February 21, 2017
Casey Moore, Host
Earlier this February, with Nioh on the cusp of release, it occurred to me that I hadn’t yet played the DLC for From Software’s Bloodborne, The Old Hunters. I’d read about the new content – weapons, monsters, and locales – and listened to the music (glorious Ludwig’s theme), but despite my deep-rooted love of the Souls-like design model and fascination with Bloodborne’s vanilla content, I just hadn’t found myself with The Old Hunters. So, instead of lunging into Nioh right at release, I decided to back up and revisit Yharnam, take up my Reiterpallach and my Saw Spear, and get back to the Hunt for the first time in over a year.
Knowing what I did about The Old Hunters, I rolled my character as a combination of focus on the Skill (or Dexterity for the more Souls-savvy) and Bloodtinge (gun and blood attack) stats so I could ultimately use the DLC weapon Simon’s Bowblade. I only knew its stats and that it both sounded and looked awesome, but I also have a higher affinity for the quick and skillful weapon types than the crude and strong ones. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve used my share of ultra greatswords in the Souls franchise, but to me, Bloodborne demands a certain finesse, which weapons like the Kirkhammer and Hunter’s Axe just don’t employ.
I hit a wall almost immediately. It’s understood that these types of games are tough, and that death is to be expected, but I fancy myself pretty darn good at these games having regularly played every entry to the point of almost rote memorization except for Demon’s Souls and currently a deliberately poorly optimized character in my cooperative Dark Souls 2 playthrough I’m doing with co-host Dan. All the same, I found myself getting walloped by even basic enemies, just barely unable to sneak in between their attacks and getting punished hard for it. Like I said, Bloodborne demands finesse, and it’s not afraid to stunt your progress if you don’t develop it quickly.
After some time getting my grips, I find myself facing down the game’s implied first boss (who is strictly optional, but certainly worthwhile) with a set of hand-me-down Hunter’s clothes and a Saw Spear I found in the sewers. I know that with some well-placed shots from my blunderbuss, I can open the boss up for a vicious riposte to really rack up damage, but before I can even pull it off I’ve gotten tossed all over the arena and it’s back to the lamp post for me.
This happens a few times with a few bosses, and I keep thinking that something’s strange. When I last played Bloodborne, I’d finish a playthrough in just a couple of hours, going after bosses for the blood echoes (souls) rather than to topple them and move on. This time, despite knowing the ins and outs, I look like an amateur.
You see, Bloodborne is similar to Dark Souls as far as interface and progression are concerned, but there’s a very significant difference in how it must be played. Skillful Dark Souls play demands patience and most deaths will be the result of overextending your offense, burning too much stamina to get just that extra notch of damage in against that boss or going for that last swing against a mob that leaves you too exhausted to evade the counterattack. Bloodborne’s deaths are often the result of not being offensive enough. While you can’t simply button mash your way through a battle, often the safest place to be is right on top of the boss, going for that big chunk of health instead of picking away at the edges. Positioning is important in both styles of game, but where Dark Souls demands patience, Bloodborne demands aggression.
When I first beat Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition, I defeated the final boss by lugging the heaviest armor I could find and winning with numbers, clobbering the enemy with a Great Scythe uncaring of his attacks. No such option is available in Bloodborne. Dark Souls games can be won in several ways, from long range magic and AI abuse to outmaneuvering and perfect positioning, but Bloodborne can only be beaten by the player employing one tactic – playing extremely well.
There’s a certain interplay between man and machine in Bloodborne. I’ll draw a more specific comparison: in Dark Souls 2, the Ruin Sentinel boss is defeated by attacking until the boss motions for an attack, then blocking or getting out of the way, repeating until you emerge victorious, and most battles follow suit, being variations upon the wait-and-bait strategy that topples almost any challenge. In Bloodborne, it’s sometimes not possible to simply evade attacks. If you just stay away from Rom, The Vacuous Spider for too long, you will get hit, and you will get hit hard. Battles are often fast-paced, tense, high expectations of the players’ reaction time and ability to adapt.
Instead of alternating defense with offense, almost mechanically, you juggle both simultaneously. I found myself defeating several bosses by using the momentum of my own attacks to evade incoming enemy attacks. More than once, I found it more effective to take an attack head on to put myself in a position to counter more quickly. When after an arduous trek through the DLC’s Research Hall I finally engaged Lady Maria of the Astral Clocktower, running and picking my moments did not earn me victory, but rather about a dozen defeats. Stealing momentum with ripostes, slipping in between her combos, and making every single step my character made be a crucial maneuver in this fast-paced match of resource management and use of what time I was allotted – because you simply will not outlast Maria if you don’t go on the offensive – was the key to my victory.
When Dark Souls 3 released, I had all but mastered the first two entries, and I found little resistance in the third. With relative ease, I completed my first playthrough in just a few days of concentrated effort, rarely falling to a boss, much less the standard enemies. With Bloodborne’s DLC, on the other hand, I must have died no less than 20 times in the relatively short experience. I was fresh off completing the game up to the showdown with one of the last bosses, Mergo’s Wet Nurse, before I decided to complete the DLC, as doing so earlier was a battle of will I simply didn’t have the patience nor the stats for, was very well-equipped, and I still died to mobs at least a dozen times.
I may betray my own modesty when I say that I’m very good at Bloodborne, but I died playing The Older Hunters a lot, and it was absolutely invigorating. I had to cast aside my projected frustrations and stop making excuses about imbalance and enemy placements and just really, truly get good at the game once again. I told myself that I was going to withhold judgement about the final boss of the DLC, the Orphan of Kos, until I’d had time to ruminate on my journey, and I’m very happy I did because even though I found myself on the business end of several malformed body parts, the sheer vigor I felt overcoming these challenges is unmatched.
We’ve all heard that Souls-Borne games are “hard but fair” and all heard tell of people’s delight in finally toppling the Taurus Demon or completing the Shrine of Amana, and I don’t mean to belittle these sentiments in the slightest, but I believe that, at least the DLC for Bloodborne is most definitely unfair. The game is stacked against the player in a way that overcoming many of challenges is, while strictly possible, completely unreasonable. The creatures in the Research Hall hit much harder and appear in much greater numbers than a player has any reason to predict, and you’ll be pelted with projectiles, have bookcases explode with no obvious trigger, and be gunned down while beelining to a boss so many times that I just don’t know how anybody can consider such trials to be “fair.”
Yet, I don’t recall a game design handbook insisting that games be fair, nor do I think that fair is asynchronous to good. The Research Hall is bullshit. The Orphan of Kos is insanely difficult, much more difficult than an average player should expect to beat, but the DLC is not meant for average players, and it has no reservations about practicing fairness. The Old Hunters is very, very hard, and should you play it you will die a lot and you will almost certainly experience frustration, but if you overcome it, the euphoria is not that of the base game.
The feeling I had upon completing The Old Hunters was not “I finally stopped slipping up.” It was “I finally got so good at Bloodborne that even an absurd challenge was not unbeatable.” Ludwig, Lady Maria, and the Orphan of Kos are all imbalanced, radically difficult bosses, explicitly so that the player can feel that the game is cheating them. If you feel like it’s unfair, asinine, absurd that Orphan of Kos killed you from that far away and hits you that hard, that’s because it is. If you persevere, however, you find that fairness was never part of the equation. You are not an equal match, but rather you are completely outmatched by these challenges, and you can beat them anyway.
I don’t liken beating these bosses to the sensation I feel when I, say, make a breakthrough on difficult homework that I had every means of figuring out, which is what I feel when defeating most Dark Souls bosses. Instead, it feels more like when a bully finally gets caught and sent to detention, or when the culprit is caught in a crime show. It feels like a justice is being served, the cheater is being defeated, and the side of good is working as intended. It feels as though my character is a representation of moral providence and despite the web of injustice spun by The Old Hunters in its difficulty, it was overcome all the same.
I understand that I’m being fantastical and hyperbolic. I know that if we really want to compare fairness, the player has infinite lives and functionally infinite means of getting stronger, and given infinite time there’s no way even the hardest of bosses would remain standing forever. The Old Hunters evokes this sensation regardless, and when you finally, shakily take down that last boss, the feeling is nothing shy of divine.
I very firmly believe that, as of the time of writing, Bloodborne remains the best PS4 game, and one of the greatest games ever made. The detail, gameplay, characters, and themes are remarkable, but above all else is the external quality, the effect this game has on a player, the exchange of input and output and sheer degree of adrenaline it causes, and The Old Hunters doesn’t scrap on those details.
Of course, I still love the Dark Souls games to death. Medieval fantasy is my jam. Bloodborne is just transcendent, it feels like a game that’s really going to be remembered as something as significant as Chrono Trigger or Super Mario 64. Dark Souls may be excellent, but Bloodborne, and especially The Old Hunters, is sublime.