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Trial By Bloodborne – Confronting My Fear Of From Software

by Brian Shea on Mar 30, 2015 at 12:23 PM

I’ve never been easily intimidated by games, but I’ve steered clear of From Software’s Souls games to this point. After hearing of the frustration Demon’s Souls and the Dark Souls games have brought some of my friends and colleagues (even though they keep coming back for more), I’ve avoided them in favor of more relaxing and less stressful experiences.

It’s not the difficulty that scared me away, however. Instead, it was the way the most enthusiastic fans described it. I never wanted an experience to be “punishing” or “unforgiving”; I wanted what little time I had to play video games in my spare time to be fun and entertaining. I didn’t want the constant grind or the feeling that I had to play the same sequences over and over. 

Trial-and-error gameplay is something I’ve often dismissed as an archaic and unnecessary convention in modern gaming, but for some reason it’s been working for me in 2015. I enjoyed the grind in Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, and the rewarding nature of finally getting a viable city in Cities: Skylines had me looking forward to every failure as a learning experience. That same seemingly masochistic outlook was carried with me into Bloodborne.

The first time I turned Bloodborne off, the thought that I would never again turn it on passed through my mind. I was well on my way to making some decent progress in Yharnam, when a group of enemies attacked me at the same time, ending my best run and stealing my blood echoes in the process. My patience didn’t pay off, and all my progress felt like it was gone for good. The outlook was bleak, the combat didn’t feel good, and I was just all-around frustrated. It felt as though I would never be able to progress, and that I was doomed to repeat the same failures. Thankfully, I continued working toward the persistent goal of just getting a little further than I did the time before, and through that, my learning commenced.

Developing an understanding of how From Software requires you to play is of utmost importance. This isn’t a game world that bends to your will and yields to your play style. If you don’t learn to play by the rules of Bloodborne, you will die even more than you would otherwise. In today’s climate of accommodation and accessibility, Bloodborne is a shock to the system that requires the uninitiated to relearn how they approach video games. The perceived loss of progress is not something we’re used to anymore in the age of the autosave, and it took me several hours to get past that. It wasn’t until I realized that as long as I was able to learn from my mistakes, progress wasn’t lost that I truly began to embrace Bloodborne. For those of us who have been around for a couple of decades, it’s a stark reminder of how things commonly were prior to the advent of modern game-design conventions.

You awaken to find yourself completely unarmed and trapped in a room with a blood-drenched monster. That first enemy you encounter in Bloodborne isn’t impossible to kill, but it’s designed to defeat you. This same description could be carried over into nearly every adversary in Bloodborne. The most important lessons I’ve learned to this point are, “You can kill anything” and “Anything can kill you.”

It’s for that reason I’ve learned the importance of taking mental notes of what does and does not work in each situation. I could probably get through the first three encounters along the main path in Yharnam with my eyes closed thanks to how many times I’ve had to face them; the familiarity is comforting as I approach the unknown that lies beyond my furthest progress point.

Another valuable lesson I learned was to never be afraid to experiment with the formula and explore within the world. Just because a certain approach worked well enough one time doesn’t mean that it’s the only or most efficient approach to that situation. Finding the way that works best to complement my character’s skill set, as well as that of myself becomes an integral part of the experimentation process that, when combined with persistence, inevitably leads to progression. 

For me, this was most aptly applied in my victorious battle against Cleric Beast. My first few attempts, I was able to cut the first boss down to about half health before it cornered me and pounded me into the cobblestone. Rather than the safe, defensive opportunist approach, I rethought my plan of attack, made sure I was well-stocked with blood vials and Molotov cocktails, and went after it with reckless abandon. My all-out offensive assault on Cleric Beast worked, and I was finally able to claim my first major victory in Bloodborne, extending my interest in the game.

With progression being paramount, I’ve learned that not every enemy must be killed. Passing over an encounter won’t yield any blood echoes, but sometimes those aren’t as important as making it through an area and opening up the all-important next shortcut. Running away from ogres, werewolves, and angry mobs isn’t something to be ashamed of. You’re but one character – albeit a well-armed and increasingly skilled one – battling against hordes of enemies that will stop at nothing to end your life and relieve you of your blood echoes. Be cautious in the routes you take, be discriminating in what you choose to engage with, and most importantly, be smart about every little detail.

While world progression is something that is extremely rewarding in Bloodborne, that same notion doesn’t carry over into the character progression. The leveling eventually becomes more obvious, but the upgrades aren't as immediately satisfying compared to other games. In series like The Elder Scrolls, you’re learning new abilities and receiving the instant gratification of noticeable improvements once you purchase the next level of a skill. With Bloodborne, the leveling is much less noticeable. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing since Bloodborne is a game that wants the player to feel responsible for their own successes, but with modern games having conditioned me to sense a larger presence of leveling, it’s something that feels noticeably absent and unrewarding at times

Thankfully, for games like Bloodborne, triumphing over the insane odds presented is abundantly rewarding. Despite the rage I’ve felt at certain junctures, I haven’t even dreamt of quitting for good since that first time I shut my PS4 off with the game inside. Every small victory breeds satisfaction and relief the way every failure is a teachable moment that can unlock the secret behind the area you’ve been bashing your head against for the past several hours. The knowledge of stacking the lessons I’ve learned during my time in this game world is recompense enough to keep me coming back, and the relief of getting through something I previously felt impassable is not a novelty that will wear off soon.

Bloodborne is one of my favorite games of 2015 so far, but as someone new to the From Software methodology, don’t count me among the evangelical Souls fans just yet.  At the very least, however, I am intrigued enough that I might go back and check out the Dark Souls games at some point. I’m not sure I’ll ever get all the way through Bloodborne’s main quest line, but I know I will sacrifice my character’s life hundreds of times over in the attempt to do so.