Despite pretty much specifically buying a PS4 in 2015 so I could play Bloodborne, I only just finished the game last week, for I am a very slow and easily distracted gamer. For those uninitiated, Bloodborne is a cousin of the famed Dark Souls series (from the same developer, From Software) and operates very similarly to those: it's hard as hell, there are no traditional tutorials or hand-holding sequences, and NPCs will speak cryptically rather than flat out tell you what to do next. Exploration and subtle clues in the scenery are how you find your way through the game, unlike most modern games which seem content to constantly tell you how to play. The narrative, best as I can tell, involves your character (a "Hunter") coming to the city of Yharnam and doing his (or her!) part to wipe it clean of the beasts and monsters that have torn it asunder and killed most of its occupants. Along the way you'll get stronger, acquire new weapons, and fight bosses that you can't even see in their entirety once you're close enough to hit them - but it'll still be possible to get killed by the first mob you encounter if you play carelessly.
And I assure you, that sort of thing happened to me more than once. See, here's the thing about me and games: I'm not particularly great at them, and get frustrated when I need to do things over and over. Even in something like the Lego games, if I have to navigate a jumping platform sequence and keep falling to my "death", I'm liable to hurl a few choice adult words at the general direction of my television set. It's for that reason that I never played the Dark Souls games (I did try the first, and perhaps I will make another attempt now that I'm a "veteran" of this game style), because a game where you more or less have to keep failing in order to learn just does not sound that enticing, especially when you consider the limited time I have to play these days. But something about Bloodborne intrigued me, and my curiosity paid off; even though it's possible I could have played through three or four normal games in the time I spent on it, I wouldn't trade it for the world. Knowing in advance how difficult it'd be was a big help, because I'd *expect* to die and fail a lot before making any real progress, and I surprised myself how calm I'd be when getting my ass handed to me for the tenth time by a boss, and often laughed at my carelessness when decimated by a pair of beast dogs.
In fact I don't think I'd enjoy the game as much if it was easy. The story is so vague that I barely understood it beyond "I have to kill the monsters", and your character is a blank slate mute that was hard to get attached to the way I have for the likes of Mass Effect's Shepard or even a generic grunt like Fenix from Gears of War. The challenge itself was the draw, and the game delivered on that promise time and time again. It also helped me fully appreciate the world the developers designed, as I got to know its locations fairly well - between the initial encounters, the time spent looking for treasures or shortcuts, and the inevitable backtracking when I'd die, I feel I would be able to return to the game in a few years and find my way around with minimal trouble. Near the end of the game I was probably a bit overpowered for some of the optional areas and got through them quickly, but even then I'd spend more time in them than I would for any particular area in the usual bloated minimap cluttered game that I play.
But unlike the Assassin's Creed or GTA type games I usually play, Bloodborne was directly in my wheelhouse. Monsters! Spiders! Werewolves! Blood! The Souls games have their share of demons and the like, of course, but still within a more fantasy-like backdrop. Here, being dropped into a city that felt like Jack the Ripper *and* The Wolf Man might also jump out at me at any moment, fighting monsters that reminded me of certain beasties from The Thing, not to mention any number of literary sources (Lovecraft, mostly, but a bit of King too - a couple of bosses would have felt at home in The Mist), made it easier to find the resolve to keep going when things got hairy. In fact, I think it was the most scared I've gotten at a game since the first Resident Evil, giving me that "first time the dog jumps through the window" kind of jolt several times over its lengthy - but not bloated - campaign. With each new area there are always fresh terrors awaiting: the giant birds that occasionally drop on you from above, a creepy little alien looking dude suddenly running after you with its arms outstretched, and yes, even a legit window smashing moment, except this time it was a giant werewolf.
And I'm not being snarky with my descriptions; I simply don't know what the enemies are called, nor do I particularly care to find out. The bosses are named, but otherwise there's no on-screen display telling you what you're fighting as you make your way through the primary parts of the game. You the player don't know anything the character doesn't know, and again there isn't much in the way of NPCs going on and on telling you everything they know. This is a big part of what makes the same scary, to the extent that I actually had a nightmare about it one night after playing. Sure, it was probably a bit of the "Tetris Effect" working against me, but I've played other horror games like Dead Space and Alien Isolation for lengthy sessions and never got nightmares about those. The Resident Evil series had lost most of its ability to terrify due to the convoluted storyline that took center stage in some of the later installments (the newest entry, RE7, finally got things back on track), and other horror games have suffered the same fate: overplotting to the point of leaving nothing for your imagination to conjure. Bloodborne never fell victim to that sort of thinking; the longest cut-scene in the game was probably only 90 seconds long, and if you go online for answers you'll notice a lot of it is mere speculation from fans who attempted to piece everything together.
It also gave me unease, which is harder to pull off than jump scares. Sometimes there would be an area that you'd uncover for the first time and it would be empty of enemies, but of course there's no way to know that until you make your way through it, inching around and pausing before every new corridor or doorway. One time I thought I cleared a new area out and was about to run through and seek any treasures I might have missed, turning around and walking right into a waiting beast, who quickly swatted me aside as I screamed, then laughed at how well executed the scare was, on par with any slasher movie (indeed, it reminded me of a few key crowd-pleasing moments from Jason Voorhees, particularly killing Kelly Rowland in FvJ). I recovered in time to kill him, but I assure you, I went back through that area 2-3 more times before dubbing it truly clear, afraid to take another step without looking in every direction first. I saw a giant hanging... thing in a room and dared not enter right away, only to finally find my courage and discover it was just a corpse of a monster - though I still kept eying it to make sure it was really dead. The game never cheats; enemies won't appear in spots that they couldn't have been moments before, and respawns are very rare (bell ringing witches can call back the ones you've killed, so when those are around, it's a good idea to kill them first to prevent further spawns), but it's still unwise to ever let your guard down.
And that brings me to the moment I realized I loved the game. You don't see any of the townspeople you're saving, but you can hear them on the other side of their doors and windows, and some will talk to you and even give you an item. One such man is Gilbert, who you meet early on, living next door to the first Lamp you encounter in the outside world (Lamps, when lit, allow you to return to a safe spot in order to level up and buy equipment). He gives you a Flamesprayer weapon at one point (very useful for some bosses) and is one of the more helpful people you encounter. As the game goes on he gets more and more scared/withdrawn about the situation, and it becomes obvious he has been infected, saying that he's glad he can at least die a human. I didn't think much of it until much later, when I needed Blood Vials (health) and opted to run through his (now very easy) part of the city to obtain some quickly, and found a new beast standing in a spot where there had never been an enemy before. And it was just standing there; in fact I remember it looking if anything kind of confused - right before I instinctively unleashed my Hunter's Axe and wiped him out before he had a chance to attack. Then I turned toward Gilbert's window and saw that it was now smashed open, realizing only then that I had just killed my old friend. I legitimately felt sad for the poor bastard, who had helped me and thought he'd at least die a human, only to be sliced up like so many others.
I've played a lot of horror games over the years, but rarely has any single encounter affected me like this one. Overall I've rarely felt as compelled by a genre game; even the big guns like the Resident Evil series, I play and enjoy, but tend to forget about them as soon as I play whatever's next and never consider replaying them. Indeed, after finishing Until Dawn (the other reason I wanted a PS4) and getting most of my characters killed I went back to make different choices, but lost interest quickly and abandoned the effort - it just wasn't hooking me in anymore, even with different options. But even though there's no such optional play in Bloodborne, I can't stop thinking about it; if I were a younger man with more time on my hands, I'd probably go back for its New Game+ mode (you keep your level and equipment and go through the game again, but every enemy is now harder), or at least the DLC (which is said to be insanely hard even for high level players), but alas I have to move on now. It's one of the best experiences I've had with a horror game (on par with the original - and still my favorite - Resident Evil), and I'm torn between wishing there were more like it or being appreciative of its "lightning in a bottle" status.
Granted, the difficulty will keep some of you at bay, but if you're a horror fan and (like me) tend to use your PS4 more as a blu-ray player than gaming system, I can't recommend the game enough. It's usually only 20 bucks nowadays, which is one of the best deals you'll ever find for a modern triple A title like this. And it's really not THAT hard as long as you're patient and careful - there's almost always a way to retreat and regroup, and the tougher challenges tend to be optional (looking at you, Martyr Logarius), so if you're not pulling a "Leroy Jenkins" you should be fine. I've said a zillion times that it's tough to scare me with a movie, and I kept thinking about that during the game as it almost made it seem easy to get me feeling panicky. Horror screenwriters in particular should give it a look (or at least watch a full playthrough on Twitch or Youtube), if only to remind them that explaining everything is usually detrimental to a film's ability to scare you. Let me be unnerved by the unknown, and your movie can give me nightmares too! That or make another game like Bloodborne, I guess. I'll get around to it eventually.