The Borne Identity: Why Bloodborne Succeeded Where Dark Souls Failed

In case you missed it, I ranked From Software’s PS4 exclusive Bloodborne, as my third favorite release of last year. Behind ‘AW AW YEAH: The Game’ & the latest fitting use of the phrase: ‘come for the game; leave almost immediately because of the fanbase’. If my somewhat gross and negligent description of what should be my three favorite games of 2015 surprises you, don’t let it. Stellar as they were, I’m not blindly intolerant to a little joke here and there. As I stated in my reasoning for bronze-medal winner, Bloodborne was never a game I had high hopes for going in. I was focused, willing to give this most strident of gameplay formulas another crack at the whip, but never wading too far from my previous run-in’s. Interested, yes. Excited, possibly. Hyped…ha ha, you what?

So here comes the stinker (because opinions aside, I’m well aware this goes against the grain): I was never a fan of Dark Souls. I find it to be one of the most boring, most tedious and outright unappealing ‘must-plays’ of the previous generation. What’s more — and an element which hangs over the game and will further exemplify my points when I go on to compare the two games — Dark Souls felt overly pointless as an action-adventure role-playing experience. Why am I here; why am I being forced to ring these two bells? Why is everyone (save for the occasional NPC; a helpful assist here and there admittedly) against me? What is this, what is that? Why should I even care? The fact the World of Lordran has gone to hell long before you even start your quest, takes away any and all relevance with the concept of reaching the end goal in order to accomplish something. I don’t feel any attachment to this place and thus, I hold little empathy in carrying on. For the record I did carry on…and much to my surprise, the climax (interesting spin on the final boss moment and admittedly great music notwithstanding) garnered less the satisfying accomplishment I had hoped to claim. 

Because what exactly are we accomplishing here? Aside from the illustrious title of finishing what is essentially a glorified boss rush mode sprinkled with role-playing mechanics and then loaded to the brim with not just an attack-defend-counter battle system (dictated more by hit-markers than anything else) but arguably one of the most trope-ridden Tolkien-infested fantasy settings I’ve ever waded through. And that’s just the single-player; best prepare myself for the mud to reach chest level when tackling its online PvP component devoid of level/experience balancing and can be over well before you can say ‘teleporting back-stab’. If all this sounds petty and sore, you’d be right. Well, half-right. While I don’t often enjoy competitive online as much as others (a phrase I imagine will come acutely associated with myself as time goes on), so as long as the single-player can satisfy, multiplayer can be left to wither in my mind – if not overall. Sadly, Dark Souls can’t even succeed on that front and for that, the Souls name conjures only bountiful feelings of dread, woe and disappointment. Nothing compared to the fanbase I’ll admit, but disappointing nonetheless.

Bloodborne-huntersdream

Bloodborne, by comparison, is the complete opposite. From the get-go, it has me intrigued and interested – compelled by its sudden descent into savagery and immersed in From Software’s variance in story-telling and design. Bloodborne cleverly starts you at the tipping point between order and chaos; the point where the needle on the compass shunts instinctively South and all hell begins to take hold. Like Dark Souls, Bloodborne puts you in the position of not knowing just what exactly is going on. But unlike the former, the ‘wrong place, wrong time’ juxtapose marries well with the World of Yharnam’s own cunning flip from prosperous gothic locale to a subverting labyrinth that only grows more hideous at each turn.

Yharnam’s design, as much its aesthetic, is built on this not-so-subtle disfigurement. While the main city’s streets, courtyards and lanes are littered with chain-wrapped coffins and the like, there’s a greater feeling of dread to be had when you realise Yharnam is a densely-constructed environment to begin with. Those early spacious glimpses and allures of vast plains, in the early stages, are non-existent. Battling as you do – merely struggling to survive, fighting off turned civilians — the World already feels like it’s closing in on you. It doesn’t patiently wait to pull the rug from out beneath you, yet still holds its cards to its chest in not telling you the whole story. So it comes only as bigger shock when you finally leave the city and venture deep into the forests that you discover there is no salvation from the horror you’ve left behind and this terror has too found its way to even the game’s more open areas. Like a plague, its spreading.

Bloodborne Yharnam

From a constructive side, Bloodborne cleverly weaves in and out of its sectioned regions and while it doesn’t take away from how concealed certain paths are, it alleviates some of the congestion by making players feel like they’re unlocking more and more by way of investigation. While Dark Souls attempted this same principle early on, latter regions devolved into little more than obstacle courses of sorts – bonfires (Dark Souls 2 ending up more guilty of this) acting as mere checkpoints. Bloodborne’s lanterns, by contrast, serve to cleverly weave the World together like a spider stitching together another arc in its web. While there’s nothing objectively wrong with progressing through linear-structured levels, Bloodborne is a game that stakes itself in its World-building with an underlining principle that what happens in one area will ultimately occur in the accompanying adjacent regions. Besides, the simple concept of one path interplaying into another previously-trekked passage never fails to satisfy — it’s simple-but-effective level design.

Another design aspect – and one From Software have gained considerable reputation for – is of course the boss fights, and once again Bloodborne improves on Dark Souls’ mistakes. As noted, while some fights from yonder do give me a momentary-but-brief feeling of satisfaction, a lot of encounters in both Dark Souls and its sequel, feel unapologetically miscued. While there is some comfort to take from the idea each battle is different — thus requiring the player to memorise, strategise and thus conquer the opponent’s thinking — on the surface, there is very little that leaves such fights lasting in the memory. Because aside from Smough & Ornstein, the only fights that linger in the long-term memory are those with profound components rather than satisfying end products. Sure there are those with stand-out titles, Looking Glass Knight for example, but what engagement is there in yet another faceless, emotionless knight with yet another one-time gimmick? What’s more, where’s the sense of creativity when some boss battles are essentially ‘more of the same/now fight two, three times what you fought before’ place-holders?

The boss fights in Bloodborne however are so engaging, so insistently focused, they stand not so much as ‘now use what you’ve recently learned/acquired’ moments, but are in fact reminders as to what is crucial about surviving the experience through the gameplay and its controls. Bloodborne is a significantly faster game compared to its siblings and honestly, there’s so much more to take away when standing triumphant against the Blood Starved Beast than there is yet another twenty-foot knight with a stronger weapon than mine. The setting, the music, the elaboration on just how messed-up a situation this really is; the screaming, that on-the-edge-of-your-seat/never-looking-away immersion. Such is Bloodborne’s principle in shocking its players — thus demanding a heightened level of attention — all it does is build the player’s confusion and/or subsequently knock down any degree of logic one might have thought they’d claimed.

Bloodborne Blood Starved Beast

Confusion, in any video game, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so long as the story that underpins it is structured in a way that appeases the World around it. Bloodborne paces itself in just the right way to give the player enough of a bread-crumb trail and enough leverage, to make us believe (and not flat-out declare) we’re getting closer to the truth behind Yharnam’s history and its subsequent state at present. If I had to compare the way Bloodborne decrees itself an impossibly-winnable affair – one where you can only save yourself and the surreal nature taking hold only cements itself as the status quo – to any other title, Specs Ops: The Line clearly stands out. Like Bloodborne, it exploits player expectation and twists the standard that’s come before into an unfathomable display of physical desperation and psychological double-takes. Come the end of Spec Ops, there’s little sign of victory or otherwise worthy accomplishment to credit, yet this is portrayed well enough through both player-character and narrative development that it makes sense for the game to leave you questioning whether any or all of it has been in vain.

While it may sound like double-standards for me to criticise Dark Souls’ story-telling as sparse or otherwise loose, the difference here is that Bloodborne is a picture pop-up book of a tale slowly getting worse — not better — and of greater powers, far from reach, only gaining further advantage over the misery unfolding. And you, the player, are stuck in the midst of it. And yet, like Metroid Prime’s lore, Bloodborne divides itself between expositional cutscenes and persuasive environments. Where Prime’s Tallon IV or Prime 2’s Aether had you explore ruined or otherwise occupied territories, Bloodborne — if still open-ended in its truth — still gives enough away to suggest a less-than-innocent establishment previous. That the Yharnam of prior had been playing a little too loosely with the powers at its disposal. Essentially the World economy circa-2006.

Bloodborne Doll

The end game decision, as a result, feels sufficient and — as what multiple-ending games should aspire to create — represents the fascination in abject human morality when all’s said and done, what essentially stands as right and wrong in the player’s eyes. Both personally and emotionally. Do you save yourself and try to forget the horrors you’ve encountered? Do you spare someone and take their place? Or do you try and conquer one final challenge in the hopes of changing the situation as a whole? It’s no surprise that the final boss[es] take place in what can only be defined as the in-game ‘sanctuary’ and that the horror of old has now found its way here. A metaphor for this all-consuming disease; a reflection of how nowhere is safe? Either way, the Hunter’s Workshop works a lot better as “space to breathe.” What’s more, while not the most fundamental of features, Plain Doll’s filtered, rather artificial presence is a more welcome expansion to Bloodborne’s disparate split between dreams/nightmares/reality than Souls’ passively-forgettable central hubs, as much as it’s welcome relief from the main campaign of endless death and disease. I’ll take the Doll (tee hee) over Souls 2’s Emerald Herald and her convenient ability to teleport to exactly where the player needs to reach. “Don’t worry I’m sure ‘the lore’ will explain that”…he professes, without irony, confidence beaming across his face.

So without devolving this opinionated affair into satire — I think I’ve covered enough bases on that front for one article — I’ll repeat my previous stating this as an unpopular opinion. I realize countless more hold Dark Souls (if not its sequel alongside) in high regard. While it’s great so many can find a title released post-2010 to claim as one of the greatest ever released, that doesn’t mean there won’t be those who [gladly] disagree with the notion and feel an awkward disconnect with what it stands for alongside everything its community represents. I agree with the notion Bloodborne is a “deviously delicious experience” — the mantra may appear the same, but in today’s World I seldom find an action-horror-sci-fi mash-up that comes off the back of two of the most tedious games I’ve ever played, yet still — somehow — wows me. And being the miserable bastard that I am, its themes obviously speak to me on so many levels. Here’s hoping Dark Souls III can embellish what Bloodborne represents: a bloody good game.