Saturday, September 9, 2017

Bloodborne

The combat in Bloodborne is a little easier to learn than the very similar combat in the Souls games, but still not quite intuitive enough to pick up without some effort. Fortunately, the game is strong enough to get that effort from you without giving away that it's doing that. Bloodborne's initial areas have you following a fairly straightforward path to where you eventually find the Cleric Beast. By then, you've hopefully gained a good enough sense of timing to fight it. You know how long it takes to pull of certain attacks, to cross certain distances, and to heal yourself. 

It feels quite different to fight the Cleric Beast than the other initial enemies, but the game's combat is simple enough that learning it in one context enables you to adapt to many. That said, I wouldn't want to sell short the depth of Bloodborne's combat system: it may have fewer weapons than Dark Souls, but each weapon has a variety of moves with noticeably different effects, and with some experimentation, you can make even the slowest moves a major part of your arsenal.

The biggest example of this in my experience of the game was with the Kirkhammer. In the Forbidden Woods, the most common enemies are small knots of snakes. They aren't especially threatening, but I did find myself expending a lot of time getting rid of them. Naturally, I started trying different attacks with the hammer, finding that a charged power attack with the Kirkhammer in its hammer mode could kill them in one hit. That's a very, very slow attack, but the window to get the timing right against these enemies is large enough that it doesn't matter. After using this attack to dispose of so many of these basic enemies, it became easy to use it in fights against more menacing ones; I knew exactly where I had to be and when I had to begin the attack for it to be successful.
Some enemies weren't killed in one hit by the attack. When facing such enemies, since the attack's relatively long animation doesn't cancel if you press another button after it's started, it was intuitive to begin trying to perform smaller attacks before the larger attack had ended. This intuition led me to discover another one of the Kirkhammer's moves, a very powerful sweeping attack used by pressing the normal attack button in succession after using a charged attack.

My knowledge of the Kirkhammer's moveset made the combat much more engaging. Not only was I hyper-aware of the timing of attacks, but the way I fought involved making split-second judgments about which move to go into next. Would it be better to use the sweeping attack after a charged attack, or to dodge out of the enemy's range? Would it be better to use a two-step or a three-step transformation attack? 

The effect of this is that Bloodborne does a better job than other games of drawing out presence of mind, and a moment-to-moment sense of detail. It all feels very material, in a way that builds on complements the gothic horror of the first half of the game. The architecture is sharp, towering, and complicated, and a lot of exploration is spent on ascending and descending. It feels like a labyrinth in three dimensions, especially when you're confronted with stuff like the hunter in Old Yharnam who shoots a gatling gun at you or when you hear the shrieks of monsters you can't see. It's a distinctly interactive twist on the atmosphere and mystery of gothic fiction.

Its materiality also makes for another, even more interesting, twist on genre when the game shifts from gothic to Lovecraftian cosmic horror. Lovecraft's horror involved not only the fear of the unknown, but fear of the impossibility of knowing because of human powerlessness and finitude. His stories suggest that when you peel away the world's veneer of order, you find chaos, and anything you ever had confidence in collapses. 

Bloodborne, however, peels away the veneer of its world's nature and finds something arguably worse than chaos: malevolent order. When you enter Yahar'gul, Unseen Village, you encounter enemies from the first areas of the game again, but they regenerate after you kill them. You can always hear a bell before they regenerate, and eventually you realize they're being created and controlled by a new kind of enemy: Bell Ringers. Bell Ringers are often tucked away out of sight, a hidden manipulation underlying the material distress of Bloodborne's combat. 

That's also when you realize that otherworldly creatures exist all over Bloodborne's world, but have been invisible up to that point. The first part of the game throws you into a stressful situation, but one that seems to be because of a naturally arbitrary material chaos. The second part of the game reveals manipulation and trickery.

When you enter the Nightmare of Mensis, it's impossible not to recognize its opposition to the Hunter's Dream. It's a place where people have come to avoid the confusion and horror of the game's waking world a separation from materiality. But unlike you, the Nightmare's inhabitants, the Choir, aren't using their advantage to fight against the confusion: they're trying to capitalize on the forces that caused it, throwing everyone else under the bus in the process. Again: in Lovecraft, you look underneath a world of order and find chaos; in Bloodborne, you look underneath a world of distress and find deliberate exploitation. The true villains of the game are not monsters who have only arbitrary direction, but rational figures exercising purposeful and systematic cruelty.

Regarding the notion of distress, there is one thing that can disrupt the flow of playing through Bloodborne's impeccably designed levels: losing all your Blood Vials. When you run out, you need to halt your progress to do something tedious. Some people don't like this, but I appreciate it from a narrative perspective. It doesn't come across as clearly or neatly as the twist that the true villains of the game are exploiters, but the tedium of collecting Blood Vials suggests that your character is not exempt from the stress Bloodborne's world brings about.

Hidetaka Miyazaki suggested that the health meter in his games is not a measure of your character's physical condition, but of their will to fight. In Bloodborne, this is more straightforward in the item descriptions, loading screens, and other bits of narrative text than it is in the Souls games. It's also more straightforward in the mechanics: the system of restoring your health by retaliating against enemy attacks can be conceived of as regaining your confidence. 

The game describes Blood Vials as addictive, and suggests that the reason they restore your health is because they're "invigorating." Your character has to rely on a psychotropic stimulant to stave off demoralization so they can keep proceeding through Bloodborne's world. Your character is addicted to blood, and the player feels the cost of that addiction when they run out of Blood Vials and have to farm for more. Whether this system was executed as well as it could have been is debatable, but I still maintain that the Blood Vial system is an appropriate element of the bizarre and terrible situation your character is supposed to be in.

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