From Software has an incredible track record of making games that, while definitely critical darlings, seem to split the gaming universe pretty evenly in half. Some people actively love the challenge set forward in the Souls series, spending countless hours getting destroyed by enemies to slowly learn how to parry and counter-attack at just the right moments. Others get easily frustrated by the admittedly steep learning curve, and back away entirely, never to look back. Everything else that accompanies the games seem to be of minor note, when held up against the difficulty of the titles. I clearly count myself heavily in the first group, or this post wouldn’t even be getting written.
So, what happens when From Software dips their toes into something even more steeped in horror than the Souls series? Does the transition from a straight-up medieval setting into a more Victorian feel work? And what about the advent of the player suddenly carrying a gun? These are questions that get pondered as we step deep into the lore of the city of Yarnham, and find out what exactly is
Alright, that last sentence is actually a little bit of a lie. We never find out anything EXACTLY. And that’s part of what makes, for some, the entire Souls series, and the clear spiritual successor, Bloodborne, so interesting for so many. Information is trickled out, but through the game, some of it is immediately discounted with other pieces of lore. While there may be a unifying theory about what exactly is going on, one thing that From wants the player to do is to determine their own version of events. Yes, some things are set in stone, but there’s enough vagueness about everything to keep the player guessing, and spouting theories. That vagueness definitely helps in any horror setting, as often, the most terrifying creature is the one that isn’t fully fleshed out until the end scenes.
But enough about the vagueness of the lore. What about the other questions posed above? Well, first off, by setting Bloodborne in a more modern world, From Software has allowed themselves to play with more of the tropes of that time, instead of relying on the more fantasy-based ones utilized for a medieval setting. It also allows for some a bit of a criticism of modern times. After all, a church making all of the wrong decisions, while city leaders either stand idly by or are corrupted on their own was something that resonated in Victorian times, and still has meaning today. Beautiful architecture filled with dark corners, cast against the backdrop of an increasingly problematic night set the scene. Add a little rain, and you could almost believe that you’re in 19th century London, instead of wandering through the city of Yarnham. In fact, Bloodborne did a pretty job creating a feel for England than The Order: 1886 did, and the second games specifically WAS set in that time and place. The setting works as the perfect backdrop for a Gothic horror game, filled with werewolves and an untrusting populace.
There’s something deeper, and more sinister going on within Bloodborne, however, and the setting lends itself incredibly well to that, too. On the surface, and for the first large portion of the game, it fits well into the mindsets of writers like Stoker and Shelley; the tale is one of humanity falling to darker beasts within themselves. Yes, the game is a bit bloodier in its presentation than authors of that time might have been inclined towards, but you can’t very well call your game Bloodborne and avoid the stuff. As the challenge ramps up, your hunter hears about others who have fallen to their inner beasts, and the first couple of boss fights really drive that point home. As the story progresses, however, you slowly come to realize that From Software is not pulling from Stoker or Shelley; they’re pulling from Lovecraft.
Translating Lovecraft from the written word has traditionally been a tricky task. Some adaptations have worked incredibly well, and others have fallen flat. Bloodborne is one of the examples that works great. The game hints at Elder Ones, and some sort of celestial interference, but it is also clearly planted in the world of dreams. The events happen over the course of one night, and, as the hunter exerts more control over the dreamscape they’ve been placed in, stranger and stranger things happen. One of the most disturbing moments happens when you, as the player, see something lurking outside of one of the early areas, and slowly realize that it’s been there the entire time, but invisible prior to that moment. Also, given Lovecraft’s seeming anxiety towards women, it’s not much of a surprise that Bloodborne plays with themes around menstruation, birth, and the ever-present blood. From Software delivered a story heavily influenced with Lovecraftian themes, and added their signature style of punishing-but-fair game play over the top of it.
But what about scares? Does Bloodborne deliver on the concept of being a horror game? It does, and, much to my own surprise, the risk/reward of more aggressive playing doesn’t detract from the feeling of dread. The lighting of the world is generally just enough to see around a corner or two, and the game utilizes jump scares at just the right moments, to keep the player guessing. Yes, some of these scares get lessened with repeated runs through the same area (and, given that this is ostensibly a Souls game, you WILL be running through areas again), but they are never minimized completely. This is partially because of the “blood echoes” mechanic. After all, there’s always a nagging fear at the back of the player’s mind that they might be a little too aggressive, and run the risk of losing all of their character progress for the last hour or more. This gets even trickier in certain levels where other players can invade your world. There’s nothing quite so terrifying as battling a fierce enemy, running low on healing supplies, and seeing the words that someone has entered your world.
Overall, Bloodborne is a game that seems to relish in its horror roots, while dabbling with Victorian themes. Combat is brutal, but, as is the case in the Souls games, it is fair once you learn the mechanics. Having a gun instead of a shield actually increases the strategy potential, allowing for stuns, but, personally, it didn’t come into play as often as the game would seem to imply it should, based on the supplies provided. The shift from more standard Victorian horror to Lovecraftian works surprisingly well, too, when you think about how much of a disconnect it could have been. As for whether or not you’ll end up enjoying a stroll through the blood-soaked streets of Yarnham? That all depends on how much you enjoy having the prickly sensation dance across the back of your neck, while also warding off frustration from yet another death at the hands of your enemies.