Bloodborne Impressions (PS4)

1,767 words.

Bloodborne: It’s fantastic. I’m not even finished yet and it clearly deserves to go into my entirely fictional All-Time Hall of Fame Game Library. That’s it. That’s my impressions. If you like this kind of game, it’s a must-play. (If you don’t, then you probably won’t like it, because it is the quintessential version of this kind of game, the template from which all others of this kind of game are poorly copied.)

But that’s not much of a blog post, so I will continue to rave about how great this game is for a while.

Yeah it's a dark game. Both literally and figuratively.

Actually first the negatives: It’s a PlayStation 4 game, so you have to buy one to play it. That also unfortunately means you have to use the PS4 game controller to play it, which I affectionally call the “hand mangler.” It’s a big negative for me, considering my left thumb doesn’t like using those analog sticks very much. It’s like they actually designed this controller to injure people, but they can’t change it presumably due to patent issues.

I tried to work out a way to moderate my play time so that my hands don’t become completely crippled, and it’s turning out to be a surmountable problem. If I limit myself to an hour a day in the evenings, or maybe a couple of hours every other day, I can maintain a tolerable level of pain and stiffness in the thumbs. (If I play too much, not only does my left thumb fail to bend anymore, but the joints of my left knuckles start to ache. Those things not only make it hard to play games anymore, but affect a large number of other daily activities most people take for granted. Best to avoid it.)

I’m actually happy to report that the more I’ve played, the less the controller hurts me, so perhaps I just needed to spend some time building strength in my puny little thumb muscles. I can now comfortably play a little bit every day without much worry about being unable to hold a plate in my left hand.

Sometimes there's a little bit of color though. It's mostly red.

Last year, I bought a PS4 Pro, mainly because of the stunning visuals of the The Last Of Us 2 gameplay trailer I saw at E3 (I think) and a $50-off sale at the time. But the reason I was even tempted to buy a PS4 in the first place was Bloodborne, the Sony exclusive game from 2015 that I knew I would absolutely buy and play if I ever got a PS4. There are now a handful of other Sony exclusives I’m interested in, so I felt like a console finally wouldn’t be a complete waste of money for me. (Other exclusives I’m interested in: The Last of Us franchies, and the Uncharted franchise.)

Then I hurt my thumb last year playing Dark Souls Remastered and the PS4 has largely been collecting dust since I bought it. I hadn’t even turned it on this year until May. But when I finished Sekiro, I decided to see if I could finally get through Bloodborne, bum thumb and all. I figured it would not get any easier as I continued to age.

Bloodborne launched in 2015, and then Dark Souls III launched in 2016. For some reason, I had the impression that Bloodborne would play very similar to Dark Souls III. It *looks* similar, in the sense that the visuals and menus are almost identical, clearly derived from the same game engine. You can certainly tell that some monster and boss assets were shared between the two games. However, it turns out that Bloodborne is actually much more of a sequel to Dark Souls 1 in its gameplay mechanics. You might think this would be cause for celebration, as Dark Souls 1 is considered by many to be the One True God, but many of the annoying quirks of the Dark Souls 1 controls made their way into Bloodborne: Particularly the ordinal dodging directions, and the jumping-instead-of-dodging while running. I didn’t miss those things, and I’ve died quite a number of times in Bloodborne because of them.

One other quirky control mechanic that has consistently annoyed me throughout the game: Every weapon has a “transformation” that changes it into something else. It gives every weapon a lot of variety in the way you can use it. For example, some weapons “transform” from a one-handed version to a two-handed version. That part is great. But there’s also a think called a “transform attack” or something like that. I have no idea how to do it intentionally, but I seem to trigger it all the time accidentally. When I’m simply trying to transform my weapon from one-handed to two-handed, my guy will sometimes randomly attack. Sometimes it gets me killed, because your character is frozen in place while going through the attack animation. It’s really irritating.

The night is indeed dark and full of terrors. And the water.

One other negative I can think of with Bloodborne is more of an administrative thing. You have to subscribe to PlayStation Plus in order to play online. I happened to have $20 in my Sony wallet from some 10 years ago so I used that to buy a month of time. That part is annoying enough, but it turns out that the online component of Bloodborne is considerably reduced from Dark Souls games.

I’ve played around 60 hours now and I’ve only been “invaded” by another player once. (“Invasions” are when another online player arrives in your game to kill you-it’s the PvP component.) One invasion in 60 hours of From Software gameplay is unheard of. I haven’t needed to summon any co-op help yet. I’ve even started skipping the player notes on the ground to increase the number of surprises I experience. So I don’t think my game would be much different if I played offline. In fact I cancelled my PlayStation Plus subscription already so when I get to the Old Hunters DLC I’ll probably just play it offline, because I just haven’t utilized the online component much at all. Basically I wasted that $10 on the PlayStation Plus subscription. (Although I got What Remains of Edith Finch for free, so I guess it wasn’t a total waste.)

Friendly, cheerful, inviting artwork abounds in Bloodborne.

Those negatives are extremely minor compared to the positives of the game experience, though. It’s just fantastic. One of the first video games that made a big impression on me back in the 80s was called Dungeons of Daggorath on the TRS-80 Color Computer. In the annals of video game history, it was one of the first first-person, real-time dungeon-crawling games, from which a whole lot of modern games can be said to derive. Primitive by today’s standards of course, but I spent so much time glued to my little television screen, thoroughly engrossed in the process of making my way through a maze of monsters, level by level, reacting to threats in real time, where any mistake means you might die and go all the way back to the beginning. Or the last save point. You could save your game-to a cassette tape!

The best feature of Dungeons of Daggorath, a feature that to this day I’ve never seen in any other game, was that you didn’t have a health bar: You could only tell how close you were to death by how fast your heart rate was. There was a constant heartbeat sound; When you were safe, the heartbeat was soothing and slow, but when you were in trouble, the heartbeat kept getting faster and faster and the amount of tension it created was unbelievable. There’s just something about a fast heartbeat sound that sets you on edge, some remnant of our lizard brains I guess. I still can’t believe nobody has done it since then.

I’ve searched far and wide for modern games that bring back even a fraction of that feeling of playing Dungeons of Daggorath, and so far, *only* the Souls games from From Software have managed to replicate that feeling. (Alas, no heartbeat, though.)

They don't call this place the Nightmare of Menis for nuthin.

Bloodborne is no different. It’s just a never-ending supply of surprises, intellectual challenges and puzzles, triumphs and despair, and strange characters with interesting dialog and unknown motivations. Well, it *will* end eventually, but until then it’s a glorious experience, full of mystery and excitement.

And yes, I know, it’s not for everyone. I think you have to have a particular personality type to really savor a Souls game, and I just happen to have it. It’s probably the same personality traits that are beneficial to programmers. Like an obsessive attention to obscure rules and details and perfectionism, a keen sense of pattern recognition, and patience for an almost-scientific level of trial and error and experimentation. Things that are not necessarily healthy in life but great for writing code and playing Souls games.

I’m particularly enjoying Bloodborne after coming off of playing Sekiro. Not to ding Sekiro too much, but it was a clearly inferior formula. I feel like it was an experiment by From Software to see if they could push out commercially-successful games at a faster pace, by severely limiting what was in them. Sekiro obviously had Dark Souls in its lineage, but there just wasn’t as much there. I dropped Sekiro NG+ like a hot potato when I started into Bloodborne.

As for Elden Ring, the much-ballyhooed collaboration between From Software and George R. R. Martin, and the hints that it might be an “MMO,” I’m holding my breath with everyone else. If it’s more like Sekiro, it will be “okay,” but if it’s more like Dark Souls, it might be “great.” Maybe Sekiro was the stopgap game they made because they knew it would take them a long time to get Elden Ring just right. Of course From Software has never made an MMO before so it might be “awful.” But we won’t really know what Elden Ring is until launch day, which I assume is still years away.

Anyway, Bloodborne is great. The usual From Software caveats apply: It’s really hard. Meaning it has a steep learning curve. But once you learn it, it’s not as hard. It’s like learning to play an instrument. Har. Bloodborne: It’s like piano lessons.

P. S. Don’t play it if you don’t like snakes or spiders. Or blood. Or tentacles. Or the horror genre in general.

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