Souls games have always been about decay. Decay of landscapes, decay of weaponry, decay of your in-game body and real-life sanity. Though its title may be different, Bloodborne is very much a Souls game, with decay built into its DNA. But where the Souls-titled games dealt with decay via age and curse, Bloodborne deals with plague and madness. It’s a subtle difference, but one that lends Bloodborne a character completely distinct from its earlier From Software cousins.
In typically arcane From Software fashion, Bloodborne begins with little to no exposition or context. After designing your character with its intricate character creator (which, refreshingly, straight-up states there’s no difference in gameplay between male and female characters), you’re dropped into the dreary, decaying Victorian city of Yharnam with barely even a cinematic. Though there’s more dialogue than in Souls, the story must be divined from the environment, character design, and cryptic snatches of text. Bloodborne’s story and lore are a little clearer and more focused than the Souls games, telling of a city going mad with thirst for blood, opening itself up for ancient Cthulhoid gods to exploit, whose only protectors are the possibly-lycanthropic Hunters. The side stories are where the real action’s at, though - see the family breakdown of Viola and Father Gascoigne, or the feud between mad doctor Iosefka and the Oedon Chapel that exemplifies the game’s unique relationship to science and religion. These tales are slowly revealed through faint clues and active thought, setting players’ imaginations free to connect the sometimes horrifying dots. It’s the perfect approach to this kind of story.
Wilfully withheld information continues into gameplay. Many game mechanics don’t even appear until you’ve completed certain areas of the game - and as some areas are optional, you might never even encounter them. You also might have no idea how the hell they actually work, as yet again, From plunges you in without explanation. There’s a mysterious ingame currency called Insight, gained from killing bosses, that changes unspecified things in the environment when you accumulate enough. There’s a day/night cycle whose gameplay implications are similarly unclear. There’s even a mechanic called “Beasthood” whose full function may not yet even have been gleaned by the game’s psychotically thorough fan-wiki authors. In a way, it’s on-theme: Bloodborne is a game of the unthinkable and unknowable, so it’s appropriate that its gameplay should be a process of discovery.
Multiplayer is a different story. In the main game, cooperation and competition is as random as Souls has ever been, which is fine. I like that it’s treated as a mystical connection between nightmares, instigated by the ringing of bells. But Bloodborne also introduces procedurally-generated levels, separate to the main story, called Chalice Dungeons. The marketing and in-game text gives the impression that friends can freely explore these dungeons together online, but connecting with friends in Chalice Dungeons is just as opaque as in the main game - if not more. None of these steps are really explained to players: you have to create your dungeon, set it to Public, have your friend set the same multiplayer password as you, get them to input your dungeon glyph into their altar, have their character be within ten levels of yours, go to the same place in the dungeon, ring a bell, have them ring a different bell, and then maybe, a couple minutes later, you’ll get to connect. And if you kill a boss together, you have to go through the whole frustrating process again - a process that costs Insight and time. The co-op gameplay and the dungeons are great once you’ve actually made it work, but the “dungeon sharing” feature is at best grossly misnamed. I don’t care if it’s “just how From does it” - it shouldn’t be this complex to raid a dungeon with a friend.
But while I’d prefer more simplicity in networking, simplicity in gameplay would be counter to the pleasures that these games bring. Bloodborne is exceptionally difficult, and it’s not just because of how hard the enemies hit. Gone are the shields and ranged attacks of previous (and also difficult) From games - Bloodborne is all about melee. Thanks to the new Regain system, which lets you heal yourself by dealing out damage immediately after being attacked, there’s much more emphasis on forward aggression. There are guns, but they’re basically useless as weapons, functioning more as parrying tools to enable “visceral attacks”. Visceral attacks - devastating critical strikes incurred by well-timed parries and attacks - are gratifying as hell to achieve, especially in the typically-nasty boss battles.
As a dyed-in-the-wool shields-and-arrows Souls cheapass, I found myself having to radically change my playstyle to one of consistent attacking and dodging - and it was incredibly satisfying. At least, until I died, over and over and over and over and over again. Death is painful in Bloodborne, though it’s less punishing in-game than it is in the real world. The thrill of improving your monster-hunting game is lessened somewhat by back-to-back lengthy load times that cause more frustration than the monsters themselves. Get used to seeing this screen:
As Scott has already covered, Bloodborne represents From going for horror instead of fantasy, and the results become more unsettling the more you and your character think about them. Accumulating Insight and progressing through the game gradually reveals more of the horror that haunts Yharnam. The more you know and understand about the world, the more horrifying it becomes - a great mechanical manifestation of the creeping madness that haunts Lovecraftian horror. It makes sense that this series would embrace Lovecraft eventually, given what it does to players’ sanity anyway - it’s even better that it does so so comprehensively.
There's also a shitload of tentacles in this game. The enemies are varied and absolutely disgusting, with terrific boss and creature design that’s alternatingly creepy and gross. Bloodborne also boasts a surprisingly even gender split with its characters, for beings good and ill (though let’s face it: most beings in this game are ill). Boss names are similarly creative, but even “Rom, The Vacuous Spider” can’t live up to the standard set by Dark Souls’ “Ceaseless Discharge”. Each is rendered in gruesome detail, the engine getting so much out of lank cloth and hair physics that they’re actually overused at times. And some characters, namely the little Messenger guys who spring out of the ground to give you helpful tips, are even sort of cute - or as cute as Lovecraftian nightmares can be.
From games have always sported intricate levels, and here Bloodborne doesn’t disappoint. A compromise between the clustered verticality of Dark Souls and the sprawling openness of Dark Souls II, Yharnam and its surrounding region are full of instantly memorable areas - areas you’ll traverse repeatedly as you get further punished. The levels intertwine and loop back on themselves, replete with shortcuts and secrets. But though blood-caked Yharnam is atmospheric and gorgeously-rendered, I still found myself longing for the more colourful and varied landscapes of earlier Souls games. Being slaughtered by monsters in beautiful and even sunny locales lends extra irony to the hurt. Yharnam is a bleaker, more aggressively unpleasant holiday destination than Lordran or Drangleic (somehow).
Bloodborne rewards deep play and deep thought. It’s not for everyone, and it’s definitely more accessible if you’ve played another Souls game first, but that doesn’t mean newcomers can’t pick it up. I see it as analogous to my first experience with Souls. It may be difficult, but (load times notwithstanding) it’s never a slog - it’s a challenge. At times, its monolithic difficulty may seem overwhelming, but all you have to do is heed the advice of the more encouraging notes left by other players: “don’t give up!”. Stick with it, and you’ll discover Bloodborne is the most awful kind of wonderful.
Finally: because I seem to do this with every character I create, here is my Hunter. He's named Sandwich, and he mainly wishes all these monsters would just be a little bit more sensible. Where does that get him? Killed, is where. Silly Sandwich.