A never ending nightmare is a theme well suited to the recursive nature of death screens and checkpoints in Bloodborne. Each and every time, you and the world will respawn as it was without fail. The patrol of crazed townspeople again ready for you with torch, pitchfork, and blunderbuss. The same glowing eyes of the wolf beast that feasts in the laboratory. And always the ogre, pounding madly on the great wooden door to the town square, ready to smash your face with a brick. The hunt of Yharnam had begun on schedule, only now it’s become twisted and never ending.
There is little sense of a goal to drive you through Yharnam’s streets, cathedral wards, courtyards and woods. A marionetta doll amongst a bed of flowers will tell you in your dream — the hub where you spend acquired points to level and upgrade — to find your strength and worth in this ‘waking world.’ Yet it’s perhaps your own talents that provide real motivation. Your hunter is a dual wielding professional who uses trick weapons to slay the creatures of the strange and ceaseless night. These are multifunctional. A cane turns into a chain whip, a sword locks into its own sheath to make yet a bigger sword, and an axe pops into a long reaching scythe at the flick of the shoulder button. It’s a seamless blend of one-handed attacks into two-handed attacks and back again.
While Bloodborne features a small arsenal of weapons to find or purchase, right off the bat it has you feeling like a swiss army vampire hunter thanks to their variations. The differences between speed, reach, and power all make the animations of these weapons worthwhile and encourage experimentation. Find a favorite and cling to it like a trusted friend in Bloodborne’s moonlit horrorscape, and take a firearm along in the offhand while you’re at it. Though impotent, with proper timing the guns can stagger enemies if you catch their attacks mid-swing. It’s fair game for bosses as well, provided you find the unique window of vulnerability.
However, a missed stagger can lead to certain death if you’re not careful, as any lapse in positioning will be met with a hard hitting and merciless attack from Yharnam’s creatures. Witches with meat cleavers, wild dogs, banshees and giant boars, Bloodborne provides intimidation around every corner, and has the bite to match. A responsive dodge roll plays a large part in survival then, but it’s the game favor of the offensive that makes it both delightful and nerve wracking.
Bloodborne demolishes comfort by asking you to be just as vicious as your enemies. Damage sustained can, for a brief moment, be regained again as health if you land attacks quickly in retaliation. It’s a high risk, high reward system, and it’s even demanded in boss fights. Play too patiently and you’ll find your stock of health potions fastly depleting every time you read an attack pattern wrong. Instead, you might just want to be in the thick of it, landing 3 swing combos and dancing closely with a target instead of keeping a distance. The fear and adrenaline such a system provides is every bit addicting as it is stressful.
To put up with it is a testament to the magic at work in Bloodborne. Where atop a tower is a man in a wheel chair with his gatling gun aimed at your entry, and at the bottom is a minotaur who fires flames from his fists. And somehow you can connect the two by finding the locked gate, elevator, or pathway between them. A nightmare has never made so little sense while feeling so well planned and staged. And yet there is no interruption, no scripted events or ever a sign of a developer’s hand. You have merely your weapons, your fears, and vials of blood to self-inject — To gain back a little health, to push a little further, and to see a little more of the nightmare, until you, like the crazed townspeople, also embrace its madness.
That point for me, I think, was when I was asked to jump into a lake covered in a white fog. The game didn’t directly tell me to do this but like dreams tend to operate, it just made sense to do so. I fell through the lake — not underwater but through it — and then spiders fell from the sky. I dodged as they rained down, and watched as they hit the floor with their heads, contorted and awkwardly, their abdomens bent and limbs twitching before planting themselves upright and forming a legion of legs and hair. It was terrifying, disgusting, and such an uncomfortable moment that I almost felt repulsed by the very controller I was holding.
I must admit that I’ve never trusted my own opinion on a Miyazaki game. It’s always a love/hate tug of war over the question — when all is said and done — of whether or not I enjoy being frustrated. That glitchy boss fights, questionable camera angles, and tedious corpse runs are all somehow part of a master plan. The inner debate is so tiring that I think reviewing a Souls game is harder than beating one. Criticism is excused with, “well, it’s meant to be that way.” And if I disagree, well, I’m a wuss who can’t handle a well intentioned dose of ‘tough love.’
Bloodborne, however, finally puts my mind at ease. Not during play, of course, where I’m more in a state of excitement and awe, but I mean afterward. I’m not torn on this one. Not this time. It features all the imagination, terror, and weight of a world gone mad and without any hint of archaic bullshit. It’s clean, offensively minded, pattern dodging fun, bound up in the thoughts of a fever dream and dripped onto a disc. Pop it in every once in a while. Stand up to your fears. See how a videogame can give you a sense of your humanity.