Bloodborne‘s grotesque beauty and its ability to hold up as a classic – arguably one of the best games ever released on a PlayStation console – are not the only reasons to hail it as FromSoftware’s best game.
But it’s a damn good place to start.
Bloodborne contains all the classic tropes that FromSoftware loves to use in their fantasy games. A curious mixture of horror and fantasy, the struggle of existence against the inevitability of the universe: these are all on display and more. That’s outside of the core gameplay elements From is known for: a steep difficulty curve that is (mostly) fair; an interesting assortment of weapons and methods for becoming stronger, though in the end you wind up becoming the piece that is truly upgraded. Grasping Bloodborne‘s quicker-paced combat system (though not as fast as the later Sekiro) after years of Dark Souls takes some level of adjustment, but becomes a risk/reward scenario as you can regain health by quickly counterattacking. Once grasped, this mechanic becomes critical in surviving the brutal world of Bloodborne.
I believe that, on a very basic level, Bloodborne hits home a little harder because the setting feels much closer to us than the usual medieval style of prior games. Reminiscent of Victorian-era London, with people and vehicles that are antiquated but not ancient, there’s a connection that game makes that feels – however misleading – grounded in a faux-realism.
And when that realism twists into a labyrinthine nightmare, it makes the game all the more compelling. Intertwined with the narrative is From’s trademark obscure NPC quests. And true to form, most of them end poorly for them but not before twisting you in the gut. Did you find the window with the little girl asking you to take a tiny music box to her mother? Did you direct Arianna to the safety of Odeon Chapel? Did you tell the girl’s sister about the Chapel? These humanizing (and ultimately in some cases, horrifying) elements enrich the narrative in a way that no other FromSoftware game really has.
The lore points to a number of human frailties in what you encounter in the world of Bloodborne. The hope of the blood turning from miracle cure to nightmarish horrors as well as the search for knowledge among the scholars which translates into tragic consequence are common themes at play. Whereas in the Dark Souls series the themes of struggling against a dying fire, the loss of identity and the inevitability of ruin play a part on a grander stage over the course of untold thousands of years, Bloodborne brings the themes to ground level.
You, as the player, aren’t on some great quest to fulfill a prophecy. You’re trying to understand why the city is going through what it is now, and you can try to save some people during the process. The game’s themes of stagnation and science (at a certain level) gone wrong are immediately relatable (and given the ongoing pandemic, even more so now).
The level design is a thing of beauty, with interconnecting shortcuts that harkens back to the original Dark Souls. There is something to be said for a fresh take inspiring the developers. While the game that came out after Bloodborne, Dark Souls III, was technically and artistically impressive, the level design felt more linear than previous titles and didn’t match what was on display here. Bloodborne feels inspired and fresh compared to other From titles, in a similar way Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice felt like a respite from the tried and true.
And the weapons? Arguably the most innovative piece of the game, Bloodborne‘s menagerie of trick weapons – each. sporting alternative transformations and modes with unique applications – are an absolute treat. There is something strangely satisfying about striking an enemy with a longsword, only to immediately combo that into a giant hammer smash. Add in the use of firearms and their ability to help you gain powerful critical attacks on opponents, and you have the most in-depth gameplay for any FromSoftware game. It’s a thing of beauty.
FromSoftware has made a large number of games over the past few decades. They pushed the envelop of the fantasy / RPG genre on consoles with the immersive King’s Field series and mech games with their Armored Core series. They have consistently strived to produce worlds that are rich and expansive given the technical capabilities of the platform. Their art and level design is among the best in the business Bloodborne, despite being over five years old, represents the pinnacle of what the company can do so far. In part, that’s what makes the hype for their next game, Elden Ring, so tantalizing. Supposedly representing the next step in the evolution of From’s gaming formula from Dark Souls, and the subject of many rumors, the wait to see what Elden Ring can deliver is vexing.
It’s only because we know what FromSoftware can deliver. Bloodborne is the shining example, and imagine if they can surpass it. The mouth waters at the thought.
May the good blood guide their way…