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Friday, 1 January 2016

Bloodborne.


Happy New Year, everyone, next week we'll be starting the Annual Fission Mailure Awards. Last year, it was a quick short thing, this year it's going to be an extravaganza, by which I mean 'top three best and worst in television, video games, anime, and film, along with a quick post on the most popular posts of the last two years', so - a small extravaganza, really. A vaganza. 

It's going to be a vaganza.

Let's move on.


Bloodborne.



Bloodborne! A game I have craved since before I got a Playstation 4. I don't even know how I originally found out about this game, since I have never (and if I'm being honest, still don't) had much interest in From Software's output of games, but I think it may have been through a friend, as I know at least four other people who want this game. Or it might have been through Jim Sterling, who I know adores it. Either way, I finally bought it on the Playstation Store about a week or two ago, and have been playing it since then.

Set in the Gothic city of Yharnam on the night of a hunt, Bloodborne places you in the boots of a hunter, one tasked with hunting down and slaughtering the madmen and beasts that are roaming the streets of Yharnam. As your hunt continues, though, it becomes clear that there are more sinister and unknowable forces at work than it would initially appear, and the Gothic Horror story of Yharnam begins to give way to a Lovecraftian story, as you encounter stranger and stranger monstrosities and become increasingly tangled in the affairs of the Great Ones, and their infant child, cradled in Yharnam.

In a lot of respects, this is a fairly standard hack and slash RPG. You've got your light attacks, you've got your heavy attacks, you've got a dodge mechanic, and you have a counter mechanic in the form of your gun, which you can fire in brief moments of opportunity to 'riposte' enemies and stagger them. While there's some innovation in the fact that your weapons all have two forms - in my case, it was between a cane and a bladed whip, but the other starting weapons include a saw that turns into a cleaver and an axe that turns into a bigger axe - that's hardly all that new for video games.

The Cleric Beast, or as it's called in the game 'The Friend Puppy'.

Where Bloodborne's gameplay shines is not in how innovative it is, but in how well refined it is. Bloodborne knows exactly what it wants its gameplay to be - fast, frenetic, hectic and stressful, forcing a player to duck and evade and seize momentary openings to swoop in and strike. Battles are very fast-paced and often blindingly short, as a single error on the part of either you or your enemy will usually mean death. Strategy plays a part, especially against bosses, but it's on-the-fly, seat-of-your-pants strategy. In many ways, it is the antithesis of Dark Souls' slow, measured dance of blocking and waiting for an opening - which fits, since Dark Souls is about entropy and decay, and Bloodborne is about madness and violence.

Which is great: Give me refined, primed-for-purpose gameplay over meaningless innovation any day of the week, especially when that gameplay has clearly been carefully thought about to fit with the game's story. One thing I will say is that Bloodborne is not as difficult as people make it out to be - certainly the very first area is a nightmare, but almost as soon as you reach the first boss arena, the game gets a lot easier. Once you're over that initial hump, the game might be unforgiving, but it's never prohibitively hard, and only rarely frustrating.

The story is also excellent, with both Gothic Horror tropes and Lovecraft tropes being rendered perfectly, in a way that is both familiar and yet still, actually, quite fresh and original. There's a sense of dread throughout the entire game, with certain areas feeling incredibly unnerving and sinister, and that sense of menace only builds as the game goes on. Some of that is that, as you progress through the game, you'll encounter weirder, more unpredictable monsters. Some of that is that the game will occasionally throw complete curveballs at you, such as when the moon descends and everything becomes a lot weirder. A lot of that, though, is that as you spend more time in the world of Yharnam, you start to notice all of the weirdness subtly built into it.

The Amygdala, or as it's called in the game, 'The Hand Maiden'.

For me, this started setting in roundabout the Cathedral Ward, when I noticed the hundreds of oddly placed statues, and dozens of prams lying around - and it only continued as I ascended to the Abandoned Workshop and realised how utterly strange, verging on Escher-oid, the architecture of Yharnam is. Those are just two examples among many, and the game builds up those little hints of wrongness bit by bit over time.

While you're given the bones of the story straight out to work with, any nuance or deeper plot elements have to be figured out by finding notes lying around, reading books, and piecing together remarks that other characters have said, and often applying your own interpretation to them or analysing them against other story tidbits you've found. The game makes theorists and loremasters of us all, teasing us with enough information to start putting together a story, but never enough to complete it in its entirety - which is, in and of itself, a feature of both Gothic and Lovecraftian stories.

Helping that along is that Yharnam - diseased, blood-stained Yharnam - is an absolutely gorgeous setting. It's broken and decrepit and there's a sense of sickness and wrongness about it, but it's also striking, often quite attractive under the layer of decay and blood. Every area you go to is beautiful, even if it's not a pleasant kind of beauty.

Eileen the Crow, or as she's called in the game, 'Sarcastic Bird Grandmother'.

The voice work and soundtrack are both very strong too. I profess, the soundtrack isn't entirely to my taste, it's not something I would listen to outside of the game, but it fits the game very well. The voice acting, done mostly by small name voice talent from the North, is a joy to listen to as well.

Overall, this game is kind of astounding, and I'm definitely glad I got around to playing it. No sequel has been announced yet - and, in fact, From Software has hinted that Dark Souls III might be the last Souls or Souls-esque game that they do - but I would like to see one. The story was certainly left open for one, whether it be a prequel or a sequel, and I think there would be mileage in seeing more of Yharnam, possibly at a different point in its history.

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