Apple v. Orange Review: Dark Souls and Bloodborne (w/spoilers)

Apples and oranges aren’t that different, really. I mean, they’re both fruit[…]I could understand if you said ‘that’s like comparing apples and uranium’ or ‘that’s like comparing apples with baby wolverines’ or ‘that’s like comparing apples with the early work of Raymond Carver’ or ‘that’s like comparing apples with hermaphroditic ground sloths.’ Those would all be valid examples of profound disparity.

– Chuck Klosterman (Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs)


What’s on the docket today?

After the trifecta of disappointment that was L.A. NoireMass Effect 3, and BioShock Infinite (that’s a story for another day) — I lost a lot of my faith in the AAA videogame industry. When coupled with other titles like Watch_Dogs or The Order: 1886, I just couldn’t trust any gameplay demonstrations or the hype by way of the press and masturbatory events like E3. The cycle of being given empty promises, getting my hopes up, and then having them quickly dashed was wearying.

His favorite song is “Staring at the Sun” by TV On The Radio. Obviously.

Then, I discovered Dark Souls. It reminded me that the AAA industry can be capable of creating fantastic experiences with their resources if they bothered to have ambitions beyond cranking out mediocre spectacles. It provided actual challenge in an age where almost every title comes with training wheels, it treated its plot as integral as the gameplay rather than an obstacle to it, and could occupy well over a hundred hours of your life without forcing you to partake in pointless busywork.

Needless to say, I had become obsessed with getting my hands on a copy of Bloodborne (along with a PS4) after its release. When I finally did — thanks to the grand generosity of a younger cousin — I could not contain my excitement or overwhelming urge to dedicate as many days of my life to playing it as humanly possible. The only downside was the sense of confliction I felt on whether I liked it more than Dark Souls or not. It could drive one mad…

Dear God, enough with the gushing!

No.

Okay, you asshole…so why compare at all?

Both were developed by FromSoftware — known for the Armored Core and King’s Field series — but Dark Souls was published by Bandai Namco and Bloodborne by Sony. However, the more important connection is Hidetaka Miyazaki (no relation to Hayao Miyazaki the legendary animator) who acts as director for both titles, as well as some other individuals such as programmer Jun Ito and artist Makoto Sato.

Don’t sound that different.

Oh, but they are!

[Cue Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”]

Dark Souls (as well as its sequels) is an apocalyptic, surreal high fantasy while Bloodborne has a whole Gothic-Lovecraftian steampunk vibe. Though the overall style of the storytelling is incredibly recognizable, minimalistic and relying more on implication than exposition, their different settings and subject matter give them disparate narrative beats. Also, the gameplay of Dark Souls rewards patience and punishes recklessness while Bloodborne contrarily rewards boldness and punishes hesitation.

Point taken — so, what about those “disparate narrative beats”?

A primary trait in both titles is the sense of player disempowerment. The whole environment is hostile, where you can be easily overpowered by those stronger than you either by intimidating stature or in overwhelming force. The big picture, however, is obscured and the player character is continuously manipulated and misled by those who may know more and whose motivations are never quite clear. Other characters are perfunctory, serving one specific purpose or another, but many either become tragic victims of a cruel world or lose their mind and attempt to slaughter you mercilessly. It’s almost impossible to find a genuinely decent person, moreso for them to survive. The road to success is a war of attrition and willpower is the key to victory — to quit is to surrender and admit defeat.

The point of divergence may seem insignificant but, with everything I described, it is important to note that the Chosen Undead of Dark Souls is a prophesized hero — downright counterintuitive to instilling a sense of disempowerment. The Paleblood Hunter of Bloodborne is constantly reminded of their position as an expendable pawn within a cosmic chess game. No matter how many god-like tentacle monsters from outer space slain, you never forget that your place in these events are wholly circumstantial and the ultimate outcome of one’s actions is even beyond comprehension. Why wouldn’t they be? You’re enacting a task based on the vaguest instructions from a being that interacts with you as indirectly as possible, unless agitated enough to become direct. You are little more than a fly caught in the web constructed by a spider of planetary proportion. It is surviving these horrors with as much sanity intact, not prophetic fulfillment, which is the ultimate goal.

Don’t ask. Just…don’t.

The way other characters react to the protagonist is indicative of how the player is encouraged to continue and succeed. Dark Souls’ cast is an affable bunch, save for an underhandedly malevolent few, and willing to assist — even applaud your achievements as you progress. Not only are you prophesized, but others tell you how awesome you are regularly. Bloodborne does the opposite with inhabitants of Yharnam that constantly mock you, despite protecting them against the plague-ridden beasts and providing them safe haven. The environment despises your presence — but those living in it hate you more. You can’t help but try and prove them wrong…

Though argued that Dark Souls and its sequels’ emphasis on a never-ending cycle — of how many empires rise and fall, only to be forgotten — negates prophetic importance, this only came about from the game becoming surprisingly popular. It was a spiritual successor to the PS3-exclusive Demon’s Souls but intended to be a cross-platform release, thus wider exposure and ensuring sequels. But it’s an inherent flaw with the lore: the fact that it can be described (as I have earlier) as “apocalyptic” is oxymoronic when the subsequent installments are suggested to take place millennia afterwards. At that point, can it really be “apocalyptic”? If anything — that just makes it business as usual, like superheroes saving earth from an alien invasion on a monthly basis…

And how about the fun stuff? Y’know, the gameplay?

There’s a basic template: a third-person, exploration-heavy action RPG with level design similar to “Metroidvania” titles (albeit in 3D) with shortcuts that open as one progresses or gaining access to other areas after acquiring specific items. Combat emphasizes timing attacks and managing a cool-down phase — the agility bar itself acting as something of a secondary health meter that regenerates. It is integral to observe and memorize the behavior of antagonistic A.I. and strategize accordingly, as they are capable of delivering hard-hitting blows when one is left open or cornered. The means for combat as well as the amount of mobility given to the player is probably one of the starkest contrasts between both titles.

Weapons in Dark Souls are traditional melee types — swords, knives, spears, etc. — accompanied by varying shields along with spell-casting staffs as well as bows and arrows for ranged combat. Bloodborne adopts far more fantastical instruments, including an edged cane that transforms into a steel-plated whip and a hammer that can cause small explosions or set opponents aflame upon impact. Ranged weaponry comes in the form of firearms, from flintlocks and handheld flame-throwers to an arm-mounted cannon and portable Gatling gun — either riposting enemy attacks with good timing or simply to deal (often lesser) damage from afar.

Make Contact, Not War

If those descriptions did not make it clear enough, Bloodborne’s armaments are simply more memorable in terms of design and function. Each one is different from the last, all with secondary modes that are not only varied but add strategic versatility even with the intense and fast-paced fights. Dark Souls may have a greater quantity available but a sword is still a sword, a bow shoots arrows, and wands cast spells as they usually do. Though melee weaponry functions satisfactorily (at least in single-player mode — multiplayer is prone to odd glitches), spell-casting and ranged combat do not. Using magic missiles and arrows are simply nowhere near as viable a tactic as wielding a sword, dagger, spear, axe, or mace.

The average player in Dark Souls is usually weighted down by shining steel-plated armor, accompanied with a shield, as most enemies are prone to physical attack and blocking is one of the more effective ways to defend one’s self from damage (with parrying as a counter-attack function). Evasion is an option, especially for more skilled individuals, but the character — whether they dodge-roll, back-step, or side-strafe — is still kinesthetically cumbersome.

The attire available in Bloodborne is entirely light-weight and the stats for such equipment vary little between one another. One outfit may be more fire- or lightning-retardant than others, giving the edge in a certain boss battle or two, but much less emphasized as the game encourages evasion above all else. The Paleblood Hunter can gracefully skip about every direction and practically dance around a mob of diseased madmen, herding them into a narrow passage to be efficiently slaughtered. Even the misshapen behemoths can be dealt as such since they’re placed in large, open environments and their movement laborious enough to reasonably counter. In fact, being aggressive — even to one’s detriment — is encouraged by being able to recover any health lost to an enemy by retaliating quickly.

There’s a constant sense of forward momentum in Bloodborne, even during quieter moments, whereas Dark Souls is a stop-and-start affair due to being very methodical.

Is that it?

Well, no, those sensibilities are reflected in the layout of their level design as well.

These guys. These fuckin’ guys.

When it comes to enemy and checkpoint placement, Dark Souls is fairly conservative as most fights are one-on-one, with an occasional mob or two, and the distance traveled between bonfires make them seem scarce. The upside is that there’s a sense of dread even when you know what to expect — the downside being it makes backtracking unbearably tedious. Though perhaps heretical to fans of Dark Souls to say, I hated Blighttown and The Great Hollow. Navigation is purposefully confusing, as part of the challenge, but no decent shortcuts are given back to The Depths (a rather generic sewer area too) as an award. Before attaining the Lord Vessel at the game’s midway point — it was the most frustrating part of the experience. Even better areas, like The Catacombs and Tomb of Giants, suffer from this problem when encountered early on not simply because those areas are harder but because any enjoyment to be had would be ruined by backtracking.

The overly-generous approach to checkpoints as shown in the sequels or even Bloodborne shouldn’t be the alternative — yet allowing teleportation between them cuts down on so much of the monotony that comes from backtracking. Bloodborne, as a console-exclusive title, streamlines itself for both better and worse. The single-player campaign is less reliant on summoning other players and NPCs to take on bosses and environments offer much more visual storytelling even within a smaller space. Admittedly the main hub, The Hunter’s Dream, is nowhere near as interesting as Firelink Shrine was in Dark Souls and even the downloadable content — “The Old Hunters” — feels heavily recycled when “Artorias of the Abyss” was an improvement on the main game. Yet Bloodborne connects Gothic horror to Lovecraftian horror seamlessly in such an interesting fashion that it makes Dark Souls’ subversions of high fantasy seem quaint.

This makes the Chalice Dungeons of Bloodborne incredibly disappointing as a procedurally-generated dungeon-crawler by FromSoftware makes a lot of sense. The actual result, however, is generic and lifeless when the abandoned streets of Yharnam were lively in detail. One can’t help but think this is some secret beta version of another title to be released years down the line. Hopefully it’ll be improved a ton and knock it out of the park then.

I’m pretty sure you prefer Bloodborne.

As much as I hate to admit it, yeah, I guess I do. But that game would’ve gone ignored had I never played Dark Souls and became as enamored as I was by FromSoftware’s approach to gameplay and storytelling — it feels intrinsic to why I enjoyed Bloodborne as much as I did.

Blood Moon Rising

What bothers me about Bloodborne the most is that, as a console exclusive for the PS4, lacks the same exposure and support as the cross-platform Dark Souls as well as its sequels. Console exclusivity in this day and age has become antiquated and counterproductive yet (given industry avarice) the practice is continued despite the obvious obsolescence. That makes Bloodborne kind of an underdog, in a strange way, and I want to be more supportive of it due to such.

Though I warmed up to Dark Souls 3 despite being so riddled with fan-service and recycled assets — it’s difficult to not see the success of the initial game being a bane on the series now. Dark Souls 2 and Bloodborne, despite their (respectively) poor reception by fans and a limited audience, were at least trying to go in new directions and expand on the material. Dark Souls 3, on the other hand, feels like the moment a serpent has begun to devour its own tail. Though I suppose that’s fitting, all considering…

[Originally posted on 8/12/17 @ Medium.com]

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