Disclaimer: I have played a great amount of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, and understand both games very well. I’m not complaining that either game is too difficult, just that one of them is too unwelcoming. Your ‘git gud’ comments are invalid – I already got gud. Thank you!
Bloodborne was on sale for a measly eight dollars last October. I didn’t even own a PS4 at the time, but how could I resist? Zelda is one my favorite franchises, so I naturally love sword-and-board combat, and I’m fairly confident in my sword-fighting muscle-memory. “No problem!” I told myself. But it was a problem. After I bought my PS4 for Red Dead Redemption 2, I downloaded my cheap copy of Bloodborne and began my (short) journey. I entered Central Yharnam for the first time and was instantly torn apart by the freaky villagers wandering the streets. “Wow,” I told myself “That was quick.” A couple days and eight hours of play time later, I threw my controller down in disgust – I still hadn’t moved past the opening area. So, I quit.
I didn’t abandon FromSoftware completely though. The Dark Souls remaster had finally worked its way to Switch, and for whatever reason, I thought it would be fun to relive my Bloodborne trauma in portable mode (don’t ask my logic there). But that trauma didn’t come. Dark Souls got a hold of me much quicker than Bloodborne had the chance to, and I quickly made my way up to Ornstein and Smough.
Dark Souls, despite its immense difficulty, is a very open, approachable game to tackle. Compare it to the equally difficult Bloodborne and you’ll find many people (like myself) who were turned away. Why is that? What is it about Bloodborne that is so off-putting to newcomers? After revisiting the game this past weekend, I think I’ve narrowed it down to a possible cause: tutorials.
It’s no secret that Bloodborne is difficult from the onset. You’re dropped into a harsh, unforgiving world with little to no directions on how to play, expected to repeat the same actions over and over until you, ahem, git gud. It’s a philosophy that reflects most of FromSoft’s titles: experience through repetition. Bloodborne shows this philosophy from the beginning – the trouble is that it doesn’t teach its own mechanics well enough for some to push through the difficulty barrier.
Bloodborne’s combat system is one of the best out there, but it’s monstrously hard to master, and the game does very little to get you acquainted with the toolset before the onslaught of demonic foes arrives. In the hunter’s dream, Bloodborne’s version of a hub world, there’s a series of notes on the ground that briefly explain to you what each command is mapped to on the DualShock 4.
But once you’re in the world itself, there’s no inkling of a proper tutorial. Central Yharnam is an onslaught of foes that, while easy to plow through a bit later in the game, are extremely daunting at first. A good tutorial teaches you a game’s mechanics through clever level design and teaching by example. Bloodborne doesn’t do that – it chucks you in the deep end with dozens of enemies that are incredibly difficult (at first). Not only that, but you’re left to figure out your move-set all by yourself. Either that or look up a YouTube guide.
Like I said before, Bloodborne is a game about repetition. That concept can be difficult to stomach when you’ve fought the same enemies dozens of times over. It’s a cycle that wears down on your morale until you break through the barrier – but for many, that barrier break never comes. Part of that also comes down to the dark and heavy atmosphere.
Central Yharnam is a terrifying place. There are zombie villagers littering the street, monstrous ogres that slam bricks into passersby, and hooded monsters that look like fat grim reapers. These are set on the blood-soaked streets of Yharnam, set to the backdrop of a dark blood red sky. It can be gorgeous, in a way, but it’s horrifying for someone who hasn’t mastered the combat. In my mind, it’s more terrifying than any of the Souls game before it – and that’s saying a lot. When you die for the fifth time in a row – still unsure how to use the controls – the last thing you’re in the mood to see is a depressing landscape of browns and dark reds.
Some might say that barrier to entry is good. It puts you in the right mindset for the rest of the game’s difficulty and overall dark atmosphere. For a game as daunting and complex as Bloodborne, I would disagree.
Let’s contrast Central Yharnam with the Undead Asylum, Dark Souls’ opening section. This area is brilliant – it demonstrates Dark Souls’ world design, non-linear progression, and difficult combat in a condensed training area. All the while, it teaches you the basics of combat through bits of text on the ground. These are strategically placed at moments when it’s best to learn them.
For example, as you wander down the first hallway, there are two marks on the ground that explain how to attack. Next to each one of these is a motionless monster that you can practice your new move on. Walk further down the hall and you’ll find another explaining how to camera-lock onto enemies, with an enemy right nearby to practice on. A little further, and you’ll find how to use items after you’ve gotten your estus flask. It keeps doing this, going through the entire move-set one-by-one until you’re comfortably familiar with it.
The enemies in this area are far from impossible, even for a brand-new player. The wimpy hollows give just enough of a challenge to spur players on, but don’t push back hard enough to give them second doubts. The difficulty will come in at the Undead Burg, but for now, a relaxing sprint through an asylum will do. Overall, I feel as if Dark Souls’ enemy difficulty curve is more even than Bloodborne’s. That’s a discussion for another time.
The Undead Asylum is a tiny Dark Souls world. It shows you the interconnected level design of the rest of the game in a self-contained setting. You run through the hallway straight to the center, before looping around and running on the outskirts, climbing up the stairs, and jumping on the area’s boss from above. You get that mini-satisfaction of defeating a Souls boss, another small foreshadowing of the many bosses to come.
Differences in Tutorializing
Bloodborne doesn’t sell itself from the get-go like Dark Souls does. Central Yharnam is such a scattered, daunting conglomeration of horrific enemies that it has scared many players away from the rest of the game, including myself for a long while.
That said, by some miracle I got over that front-loaded hurdle recently, and I’ve been enjoying Bloodborne ever since. It may not be a particularly welcoming opening area, but I’m playing the game again, aren’t I? Perhaps it’s because of the tutorial’s unwillingness to give the player any leniency that the rest of the game feels so fantastic. The point could be argued either way. Regardless, if I hadn’t heard so many great things about Bloodborne, I doubt I would have bothered to push past that first area like I eagerly did with Dark Souls.
But I’m just a wimp – what was your experience like? Did you bounce off of Bloodborne because of the opening area, or did the game immediately hook you? Let me know! I’d like to hear some more thoughts on this.
For more on FromSoftware, including our review of Sekiro: Shadow Die Twice, stay tuned to Culture of Gaming