As noted elsewhere on the site, the single best thing I bought in 2015 wasn’t an album, or a movie, or even a book. It was From Software’s absolute masterpiece of a video game, Bloodborne. Caveat: before you go any further – yes, I’m going to geek out here, and very few of you are likely to be interested in what follows.
What is Bloodborne? It’s a third person adventure game, set – initially, at least – in a weird Victorian-looking city named Yharnam, wherein people are doing very strange things with blood, citizens are suddenly morphing into horrendous lycan creatures and most folk are simply hiding behind locked doors while vigilantes known as “Hunters” attempt to cleanse the streets. So far, so video-gamey. What’s unusual is how the story progresses. You’re never really told what’s going on. There are clear plotlines, and themes, but zero in the way of real exposition, and you’re left to piece it all together at your own pace. As you proceed through the game, you discover the ancient catacombs under the city, in which were found the remains of dead gods, and all manner of other nastiness. You learn what the residents have been doing with the blood of those dead gods, and the side effects it’s been having.
So, what makes this so damn good? Bloodborne sets out its flag early on. It has no truck with modern video game stalwarts such as regular save points, or difficulty modes. From the very first moment, it challenges the player to “git gud” (as the Bloodborne community saying goes), and punishes them brutally where they fail to do so. It’s a throwback to the classic video gaming era of the 80s, where players needed to invest a bit of thought and hone their skills – there is no hand holding and you will die constantly, because dying is how you learn. Oh, and when you die, all the enemies you’ve killed are brought back to life, forcing you to confront them again, to fight harder and to improve. This might sound boring or choresome, but fortunately Bloodborne is full of genius game mechanics, which keep things compelling, even as it’s kicking your arse.
I’m just going to stop here and list some of the things that I’ve enjoyed about this incredible game.
• The art style. It’s absolutely gorgeous. The environments are incredibly atmospheric and varied, there are dozens of enemy types and you never feel less than totally involved in the world around you.
• The risk/reward balance which underpins the entire game. Someone hit you? Hit them back within a couple of seconds and you’ll recover your lost health. Die? You’ll have dropped all your blood echoes (the in game currency, accrued every time you kill an enemy and tradeable for weapons, goods and abilities), but you can win them back by respawning and killing whatever it is that killed you before you die again. Playing the game makes you outright nervous – you constantly have something on the line, and yet another death is never more than a heartbeat away. You’re encouraged to be aggressive at all times, but you’re penalised for being careless. I’ve been more tense playing this game than any other time I can remember, and friends of mine admit to having simply cracked at times and run blind through levels hoping to find a way out before being inevitably hunted down and destroyed.
• The weapons. There are dozens of them, and they’re nearly all amazing. A sword that turns into a jagged metal whip? A giant metal motorised pizza cutter? An electrically-charged magic mace? The severed arm of a dead god? They’re incredible, and your choice of weapon will massively transform how the game plays – this sounds like classic marketing spiel, but on this occasion it’s actually true. I’m currently on my third straight play-through, using Beast Claws and Ludwig’s Holy Blade. I’ve also just discovered that it’s possible to play the game as a werewolf.
• The lore. Oh god, the lore. There is a hell of a lot of back story here, and it’s amazing. I’m normally someone who totally zones out on game storylines, because I think they’re almost always rubbish, and the trend to making games more and more like interactive movies sucks donkey balls. This is something else entirely. The stories here are on a mythic level; there are churches, and cults, and ancient insane royal dynasties, insanity, Eldtrich truths, assassins and everything in between. While some of those things are massive clichés, they’re delivered with so much style and originality as to make them feel fresh. You swing back and forth between the real world and the nightmares of its inhabitants, and game gets deeply, deeply trippy. The themes and imagery alone should tell you we’re not in Kansas: expanded consciousness, eugenics, an obsession with eyes and their removal, pregnancy and miscarriage, the tension between wisdom and bloodlust, etc. I can’t even begin to do justice to it all – everything is connected to everything else, and the game has delivered so many “holy sh!t” moments I’ve stopped counting. About halfway through, the game full on wigs out, changes tone dramatically and more or less invites you to commune with the cosmos. It’s awesome, and essays are currently being written online about what it all means. Here’s “The Paleblood Hunt” – a 90 page analysis of the game’s story: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1JL5acskAT_2t062HILImBkV8eXAwaqOj611mSjK-vZ8/edit Just have a flick through that and say you’re not curious as to what on earth he’s on about.
• The boss fights. Oh god, the boss fights. I’m including below a video of one of them. They’re hard as nails – you’re expected to fail, and fail often. It’s quite common to kill one of these things, and realise that your heart is beating at a hundred miles an hour and your hands are shaking – the fights can last upwards of ten minutes and the adrenaline rush is enormous. The bosses also have some of the greatest names I’ve ever seen anywhere. Ebrietas, Daughter of the Cosmos? Rom the Vacuous Spider? Mergo’s Wet Nurse? The Cleric Beast? Lady Maria of the Astral Clocktower? The Celestial Emissary? Ludwig The Holy Blade? Martyr Logarius? Orphan of Kos? Vicar Amelia (seen in action in the video below)? Too cool.
• The sheer depth of the game. There are a million nooks and crannies you’ll never fully explore, but unlike most RPG type games you’ll actually want to. There are entirely hidden levels. And then hidden levels within those hidden levels. You can play through the whole game and miss out entirely on the existence of some of the best areas, weapons and enemies in the whole game. Likewise, there are stats out the wazoo, but you can choose to ignore them, or go as deep as you want – the game flexes to allow for both. A friend of mine is on his fourth play-through. He is still trying to properly understand the way that bloodgems (collectible items which enhance the power of your weapons) work. In his own words, researching this subject online is like reading an advanced maths text book, and he’s having to take notes. I skipped all that and just went “cool – this one make my giant metal hammer catch fire when I hit things with it”. I’m probably about a hundred hours into this game now. I own a hardback copy of the player guide (beautifully presented with original illustrations and enough info to teach you to fly Concorde). I’ve listened to hours and hours of podcasts of people just discussing the game and its themes. I still haven’t seen everything, and I basically feel like I’ve not even scratched the surface.
• It has the best level design of any game I’ve ever played. Can’t really explain it in words, you have to experience it for yourself, but it makes it feel like every other game simply hasn’t been trying. Speaking of which; Bloodborne will ruin you for other games – it’s like watching Pulp Fiction and then heading straight into Carebears: The Movie.
• The fear factor. It’s not a horror title, but I’ve never been so on edge playing a video game. Every dark corner is terrifying, every new enemy intimidating. Ditto the sheer difficulty. This is a famously tough game. It’s incredibly daunting when you start, and the feeling of achievement as you progress is palpable. Brilliantly, when it’s over, it invites you to simply restart and play again, each time with the difficulty ramped up a further notch. It challenges you constantly, and has absolutely perfect balance.
• The “Insight” mechanic. Throughout the game you collect “Insight”. At first, you have no idea what this means, but with time you come to realise that it reflects your understanding of the universe, and that as your Insight score climbs you begin to see things in the game (many of them quite horrible) that weren’t there previously, and the game gets harder for it. I’ll say no more for fear of spoilers.
• The blood. Oh, the blood. So much of it. The game fully lives up to its title. It’s not gory, just horrific. Want to wade through a literal river of blood, pursued by gigantic nightmare tic-creatures, dragging their distended, blood-filled abdomens behind them? This is the game for you. Want to literally dance in the raining blood of a defeated boss, as the game slaps the words “PREY SLAUGHTERED” across the screen in capital letters? Help yourself. The game’s freaking mantra is “Fear the old blood”. I’m throwing up devil horns just writing this stuff.
• The sense of joy. I’ve been playing games since I was a little kid. Recently, parenthood has meant I’ve played a lot less of them, and it’s at least a decade since I’ve really been absorbed in one. This has had me, hook line and sinker, as you can probably tell from the above. Best of all, I’ve been able to play through it with some old mates – each of them, I forced to play Bloodborne with the line “this is the best game I’ve ever played”. High bar. Each of them scoffed: “it can’t be better than ” (usually, Ocarina of Time). Each of them gradually came round to admitting that – yes – this is the best game ever. Best of all, it’s easy to play communally – you can share info without really spoiling anything, you take pleasure in one another’s achievements, and the game also has a healthy online mode: players can leave notes for one another (some of which will inevitably contain lies), and invade one another’s games to either assist or attack.
• It just has that X factor. That release of endorphins when a game works exactly as it should and is fine-tuned to perfection. The sheer amount of love, craft, Lovecraft and attention that has gone into this thing boggles the mind. The graphics compliment the music, which compliments the gameplay, and so on and so on. It’s pretty close to perfect. I’ve drifted away from gaming a little in recent years, partly because the industry has become fairly conservative, and partly because I always get the sense that developers aren’t exploiting the capabilities of the medium to anywhere near the extent they might. This game represents a step-change in all that; it demonstrates what can be done, and it has me really, really excited.
So, there’s my breathless, giddy blurb. Suffice to say, words cannot do justice to the experience of playing this game, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone brave enough to tackle it. Do bear in mind: it starts tough. Many people give up in the first couple of hours, and it will take you a while to figure out what the hell is going on (give it at least until you’ve killed the first boss). There is no tutorial, and a lot of it is “work it out as you go”. If anyone does get stuck in, please do come back and let me know how you find it – I’m happy to give tips if they’re needed.
If we’re looking for a musical reference (and I suspect we must): imagine if Slipknot covered Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow, and in doing so produced an album universally acclaimed to be better than Astral Weeks. Oh, and here’s the video to Kill v Maim by Afterword favourite Grimes – the “You Died” at the very end is the screen you’re shown in Bloodborne after each and every one of your many deaths.