Editor’s note: This text review of Bloodborne contains no spoilers for the plot of Bloodborne or The Old Hunters, but does contain the names of several new weapons from the expansion.
From Software’s Bloodborne was a title that I enjoyed greatly earlier this year. The shift from fluted armor and dragons to cosmic Eldritch horror, the avoidance of lumbering rolls in favor of greased lightning dodges, and the effective removal of shields all seemed to cohesively reflect a new design ethos: face your fears, and react quickly to them. Bloodborne’s new expansion, The Old Hunters, stays true to this formula, and offers up some of the best twisted atmosphere and tense combat that has come out of From – but it’s also wildly uneven, disappointingly shallow, and accentuates the flaws of the base game. If you’re a die-hard fan who’s still running chalice dungeons 8 months after release, The Old Hunters will definitely offer some new weapons to swing around, and new bosses to swing them against. But if your copy of Bloodborne has been collecting dust, The Old Hunters’ limited content and high asking price fail to provide enough incentive to jump into Yharnam again.
The Souls franchise has earned a reputation for being an insurmountably difficult series, and I think that, with a few exceptions, it’s patently inaccurate and unfair to label it as such. Sure, it demands patience, thought, and reflexes, but it rarely feels artificially difficult or unreasonably complex. The first boss of The Old Hunters is one of the exceptions to this rule. Besides the absolutely ludicrous “Cats” boss from Dark Souls II’s final DLC, I’ve beaten every single main and optional boss from Demon’s Souls all the way to Bloodborne. I have never, in any Souls game, experienced as much frustration, devastation, and absolute rage as I felt when fighting The Old Hunter’s first boss encounter.
The PR email that accompanied the review copy of the game recommended, at minimum, a level 65 character to jump into the content. I hopped in with a save that was level 67, and initially encountered no problems – the difficulty of the area leading up to the first boss was in line with the difficulty of Bloodborne’s latter half. I walked into the boss arena, and after a short cutscene, I got stunlocked and killed without getting a single hit in. Very well.
The combat puzzle of the Souls games has remained intact from its inception – you learn an area, its enemy placements, a boss’ attack patterns and weaknesses, and then execute on that knowledge. After about twenty attempts at killing the first boss, I had pretty much gone through the entirety of this core loop. I could reliably solo the boss down to half health, catalyzing a shapeshift and the second phase of the fight. The problem lies therein: this second form, which From had hidden from press and public previews pre-release, demanded a level of precision that is completely out of line with the rest of the game’s experience. And so, my life for about two days became preparation for fighting the boss, praying to a higher power that I could beat him, and losing, again and again.
After a good cry or two, chalice dungeon farming, and levelling up to 95, I found success. But the experience of banging my head against a wall again and again so acutely highlighted Bloodborne’s design flaws that it made me retroactively like Bloodborne less, and appreciate Dark Souls more. Some of the changes that were made in Bloodborne since its spiritual predecessor leave me completely scratching my head. Why do I have to farm blood vials, instead of the guaranteed supply of Estus that you’d find in Souls? Why farm bullets? Why do I have to grind for souls (sorry, blood echoes) to constantly repair my weapon that’s apparently made of brittle toffee? Why, why did they remove the summon system used in Dark Souls in favor of the busted-ass bells? Why is PvP and co-op matchmaking arcane and inconvenient to the point of inoperability? Why, God, haven’t we come up with a less seizure-inducing, wall-clipping camera yet? I felt like I was playing Bloodborne: Prepare to Ask “Why?” Edition. There’s such an incredibly solid core at the heart of From’s games; why bog it down with all this menial management? It was an issue that I overlooked in the base game thanks to not running into any “real problem” bosses, and an issue that The Old Hunters helped me to see in this game’s fundamental design.
The difficulty of the boss isn’t the important takeaway here – although, unless I somehow managed to completely miss some mechanic or parry opportunity or something, it’s a mind-boggling spike in difficulty that feels untested and actually broken. But hey, your mileage may vary based on your build and skill level – you may end up not having any problems at all. It’s the fact that the act of fighting the boss became mundane and an exercise in tedium, and stopped being fun a full day before I finally slaughtered my prey. The difficulty forced me to interface with the faulty systems I mentioned above, and when you add in some braindead friendly NPC AI, Bloodborne very much stopped being a game that I wanted to play. When I finally beat the boss, I didn’t feel joy or satisfaction or relief; I felt apathy.
Furthermore, the difficulty and pacing of the expansion feels wonky and uneven in general. Now severely over-leveled for the rest of the expansion, I breezed through at a comical pace. I beat the next boss on my first try, and the third boss on my second try. Every enemy fell to my sword in about two hits, and none of the traps or environmental hazards posed any meaningful threat to my tank-like existence. Is that my fault for being over-levelled? Perhaps, but the linear progression of the DLC prevented me from moving forward without beating that first boss, and the only way I found success there was to power-level my way through it. The entire gameplay experience lacked that magic and fear I’ve come to expect from playing through new Souls content for the first time, and became little more than a vessel to take in the superb atmosphere and storytelling of The Old Hunters.
That’s an odd phrase to utter, given Bloodborne’s propensity to obfuscate any immediately comprehensible narrative. In part because I won’t really grasp the intricacies of what happened until I watch some YouTube lore videos, and largely to avoid spoilers, I won’t delve into story details here. That being said, The Old Hunters absolutely oozes with the atmosphere, Lovecraftian horror, and straight-up uncomfortably disturbing imagery that you’ve come to expect from Bloodborne. From’s sound and artistic design remains unparalleled by most design studios, and the narrative’s direction is significantly darker than most of Bloodborne, a feat I had thought impossible. However, the scope of the project is notably small, and completely linear in progression; it’s a shame that the pricing for the content runs high at $20, because it stands on par with the best that Hidetaka Miyazaki’s twisted mind has dreamed up yet.
The DLC’s implementation/access in the base game also seems lackluster; while there are a host of new weapons here, the level requirement to actually survive long enough to get any renders them mostly moot. I really like some of the designs of the trick weapons – the Whirligig Saw and Simon’s Bow are rad as hell ideas – but even after spending all my crafting materials and leveling them up to ~+8, they still seemed pretty useless. Obtaining them at such a high character level renders them little more than an annoyance to enemies at any item level less than +10, and their stat-scaling remains pretty average, providing little incentive to go grind for mats if you don’t already have them. It’s disappointing that I was surrounded by such cool weapon designs and ended up slashing my way through the whole package with Ludwig’s Holy Sword, since it seemed to be the most practical option. On the positive side, some of the new magic items and guns do help make Arcane and Bloodtinge builds a viable option, a stark difference from the pre-existing content and a constructive response to criticism from From Soft. Furthermore, the addition in patch 1.07 of The League, a co-op covenant, also addresses the lack of a “Sun Bro” covenant in Bloodborne, which online players may find to be a boon in matchmaking.
I’m a fan of the games that have come out of From Software; Miyazaki and co.’s fevered worlds of decay and precise, technical combat have inspired me in a way scant other titles have. Hell, I own a “Praise the Sun” tank top in an otherwise game-free wardrobe, and taught myself how to play Gwyn’s Theme on piano. I still consider Dark Souls to be as close to a perfect game as I’ve ever played. Even with that level of fandom, I can’t recommend The Old Hunters to anyone but the type of fans who are actively continuing to play the game on a regular basis, months after release. Even for them, From’s universal failure to address core issues (such as fast-travel from lanterns and the summoning system), ignorance of audience demands (you’re mostly unable to invade in the DLC levels thanks to a lack of a “sinister bell-ringing woman”), and exacerbation of technical issues (bosses constantly clip through the camera, cover up the character, and fights that take place in tight hallways) may lead to disappointment. I didn’t walk away from The Old Hunters feeling like I got nothing out of it, but I did walk away knowing that, thanks to these issues, I didn’t want play any more Bloodborne for a good long while. If you can look past those flaws, you can expect an offering fairly consistent with previous Souls DLC offerings Artorias of the Abyss and Crown of the Ivory King.
This review is based off a review copy of Bloodborne: The Old Hunters Edition provided and developed by From Software for the Playstation 4.
- Some Fantastic Horror Writing
- Imaginative Weapon and Enemy Design
- Bloodtinge and Arcane Builds More Viable
- Wildly Uneven Pacing and Difficulty
- Content Limited for Asking Price
- Does Not Address Complaints with Base Game