Bloodborne’s horror, at a glance, approaches cliché. Yharnam, the city in which Hidetaka Miyazaki’s latest game is centered, is beleaguered with plague, its streets all grime and squalor.
Bodies pile in sodden sacks, flies buzz around horse carcasses, while a pram, that beloved prop of the Hollywood set designer, lays on its side at the doors to a forsaken church. There are few places of sanctuary any more for the remaining healthy locals, who tremble and pace inside their homes, under an everlasting curfew, away from the terrors that roam outside their doors.
We’ve seen many of those freaks and mutants before too. There are the rabid Doberman and hoe-wielding peasants of Resident Evil. There are the fat crows of Hitchcock’s The Birds. Even the soul-sucking Death Eaters of Harry Potter are hinted at. Jack the Ripper would certainly be at home here in the nooks and crannies of Yharnam’s Gothic sprawl; its cobblestones are ever slicked with Saw-like gushes of blood.
But step inside Bloodborne and the ambiance is entirely unfamiliar. The texture and arrangement of the horror is unique. For one, there’s a melancholy to these streets and the monsters that stalk them. At first, this sadness (compounded by a wistful violin score) appears to undermine the fear, but sit with it for a while, and the atmosphere only becomes thicker and more complicated. Veterans of Miyazaki’s previous two similarly singular games, Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, may be expecting an easy ride. But again, while Bloodborne borrows ideas from its forebears, their texture and arrangement is new.
This reordering begins with the rhythms of combat. No more cowering behind a shield, waiting for an opening through which to stick a pike or rapier. Your rangy character’s defence is tied to their speed: evasive rolls and quickstep retreats provide a buffer to the enemy’s onslaught (and make no mistake: these monsters are nothing if not single-minded; they chase you down with inexorable hostility). A skilled player will be able to weave between the legs of Bloodborne’s great padding boss characters, hacking at ankles. A newcomer will simply be able to outrun their pursuer – for a few seconds respite, if nothing else.
Your primary weapon can extend and retract like a switchblade. In its shorter form, it releases a flurry of strikes at close distance. When extended, it’s slower but with far greater reach. Combos can involve switching between these two states, to showboating effect. Later in the game, you are able to equip gems into the weapon to strengthen it, or add elemental effects that, for example, set your enemy aflame. In your other hand, you carry either a burning torch, to light up the murk, or a ranged weapon (initially a pistol or shotgun – but soon enough you gain access to a range of other vintage firearms, each of which maintains a dilapidated steam-punk feel). It’s not all high tech: when faced with a huddle of enemies, you can hurl stones to lure individuals away, thinning their numbers into more manageable encounters.
Combat has changed in other crucial ways. Gone is the flask of life-giving drink quaffed in Miyazaki’s previous games; instead foes liberally drop health-restoring items, which can be guzzled momentarily during a fight. More interesting still: when struck by an enemy, a section of your health bar turns from red to orange. Now you have a few seconds in which to land your own attack. Manage a strike, and the blood you harvest will refill your health bar. It’s a simple change with fundamental repercussions: attack is now the best form of defence, and even when you’re close to death, you can pull yourself back from the brink with a few well-aimed hits. Much later you may equip runes to your character, which work rather like Dark Souls’ rings, infusing your character with specific advantages to further tip the odds in your favour.
Bloodborne’s currency is Blood Echoes, an item harvested from foes that can be spent on increasing your character’s abilities or purchasing clothing, weapons or items from a gaggle of ghostly imps that live in a cauldron in Bloodborne’s overgrown copse of a hub area, known as Hunter’s Dream. Die and your current stash of Blood Echoes are dropped at the point of your defeat (or, now, gobbled up by the foe that bested you). You can reclaim them by making your way back to the location (or defeating the victorious enemy), but die en route and they’re gone for good.
As such, the greater the number of Blood Echoes in your possession, the more anxious you become as the greater the potential loss that’s attached to defeat. But also, the greater the number of Blood Echoes in your possession, the higher the chance that you’re approaching a new lamp, one of the game’s rare points of safety which, when lit, will offer you a new point of entry into Yarnham. Should you turn back to bank your winnings at the hub world, or press on to the next portal, wherever it may be? It’s an ongoing question.
Miyazaki is, perhaps, the medium’s greatest world-builder. His storytelling is always fragmented (the game is so relentlessly hostile that, when you happen upon a friendly character, who offers you encouragement, information or some kind of useful item, the sense of relief may bring you close to tears), but there’s a sense that the iceberg of the fiction sits deep and heavy. This is evidenced in the way in which the world pieces together like a grand and elegant contraption. You will spend an hour questing through some knotted area of Yharnam, praying for a lamp to light, only to find a set of gates that, when heaved open, will create a passageway that brings you back to a previous safe point. While different sections of Yharnam’s surrounding area are accessed via different portals in the hub world, most of these areas can be trekked between on foot. The world is vast but, more wonderfully still, it’s clockwork.
There are, however, places in Bloodborne that are less precise in their layout. Aside from the main quest, it’s possible to create randomly generated dungeons using a concoction of items swirled together in a chalice. These multi-tiered dungeons generate “glyphs”, numerical keys that can be shared with friends, allowing them to download its layout to their game and share in your pain and frustration.
Bloodborne continues the Souls series’ somewhat remote form of co-operative and competitive play elsewhere too. Ring a bell and it’s possible to call for another player (they will be teleported into your game to offer assistance). Later, you can also invade other players’ games, to hinder rather than help. The community of players can share messages of support by placing notes on the ground. These warn of traps or ambushes, or simply share a moment of encouragement or relief. “Beware of hound,” reads one; “You’ve come to the right place,” reads another.
Bloodborne like its predecessors, will spill its secrets slowly, over months rather than days. Part of the appeal of Miyazaki’s games is this slow-release effect, whereby riddles are unpicked and shared by the community, rather than plainly laid out on the first day of release. It brings players together, where the fiction itself keeps them somewhat apart. Bloodborne is, by any measure, an extraordinary game, one that runs forcefully against the commercial tide, subverting perceived wisdom that contemporary games have to hold their players’ hands, or make their shape and rules explicit from the get-go.
Some joy is found in this mystery then. But, elsewhere, the game’s appeal is more plainspoken. Its elegance, precision, humour, and challenge make Bloodborne irresistible. Ultimately, the horror is secondary; wonder is the true transfusion on offer here.
This article was written by Simon Parkin, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 24th March 2015 12.57 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010