Bloodborne: Once upon a time in Yharnam
Updated: Jul 21
A strange figure, dressed in a black and dark blue fathered garb, stands on a balcony overlooking the grand city of Yharnam. Her body language is stiff with arms folded. However you cannot help but sense an air of resignation around her. She has seen this before. You approach carefully, not taking any chances to risk things turning violent. She senses you walking up to her. “Oh, a hunter are ya?” She sounds disinterested and weary. “And an outsider?” Her head is covered a mask with a beak, a mask similar to those doctors from ages past. She sighs “What a mess you’ve been caught up in.” After briefly making eye contact with you: clothes drenched in blood and gore, she turns back to the view of a city gone mad. “And tonight, of all nights” Is she feeling sorry for you?
Before you say anything, she matter of factly hands you an item. “Here, to welcome the new hunter.” Her tone is professional, as if she were welcoming a new employee. An unholy scream suddenly tears through the air like a savage knife. “Prepare yourself for the worst.” She says, seemingly unaffected “There are no humans left. They’re all flesh hungary beasts, now.” A shiver goes up your spine; she is not going to help you. You have to make it through this night, alone.
My interaction with Eileen the Crow did not go completely like this (the scream does not happen during the interaction and Eileen does not move about as much in game). However, I hope that my intro captures the emotional experience I had, when stumbling across Eileen in my first and second playthrough. Bloodborne’s ability to put players on edge though every aspect of story/gameplay/audio-visual feedback is cannot be stressed enough. I can only hope that I, a humble mortal with only SO many eyes, can hope to explain.
Once upon a time there was a sprawling metropolis known as Yharnam. A prosperous city which grew and thrived off a certain medical breakthrough, that being blood ministration. This cure, distributed by the Healing Church (the ruling institution of Yharnam) resulted in wealth and grandeur for the city. People from all over the world journeyed to Yharnam to cure whatever illness they suffered. One such person is you. You have come to Yharnam to seek a cure and hunt down a strange substance known as Paleblood. However something went terribly wrong, beasts roam the apocalyptic streets of a city gone mad. You have become a Hunter, employed to kill the beasts that torment the city and seek the Paleblood. However, things quickly spiral out of control. The whole of Yharnam is at the mercy of cosmic entities.
Bloodborne and adapting old horror genres
Bloodborne takes inspiration (at least with its visuals, atmosphere, creature designs and story) from two major literary genres. Those genres being Gothic horror and Lovecraftian horror. Gothic horror (started in the early to mid 1800s) is agreed to have been founded by three authors: Mary Shelly (Frankenstein), Eder Allen Poe (The Tell Tale Heart among others) and Bram Stoker (Dracula). These books (also including works like The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) are characterised by a series of themes and reoccurring motifs. These including but not limited to:
Cautionary tales of playing god with science (Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) fear of science in general.
Looming Victorian cities, characterized a underlying hostility and hidden nightmarish entities (Dracula and Jekyll and Hyde).
Corruption of religious buildings/institutions from some supernatural thing (Common theme in every single Gothic novel).
Madness (The Tell-tell Heart, this tends to be common with Eder Allen Poe’s work)
Supernatural entity that is the result of science being bad (this and religious corruption go hand in hand).
Woman or civilisation being threatened by some supernatural entity (Dracula)
All of these are present in Bloodborne’s story. The blood ministration provided by the Healing Church is used to exploit the sick with an addictive cure “In Yharnam, they produce more blood than alcohol, as the former is...more intoxicating” (Pungent Blood Cocktail). This cure, distributed despite the risks involved “fear the old blood” turns out to be infected by a sickness. A sickness known as the Plague of Beasts, which turns people into monstrous creatures . In order to hold onto power, the Healing Church invents the hunt which results in Yharnamites fearing the Church “Their black attire is synonymous with fear and that peculiar Yharnam madness” (Black Church Garb).
The Church's failure
The Church’s desire for power corrupts both the people of Yharnam and the Church itself, thus resulting in it’s downfall. The abuse of science destroys a religious ruling class and an entire city to monsters and insanity. The complimenting visuals of a grand Victorian city, looming oppressively over the player perfectly capture the best elements of such an influential genre. Fromsoftware did their homework in capturing the atmosphere of the Gothic horror, working with recognizable troupes using their own ideas.
Now for the Lovecraftian aspects
Philip Howard Lovecraft (20 August 1890-15 March 1937) was an American author who wrote various short stories and novellas during the 1920s. Unfortunate aspects within his work and some purple prose aside. He is often credited for creating/popularising the cosmic horror genre. Stories such as the Call of Cthulhu (February 1928) and The Colour out of Space (September 1927), all have had a massive impact on horror. Everything from Junji Ito’s work to Annihilation owes something to Lovecraft. These can either be forces that no human can possibly comprehend to Alien nightmares that cause madness and terror around them. Bloodborne is no different.
The Old Ones are classic Lovecraftian gods, utterly horrific to behold and yet completely omnipotent, always in control. The insight mechanic (where the more you learn the more vulnerable you are to nightmarish visuals) is too classic Lovecraft, mixing forbidden knowledge with the madness that comes with knowing too much and seeing the wrong thing.
What I am trying to get at is that From Software, by taking the good aspects of both genres they have crafted a game that uses only the best aspects of the genes (the fear of the unknown, the thought provoking nature of the stories and the aesthetic of late 19th century as a monstrous creature). They have shed the unappealing aspects that dated the genre (the racism, the lack of knowledge with the science). From Software created a game that mimics the genre that we want to remember, the genres that we love to get scared by. From Software‘s deep love and understanding Gothic and Lovecraftian horror allow for a loyal, unique adaptation that no one has ever seen before or since.
Poor Father Gascoigne
Father Gascoigne is the first real boss you will face in Bloodborne. He was a hunter from some foreign land “”Father” is a title used for clerics in a foreign land, and there is no such rank in the Healing Church” (The Gascoigne gab). He and his family lived in Yharnam with Gascoigne acting as a Hunter for the Church. If you were exploring Yharnam (like any Soulsborne player) you might stumble across the Gascoigne residence.
Inside a little girl asks you to find her mother, who went to find her Husband (Father Gascoigne) a hunter went off and...never came back. After you find Gascoigne, killing mad townsfolk you see that the plague has completely destroyed his mind. He sees everyone as infected, everyone as a threat “Beasts all over the shop. You’ll be one of them. Sooner or later”. The insuring fight, as harrowing and intense as it is, provides from a narrative prospect two things.
You are no better then the beasts you've slain
One: a Hunter infected with the plague is terrifying reality that you (as a Hunter) have to deal with. It shows you how not special you are, that you are not the savour of Yharnam. You are human beings that can surrender to the primal behaviours that we all have inside of us.
Two: It presents us with a unwinnable situation. We have to tell the little girl that her father killed her mother and we were responsible for his death. If we tell her the truth the daughter dies trying to find a safe place. If we lie to her then she will live a happy lie until morning, where she will have to live as an orphan in the 19th century. Do we provide the child with knowledge that will kill her or let her live with false hope and damn the future consequences? This thematic nihilism and uncertain morality (common in Gothic and Lovecraftain fiction) make Father Gascoigne such a memorable encounter. It is also a fine example of the quality of writing in Bloodborne.
Poor Byrgenwerth and Yharnam
Both genres carry over the fears of science. There is a difference between the fears of scientific advancement (gothic) and the fears of scientific discovery. The former is represented the creation of the miracle cure of healing Blood and the latter is represented by the discovery of the Blood. That being from the left behind Old One (Ebrietas, Daughter of The Cosmos) . Lovecraft was afraid what we as a civilization would discover (The Shoggoths in At the Mountains of Madness, Cthulhu in The Call of Cthulhu etc). This is no different, as the game gradually changes to just werewolf’s to things like this:
As themes escalate so do the narrative stakes. We start in Yharnam with the mad villagers and werewolves. By the time we get to Byrgenweth College (a place of learning and discovery) we learn the truth. The truth being that Lovecraftian monsters secretly rule the world and that a child’s birth is behind the werewolves. Both locations are in a state of chaos and/or decay, indicating that the discovery of the truth and advancement of the cure have destroyed everything. In Bloodborne we explore the fallout of the science advancement that Gothic and Lovecraftian novels tried to warn us about. Byrgenwerth and Yharnam’s state of decay tell a fascinating story in of themselves.
The Hunter: A look into moral ambiguity
The Hunter him/herself within the narrative has a lot of characterisation (in my case a He). He is a silent character in the traditional sense. He only reacts when getting hurt or dying (which happens a lot). But this lack of (any) apparent characterisations strangely works in the game’s benefit. The Hunter’s indifference beings up curious issues of morality, one such example would be with the discovery of Ebrietas, Daughter of the Cosmos.
It is your fault
She is utterly indifferent to you and will not engage you (starting the boss fight) until you attack her. From her perspective you are the aggressor, an unprovoked attacker that is threatening her for no reason at all. Are you the villain in this case? You attacked her for no reason asides that she is big and scary. We learn later that she provided the Blood to the Healing Church after she was left behind by the old ones. She was helping humanity; she had no idea that it would turn them into animals.
Feel like a hero?
The Hunter kills an innocent alien creature that was only trying to help humanity. You killed a entity that was simply minding its own business and was no threat to you because assumed that it was bad from the size and appearance of Ebrietas. Granted she has the appearance of a Lovecraftian nightmare but she posed no threat to you. It is in the little moments like telling a little girl that her parents are dead, but not help said pre pubescent child though a city crawling with monsters. If I were in that situation I would have not hated a escort mission. If anything that game had kind of earned it. By influencing the players actions, From is able to tell a story that has no real heroes or villains. Just people caught up in a horrid situation.
It would have been easy for From to clone Dark Souls’s gameplay with a Gothic/Lovecraftian coat of paint and call it a day. In fact, if they were a lesser development team From could have very well done so, due to the Sony’s exclusivity on the IP. However that is not the case. Dark Souls has a much slower combat system, focusing on blocking and dodge rolling, timing when to get out and heal. Bloodborne’s combat is completely different. There are no shields to found in Yharnam (except one but the game outright tells you to not bother with it).
Become the beast you are
Instead you have to be more aggressive, jumping in and out of combat to take every hit you can. There is a increased focus on reflexes and timing, as a gun has replaced the shield. Now you can riposte attacks to stun enemies for a an easy hit (in the very small window given before your face get smashed). I will get into the combat later but the high paced, borderline frantic nature of the combat loop makes boss fights intense and exhilarating. Some of the best boss fights I have ever experienced.
Gain insight now
Insight is an interesting mechanic. It acts as both a currency, a story element and game play effecting status. As a currency you are able to spend insight at a special shop in the Hunter’s Dream. They grant you access to special items and common consumables that you might otherwise not be able to get/ afford with blood echoes (the equivalent of souls) . The way you gain insight is by witnessing/encountering events and people that cause you to understand what is going on. Consuming Madman’s Knowledge “Skull of a madman touched by the wisdom of the Great Ones” gives the same effect.
Still gaining insight
You trade the knowledge you gain for items that are needed survive the hostile environments in order to understand what is going on. In true Lovecraftian the more you discover the more you try to protect yourself from the horrors witnessed. When you reach certain thresholds the game reacts in a verity of ways. The higher your insight the more vulnerable you are to Frenzy (it is madness, unsure why From called it Frenzy). This means that the more you know the easier it is to become mad and suffer higher damage.
How Insight effects everything
Church Servants have their lanterns covered in eyes at a certain level. The number of Mad Ones spawned with a certain boss fight is judged by the insight level. The world itself is effected by how much you know, becoming more hostile and dangerous. You sacrifice knowledge to gain protection or an edge over the nightmares. The more you know, the closer you get to madness.
The horror of difficulty
You will die a lot in Bloodborne, you will die often in embarrassing ways. Getting trampled, not getting out of the way of the massive swinging blade or attaching the attention of that cloaked figure with the bloody sack. As a result, the further you go from safety the more uneasy you get. Every ambush can mean a loss of progress. Every encounter poses a risk of failure. It is genius in how tension is built and maintained. The ever present threat of failure insures that (along with the general designs of the monsters) that you will be scraping by, always at risk of dying.
How it adds to the horror
Like in Dark Souls you have to opportunity to collect the Blood Echoes you lost back. Sometimes they are on the ground (like in Dark Souls) but sometimes the monster absorbs the Blood Echoes. In order to get them back, you have to kill the monster; a monster was properly responsible for your death. A deceptively simple twist that induces panic from the risk of failure and the knowledge that you have to fight the thing that killed you in order to get back the currency you lost. Bloodborne’s difficulty enhances the atmosphere and experience. It makes an already terrifying game all the scarier.
As mentioned previously, combat is more aggressive and frantic in Bloodborne then Dark Souls. This change in game play style is aided by the addition of a gaining back HP if you attack something instantly after being hit. As healing items are limited you are forced to exchange hits and are rarely given time to strategise in the heat of battle.
As a result you have to learn attack patterns and windows to exchange hits and when to negate damage through attacks. Not only does this make ever enemy encounter all the more harrowing (do I jump in now or do I risk using another Blood vial?) as players have to weigh pros and cons in the moment. The risk of using a finite resource or the risk of hurriedly attacking whatever nightmare is threatening to squash you. It’s a risk that can only be thought through learning attack patterns and behaviours.
It’s a trick (weapon)
Trick Weapons are a fascinating part of Bloodborne’s identity. I cannot think of any other game that has such stylistic mechanic. Every single weapon has unique advantages and disadvantages. The Threaded Cane for example is fast blunt weapon that can deal high damage quickly. However in its cane state it deals reduced damage to beasts due to lack of the hidden damage multiplier (serrated). In its whip form the Threaded Cane not only dishes out increased damage. But also increases the distance and width reached by the weapon.
Confronting the horrors of Yharnam
However your attacks are slower and take up more of your precious stamina. All the Trick Weapons offer different functions and effects so it is impossible to list them all. However this is one such a way the player has to strategise and prepare for a boss fight. How much speed can be traded off to higher damage? What is the monstrosity weak against? As there is no equipment you can carry as many items as you want, allowing you to switch weapons before starting a fight.
Weapon degradation is a thing in Bloodborne sadly. But unlike certain 7/10 titles, Bloodborne’s weapon degradation is one of the best one could find. Simply because it barely makes its presence known. Weapons degrade slows but can be repaired instantly and cheaply. In all two play throughs only once did a weapon threaten to break. I simply switched out for another one. Its a comfortable obligation, its effect on the game is so low that it is practically invisible.
But a good one
Apparently damage goes down as degradation increases but truth be told, I did not register it. One can argue that it might not as well be there (and I can see where they would be coming from) but I rather like it. It is not overwhelming but adds a nice sense of underlying tension to the game. A risk/ reward feature that can asks you weather you want to press on and risk your main weapon breaking or going back home to repair. Could the game have been better without it? Yes and maybe no. But I did not have a bad time with it.
The Chalice Dungeons
The Chalice Dungeons are something that could have been something truly amazing. A set of randomly generated Diablo dungeons that not only fit in with the lore and story of the main game. But also have their special bosses not found anywhere else in the game. I love the atmosphere; the sheer, utter silence hangs on you like whale blubber. You really do get the sense of being completely and utterly alone until you hear that giggle, the thump of footsteps that are not your own. It is very harrowing and I love.
The Chalice under cooked
However why do the Chalice Dungeons seem so...under cooked? I think it has to do with the randomly generated dungeons. Instead of getting memorable levels, carefully and expertly handcrafted we get a number of rooms smashed together. This results in a lot of variations on the same level. They do not stand out and seem like places once lived in (which the dungeons are supposed to have been. ) To make matters worse, you often find yourself battling the same bosses Or normal enemies with a unusually high health pool standing alongside original bosses. The Chalice Dungeons seem rushed. The Chalice Dungeons represent drop in quality that is all the more jarring with the main game’s otherwise high quality.
Graphics and art style:
From a purely graphical perspective, Bloodborne is not the most impressive game on the PS4. Textures can be very flat and lifeless at times. Firstly, the lighting (compared to Witcher 3, God of War 4 and Spiderman) is underwhelming. The physics can be hilarious for all the wrong reasons. However the game makes up for its graphical short comings with a powerful art style. Yharnam’s gothic inspirations conjure the ideal Victorian city: looming, oppressive and seemingly labyrinthine. Steeples build upon more steeples, funereal streets are littered with coffins chained from the outside (to keep someone out or something inside?). As a result Bloodborne provides many memorable images to its relentlessly bleak tone.
There are some frame rate drops in certain areas (Old Yharnam being the most egregious). The 30 FPS does not help this as the game can get as slow as 20 FPS . The drops are only in a few areas and are rather brief so it does not overshadow the game too badly (unlike Until Dawn). There some bugs in the AI, they walk into walls or get stuck in the floor. It is rare but never the less distracting when it happens. I wish the AI was a little bit more intelligent.
Bloodborne was the first From title that I ever got into. The first From game that I completed (twice now). I started Bloodborne during a time when I was studying Gothic horror. I gained an appreciation for how well Bloodborne adapted long dead literary genres. How terrifying it was, how satisfactory it was to play. Bloodborne is in my opinion, From’s magnum opus. Bloodborne is a reason to get a PS4.
Edit: Changed 'discover' to learn in second paragraph in the Yharnam and Byrgenwerth section.