The Faults of Bloodborne – Part I
Editor’s Note – this is Part I in a two-part series examining the game design choices of Bloodborne. To read Part II, click here.
Despite all of the praise I have heaped upon the game, I absolutely hated Dark Souls the first time I played it. I hated what I perceived to be a grind of defeating constantly respawning enemies, one I was cursed to endure time and time again just to get anywhere in the game. As a result, the gameplay and combat was a real turn-off, because I had to keep killing the same enemies over and over. But I do my best to keep an open mind, and instead of writing off what many considered to be one of the greatest games ever made, I instead tried to understand why people felt this way. What did they love about the game? What was I missing?
After reading forum posts, reviews and discussing the game with friends, I came to learn what message Dark Souls was trying to teach me, and when I went back to the game I fell in love with that grind, those boss fights, the oppressive world. I understood what director Hidetaka Miyazaki wanted me to learn, that completing a goal or journey is a constant uphill struggle, and no matter how confident you are, there’s always something unknown just over the horizon that will challenge you, only for you to rise up and conquer that challenge and, eventually, complete your task.
The brilliance of Dark Souls was more than enough justification for me to purchase Bloodborne, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s latest creation. And if that wasn’t enough, the overwhelming praise the game has received from fans and critics alike won me over. Bloodborne is a constant presence for many 2015 best-of-the-year awards, and was even praised by Theory of Gaming’s Aaron Daniel in his review. So I dove into the world of Yharnam, and… I didn’t like it. I ran into some similar issues that I initially had with Dark Souls, but because of that experience I kept pushing forward, playing more of the game and reading what others thought about it, hoping to understand it better. But despite my best efforts, I came away from the game puzzled – not only is it a poorly designed game, but it’s a poorly designed game that everyone seems to love. When I tell people I don’t like Bloodborne, I get the same half-serious, half-sarcastic refrain. You don’t understand it. Get better at it.
But I’m more than twenty hours into the game, and the flaws are only getting worse. Bloodborne is an experiment that exists with one foot in the world of Dark Souls and one foot outside it, yet for the most part it’s a failure. So instead of simply asking “What am I missing?” I thought I would lay out what I perceive to be the many faults of Bloodborne, and ask fans, “What are you seeing?”
Around and Around We Go
A great starting point for this examination is the level design. The world of Yharnam is a beautiful, meticulously detailed world. The art design can be truly stunning, and this nightmarish, grotesque world can be just as much a pleasure to soak in as the vibrant alien worlds in a game such as Halo 5: Guardians. But the paths players take throughout Yharnam betray that sense of quality. For all of its beauty, the level design in Bloodborne comes across as repetitive, lazy and difficult simply for the sake of being difficult.
Each new section starts off the same way – players have to fight through waves of enemies on a linear path, which eventually loops back around somewhere near the starting point. The player hits a switch that opens a gate, creating a shortcut from the start of the level, thereby allowing the player to ignore the small army they just defeated. But this shortcut won’t take players toward the end of the zone, it merely gets them half-way through, sometimes even less than that. The reward for their effort is that the journey to the boss fight is now less of a monotonous slog, but only by a little. This tactic for level design can work occasionally, with some additions – a great level designer will hide important items or optional quests along that initial path, providing a justification for players to endure that section other than to simply unlock a shortcut. But Bloodborne employs this tactic at every level, and although it’s nice that players don’t have to kill as many enemies as before, an additional reward here and there would go a long way in breaking up the monotony of the level design.
This repetitive level design is made worse by the fact that the world does not connect – it’s set up like a maze just as in Dark Souls II. At the outset this wasn’t so much a problem as it was a frustration – I was waiting for a way to connect all of these zones I was unlocking, if only so the world and my actions in it could feel like they were having an impact on the setting and story. But that wasn’t the case, and the only way I could travel between each area was to use the game’s unnecessarily tedious fast travel system. In Bloodborne, players can save their progress at lamps, which act as checkpoints and allow players to travel to an area called The Hunter’s Dream, which is where the player can safely purchase new items and upgrade their gear. However, players cannot use lamps to travel to other unlocked lamps, meaning that if the player wants to fast travel from one zone to another, and these zones do not directly connect, they have to first travel to The Hunter’s Dream, then from there travel to any unlocked lamp. It’s tedious, and worst of all there is no inherent risk to do this – it’s yet another roadblock placed before the player for no reason other than to place a roadblock.
Unfortunately, players will navigate this tedious fast travel system quite a bit, because the level design does not, in any meaningful way, guide the player through the world. The world branches out into so many dead ends that before long players will backtrack and start over, hoping that this next path they choose actually leads to a place that progresses the story. In those cases, players will almost always end up facing an enemy that can defeat them in a matter of seconds (despite the fact that the player could easily dispatch the rest of the enemies in that area), leading them to wonder if they are actually underleveled and not meant to be at this section at this time. Because there are no context clues, I often found myself doing something I rarely ever do – asking friends who had beaten the game for some help, or even going to GameFAQs to see what I was doing wrong. Every single time I got stuck and asked what I was missing, I got the same answer – I shouldn’t be at that stage of the game yet. Backtrack, find another path, and start there. Again, there is no indication that I am in the wrong area up until I meet a random enemy that is suddenly more powerful than anything else I’ve encountered in that area so far, so I just kept running in circles, playing the most frustrating game of trial and error imaginable.
Blue Glitter Bombs
As I played trial and error through Yharnam, I often encountered events or enemies that , frankly, made no sense at all, and disrupted the game in such a way that I wasn’t even angry, but impressed that a game could just blatantly troll players and, somehow, get away with it. The first example of this was what I call the blue glitter bomb. Just outside a location called Cathedral Ward, which acts as a starting point for a number of areas, there is a small fountain and behind it the player finds a dead enemy, who is highlighted with a familiar glowing orb. These orbs indicate that there is an item of interest for the player to loot from the enemy. I ran up to it and was rewarded with a new set of armor. As I was examining my new find, a giant cloud of shiny blue dust swooped down and picked my character up. For a moment my character dangled high in the air, before suddenly and violent slamming back into the ground, dying instantly. After respawning, I went back to that area to trigger the cloud again, hoping that I could see something that would make sense, something I could learn from.
This is an important tactic to employ in any Hidetaka Miyazaki game. When the player dies, instead of getting angry and dismissing their failure, the player should ask themselves “What did I learn?” Asking myself this question got me through Dark Souls and its sequel, and it strengthened the appreciation I had for those games. I was learning important lessons about gameplay tactics, I was learning how to read the world for clues, I was learning how to prepare and overcome obstacles. However, in Bloodborne these random events occur often, and when they did (and the result would almost certainly be death), I would ask myself, “What did I learn?” And the answer would almost always be “Nothing.” I learned nothing about the world, about an enemy, or a technique I either utilized incorrectly or wasn’t using at all. So I kept running over to where the giant blue glitter bomb spawned, rolling out of the way and panning the camera up toward it, hoping that by making it appear I could learn something.
In a weird way, I did learn something, but I doubt it’s the lesson developer FromSoftware wanted me to learn. I learned that, in order to make sense of this random event, I needed to raise a stat called insight. The stats in Bloodborne are presented with the same level of indifference as the level design, but I was at least able to infer what insight was. Insight is gained by defeating bosses and exploring the world, and the higher the number, the higher amount of knowledge the player has. I was told to go gather more insight and then return to the sight of the glitter bomb, and then everything would make sense.
On paper, the insight mechanic sounds great – players can learn more about the world and understand it with greater clarity the more they explore and take control over it. However, in practice, it’s just as horrible as one would expect. After gaining enough insight, I went back to that fountain, and this time instead of only seeing a blue cloud whisk me up into the air, I saw the outline of a giant monster arm, which was really what was grabbing me, holding me in the air and slamming me to the ground. Now that I saw what was really destroying me, I asked myself “What did I learn?” The answer – that there are giant invisible monster arms, and sometimes they kill you. Look out for blue glitter – that’s an indication that the giant invisible thing is in the area.
I never saw a blue, shiny cloud anywhere else in the game. Same goes for giant monster arms.
If this were an isolated incident, I could let it go, but this tactic is used throughout the game. I’ve lost track of how many times I would walk down a path, only for an enemy to leap out of a hiding spot to spam and stun-lock me with attacks until I died seconds later. No clues, no lessons learned other than you can die at any second, anywhere. But the most perplexing instance of this randomness was the enemy that randomly spawned just outside Cathedral Ward. I was intrigued because, in the Souls games, enemies rarely move their spawning locations. When I approached this enemy, I quickly learned I was very underleveled for him, and he killed me in one hit. At first, I thought my lesson was to avoid him until I became more powerful, except this time I did not respawn at the last lamp I used. This time I spawned in an entirely new zone, one that I learned introduces end-game content to the player. Except I wasn’t at the end-game, so when I stepped out of the cell I awoke in, the first enemy I encountered nearly killed me, and the second finished the job. I had no idea where I was or why I was respawning in a cell and not at a lamp, but I went with it, playing this new twist on trial and error until I eventually found a lamp and was able to teleport out of there. I still do not understand the purpose of that diversion, and it’s these types of random events that make trying to find the correct path in the game an insanely frustrating experience.
Just the Beginning of this Nightmare
If these were my only complaints with Bloodborne, it would still be a game I find troublesome. Poor level design and lack of communication to the player are traits I would not typically associate to the director of Dark Souls, a series that excels at both of those aspects. However, a big portion of what I find worrying about this title is the disconnect – I certainly have been known to have a controversial opinion or two, but it’s rare that I find my view of a game so at odds with the rest of the gaming community. Unfortunately, the issues I’ve encountered with Bloodborne do not end here, and those that remain deserve the same amount of attention as the level design and the sheer randomness of the game. Hopefully, after laying out these points in detail, that disconnect becomes clearer. Whether that clarity is enough to get me back into the world of Yharnam remains to be seen.
Click here to read Part II, in which author Josh Snyder continues to examine Bloodborne and its design choices, including a discussion about the enemies and the game’s story.