EPHEMERA: BLOODBORNE EDITION
By Maximum PC 0
It’s time for a brief break from retro games today, because I’ve been playing From Software’s Playstation 4 masterpiece Bloodborne again recently and now I want to talk about it. That’s one of the perks of having a videogame website, I can ramble on about Bloodborne without having to see the glassy stares and hear the disinterested “uh huh”-ing of people who have never played it and never will, once again proving that the internet is vastly superior to real-world human contact. So, it’s another edition of the Ephemera series, I suppose, although I’m gonna make a mockery of that name by talking about major game mechanics as well as small details. Of course, this article’s going to contain lots of spoilers for Bloodborne and its DLC, so if you want to experience it all for yourself then look away now, and if you’re planning to play Bloodborne at some point I strongly suggest you do just that. Also, I hope you’re not squeamish about eyeballs.
First up, something simple. I thought about what my favourite view in the game was. Now, Bloodborne is a beautiful-looking game packed with sinister, detailed-soaked architecture in a style I can only describe as Ultra-Gothic, and thus almost every location is worthy of praise. I’m especially fond of the haunted-village-meets-organ-farm feel of Hemwick Charnel Lane and the Research Hall’s towering maze. In the end, though, I settled on this.
This is the entrance to the Upper Cathedral Ward, and it’s just beautiful. The quasi-Victorian ironworks of the metal railings and the streetlights, looming towers, a fog-shrouded bridge that leads towards a mysterious building glowing faintly with a light that may seem almost welcoming but probably illuminates something that wants to use your spine as dental floss. There are many reasons why Bloodborne is an excellent game, but this aesthetic, this world, is what makes it a game that feels almost as thought it was designed specifically for me.
Also, I hope you appreciate that I took the time to nudge these two corpses into the corner so I could take the first screenshot without their mangled bodies making the place look untidy.
As I’m sure many of you know, Bloodborne is a spin-off of the Dark Souls franchise, and in a lot of ways it’s a Dark Souls game in all but name (plus a change of setting from “medieval” fantasy to 19th Century horror themes.) One thing it took wholesale from the Souls games are the “gestures” – short canned animations that you can use to make your character point at things, wave hello, bow in greeting, that kind of thing. They’re mostly used for communicating with other players during online multiplayer. Pointing out traps, using the “slow clap” gesture when your co-operator walks into said trap, gestures are very helpful. Well, in Bloodborne there’s a gesture called Make Contact, where you stick one arm up and one arm out at ninety degrees. You pick this gesture up from a mummified corpse, who is standing in said pose, and it’s a prime opportunity for some photography.
Just look at the camaraderie on display here, my character’s arm draped across the shoulder of the corpse like they’re two lads staggering from bar to bar during a cheap holiday in Magaluf.
It wasn’t until I went through my Bloodborne screenshots in preparation for this article that I realised I’d posed with this corpse every single time I encountered it, and I’ve played through the game five or six times.
I started a tradition without even realising it. It’s nice that this evolved organically. You know, the, erm, corpse photoshoot. Nice might not be the word I’m looking for. Please tell me someone else has done this. It’s okay to be a weirdo, but not a lone weirdo.
The Dark Souls games are famed for being difficult, and so too is Bloodborne. A lot of this difficulty comes from the fact that almost everything in these games wants to make your innards outards, and will take any opportunity to kill you violently and with single-minded dedication. In the Dark Souls games, two of the ways you can defend yourself are by a) hiding behind a shield or b) parrying attacks by deflecting them with a shield and then getting a free attack while the enemy is stunned. However, there are no shields in Bloodborne. Well, okay, there’s one in the base game but it’s essentially useless and is basically included to tell you not to bother with shields (which is pretty great in itself). Instead, you can parry attacks by shooting the monsters in the face.
Dark Souls’s shield parry system is fine, but gun parries are much better for several reasons. For starters, it’s way cooler. Brushing aside an armoured knight’s blows with a shield is cool, sure, but not nearly as cool as stopping a werewolf in its tracks using a blunderbuss. I’ll admit that might be personal bias talking, though, and anyway I wouldn’t want to make such a claim of superiority without some gameplay evidence to back it up. So here it is: in Dark Souls, if you miss a parry you will to find out what it’s like to receive an impromptu root canal from a broadsword. This can discourage those of us with poor reactions, leading us to cower behind our shields and not even attempt to parry attacks. In Bloodborne, though, even if you don’t land the parry your gunfire will usually make the enemy flinch and interrupt their attack, so you miss the chance for a powerful visceral attack but you also don’t get torn to ribbons. This means you’re far more likely to attempt gun-parrying in the first place, and the fact that you can only carry a limited supply of ammunition means it’s not (entirely) feasible to simply hammer the fire button and hope for the best, retaining a suitable level of challenge.
Plus, you seem to be able to parry a higher percentage of enemy attacks in Bloodborne than in the Souls games. This is great, because part of my problem with parrying in Souls games is that you have to learn what attacks you can and can’t parry through trial, error and repeated death. In Bloodborne it all feels a bit more obvious, making for faster-paced combat where a well-timed gunshot can turn the flow of a fight.
As a bonus, here’s a clip of me parrying a boss so hard that he tried to flee back to his home planet.
One of the items you can collect in Bloodborne are pebbles. That’s not a cutesy nickname or anything, they’re just small rocks. You can throw them at enemies, and they’re best used to get the attention of a single enemy in a group so they’ll run towards you, letting you fight them one-on-one. Then there’s the pebbles’ item description, which contains some of the densest, thickest sarcasm I’ve ever seen in a videogame.
“Quite thrilling” makes me chuckle every time I read it, possibly because I always imagine it being said by a stuffy English professor from the 1930s. The thing is, when you are throwing pebble at a half-transformed man-beast and you do get its attention, that is actually quite thrilling. There are thrills to be had as the ravenous beast realises you’re there and tries to eviscerate you, that’s for sure.
The pebbles also do a teeny tiny bit of damage when they hit an enemy, so if you’re feeling particularly bold – or you forget what item you have equipped and accidentally chuck a pebble rather than the molotov cocktail you were trying to throw, ahem ahem – then you can even take out enemies by flicking bits of gravel at them. That might seem like a terrible idea, but wait: the damage dealt by the pebbles actually increases as you raise your Strength stat! Skipping rocks at the beginning of the game might only cause one or two points of damage, but if you levelled up and invest heavily in Strength then by the end of the game you can be dishing out five or six points of damage with every pebble!
While blood is the central theme and driving force of Bloodborne’s plot, eyeballs run it a close second. Yes, eyeballs are very important in the world of Bloodborne, particularly in that certain groups attempt to “see” the true mysteries of the universe by growing more eyeballs. This is an effective strategy, apparently, even though you wouldn’t think it would work. If I want to run faster, growing seventeen more legs is not going to help, you know? Fresh eyeballs are also needed to perform certain blasphemous rituals, to the extent that you can be attacked by enemies with a special tool designed solely for gouging out eyeballs. Have another look at the pebble pictured above, and you’ll see it looks like an eyeball, and so on. Eyeballs are everywhere in Bloodborne, something which is literally true when you reach the Nightmare of Mensis area.
They’re coming, as the late, great Bill Paxton once said, out of the goddamn walls. Here in this alternate universe, the books and magazines browse you! Personally, these eyes are all the more unnerving for the fact they don’t really do anything. They’re simply there, unmoving and silent, possibly dead but also possibly seeing all kinds of things beyond the ken of man.
Then you’ve got these things. Eyeball spiders, I guess you’d call them. The legs imply that they were once mobile, and I think we can all agree that replacing a spider’s body with an eyeball significantly increases the creepiness of said spider, so I hope this image doesn’t give you eye-rachnophobia. Ha ha! Ha…
Anyway, these things are wonderful. They’re pure decoration, a mood enhancer, an unsettling thing to see out of the corner of your eye, and one of the reasons they’re so great is that they’re not explained at all. You can infer how they came into being from the place you find them and what was going on there, but you’re never told what they are or why they seem to be pinned to the floor with weird organic needles. This is an example of one of Bloodborne’s greatest strengths – it’s a game that takes inspiration from Lovecraft and other cosmic horror, but it never makes the mistake of over-explaining itself. It gives you enough info to get an idea – a startling, horrifying idea – of what’s going on, but many of the specifics are never filled in, giving you the chance to ponder these secrets and develop your own theories. This is true of all the Souls games, as you can see by the large cottage industry of internet videomakers and message boards dedicated to analysing the lore of these games, but for my money Bloodborne is the game where the tension between mystery and fact is most finely balanced.
In the same area as the eyeball spiders, you’ll find a boss called Micolash, Host of the Nightmare. I think that means “host” in the sense that one hosts a party, because Micolash certainly seems like he’s having a good time.
What a cheerful chap! Micolash is an interesting boss, because unlike all the other bosses in the game he doesn’t immediately set about trying to kill you when the fight begins. Instead, you have to chase him through a maze, avoiding the skeletal puppet monsters littering the corridors and tracking Micolash down when he teleports around by jumping into various mirrors. Eventually you’ll corner him and you can have a proper scrap, but this completely different style of boss battle seems to upset a lot of people. Many will claim that Micolash is the worst boss fight in the game, which I don’t think it is, but hey, that’s your opinion and I’ll concede that it might not be as exciting as doing battle with enormous were-beasts. Some people also insist that Micolash is the worst boss in the entire Souls series, but in that case they’re objectively wrong, having seemingly forgotten about the intense dullness of the Dragonrider in Dark Souls II, or the utter fun vacuum / bullshit generator that was Dark Souls’ Bed of Chaos.
Consider this my defence of Micolash, then, because I think this boss battle is really good. It’s a nice change of pace for starters, completely different to every other boss fight in the game, and it’s good to mix things up. The best thing about it is the atmosphere, though. As Micolash runs around he’s constantly jabbering away, spouting a mixture of interesting lore details, mockery and the howling of a madman, as befits someone who performed an arcane ritual that drove him insane and sent him to another dimension. His voice acting is fantastic, too, his dialogue dripping with the conviction that comes from being totally bonkers, coupled with just a hint of pure comedy. You get the impression that Micolash, despite clearly being nuttier than a bag of trail mix, does genuinely have a deeper understanding of the universe than the player does, which fits in perfectly with Bloodborne’s themes of being thrust into world of forces beyond your comprehension. I’ll admit that mechanically the fight has some problems, especially if you die near the end and have to chase Micolash right through the maze again, but for sheer ambience alone it remains one of my favourite parts of the game.
You may have noticed that Micolash appears to have his head stuck in an oversized bird feeder. That’s called the Mensis Cage, and one of your rewards for defeating him is that you can take the cage for yourself. Oh yes, just like the other games in the Souls series, Bloodborne is not afraid to give the player a selection of goofy hats to wear. Here are my top three favourite goofy hats in Bloodborne.
Number three is the Mensis Cage itself. Supposedly acting as an antenna to facilitate contact with the god-like beings known as the Great Ones, it also allows the wearer to experience life as a pet canary. Good for headbutting contests, bad for wearing during thunderstorms.
Number two is the One-Eyed Iron Helm (or the Master’s Iron Helm, depending how you acquire it), which is a bucket with one eye hole drilled into it. That’s it. It’s as though Ned Kelly got distracted halfway through making it. The helmet’s description says it only has one eye hole because the original owner likely only had one eye, but that’s no bloody good to me, is it? It’s hard enough to kill all these beasts without having to squint like Popeye the whole time. There are multiple places in Bloodborne called “workshops,” and you’re telling me none of them had a suitable drill for making a new eye-hole? The One-Eyed Iron Helm is completely ridiculous, and that’s why I love it.
My absolute favourite is the majestic shining traffic cone that is the Gold Ardeo. If Pyramid Head had the wealth and taste of a Premier League footballer, this is what he’s look like. No eye-holes is even more ridiculous and thus more appealing than one eye-hole, and the first time I played through Bloodborne I never took this helmet off once I’d bought it. It even wobbles around when you run, as you’d expect a cone perched on someone’s head would. How perfect. All I can say in defence of its design is that it’s the helmet of the Executioners, who did battle with a group of pseudo-vampires led by a charismatic queen. Maybe they wore these helmets to prevent themselves being captivated by the vampire’s bewitching stares. Then again, rather than using swords and guns the Executioners killed all the vampires with massive wooden wagon wheels, so perhaps practicality is not their strongest suit.
Going back to eyeballs for a moment, and one of the enemies you encounter now and again in Bloodborne are giant pigs. There’s one in the first area, a few more in the woods, and you can find them in the optional Chalice Dungeons. Apart from being taller than a man and unpleasantly bloated even by pig standards, they’re just pigs.
See? There’s one now. It’s a pig, but larger. This is one of the final areas of the game, and when I reached this point during my first playthrough I was more than confident about my ability to defeat the same old oversized pig. So I ran up to it, hoping to land a critical blow while its back was turned…
At which point it turned around, revealing that its face was a mass of writhing eyeballs. I was so shocked by this – shocked enough to let out an audible gasp – that the pig was able to trample me to death while I was distracted. Good job, From Software. You totally got me.
Immature? Yes. Did I laugh out loud? Yes. Did I rate the message as a “fine note”? Of course I did, I’m only human. I’d like to believe that whoever left this note was in the middle of a difficult boss battle when I gave their message a positive rating, and that the resulting health refill they got saved their life. Rescued from death by a joke about butts, what a wonderful concept.
And finally for this article – the Boom Hammer weapon’s jumping attack.
For the most part, Bloodborne is a game of subtlety and precision, but sometimes you just want to leap into a crowd of enemies and smash them with a massive fiery hammer. You can do that too. “No mercy for beasts” indeed.
So, that’s a bunch of words about Bloodborne. If you read them all, thank you very much. I had fun writing them. Almost as much fun as I get out of playing Bloodborne, in fact – but not quite, so now I’m going to head back into the Chalice Dungeons for a while. If you summon a collaborator called Slab Beefbroth who’s carrying a circular saw on a stick, be sure to use a friendly Make Contact gesture.
Taito’s unreleased by rather good arcade game Recalhorn!
Protecting the stupid in Crossbow!
Surprisingly good edutainment with Mickey’s Safari in Letterland!