If practice makes perfect, then Bloodborne is a flawless game. As unyieldingly difficult as its spiritual predecessors in the Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls series, it opens in a hospital, with your unarmed avatar being forced into a nigh-unwinnable fight against a ferocious beast, which promptly kills you. It’s only then, after spawning in the limbo of the Hunter’s Dream, that players are given their first weapon, and a second shot at their lycanthropic murderer. This act of death and rebirth is the only thing Bloodborne directly teaches users, as it’s the game’s main hook. Explore, die (hopefully learning something in the process), and try again. And with the exception of unfair camera-lock issues that occur when facing some of the more colossal bosses, these deaths are all deserved, a result of the player not being perfect enough.
Initially, this constantly punishing curve of trial and error may seem like Stockholm syndrome, with the user forced to sympathize with the game that’s occupying their every waking moment. However, a result of the lack of tutorials and handholding is that each bit of incremental, hard-earned progress provides an unparalleled adrenaline rush. It’s like watching the best kind of horror movie, with tension slowly giving way to relief; the only difference is that if players try to avert their eyes upon, say, the rotting flesh hanging like strands of hair from the Blood-Starved Beast, they’ll soon be dead. There’s no room for button-mashing against the literal pitchfork-and-torch-wielding mobs that roam Yharnam’s cobbled, claustrophobic streets, but a gamer will soon learn, either using the blood echoes harvested from slain foes to boost stats and gear, or the bloody memories of his or her character’s deaths as a sort of mental experience.
Of course, even these experiences aren’t safe, as unspent blood echoes are dropped upon death, and if not recovered before the next death, they’re gone for good. As a result, so much rides on each encounter, especially as one’s stockpile of echoes climbs, making every little thing in Bloodborne frightening. The elderly don’t just hold on for dear life in their wheelchairs, they clutch at blunderbusses and Gatling guns, trying to take players down with them. Deeper into the game, more of the humans are overcome with their blood sickness, turning into furry beasts or erupting snakes from their skulls and limbs. There is, however, a beauty to these monstrosities, be it the tattered clothing on a slouching giant who uses a scythe as a cane, or the delicate, three-pronged oak staff of a pale-masked cleric. The golden sun at the game’s start provides a much-needed sense of hope; as the game darkens, color is rarely found outside the Pollock-like spackles of blood across the protagonist’s trench coat and weapon and the spectral blue afterimages of helpful notes written by other players. (This latter effect, born out of asynchronous multiplayer, is both depressing and inspiring—a reminder that while players are alone in their own world, they’re not without friends.) Even asking for help is fraught with risk: While you can temporarily summon or be summoned by fellow hunters to help with boss encounters, this leaves one open to being invaded by unfriendly and murderous players.
Ultimately, all such encounters in Bloodborne boil down to similar risk-versus-reward mechanisms, thanks mainly to the emphasis on melee combat. Every character can use guns, but the ammo is both weak and limited, and is meant more to be used as a disabling counterattack than as a long-range security blanket. However, the game provides plenty of choices for engaging up close and personal, with each “trick” weapon able to swap between two styles on the fly (stylishly, like Devil May Cry): The Kirkhammer’s nimble sword becomes the hilt of a gigantic sledge, while the Threaded Cane is both a blunt staff and crowd-controlling whip. Whether players go with risky yet powerful charge attacks or swift but less-effective pokes, this sense of tradeoffs only continues after gaining the ability to customize one’s character and weaponry with Caryll Runes and Blood Gems. Then again, there’s no guarantee that you’ll even unlock these abilities, as the game spirals outward from Central Yharnam in a nonlinear way. (One particularly vile enemy teleports players past several zones; it’s recommended they quickly find a way to teleport back to relative safety, but not required.)
Bloodborne is at minimum a 40-hour game, and that’s assuming players don’t keep getting immolated while slogging through an oil-covered swamp, aren’t constantly falling prey to the snapping snakes in a poisonous tunnel, and learn to avoid the giant spike-covered log suspended over that gate. (Each death respawns almost every enemy in the area, and yields a lengthy loading screen.) Given how much there’s to remember and master, there’s no room here for casual players, which excuses the fact that From Software has catered to and embedded tons of content for its hardcore community. Some of these are NPC events that can be failed based on esoteric things, like the type of clothing being worn, or Covenants, which suggest that players interact with the game in a different way (by becoming murderers, for example). But the deepest loot lurks within procedurally generated Chalice dungeons, each with their own bosses, traps, and secret challenges. As it turns out, the one way to satisfy masochistic customers is by building an infinite series of dungeons in which their dreams and nightmares need never end.