The Faults of Bloodborne – Part II
Editor’s Note – this is Part II in a two-part series examining the game design choices of Bloodborne. To read Part I, click here.
My initial plan was not to release my criticism of Bloodborne in two parts. I was worried that, by doing so, readers wouldn’t get the whole picture, and without that picture they would jump to a depressingly familiar conclusion. “You just don’t get it. You’re not good. Get better.” But as I said in part one, I wanted to give each point of criticism a fair amount of time, and I also wanted to try and pin down what I perceive to be a major disconnect between my views on the game and the views of the rest of the gaming community. If anything, solving this disconnect is far more important than my criticism.
With that in mind, I decided to take advantage of the week between each piece to try and answer that disconnect. I reached out to fans and asked them what they love about Bloodborne, what spoke to them about the title. Though their feedback didn’t sway my overall opinion, I wanted to start the second part of this critique addressing the feedback, hoping to answer that disconnect and to better frame my dislike of certain aspects of this controversial title. Knowing what aspects made gamers fans is important, and will help provide context to my views on the story, the enemies and the level design.
One recurring theme, and one that I overlooked, is the appeal of the Lovecraft-inspired world. This was a major selling point to many fans – the world is full of references, both in terms of visuals and story, that show a tremendous amount of respect to H.P. Lovecraft’s work. This influence was so strong that it helped fans who were struggling with a boss fight or a particularly rough section stick with the game.
When it comes to Lovecraft-inspired work, I am indifferent. I don’t dislike it, but I don’t seek it out either. However, even I must admit that Bloodborne certainly looks the part – it somehow manages to be frightening, disgusting and beautiful all at once. Although I rarely concern myself with graphical quality, I do think it is important to celebrate great art direction, which Bloodborne has in spades.
Player vs. Player
One element that completely passed me by, in not just Bloodborne but in Dark Souls as well, was player versus player (PvP). These titles implement online play in unique ways – these games are mostly solo affairs, but players can invade the worlds of other players and duel them. PvP was a massive part of the lasting appeal of Dark Souls, and I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s a powerful draw to many fans of Bloodborne. Although I have no interest in PvP, I can see how it could be a breath of fresh air – the gameplay in Bloodborne is fast and smooth, and that can easily make for some fun and intense battles.
Finally, the weapon system drew praise. Bloodborne uses something called trick weapons, in which a weapon’s shape and moves can change with the press of a button. Overall, this meant fewer weapons in the game, but each one had a deeper level of strategy attached to it, which led to players commenting on the attachment they had to their trusted weapon, as if it were a character or companion.
After reading this feedback, I began to understand the disconnect I experienced from the rest of my gaming peers. Of the three elements discussed, two of them, the Lovecraft mythology and PvP, do little to interest me. When the game seemed punishingly unfair, those players who enjoy those aspects had something to carry them through, whereas I was stuck with the art direction and gameplay to help me get through. That may seem like I have a lot going for me – gameplay, after all, is vital to most games. But that’s my point – these other elements fail to such a degree that gameplay alone cannot save the experience, and since I am not drawn to Lovecraft or PvP, I’m left with a title that, while interesting, strikes me as a failure.
Understanding that disconnect is important – although my overall views of the game did not change, I did need to make adjustments to the criticisms presented below. But the fact is that, even after many lengthy discussions, those criticisms remain. The level design is still repetitive, and the randomness of the game coupled with the lack of player feedback is still troublesome. And these flaws continue to be present in other facets as well, including the monsters themselves.
When I ended the first part of this series, I was commenting on the randomness of Bloodborne. I failed to see a point in the maze-like level design, in the monster ghost arms that could kill the player instantly and in the end-game content the player is randomly thrown into early in the game. I asked what the point of it all was?
But if there was a point to enduring these struggles, it was to remind players how ridiculously overpowered enemies could be. Enemies can drain one-third to one-half of the player’s health with just one hit. Again, this concept appears to work great alongside the fast gameplay – it wouldn’t make sense if the player moved like the Flash while enemies were stuck in the mud. To further balance combat out, Bloodborne features a mechanic where, if the player gets hit, they have a short window of time to inflict damage back onto the enemy and regain some of their lost health. Again, in theory it sounds like a great idea.
However, I often found that enemies could kill me in a matter of seconds, and if I recovered my health, another enemy would run up and steal it right back. This is because Bloodborne takes an outdated approach to difficulty – the game is designed in such a way that players must be perfect in every encounter. There is no room for error – one mistake can be costly, so much so that the player can lose a significant amount of progress simply because an enemy was able to land one hit on the player. I lost count of the number of times I would come across a group of enemies, kill all of them except the last one, and do so without taking a hit. Yet on the final enemy, right before I would land my final strike, the enemy would sneak one shot in and reduce my health meter to a sliver. I would then land that final blow, and recover just a fraction of my health, all because I didn’t perfectly execute against a series of enemies.
There should always be a penalty for making a mistake in a game, but the penalty for making one mistake shouldn’t be complete failure. A great game will let players make mistakes, and the challenge will arise in how players adjust to their own failures on the fly. This is what I mean when I say Bloodborne takes an outdated approach to difficulty – because it always demands perfection, the player is forced to use pattern memorization for each enemy encounter, instead of actually building a set of skills. One could argue that pattern memorization is itself a skill, but any game that relies as heavily on it as Bloodborne does limits itself in how it can challenge players. If gamers really want to challenge themselves this way, there are far better alternatives – the music rhythm genre implements pattern memorization better and, with the right group of friends and/or beer, is far more rewarding.
But there is some good news – the enemy AI is so one-dimensional that players can just run past enemies on their way to boss fights. I realized this after unlocking a shortcut to a boss from Cathedral Ward, a sort of hub location for a few areas. When I first unlocked the shortcut, I would painstakingly go through and defeat the ten to fifteen enemies that were still between me and the area boss. However, after dying numerous times at the boss (because they can, naturally, kill the player in one hit), I grew frustrated and just ran back. I was able to avoid taking any damage, and it didn’t require precise dodging or luring enemies out of hiding – I just ran straight to the boss. Veteran Dark Souls players will undoubtedly counter that this was possible in previous Souls games, and to an extent they would be correct. However, because levels often looped back around and were not linear in nature, simply running past enemies in Dark Souls meant that the player would need to practice their timing with their dodges, which is in itself a skill, and very shortly the player would have a number of enemies right on their back. But in Bloodborne, there is no need to learn this skill, and no worry that a small army would be nipping at the player’s heels. Because almost all levels essentially become one long hallway, enemies will lose interest in chasing the player, nearly removing them as a threat.
The unfortunate reality is that, despite this being a major problem, it’s not even the most failed aspect of the title. I can look past repetitive level design and weak enemy AI if the gameplay is good, but there is one more aspect I require for a game to come together. That aspect is, sadly, the most flawed part of Bloodborne.
Something, Something, Paleblood
When the game starts, players are told to get the paleblood. Then they are let loose into the world. When it comes to story, that’s all the motivation players get for a significant portion of the game.
I can handle a non-sensical story, to an extent at least. Dark Souls has a very minimal story that really doesn’t make sense – players are cursed, taken to a strange world, and are told to ring two bells to unlock the entrance to a new area, a place where maybe they can learn more about their curse. Again, it doesn’t make sense from a logic standpoint, but it provides a direction and a motivation. Information is being conveyed to the player, information that will put difficult enemies and boss fights into context.
But Bloodborne gives the player less than a fraction of that. Players are told to get paleblood, told there is a hunt and nothing else. Eventually the story unfolds through item descriptions, a common tactic for developer FromSoftware, one they used brilliantly in previous games. But after twenty hours I know almost nothing of substance about the world, about the hunt, paleblood, any of it. Because the game provides so little story, and many of the core mechanics are flawed, I find myself having no motivation to continue. I have countless other games I could be playing, so why invest so much time in a game that doesn’t value my time? Why not give me just a fraction more of story, so I have some reason to actually want to see the end?
An Important Failure
While reaching out to fans for feedback about Bloodborne, one fan reminded me that, just because a game is different, does not mean it’s bad. Of course I agree with that sentiment, but I would also say that just because a game is different does not mean it’s good. There may be some great elements to Bloodborne’s overall design, but they are hidden behind some significant faults. In a way, I think Bloodborne might benefit from the Nintendo effect – fans of developer FromSoftware are willing to overlook these faults in order to see the bigger picture. If this is the case, which I believe it is, Bloodborne makes for an interesting case study for developers. It shows that gamers are willing to support a brand instead of supporting individual games. Maybe that’s the source of the disconnect I have with Bloodborne (although I have given Nintendo their fair share of passes that I shouldn’t have). As much as I loved Dark Souls, and appreciate the risks FromSoftware is willing to take, it’s not enough to mask poor level and enemy design, and a nonexistent story. Because of this, or rather in spite of this, Bloodborne remains an important game. Regardless of how players feel about it, the title at least starts a conversation that few entities outside of Nintendo have been able to start – when should a game be judged on its own merits, or when should it be judged as a piece of a larger body of work?