Taming the Beasts Lurking in Bloodborne's Chalice Dungeons

I can’t avoid fate. I have turned down opportunities to play Bloodborne multiple times and have averted my eyes when I saw videos and articles on From Software’s upcoming role-playing adventure. It springs from a structure introduced by Demon’s Souls, and arguably perfected by Dark Souls, the game that proudly stands as my favorite of its console generation. I write this after returning from a visit to PlayStation headquarters just outside of San Francisco, where I clouded my previously clear eyes with the entrails of Bloodborne’s fantastical creatures. Soon enough, I will be in possession of the full game. And now I understand that I must unlearn some of the lessons Dark Souls taught me before I thrust myself into this difficult journey.

The span I played took me through a chalice dungeon–that is, an optional dungeon you enter by performing a particular ritual with a chalice, and which can be conquered on your own or with others. Some of these dungeons will be procedurally generated, snapping modules together into exploration spaces that house great danger. The dungeon I entered was wholly designed, however, leading me into its depths one level at a time, and gating my progress behind doors that required me to pull levers elsewhere in the area to open, and behind grotesque bosses that had me yelling out in terror, much to the chagrin/delight of the Sony representatives viewing my play session.

My usual reliance on brawn and bulk was the first Souls game inclination I had to unlearn. Flailing mutants and diseased rats needed to be vanquished, but there was no shield to hide behind. Instead, I wielded weapons in both hands, and could easily switch between two right-handed blades with the press of a button. In my left hand was a shotgun, which could do some damage from a moderate distance, but which (of course) provided more offensive power up close. I could also hold a torch aloft in place of my gun, which was a boon when the corridors darkened. (If you are worried that Bloodborne would make torches as pointless as they were in Dark Souls II’s original release, you can rest your mind in that regard.) However, it was the blades, in tandem with my firearm, that saw the most onscreen action.

With this setup, there was no chance to absorb the damage and counter with my own weighty blows. I had to stay on the move, not blocking, but tumbling in whichever direction would best help me avoid damage. But take damage I most certainly did, and while I had a plentiful supply of health potions to quaff, it is by doing damage that I was able to in turn mitigate the damage done to me. Once you take a hit, you have time to regain lost health by landing attacks against your attackers. This mechanic encourages aggressive, mobile play, and while I don’t know that I ever fully came to grips with the combat’s rhythms, I was soon able to put aside my usual Souls game tactics and embrace a new way to do battle.

This isn’t to say that I still didn’t proceed carefully. Some of the enemies are even more mobile than you are, and charge forward with gusto. One such foe was a fat demon I expected would stop, drop, and roll in the manner of his Dark Souls II cousins. Well, he performed that move, all right–in addition to a dash so quick that I could barely get my bearings. Ammo isn’t infinite, so offing him with a few careful shots wasn’t an option, and I had already used up the molotov cocktails I started with. I died. It wasn’t the first time I’d perished during the demo, but it was the first encounter that had me crying out a particular four-letter word that would make my mother blush.

I’d been shouting out other curses, though, even in the first, relatively simple area, where both Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls were each represented in their own ways. In one area, I had to cross a narrow bridge above which giant axes swung. I was taken back to Dark Souls’ Sen’s Fortress, though my greatest nemesis here wasn’t a swinging axe, but instead the lanky demon that flung a dart into me, which in turn sent me reeling–once into the axes, and once off the bridge completely. (Down below, I was monster meat in about half a second.) Demon’s Souls came to mind when I encountered bell-ringing witches, though thankfully, they were not mind flayers. Instead, they continuously summoned more gangly demons from the bowels of hell until I destroyed them.

Three bosses stood between me and final conquest. The first was the kind of gargantuan flesh demon I’d come to expect from Souls games, and it didn’t take too much effort to end its existence with some well-timed dodges and swings. The second and third encounters were standouts, however. The second boss encounter set me against three rotund attackers at once, one of which had his own firearm at hand. Luckily, the three-tiered arena allowed me to separate them by leading them up and down opposite sets of stairs, and while it took me a couple of tries, I had soon defeated two of them, leaving the shotgunner for last. To annihilate him, I hid behind a pillar and popped out to slash away before tumbling back to safety. Eventually, he ran out of ammo, and chased me around with a giant club until I sent him back to whatever circle of hell he came from.

The final boss was an ancient guard dog, a flaming pup who found all number of ways to burn me to a crisp. It was here that I really began to appreciate how well Bloodborne’s combat arenas supported its fundamentally agile gameplay systems. The canine could spread bubbling lava from its mouth, and while there was plenty of room to steer clear, the dog could cover a lot of distance very quickly, which in turn could send me rolling into lava when I tried to avoid it. I also came to appreciate the game’s fluid weapon-switching: when he would swing his head towards me, I could get in a swing of my longer, heavier cleaver, while my smaller blade was most helpful when he paused to coat the ground with fire, and I could swing multiple times before dashing to safety.

It was a tense and eerie gameplay session, with each new enemy crushing my soul as I gripped the controller. One creature–a looming skeletal arthropod–looked like an ancient fossil come to life, and several of them lobbed balls of fire towards me. It was a phenomenal sight and a challenging area, given that I had to deal with bell-ringers and other adversaries in addition to the fireball-spewing freaks. But once I learned to close the distance and flail away on the skittering things’ tails, they weren’t long for this world. And so it will go in the full game, I imagine: moving through the darkness and fog, and discovering new ways to destroy whatever gross brute stands in your path. We’ll know soon enough–and I am already stocking up on anti-anxiety medicine in anticipation.

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