The Fun Madness of “Bloodborne”

At its very core, “Bloodborne” is a game about madness.

 

We’ve all heard that cliche, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” It’s often misattributed to Einstein, who despite all his erudite knowledge of physics, spouted some odd and/or funny quotes about life (“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.” being one of the very best).

But let’s take that sentence for truth; if insanity truly is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then “Bloodborne” is fundamentally a game for the insane, which takes place in a town where everybody’s gone insane, where you play a nameless “Hunter” who, judging from visions and demonic dreams, very clearly has gone insane.

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“Bloodborne” is a spiritual successor of sorts to the “Souls” (i.e., Demon’s and Dark Souls) franchise, games infamous for their unwavering difficulty. They’re all third-person action adventure games in which you play as some sort of warrior on a quest. Rather than have characters explain and cutscenes convey the overall story, you’re left to piece together the fragments of plot through brief conversations and descriptions on the items you pick up.

After creating your character from scratch, you find yourself in Yharnam, a bleak and dilapidated Gothic city in what is roughly the 19th century. The city is known for its medical uses involving blood as the key ingredient. In fact, the people of Yharnam are sort of obsessed with it: they drink it more often than alcohol to catch a buzz. Variations are used to cure just about anything. And you come looking for something called Paleblood specifically for some undisclosed reason.

Come to find out, all of Yharnam has plunged into chaos as some endemic illness has transformed most of its people into horrific creatures. Many have shut themselves indoors, and just about all have been driven mad. Anyone left outside during the “Night” have become monsters of varying sizes, shapes, abilities, and type. There are giant ogres. Some of these ogres will wallop you with a tree (not even exaggerating here). There are lycans and there are werewolves. Yes, that is a distinction. You’re run of the mill citizen has been transformed into a weapon-wielding rage zombie (keep in mind their average speed hasn’t changed, and some of them can still fire weapons).

Against your will, you get a blood transfusion at the start of your journey from a blind man in a wheelchair named Gerhman. This effectively baptizes you as a Hunter, a weaponized soldier whose purpose it is to cleanse Yharnam of beasts and try to find an end to The Night.

You find out quickly enough — usually within your very first, barehanded encounter in the game — that Death represents one of, if not the most, important mechanics at play. In most video games, player death is something the inner game mechanics just don’t really acknowledge. You have your save points and checkpoints, and if you die, you return back to that last “point.” Player death just isn’t recognized as existing. Sure, you get the “Game Over” or the “WASTED!” screen, but it’s essentially meaningless. The only thing you lose is progress, time, and maybe a bit of dignity.

But in “Bloodborne”? Your first death introduces you to the Hunter’s Dream, a graveyard safe haven for hunters where Gehrman offers you guidance and a animated Doll will chat you up and, provided you are able, level you up. There is also a bird bath full of skeletal baby-sized monsters called Messengers that will sell you stuff. Your workshop will also be there, where you can upgrade weapons and store extra items. As you defeat enemies, you gain Blood Echoes, the principle currency of “Bloodborne.” These you can spend on items as well as buy levels to upgrade your stats.

Beyond that, every time you die, you lose ALL of your Blood Echoes (again, both your money and means of leveling up). Those resources will remain in a bloody puddle wherever you died, where you can reclaim them without a loss, but once in awhile a random enemy will pick them up. If that happens, the only way to reclaim your former glory is by successfully killing them.

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The story works in its deep mystery and horror, but the game itself just hits so well for players because of how exciting the inherent experience is. You start out with terrible armor and literally no weapons to speak of, but then you get one bladed weapon and one gun, and over time you struggle in impossible encounters, slowly learning enemy behavior and mastering subtle battle mechanics. Even when your level gets very high, even the tiniest of enemies can kill you very easily. If they do it twice, you’re left both ashamed and broke. But the game rewards persistence, and you acquire better weaponry and upgraded it with weird magic.

Before long, you’re feeling damn cool. But then a moment later, you inch just a little bit too far into a new area and a tiny witch-looking thing leaps out of the shadows and digs a little axe into your skull while screaming at the top of her lungs. Or maybe you find some weird corner where a familiar-looking spagghetti faced monster is rifling through a box or something. You think, “Oh! I know how these guys move and how they attack. I got this.” So you wind up for a charged attack, but he hears you, and rather than shout and grope towards you like you expect him to, he casually waves his hand and blasts you with some stupid magic mist that paralyzes you long enough for him to eat your brains. Literally, eat your brains.

Nice.

In “Bloodborne” you fight and fight and everybody bleeds everywhere and at some moments you emerge victorious from encounters, covered in blood. More often than not, you progress through two rooms only to die in the third. Then you know what to expect, so you might get lucky and make it to the fifth room. You progress in this way forward through new areas. Pretty regularly, you’ll move in a big, wide circle without realizing it until you unlock a gate or elevator, which offers up a new shortcut to use when moving forward. Less often, you’ll find new Lanterns to light, which will serve both as checkpoint and gateway into the Hunter’s Dream.

There are bosses. They are literally made of nightmares. Just watch this brief cutscene to get a taste for the average boss. The story is pretty incoherent as is, but this might represent a mild spoiler. Consider yourself warned.

The weird thing in all of this is that I love “Bloodborne” despite being the type of gamer who usually favors good storytelling before all else. This game follows the “less is more” approach when it comes to plot. Is the story “good?” It’s tough to say because though the actual story is compelling, it’s buried in minor details that crop up. Where “Bloodborne” earns its keep is in its undeniably engaging and exciting combat and the thrill of the Hunt, the relishing in the challenge.

Should you get it? Absolutely, assuming you are not faint of heart.

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