I haven’t finished Bloodborne. I’ll probably never finish Bloodborne. Not because I don’t enjoy it, but because I simply don’t possess the skill, time or patience necessary to complete it. I expected that going in, to be honest—this is From Software’s latest riff on the Souls model of brutality, and those are games that I just don’t finish.
It doesn’t have the word in the title, but Bloodborne is definitely a Souls game, the next follow-up to Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. That means I’ll probably pull dozens of hours of enjoyment out of it despite never even making it halfway through the game. I’ve already clocked close to 20, without even killing the first boss. Yes: I am bad at games, and Bloodborne is an easy game to be bad at.
You know you’re playing a Souls game as soon as you hit Bloodborne’s character creation screen. Instead of classes you choose your character’s upbringing. This determines your stats and what your skills are, and although this is mostly explained in a relatively clear way, there’s still a bit of mystery about how each backstory will influence the optimal playstyle for that character. The character creation elements aren’t as vaguely defined as Dark Souls’ useless pendant, but the game intentionally makes things fuzzier than they need to be. And that’s good: if From played it straight, they wouldn’t have carved out this very specific, fairly successful niche for themselves.
If you still have doubts about the game’s purview at that point, the opening moments should dispel them. After a grisly cut-scene you awaken unarmed in a decaying building, and are almost immediately killed by a beast far faster and stronger than you. The game starts by putting you in an unwinnable, always fatal situation, reassuring the skeptical that the Souls spirit is in full effect here. After returning and killing that monster with newly granted weapons, you’re introduced to the sprawling city of Yharnam, a town as despoiled as anything found in any of the Souls games. There are messages on the ground, useful objects and passages hidden behind garbage, legions of enemies waiting to ambush and kill you. It will feel familiar to you.
Conceptually not much has changed. You slowly, deliberately explore this dying, monster-plagued town. You can’t pause. Your melee weapon gradually wears down as you use it, diminishing its impact until you pay to fix it. The stamina bar forces you to think carefully about everything you do. Every action you take outside of walking momentarily reduces that bar, and once it’s depleted you have to wait a few seconds for it to regenerate. Even the weakest enemy can kill you relatively easily if you don’t know its patterns or if your timing is off, and when you die or return to the game’s hubworld every enemy returns to its original position, waiting to be fought through once again. (And unlike Dark Souls II, there doesn’t seem to be a limit to how many times an enemy will reappear when you die.) Every time you kill an enemy you earn “blood echoes,” which can be used to upgrade your character’s statistics or buy items. When you die you lose all your blood echoes and have to return to where you died to reclaim them. Checkpoints are few and far between, making those moments where you uncover one into first-pumping moments of excitement and relief. In all Bloodborne preserves the peculiar limitations and looping rhythms of a Souls games.
There are new elements to grow accustomed to, though. You’re now armed with a gun in addition to your melee weapon. It does relatively little damage, but is an invaluable way to throw an enemy off balance, briefly stunning them and opening up a window for repeated blows with your sword or axe. Bullets are limited, of course. Health is easier to come by than before, as enemies often drop blood vials that restore small amounts of hit points. You can carry 20 vials at once, which makes them far more useful than the Estus flask of old. There’s also a regenerative health system, where you can regain bits of lost health if you almost immediately attack the enemy that damaged you. Every time you are hit part of your health meter, which is usually red, turns orange and starts to deplete. If you strike your opponent while that meter depletes, part of the orange portion will turn back to red, and will stop depleting. With the right timing it’s possible to lose relatively little health from certain attacks. You can also extend the reach of your melee weapons, switching between a more compact blade best used in tight quarters and a longer version that has the reach and sweep of a spear or halberd. Instead of fumbling in battle with an inappropriate weapon, you can quickly jump from a shorter blade to a longer one at the touch of a button.
These might seem like concessions to critics who find the Souls games too hard, but the game compensates for these increased methods of health replenishment by making the first boss battle harder than any of the early boss fights from the other games. I’ve died a few dozen times at the hands of the Cleric Beast, and show little sign of improvement. Even after figuring out a gun-related trick that sets up a strike that inflicts massive amounts of damage upon the beast, even after stockpiling Molotov cocktails and blood vials, I still haven’t been able to whittle his life bar past the 25% mark. Again, I am bad at games, but I’ve never been this bad against an early boss in a Souls game.
I don’t love the Souls games because they’re unrelenting, though. I love them because of the worlds that they’re set in, and the overriding sense of dread and mystery that permeates every second of the games. Bloodborne might be more generous with health, but its world might be even more intoxicating than those of its predecessors. It feels less medieval and more Georgian, with architecture that looks like exaggerated versions of actual buildings from the 18th and early 19th centuries. You’ll often hear laughter coming from behind closed doors, the Yharnam natives taunting you and refusing to grant you safety. You’ll hear the axes of your enemies scrape across the brick walkways as they roam from one bonfire to another. You’ll fear every bridge you come to, as bad things always happen on bridges in these games. The hidden pathways, the twisting passages that circle back to areas you could see before but not access, the easy flow from one location to the next—everything that made the two Dark Souls games such a wonder to explore returns in Bloodborne. And there’s a hubworld similar in purpose to that in Demon’s Souls, where you can level up, buy items, fix weapons or jump directly to any checkpoint you’ve already saved at.
Bloodborne offers some of the same multiplayer options as the previous Souls games. Messages already cover the ground of Yharnam, but the one time I attempted to summon another player to help me my request went unfulfilled. I didn’t use the item necessary to call in a player, but I did lose the “insight” point used to activate the item. This was before the game’s release, when few people were playing it, so perhaps now that the game is out I can find somebody to help me deal with that first boss. There’s also the possibility of other real-world players invading your game to attack you, but that also hasn’t happened to me yet.
I’m sure some will complain that it’s not as hard as Dark Souls. I don’t know if it’s more or less difficult. I don’t know how you even start to quantify the difficulty of these games—they’re all tough. Much of the challenge comes from simply not knowing what you’re getting into when you first enter a new area. After that first trip down a stairwell or through a house you know what sorts of enemies await, and you’re able to prepare for them and hopefully knock them off accordingly. Bloodborne uses the same tricks that have been around since Demon’s Souls, with its shambling villains popping out from behind barrels and around corners, but unless you have a bad memory every enemy is only surprising once. It’s a bit more mob-minded than the earlier games, putting you in positions where you can easily get overwhelmed by crowds of enemies that are normally easy to defeat but turn into a grave threat in numbers. Despite the extra wrinkle of the gun, combat feels like combat has almost always felt in these games, a delicate duel with a foe that can kill you if you’re not careful.
I’m as careful as I can be when I face the Cleric Beast again on the bridge. I shoot it in the right spot, attack it where I’m supposed to, light it on fire, dodge and roll and jump as needed. When I get hit I pop a blood vial for health. And when that abomination hits the halfway point on its health bar, its adrenalin starts to flow and it never slows down. It backs me against either side of the bridge, or gets me trapped behind a statue, and sweeps and punches and pounces. Even with a dozen blood vials left I’m dead once again. I might not ever beat this monster, and I will never beat this game, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed my brutal time in Yharnam.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. Follow him on Twitter @grmartin.