pay. This is Bloodborne.
Developer FromSoftware have a knack for putting players in the thick of the moment. In Dark Souls, we assumed the role of an undead aiming to link the flame and end the seemingly vague apocalypse, and with Bloodborne, it’s no different. In fact, one might see it as the spiritual successor to Dark Souls, albeit with less screaming in anger and more screaming in sheer horror. At its core, Bloodborne is very much a survival horror as it is an RPG. This is all too evident from its intricate narrative of hunters existing in a world overrun by hideous creatures to the overall presentation of the game itself. Enemies are specifically designed in a way that evokes terror, right down to the weak but fearsome villagers you initially encounter and especially the jaw-dropping boss battles that FromSoftware is widely known for.
While similarities are very clear between Bloodborne and the Dark Souls series – instead of Souls collected to upgrade your character, you use Blood Echoes – it’s the differences that come to define the experience as unlike any other. Thanks to game director Hidetaka Miyazaki’s observant attention to detail and lore, Bloodborne presents a very clear-cut narrative that dives far deeper than the more vague story aspects of the Souls games. Players may still have to do a lot of digging to piece together the lore of the world and its plot, but it never leaves an ambiguous or ill-defined imprint on you. Bloodborne creates a narrative driven by gameplay and not the other way around, which is a refreshing mechanic given plenty of other AAA titles that attempt to tell cohesive but ultimately shallow stories with gameplay taking the backseat.
Bloodborne clearly draws its stylistic and narrative inspirations from legendary horror author, H.P. Lovecraft. The game makes references to the “Great Ones”, ancient beings and creatures that exist in a far-removed psychological aspect that the Hunter must ultimately come to face in the events of the game. If the Great Ones sounds familiar, it pays a direct homage to the “Great Old Ones” or “Elder Things” constantly referenced in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos; cosmic beings of astronomical horror that, like the Great Ones in Bloodborne, are only merely spoken about and driven by the uncertain but potent terror of its descriptions alone. The designs of several creatures seem to be lifted from Lovecraft’s pages too, including the monumental boss battles like Ebrietas Daughter of the Cosmos and the climactic Moon Presence – slithery tentacles and all.
Despite its clear Lovecraftian influence, Bloodborne is easily able to paint a distinguishable style for itself, taking many notes from the structure and third-person gameplay mechanics of the Souls series but far more refined. Combat plays more like hack and slash than the usual RPG – or I should rather say the block and roll system of Dark Souls – due to the inability to block. No shields are present in your arsenal, so it boils down to perfectly timed parrying and dodging to get a leg up on the enemy. In some ways, this does make the game appear far more challenging than Dark Souls, but rest assured, it’s a huge benefit when your only option is to adapt a confrontational attack strategy. FromSoftware injects the gameplay with a fluid, satisfyingly smooth motion that, as was the intention of the overall presentation of the game, coherently feels more like a vivid dream or nightmare.
It’s easy to look at Bloodborne as the culmination of the success and failure FromSoftware have built up over the course of their Souls series, but given the attention it needed to tweak and refine a game to as damn near perfect as you could get out of a fulfilling gaming experience. Bloodborne is nothing short of the masterpiece that will forever be the comparison point of a next-gen survival horror affair, and one that will go down in history as the definitive entry point into gaming that simply holds nothing back, especially its unnerving, truly heart-pounding terror.