Bloodborne has been lauded by critics and hardcore gamer’s alike, so it was easy to become swept up in a fervor that demanded that I play this game. The question was, would I have the dissenting opinion? The answer is… kind of.
Shortly after picking up a copy of Bloodborne, I read the Dan Stapleton article over at IGN titled “How and why Bloodborne lost me.” I invite you to read it, because it offer’s something so counter to all of the peer feedback and coverage that this game has garnered. I have to admit while reading it, I was filled with dread over a potential sinking of $60 into a title all but promised to me to be stellar. After playing Bloodborne for dozens of hours, I can sum up my feelings about this game with this analogy: Bloodborne is like classical music.
I’ve played piano since I was 8 years old, and I can recount plenty of lessons where I wasn’t all that interested in playing Chopin, Beethoven, or Mozart. Instead, I always wanted to play Billy Joel, Elton John, and other things I’d heard on the radio. Pop and Rock music offered something more accessible to me, something simpler and catchier. You could make the argument that music has evolved over the years in a similar way that games have. The top 40 on the charts now is a collection of usually pristine, over-produced, derivative art-turned-product that is designed to be packaged, sold, and consumed in the most pleasing way possible. Triple-A titles promise state of the art graphics, addictive gameplay loops, and are palatable to the largest possible percentage of people who play video games in order to maximize sales and create reoccurring revenue. Bloodborne manages to subvert so many of these trends in favor of something that feels novel, if not for anything else other than the fact that they really, really don’t make em’ like this anymore.
Classical Music is just plain different. It’s as much a form of art, as it is an expression of skill. It often demands of the musician that they memorize very long segments of content, that they deeply understand music theory, and that they’re able to execute at a very high level. All of this is present in Bloodborne, and like it’s musical counterpart, Bloodborne is not always easily palatable.
Saying the game won't hold your hand is an understatement. You’re thrown into the deep end immediately. It’s lack of clarity even extends down to the very first choice the game asks you to make: a menu reading simply: Online, Offline. No supporting instructions , or explanation of the repercussions of your choice. This trend is systemic in the game's design and many would argue it’s even the point of the whole thing. After pushing my way past a character creator with what seemed like a hundred of hard-to-tell-what-the-hell-its-doing options I finally got to begin playing. The only reason I was able to push past the first few moments of the game was because I heard everyone on the internet shouting “You are suppose to let the first guy kill you!” I even started the game with my brother joining me on the couch, occasionally swapping the controller with each other. I spend the first two or so hours of Bloodborne essentially accomplishing nothing. I felt like an ape scratching my head. Which weapon should I choose? What do any of the weapon stats mean? Which way do I go? Am I suppose to die in two hits?
I finally started to be able to understand what this game was around the time I made it to the first boss battle. This is not a game for the faint of heart, or the impatient, or people with a bad sense of direction, or timing, or memory, who are easily stressed, who smoke, have asthma, are pregnant or may become pregnant. The ESRB should have asked Sony to print this on the cover. It’s a game made even more maddening when you’re not coming at it through the context of the creator, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s former work: Demon Souls, Dark Souls and the like. Normally I wouldn’t be so hard on a game that is purposely trying to be hard on me, but there’s modern design patterns being omitted here for what seems like ignorance more than style. New armor and weapons never feel like a clear upgrade from existing equipment, you cannot compare things you find or are looking to buy with what you have without either memorizing everything or writing things down. When you pick up items you’re forced to sit with UI on your screen while enemies may be trying to hack you to pieces. The interface of this game isn’t part of a complex and well balanced symphony, it’s an out-of-tune recorder being played by the kid who’s using band as an excuse to get out of Spanish Class.
Dying in Bloodborne is something you never quite become numb to. For me, it’s almost always maddening. Wether it seems that animations simply queued up at a time that was not in my favor, or it was my own misstep, dying can elicit a audible groan from me. It brought me straight back to screwing up a section of a song I was practicing for competition back in my piano hay-day. Bloodborne is classical music in the way it’s designed and packaged, and in the way you play. If you're going to truley enjoy this game, you have to re-orient your brain into understand that dying is a fundamental part of the experience. It often teaches you a lesson, or reinforces a pattern. Sometimes it's simply to illustrate just how bad-ass the new bad guys are in a section of the game you've never been to before.
All of these points in mind, the lows of this game make the highs feel that much more punctuated. There’s something to the whirling symphony of axes, fire, and bodies that when you know your notes, feels damn good. Three steps here, start a power-swing, guy pops out, gets nailed in the head. Once you know how to play through sections of the game, you’ll look more like a conductor than someone playing a video game. With Playstation’s Spotify integration, I thought quite seriously about putting on some of Beethoven’s 9th in the background. The difficulty does have moments where it spikes — especially for boss encounters — and becomes so demanding of you, that when you return to a section you’ve long since moved past, you almost laugh at the attempts of enemies to rob you of your health. You may be only crawling up the depth chart with tiny incrementing RPG numbers, but when you’re good, you are good. We’re even seeing now reports of people who are so damn good they can throw caution to the wind, and beat the game without gaining a single level.
Even though this argument has been rehashed many times, and plays into the hand of Bloodborne’s greatest supporters, there is something meaningful about not being treated like an idiot. This game’s demand is that you "get good", and if you "get good", then "get better". No map, no quest markers, no npc’s pointing the way, no magic upgrades that make you invincible, even the smallest enemy in the game is a threat if you don’t deal with them or run. Take this boss fight for example. My third boss encounter of the game was with a creature that sent me into fits of rage. I simply could not beat her. But I’d try and try and try what seemed like an endless number of times, waiting from loading screen to loading screen in hopes that my next attempt would put this foul beast out of it’s misery. It forced me to finally dig into the bag of tricks the game tried to put in front of me. I started using a new weapon I hadn’t before, and trying items in a desperate bid to make progress. Eventually I tapped into one of my favorite parts of this game, summoning a stranger who can hop into my world, and tip a boss encounter in our favor, ever so slightly.
Brining in a friend is not without consequences though. It costs a limited and valuable resource, and can go awry. Not to mention if you call someone into your game, then the world also summons another player to hunt you both down. A skill that those people demonstrate brutally, as I’ve never won one of those encounters. What I have done, is leveraged both the help of strangers and friends push pass the enormously difficult cornerstone battles of Bloodborne, and it made the experience a thousand times more palatable.
In a very special way though, Bloodborne's systems, while seemingly opaque and intent on not telling the player how anything effects anything else, there is a special mystery to that, and it keeps the game consistenly exciting through the entire experience. World events trigger special rewards, or up the danger. An old baddie who you thought could never suprise you again turns up with a new set of attacks and animations after you mark a certain level of progress. Even leveling up seems to pay you back by increasing the cost of everything you have to buy. I'm always on the edge of my seat, and often hearing moans in the distance of my headphones dreading what was out there, hunting me.
On a side note, no game has ever made me feel a real and viseral hatret for crows, dogs, wearwolves, and the dudes from Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut before.
I also want to bring up that I’m reviewing this game while still playing it, and there’s more hours of hand-sweat inducing entertainment I expect to get out of it. The truth is that I don’t believe someone needs to necessarily beat a game like Bloodborne in order to be able to talk about it in a critical way, or be able to help another person better understand what they’d be getting into. Bloodborne’s story isn’t something that I feel drawn to see to an end, and it’s storytelling is accomplished mostly though the use of art direction, murmurs of psychopaths on the other sides of walls, and my own experiences. When I recount moments of this game to my friends, it wont be beaches it has a great story to tell, but because surviving something against all odds can make for a great story, even if it took me twenty attempts.
Despite going into this game excited, but fearing that Bloodborne was something that was too inside-ball for me, I came out pleasantly surprised. So I come back to my original point. Bloodborne is classical music. A game that many people will find outdated, difficult in comprehension and execution, and probably doesn’t stand much of a chance of leaking into the living rooms of people who don’t appreciate the medium of video games for their history and the challenge that they pose to the player. But people who love classical music will go buy hi-fi systems just to listen to it. They talk about it over drinks, and they share their experiences with other fans, they create a community, and they will tell people who don’t like it that they’re lacking in taste or ability.
How much do I like classical music? The answer is: More than I thought. Now if you'll excuse me... I have to go get my ass kicked.