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Game Reviewed: Bloodborne
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Developer: From Software
Category: Fantasy Action
ESRB Rating: M
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The town of Yharnam has a problem. A disease that ravages the streets and can only be cured by a blood transfusion. This transfusion just has the minor side effect of plunging the recipient into a nightmare where the eldritch horrors behind this sickness are made manifest and every death just results in another awakening, over and over, never ending unless they take on the role of a Hunter and fight to bring about the end of this nightmare and the beings that perpetuate it.
Bloodborne is… about as dark as that synopsis sounds. It’s made by the creators of the Dark Souls series, a fantasy action series known for its punishing difficulty and tight game design, and the similarities are striking despite the change in genre from medieval fantasy to Victorian monster story. The player uses a variety of melee weapons and guns to work their way through the town of Yharnam, defeating enemies in exchange for blood echoes that allow them to level up and purchase new gear.
Along the way, the story of Yharnam is revealed. All in subtle ways; a very goal-driven player might get through the whole game without ever realizing the story is there. But those who read item descriptions, pay attention to the environments, and talk to the game’s few NPCs will find much more going on in Bloodborne than they had bargained for.
But is such a dark game appropriate for your kids to play? Let’s take a look.
What Parents Need to Know
Bloodborne is a very violent game. Blood is a major theme in the game; it’s thematically significant, it’s part of the aesthetics, and it’s part of the story. It doesn’t bask in the gore the same way games like Mortal Kombat or Gears of War do (you will not, for instance, be ripping enemies into pieces or decapitating them), but it is nontheless very bloody. Enemies will gush blood when attacked, as will you when you take damage.
But the most grotesque content in Bloodborne isn’t in the violence you wreak against other people or creatures, but the nature of some of the creatures themselves. You will come across large wolves splayed on wooden crosses, or bloody pulp spread across the floor. The enemy design in Bloodborne is often fascinatingly otherworldly and intentionally disturbing, and while there’s some excellent artistry on display here, a large creature made entirely of rotting, writhing corpses is perhaps a bit much for younger players.
The player can choose their gender, and if they want they could play as a woman in her underwear the whole time. They would die immediately and stand little chance at completing the game, but they could try.
Bloodborne takes place in a land of dark magic, and this shows quite clearly in a number of ways. You fight undead creatures, use magical abilities, and upgrade your arcane power throughout the game.
The game takes a lot of influence from Lovecraftian horror; that is, a genre of horror focused on beings and truths so powerful and incomprehensible that even trying to comprehend them leads to insanity. Throughout the game the player collects insight, which they can use to call on other players to help them (or to invade the worlds of other players as an enemy). As your insight grows, you begin to see terrifying creatures you couldn’t before, and grow to understand (to some small degree) the immensity of the dark power that holds this place.
The backstory of Bloodborne is perhaps the most uncomfortable thing from a Christian perspective. The idea is that these elder beings are incapable of bearing children on their own, so they sometimes work magic to immaculately conceive their young in human women, literally birthing gods--grotesque, evil, inconceivable gods--into the world through this immaculate conception. The whole game plays off this intentional blasphemy of the virgin birth in a way that works particularly well to incite horror and discomfort in those of us who hold that concept as sacred, and while I have to respect that decision on an artistic level I fully expect many Christians may not be comfortable with it. Even if it is so buried in the game’s esoteric narrative design that your average player might not even realize this is the case.
The player is capable of making some ethically questionably decisions, like killing one of the game’s few NPCs. And of course, the game makes no attempt to hide the fact that your actions are morally questionable in and of themselves.
Bloodborne is an excellent work in a lot of ways, but I’m not sure how many lessons you could get out of it. It’s all based on subverting our curiosity and values into negative things, which is excellent as a work of interactive psychological horror but offers little in the way of “teachable moments.”
That said, the gameplay itself does offer an important lesson about perseverance. Not just to keep going, but to learn from your mistakes and approach things differently next time. Like the Souls series that From Software is known for, it requires not only stubbornness, but adaptation and consideration. Your failings all help you learn, and victory is only acquired by bettering yourself. It’s also made far easier by cooperating with other players, which is a lesson in and of itself.
Bloodborne is an excellent game. There’s not much getting around that. It’s tough, but it’s fair. It’s so well-designed that, even as you die and lose all your blood echoes for the millionth time, you don’t feel cheated. You just pick yourself back up, learn from your mistakes, and leap (cautiously) back into the fray. And the story, while vague and difficult to piece together, is a consistently fascinating journey through horrors and mysteries that are impossible to truly comprehend. It’s possibly one of the better works of Lovecraftian fiction I’ve come across, in any medium.
But it does, of course, come with some caveats. Which is to say, this game is probably not appropriate for younger players at all. Its dark tone, graphic body horror, and murky ethics are all a bit much, and it’s my estimation that it takes a fairly mature mind to adequately process all this and understand what the game is doing. Some Christians may feel uncomfortable with the whole thing once allusions to the virgin birth begin showing up, and I can respect that. Bloodborne is not a game for the faint of heart or the young of mind, and I can only recommend it in good conscience to those with the psychological wherewithal to withstand it.