My latest gaming obsession was From Software’s Bloodborne. A friend of mine is an enormous fan of the Dark Souls and Demon Souls games and always suggested that I play them. The main draw of these games, at least on the surface is that they are very difficult, brutal. and unforgiving. Since I play games mostly to relieve stress it was not an easy sell to me, and I avoided playing them.
I picked up Bloodborne, after watching a release trailer and gameplay trailer, without realizing that it shared this pedigree. The mix of steampunk and horror elements intrigued me, and I thought it would be something my significant other and her eldest boy would enjoy.
Needless to say I enjoyed the game and made sure to put in an hour or two every night until I finished, often at the cost of sleep. Bloodborne is tough, but if you put the time and patience into it, you are rewarded; enemies that once mauled you now become your prey. Areas that seemed inaccessible and foreboding become familiar and easily traversed. As you learn and your skill and knowledge of the world grows you experience a real feeling of power, for the most part.
There are some bumps along the way. Some people get hung up on certain bosses or get stuck in certain areas. Vicar Amelia smashed me into the ground more times than I care to count, until I realized that the key to beating her was to be more aggressive. Suddenly the mantra that I often read in comments about the game — ‘remember: you are the hunter,’ made sense to me. Bloodborne is ultimately about the hunt, understanding and stalking your monstrous prey and patiently bringing down. It was clear sailing after this realization, at least until Martyr Logarius and The First Hunter.
Despite the fact that I prefer slower paced, strategic games Bloodborne absolutely hooked me. All due praise to Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team.
Ultimately what makes the game so good is its razor-sharp focus on doing one thing really, really well. Bloodborne distills the idea and form of the video game bossfight down to base elements and then builds an entire game around each carefully crafted major nemesis. The sometime beautiful and often creepy areas serve to help characterize the bosses who lord over them. The monsters, traps, and other obstacles serve to build tension between each major encounter, and give you a chance to try out new tactics or warm up your thumbs. The lore, history, and even the very loose story all serve to accentuate the battles. Even the various weapons, tools, and tactics that can be used to build a surprising array of characters (although less than Dark Souls I’m told) merely exist to provide an array of options for you to attack these monstrosities.
For a player of moderate skill like myself, beating a Bloodborne boss means dying, often more than few times on tougher bosses. Each boss has his own set of moves, points where he will be weak, and things that you absolutely most watch out for. Only then can you dance, and win. While I found some bosses frustrating, that only made beating them all the more rewarding.
Here are the some of the highlights of how this game gets video game bossfights absolutely right:
- Easy Return: The path to a boss in Bloodborne is often arduous. Death can be punishing and even the most trivial of enemies can kill you if you get cocky. Traps await you. Death awaits you. And when you do fail you have to start all over again. Check-points are few and far between. However, if you carefully explore a level you will be rewarded with unlocks that will open a swift, relatively safe way to the boss. This removes the element of frustration of without making the level easy. It also means that once you are fighting a boss, you can focus on that boss, without any distractions. After all, for all but the best players, you are going to have to die to learn how to beat the boss. The game is focused around the bossfights and it is smart enough to give you the tools and the paths to do the same, once you get to them.
- Toughness: Many games make bosses very, very tough. A long fight has an epic feel to it, at least on some level. None of the Bloodborne bosses are particularly tough in terms of hit points, at least not compared to bosses in other games. Instead they are fairly tough, and really, really dangerous. Much of your time is simply spent dodging and watching the boss, looking for the right approach. On the other hand when you finally do find a way to connect with a boss without getting mulched is always satisfying, sometimes viscerally so. Many of the bosses have weakpoints that will leave them vulnerable to massive, ugly attacks if you hit them correctly. I vividly remember knocking Vicar Amelia to the ground with a blow to the legs for the first time and just how satisfying that was (even though she killed me a moment later). Spreading out the satisfaction of harming your enemy throughout the fight instead of saving it just for the end creates a memorable experience without dragging it on.
- I was especially pleased to see that changing stages did not erase my progress on the health bar. I hate killing a boss in other games only to have it get some new form with full health.
- Visual Clues: Bloodborne forces you to look at the boss while fighting it, to watch for the wind up of attacks and to concentrate on finding a weakness. These visual clues make sure that you see every detail of the boss and the wonderful animations instead of concentrating on elements of the UI or some other part of the game. The best part about the clue design is that it makes sense. If you watch the way the boss moves, your dodges become intuitive. Never once did I feel that an attack telegraph me into the wrong response, which is quite a feat.
- Multiple Approaches: I have a confession to make. I never mastered parrying, the use of an offhand firearm to stagger certain bosses. This made some fights much harder than others, but I never felt forced to learn. Many games shove mechanics down your throat, but bloodborne lets you fight your own way, even if it is sub-optimal and still beat the boss. The only thing that isn’t optional is learning to watch and respect the boss before destroying it.
- Boss Design: The Bosses in Bloodborne are all unique, with many of them presenting fairly unique and odd challenges. They do share some similarities, such as at least one stage where they gain new, powerful moves after they lose a certain amount of HP, and the ability to smite the unwary with ease.
- The Shadows of Yharnam: This Boss fight pits you against three shadows that initially look like ring-wraith’s from the Lord of the Rings movies. The shadows each specialize in a different set of weapons and a different range of combat. As you damage them they gain new powers. Despite being fairly easy to kill individually, managing these three is a bit of a juggling attack.
- The Blood-Starved Beast: This guy gets poison on some of his attacks later in the fight. Considering how hard he hits to begin with, poison seems like overkill, but you had better learn to manage it.
- Micolash the Host of the Nightmare: A madman that you have to fight while running through a maze, Micolash has some deadly attacks later on but is a real pushover in close combat which is at odds with a lot of the brutes in this game.
All in all I would say that Bloodborne is worth the hype, at least if you can stand a little obsession and frustration.