I stand over the lifeless body of a foul beast, it's grizzly mandibles lay motionless. The cobbled street runs red with putrid blood of the lusus naturae. The gutters congealing with the thick red paste…
That is overly dramatic imagery, but it's exactly the note Bloodborne invokes time and time again. This operatic, Gothic tone is imbued so deeply into everything From Software have designed and so ingrained into its identity, it's hard not to write about the game with matching ghastly vocabulary.
My experience with Souls games is limited. I probably put around six hours hours into Dark Souls and three in Dark Souls 2. I say that so you will know I'm more or less a beginner at all this. Perhaps you empathise with that or just appreciate the perspective if you are well versed in these games. It's worth pointing out that I didn't stop playing these games out of disliking them, but more out of circumstance. I absolutely 'get' the appeal. The challenge, the atmosphere, the mythos. It's bleak in a very tangible way which can be pretty rare in a game.
Bloodborne is that exact same concept, only dragged through a blood laden sewer right out of the most imaginative Jack the Ripper fantasy novella. It's sleek to the point of slimey and dark to the point of grotesque. The atmosphere is thick in this game, with it being nigh on impossible to play it for a few hours without taking a break from its suffocating grasp.
But there is one thing I know you want to talk about, so lets get to it. The challenge the game presents.
The difficulty is often the first thing that comes up in discussion of the game. It's not hard to see why either. This game is hard. The initial time spent with the game is a tough slog. I easily spent about 4-5 hours just navigating through the first area and finding the first boss. There's a design to Bloodborne that really messes with your understanding of how 'action/adventure' games play. The combat is based on deliberateness, as the game takes apart everything you previously understood about the genre before building you back up. While you can luck into wins against enemies, this is a difficulty based on the learning of it's mechanics.
This is a game genuinely enthralled with teaching you through play. That's one of the best compliments you can give to a game that is so heavily based on mechanics. The truth is that while it's consistently dangerous and pushing you into new challenges, once you get a grasp of the concepts it becomes a whole different monster. It's not so much hard as it is gratifying. Every kill feels earned as just about every enemy can murder you in ten different ways of awful, but if your paying attention, you can go long stretches without getting into too much trouble. Often, I actually find I'm fully stocked with blood vials. The only reason I die is because I wasn't paying full attention to what my health was doing. The game punishes you for that, as it rightly should.
The most affirming thing about all this is you are getting better. For instance, I can go through that first area in about 10 minutes now, where as previously stated it first took me hours to grasp. It's not just because of my statistical progression either. It's because I'm better at the game. That's a kind of intangible amelioration happens alongside upgrading your stats. This is an empowering feeling that couldn't be replaced by just giving you a shiny new skill. This is real player agency and is a testament to From Software's design mastery.
As noted though, progression is always a challenge. The first time you venture into a new area, there's more to learn that will come with many, many deaths. These areas are then book-ended with bosses, which really are the driving force for you to continue on your path. Getting to a boss feels like one of the best rewards in the game. They are all so twisted and malformed that seeing the design of these horrors is a perverse satisfaction in and of itself. Slaying them even more so. Beating a boss is a real sign that you are learning, and as stated many times, feeling like you are learning is one fo the best feelings a game can give you.
Bloodborne is macabre opera through a vampiric world. I don't mean there are a lot of vampires in it, but rather that this is a mythos that diminishes you of energy though atmosphere and bleak realities. It's a melodramatic haunted house that happily crushes those who enter into congealed, festering blood piles.
However, at the same time, the game feeds back all of that energy lost through the world by imbuing it with rewarding mechanics. The game has a steep learning curve, but once you finally climb aboard, the lessons it teaches you fill you with a new sense of enthusiasm. This is a masterful piece of design that is simultaneously belittling and empowering at once. This absolutely is one of the must own PlayStation 4 exclusives to some around. It's a mix of terrifying atmosphere and scholarly game design. You'd be remiss to miss it. You are the lonesome figure in a malevolent world that surrounds you in an engulfing blackness. Fear not though, for you have a gaslight to guide you past these creatures of the night.