Horror can pierce the deepest when it comes from the wordless. Speech is something very living, something human to the point that people notice the quietest person in a room just as much as the loudest. When something hulking like Michael Myers or Jason is lumbering after you without a word on their tongues, there’s an anxious desire to hear them just state their name or intention. Yet, all that comes from them are seething breathes or gurgling, rising blood that fills their vision with red hatred.
That’s for something humanoid, which hits you very little in the early sections of Bloodborne. The Victorian-era setting bombards you with enemies early but the majority of them speak a line or two of fear and vicious bigotry towards what courses through your veins. Your task, instilled more by previous Souls games and video game logic than an implicit request, is to cut, run, or otherwise get through them and their very man-made weaponry.
More and more, as you twist along the branches to the rotting, pulsating core of the church, the blood, and Yharnam itself, you begin to feel the wordlessness. Logic cannot abide what you discover in the Forbidden Woods or Byrgenwerth, and the creatures and landscape of The Nightmare of Mensis or the Upper Cathedral Ward escapes description. You lose your words as the world saps them and your firm placement in sanity away, creating a more pure, viscously adhered horror you cannot escape.
Much of that viscosity deals with the creature design and Yharnam itself. Lovecraftian in the purest form, the beginning creatures merely touch upon the edge of sanity while the latter examples can floor you with “what am I even looking at?” levels of creativity. It all adheres to the general insanity of a decidedly otherworld entity come to earth. The boss models typify this evolution with each seeming infected early just as creatures or people that have clearly delved too deeply into some grotesque pathogen. The latter half of the game has examples that can vary between humanoid and…other, but each are clearly something alien or too deformed to return to homogeneity.
For all the pluses in the realms of Dark Souls, there hasn’t been a better institution of their trademark mid-game twist than Bloodborne has here. It’s literally night and day with a complete torque of the volume knob that I absolutely love. Seriously, the Upper Cathedral Ward and the Nightmare Frontier are two of my favorite pieces of content to ever come out of a From Software game, not because of their trademark slithering of geometry and level design, but because there’s not a wasted motion to be had. There are set pieces that feel organic and properly contextualized, snapping electricity into your nerves at a moment’s notice.
Of course, this is the first game to be fundamentally different in a combat sense from the rest of the Souls series. Offense, stuns, and speed are your only viable ways ahead. You will be positively lively hopping around environments and slashing into the windows enemies give you compared to Souls games. The harshest lesson I had to learn was using my blunderbuss off-hand weapon to catch a stun window for bosses and larger enemies. I thought the main goal of it was damage, but I recognized my folly around Father Gascoigne – your “are you ready for this?” fight. Slashing and running is the only real option if you don’t take to stuns, which forced me to learn stuns to absorb that much-needed option of elegance into my repertoire.
Another first timer is the presence of something outside the main quest to do in the form of Chalice Dungeons. These are procedural seeds that offer you increasing challenges depending upon your inserted materials during the ceremony using chalices you’ll discover throughout the main playthrough if you look high and low. There is a technical end to the dungeons where you meet a hidden boss, but drinking deep of chalice content can be something entirely unrestricted and jovial to you as well. Maybe you’re tired of getting your butt kicked in the main game and want to take on some lower foes to grind, then plug in a certain chalice and buzzsaw through them. That’s not how I treated them; I took to finding the secret weapons and lore scattered throughout the many layers and chambers to delight and success.
The lore in Bloodborne doesn’t directly connect to any other From game so it had a lot to pack in to be standalone while retaining the same level of meat fans could expect. Their success to that end cannot be overstated with clues to character deaths, developments, quests, and conquests paced as though you were reading a Lovecraft book. You can find things out of order or miss others entirely but the clues feel broad enough to begin to move the puzzle pieces into alignment regardless. I love those omnipresent-but-not-seen gods as they can be explored in games as there’s always an ominous possibility of seeing the hand slip from behind the curtain and be caught. That’s one the largest plot topics I’m willing to approve of publicly due to spoilers but rest assured, the entirety of it is beautiful to behold.
My love for the bosses, the world, the oppressive atmosphere, and the creativity of Bloodborne vastly overshadows my single gripe with the game, which is the lack of varied armor sets. For my play style, there were a grand total of two armor sets in the entire game that I could wear to benefit out of only a baker’s dozen. I don’t like how that nozzle has tightened and then again with the inability to upgrade armor at all. You’re simply wearing things with numbers that will never change no matter your loyalty to them, so what excitement should I feel to seeing another piece of armor on my screen?
Armor aside, I can’t help but completely salivate over Bloodborne with very few other qualms. I don’t mind the vial farming or the checkpoint placements and haven’t experienced any of the hilarious hiccups I’ve seen others deal with. All I’ve dealt with is the dream of a hunter, slowly rocking me into a helpless ease. It’s not a song that disarms me nor that blood moon that soothes me, but the sound of raspy breathing and the feeling of unfurling tendrils. After all, that is the only way to see the madness that lies ahead, to which I take without restraint.