Bloodborne has been one of my favorite games (easily in my top five) ever since I played it in early 2016. I was just getting back into video games at the time and had bought a PS4, the first console I had owned since the Wii, a few months earlier. After getting burnt out on Fallout 4, I picked up a used copy of Bloodborne because I kept hearing it was one of the best games for the console.
Playing through the game was an eye-opening experience for me, a perfect example of not knowing I wanted something until I had it. I had never played a Souls game before so it probably took me 4-6 hours to get through Central Yharnam, the opening area of the game, when I beat Bloodborne for the first time. Despite struggling throughout the game, I fell in love with it: it’s combat and enemies, the bosses and the leveling system, it’s setting and atmosphere.
However, the aspect of Bloodborne that gripped me the most during my first playthrough were the horror elements of the game. I went into the game almost completely blind and it bred a special kind of terror in me.
There was an oppressive dread and uneasiness that plagued me during my first playthrough. The game takes inspiration from Victorian Gothic literature with the city of Yharnam being a fictionalized London of the 17th and 18th century with its cobblestone streets and abundance of cathedrals and churches. Just outside the city are foggy forests and dilapidated farmsteads. The enemies are also what you might expect to find in a Victorian era story. There’s crazed villagers, werewolves, andbloody crows. There are even gargoyles and ghosts later in the snow-covered Cainhurst Castle, castles being another classic Gothic troupe. Yharnam itself is in chaos. The streets are piled up with coffins and most of the living have barricaded themselves indoors. The only occupants on the streets are the beasts and those hunting them, but the line between the two groups is beginning to blur.
The world of Bloodborne feels utterly hostile to the character and the player themselves. In classic From Software fashion, most of the games mechanics are not clearly explained, relying on the player to learn them on their own, and pretty much any enemy can kill you in just two or three hits. The unforgiving nature of the difficulty keeps the tension high and makes the player never feel completely safe in the game. I always felt anxious when reaching a new area in the game. The idea of new enemies with new attack patterns I didn’t yet know typically meant I was mere moments from death.
Death itself is not the only stressful thing about dying in Bloodborne. Upon death, you drop all the Blood Echoes you have acquired and to get them back, you must return to where you fell to collect them. And you must do this without dying again. The Blood Echoes act as both experience points and currency in the game, so what you lose in losing all your Echoes is progress. This makes death punishing in Bloodborne, but not impossible to overcome. And it always reminded of the save station style of death in more traditional survival horror games. In games like Resident Evil and Alien Isolation, you can only save at certain spots on the map and when you die, you go back to the last save you made. This means that anything you’ve done between the save and death is lost and you have to do it over. The only difference is you lose game progress in Resident Evil, but in Bloodborne you lose character progress.
Death mechanics are not the only aspect that Bloodborne shares from more traditional survival horror games. During a recent playthrough, it struck me how many of the doors you have to open in Bloodborne, which isn’t a lot admittedly, always creak open almost painfully slow. This is reminiscent of the iconic room transitions in the Resident Evil series, where going between rooms would be shown as a door slowly opening or a slow climb up a ladder. Not only did this help hide long loading times on the original Playstation, but it also helped raised the tension during the game. While the door is opening, the player has a moment to anticipate what might be waiting for them in the next room, their imaginations can run wild and let the terror build before revealing what the game has in store for them. There is also the added tension of enemies approaching from behind as you take your opening a door.
One of the most important aspects in survival horror games is an emphasis on atmosphere. A strong atmosphere can do wonders for scaring a player. The atmosphere in Bloodborne is thick as flesh and blood. Everything is dark, dank, and desperate. The feeling of hopelessness presses on the player like a weight on their shoulders. Along with the difficulty discussed before, the bleak atmosphere helps to keep the tension high in Bloodborne. It makes the player feel small and insignificant in the world of Yharnam because, despite what you do, the city is always beyond saving. The player will quickly learn that they are not some grandiose, fantasy hero. Saving Yharnam and its inhabitants isn’t possible, so the only thing they can do is survive.
Like most truly great horror media, Bloodborne explores other dark emotions of the human condition along with trying to scare it’s players. The anxiety of unknown things ahead, the dread of death and losing progress, and the oppressive hopelessness of the setting and atmosphere all lead players to constantly feel uneasy in the world of Yharnam. And despite not being a full blown horror game, Bloodborne still continues to be the game that scared me the most through that very first playthrough.