Staring Into INFINITY WAR, Part 1: Sympathy For The Devil (w/spoilers)

I know what it’s like to lose. To feel so desperately that you’re right, yet to fail nonetheless. It’s frightening. Turns the legs to jelly. I ask you: to what end? Dread it. Run from it. Destiny arrives all the same.

Now, you might be wondering (probably not) why this isn’t part of my “Pop Culture Heresy: Marvel Studios is Awful” series.

I’m done with it. It was the wrong way to frame my analyses of these movies, TV shows, and who makes them — to alter my approach of Art criticism a bit and see how it goes. I’ll keep my previous entries up for both the sake of transparency as well as to remember what not to do in the future. However, that is not due to having some newfound love for the studio and its practices (which I absolutely don’t — I’ll deal with that elsewhere — though I apply more blame to Disney nowadays), but rather the fact they’re taking the creative risks I’ve been dying to see forever now. It should not have taken this long but, given the short-sighted entertainment industry avarice, we’ve been given nothing but an elongated set-up to something that should’ve started far sooner.

I don’t know how much sooner exactly — but, again, it should not have taken slightly less than a decade. Perhaps, given the set-up at the end of The Avengers, it’d of been soon after that film. Here’s the thing though: you don’t need to watch any of the other movies beforehand. It’d almost be a disservice to just how well this film understands self-contained storytelling. If you want to go see them, you can — there are plenty of things to like within each (like the always magical Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie in Ragnarok) — but one can simply read the plot synopses on Wikipedia to fill in some of the blanks. I’d still highly recommend Captain America: Winter Soldier as I have before, but that has less to do with lore-building than just as a damn good movie by itself. It expands on the previous installment and many of its themes while dealing with contemporary socio-political issues (as best as one could with an expensive blockbuster, anyway — still an admirable feat compared to most) more evocative of 1970’s conspiracy thriller and less like a superhero film. Funny, considering the Russo Bros. also directed that one…

Image for post
“You want the moon? I’ll give you the fuckin’ moon!”

With Infinity War? Just reading about it wouldn’t work as almost everything that is said and done in this movie is shown, with as little exposition as necessary. But even then, they still use such for further characterization than simply getting information across. The film is what I’ve wanted to see more of from this franchise since Winter Soldier because, along with those elements, it subverts all expectations that’ve come from the continual iteration as well as an over-budgeted and bizarrely aggressive marketing campaign that weaponizes its fandom. More importantly, so many plot points within it recontextualize certain aspects from those other movies to the point they practically feel ret-conned. As if to make up for lost time…and I love it.

DESTROYER OF WORLDS

Anyone who knows me well enough should be aware of my sentiments on the villains of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with the obvious exception of Loki (Tom Hiddleston). There’s always this great storytelling potential with each one, especially if allowed to stay alive, but they’re often reduced to one-dimensional baddies who “need” to die as if we’ve never moved on past action movie tropes of the 1980’s. They’re occasionally given legitimate grievances or personal issues to deal with — whether it’s Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), Hela (Cate Blanchett), or Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) — but end up getting swept under the rug in order for them to be demonized and defeated gloriously by the hero, in a half-baked and tensionless action sequence that may as well’ve been from G.I. Joe.

Erik Killmonger is particularly egregious because, as someone who was both witness and victim to anti-black discrimination in the United States and rightfully aggrieved that Wakanda’s isolationist policies allowed it to continue, he still “needs” to be some woman-hating gangbanger prick to make his death (at the hands of his cousin nonetheless) seem justified. Keep in mind that T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) not only forgave the man he thought killed his father and their accomplice, but saved the life of the man who did kill his father — yet it’s not considered that he allow Killmonger to live and make amends with him as family. Even James Wan’s recent Aquaman acknowledges that as an option within its main conflict.

None of them can really live up to Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson “The Kingpin” Fisk in Daredevil nor able to, what with the difference in format, but that doesn’t mean they’re incapable of being more layered as characters within a feature-length film (plus some) as Loki is highly indicative of that.

But now? I have Thanos (Josh Brolin) along with his Children…

Image for post
The Family That Slays Together, Stays Together

Thanos — unlike Killmonger — is not right. He is most definitely wrong. A person who thinks that mass genocide across planets is “saving” them from a painful existence simply cannot be correct, when such situations are far more complicated and need nuanced answers to be resolved. Yet, at the same time, I think Thanos knows this and still does it regardless. Unlike so many other Marvel movie villains — neither he nor anyone else ever state such outright. It’s all implied through cryptic lines that could mean many different things depending on how one wishes to interpret them (I’d call him “The Dark Souls of Marvel Movie Villains” if that phrase wasn’t so obnoxiously, and erroneously, overused).

As far as my interpretation of the character goes? He wants to die.

He lived through seeing his civilization and people become extinguished before his very eyes, to be the only one left of his kind, and it broke him so much that — upon observing so many other civilizations were in the same state — he just couldn’t let it happen again. It’s difficult to not think, on some level, he wanted people to fight back and be victorious in order to prove him wrong and finally put out of his misery. Throughout the film, he’s partial to those who challenge him — even as he torments and tortures them — as if to act as an obstacle for them to overcome. The best evidence I can give for this is a single line, near the very end of the film, where Thor (Chris Hemsworth) decides to pull an Oberyn Martell (hey, Peter Dinklage is here too!) and Thanos responds:

You should’ve gone for the head…

He doesn’t gloat of his superiority or personally belittle the hero who struck a blow against him, but instead pointing to his failure to finish the job properly and make him remember what to do next time they met in battle.

Thanos isn’t just an oddly religious alien warlord. He’s a force of nature. He’s an atom bomb with arms and legs. He is a Hindu god.

I don’t make that last comparison lightly but instead of using the terribly translated and outdated version that asshole J. Robert Oppenheimer quoted, I’ll go for a better-written and more recent variant (emphasis mine) by Paramahamsa Sri Swami Vishwananda:

I am death, the mighty destroyer of the world, out to destroy. Even without your participation all the warriors standing arrayed in the opposing armies shall cease to exist. I am Time, the mighty force which destroys everything, fully Manifesting Myself, I am here engaged in destroying the worlds. Even without you, none of the warriors arrayed in the enemy ranks shall survive.”

Image for post
Thor and Thanos. Kinda (but not really).

Thanos is something else and it’s perhaps more integral to the film’s plot — a trait he shares with the legendary Darth Vader of Star Wars fame: he’s a father, though not a very kind one, of course…

THE PRODIGAL DAUGHTER

One of the (many) things that made the Guardians of the Galaxy films incredibly disappointing for me — despite James Gunn’s skill as a director and writer (prior to being erroneously fired by Disney over an obviously manufactured controversy but has since been rehired, hopefully because Disney was shamed into submission) as well as a top-notch cast and soundtrack that almost rivals the musical selections in a Edgar “He Should’ve Written & Directed Ant-Man Goddammit” Wright film (“The Chain” is my favorite Fleetwood Mac song…)— was how the relationship between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) felt like all tell and no show.

When first introduced, they both verbally remind each other that they are sisters, which is odd given most siblings (whether they’re biological or adoptive) don’t need to do such as they’re already quite aware of this fact. Despite the second film’s pretense of supposedly being about “family,” it doesn’t actually bother to explore Nebula’s stated grievances and why she’s so fratricidal towards a sibling she seemed to get along with otherwise. I mean, sure, she has an expository monologue — all of which would’ve been more interesting to see as a flashback — that’s about as natural as a botox injection and little more than set-up for a lame punchline. In the end it was all just an excuse for an action scene to keep things “exciting,” much like the other subplots that only make the whole film a less cohesive piece. It’s hard to really care about events when they’re so dissonant to one another and characters have to tell you, the audience, how to feel as opposed to getting it across with more subtlety either in the visuals or writing.

As I said before, Infinity War does a commendable job recontextualizing and certainly does so with this relationship by finally giving us both a glimpse at Thanos’ relationship to both Gamora and Nebula along with better idea of them as rival siblings.

Despite initially coming off as another generic “strong (but still sexually objectifiable) female character” these movies keep on using — with exceptions like Shuri (Letitia Wright) or Okoye (Danai Gurira), who are actually strong female characters — this film informs us that she is instead little more than a spoiled kid who ran away from home to make her Daddy mad. She and the other Guardians ride around like a mercenary Scooby Gang who don’t take anything seriously and, even when coming across a scene of wanton slaughter, can’t keep from thinking about how they’ll enrich themselves from it. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising given they’re all lead by a pop culture-obsessed man-child who’s first shown kicking animals, none of which endangered him or even impeded his movement, for fun while dancing to music on a Walkman (how charming! Well, not really…especially if you replaced them with puppies).

Image for post
The Guardians of the Galaxy. Kinda (but not really).

Though ostensibly a villain, no thanks to a visage that exudes malevolence (which is surprising given it’s Amy frickin’ Pond with her beautiful red hair and lovely Scottish accent — like Kelly MacDonald before her…), I can’t help but think Nebula was the true hero and we were manipulated into thinking otherwise due to a skewed perspective of these events. Both she and Gamora were plotting an insurrection as seen in the first GotG installment and eventual assassination of their adoptive father, but only Nebula stuck to the plan — changing it when need be — simply to fail in the end…all because her sister, either out of cowardice or indecisiveness or (in my opinion) still being emotionally co-dependent on Thanos. Gamora just went A.W.O.L. and off to play with her new group of opportunistic drinking buddies (Groot (Vin Diesel) being the exception — he’s pure, like Spider-Man (Tom Holland) — but Rocket (Sean Gunn/Bradley Cooper) is getting better about it…) until Pops got sick of waiting for her to make a check-in call before the clock hit 12:00 A.M.

But Nebula? She continued on, despite all the strain she went through to accomplish what would ultimately be a botched job, only to be tortured and implied to have been sexually assaulted (Thanos’ torture chamber attendant seemed rather…handsy, like some Japanese chikan). Yet, unlike her other siblings, she is a survivor. She’s one of the few left in an otherwise half-empty universe and given the tenacity she has shown through all the turbulence that has befallen her, I doubt she’ll stop moving until she’s dead…while still on her feet.

Perhaps she’s more like her father than her other brothers and sisters — especially Gamora — could ever be.

Though it would be remiss to not bring up how, on some level, there is something bittersweet about Thanos and Gamora’s relationship when — in a rare instance — a brief flashback sequence, rather than an expository monologue, tells of how they first met:

The subsequent scene wherein they have a heart-to-heart, much of which hit rather close to home given my own parental experiences (“I never taught you to lie…that’s why you’re so bad at it!”), reveals that — even with all her belligerence and the inconvenience it has caused him — she is definitely his favorite child and whom he wishes to carry on his legacy once passed on (all despite being one of the youngest and most rebellious). She yells and screams about how much she hates him and what he represents, as Thanos sighs with great restraint, before responding with the reminder that she could’ve easily absconded and never come back before, but nonetheless did, only to support his omni-genocidal galactic crusade upon return for two decades. Eventually this interaction devolves into an act of abuse that — though physical for Nebula, all too familiar with it — tortures Gamora psychologically enough to break down what little resistance (if there was really any to begin with, as much as avoidance) she had left in her being.

It occurred to me during these scenes that — though played by actors largely in their 30’s and 40’s — Gamora acts more like a girl than she does a woman and this applies to many other characters including fellow Guardians Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) as well as Thor, Loki, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) — whether or not he is The Hulk — and Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr). They’re all children in the bodies of adults. Even Gamora’s “will-they-or-won’t-they?” shtick with the unflatteringly aforementioned Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) comes off less like two platonic grown-ups dealing with sexual tension now than curious children about to lose their innocence, both on the verge of full-blown puberty and trying to process all these weird new feelings they’re unfamiliar with. Thanos himself practically symbolizes adulthood, as it comes relentlessly out of nowhere and one is given little breathing room for recovery, to render unto them all the rudest of awakenings. It won’t be pretty — it never is, but perhaps should be.

INTO THE SOUL OF DARKNESS

“I am Time[…]fully Manifesting Myself

Earlier within this piece, as an aside, I mentioned being loathe to describe Thanos as “The Dark Souls of Marvel Movie Villains” and that wasn’t as frivolous a statement as it may’ve seemed. To briefly clarify, for any unfamiliar with the phrase or its origins, before going further…

Dark Souls is a videogame series made by Japanese developer FromSoftware that gained what you’d call a “cult following” due to its oppressive atmosphere, punishing gameplay difficulty, and purposefully opaque storytelling. “The Dark Souls of [X],” when not simply observing similarities between it and another title (such as The SurgeandNioh), almost always references the second of those three aspects as its most defining quality — of being the most harsh or challenging, regardless of the activity or medium involved — with the other two seen as “optional” by many despite being integral to the experience. All of which I find completely wrong-headed.

I’d not only apply all those qualities to Thanos as a character but to Infinity War itself as a film. Their tone, even with those moments of light-hearted relief, is overwhelmingly grim. Both challenge the protagonists — emotionally, existentially, and physically — in ways they have not before and even questions their competency as heroes. Neither will bore you with an abundance of minute details espoused at length, the basic essentials kept succinct, but rather make inferences and leave others pondering what may be going on inbetween the lines.

It was rather surprising for any of this to be the case in my experience watching the film. Expectations were set low and my dwindling interest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe were part of that — to expect great disappointment and end up unexpectedly ecstatic— and then there’s this visual clusterfuck:

Image for post

It looks like a toy box violently puked action figures onto a pile of neon signs, causing a migraine in the process, and represented my worst fears about the movie. A bloated, indulgent mess full of bells and whistles with nothing else rattling around in its skull regardless of whatever pretenses are made. Another exercise in empty spectacle, which we have an overwhelming surplus of already.

But…it’s all misdirection. A red herring. A sleight of hand. This poster, however, is better representative of the subject material and tone of the film:

Image for post

Infinity War isn’t just any horror film — it’s a cosmic horror film.

I’ve already spoken of Thanos at length as well as Loki, Gamora, and Nebula to a lesser extent but have yet to speak of his other Children that’ve gone unnamed so far. They are Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughn-Lawlor), Proxima Midnight (Monique Ganderton/Carrie Coon), Corvus Glaive (Michael James Shaw), and Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary…I also prefer to call them “Obsidian Cull” ‘cause it sounds better). Very much unlike their younger siblings, each acts as an extension of their father’s will to some degree or another — almost like avatars for a Hindu god, actually!

As someone who cared little for Thanos’ comicbook counterpart (‘cause why do you need him when you have Darkseid?) I wasn’t aware of the Black Order, whom the Children of Thanos are based upon. Viewing Infinity War, it was refreshing to find villains who I knew so little about but managed to be intriguing — especially due to their excellent visual designs — and wanted to know them more as people…though they aren’t really people, when you think about. They’re humanoid in form and inexplicably speak English, yes, but they’re still extraterrestrials. The way they perceive the material world may not coincide with the way we, as homo sapiens of planet earth, do and makes it practically impossible to fully comprehend them as beings.

The true Marvel Souls starts here…

You know less about them than Thanos but, as inferred by Gamora’s backstory, it’s easy to deduce they’re each from a world he had conquered while culling half of the sapient population. Proxima and Crovus only have about six lines between them while Obsidian Cull (I told you it sounded better!) is reduced to unintelligible grunts, but— given his namesake — Ebony Maw is the most talkative of the four. He is both Thanos’ herald and (presumably) eldest Child, the film itself opening as he gracefully steps around corpses while evangelizing his adoptive father’s morbid spiritual philosophy with the calm of a Buddhist monk and eloquence of William F. Buckley. His appearance, though off-putting, is nowhere near as intimidating as his siblings coupled with a lack of signature weaponry in hand. That’s because Ebony Maw doesn’t need one as he is the weapon. Telekinesis, when used elsewhere, is often amusing or goofy but rarely is it ever as fucking terrifying the way Ebony Maw applies it during Infinity War next to the way Rainmaker does in Looper. It goes beyond making objects float in midair or pushing things out of the way — with an eerily acute perception of his immediate surroundings, he uses the very environment against the protagonists. He doesn’t just shove glass filaments into Dr. Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) face, but makes a wall swallow him while upside down. Then there’s turning rubble into flying spikes of death, causing a fire hydrant to burst open and temporarily incapacitate Wong (Benedict Wong), or chopping a car in twain a half second before it hits him. Made all the more unsettling by how slight and effortless his gestures are to make any of this happen, when it’d be portrayed with heavy-handed dramatics like arms flailing about or intense bodily tremors elsewhere.

In case it wasn’t already obvious (which it should be), I find the character absolutely delightful. Vaughn-Lawlor’s every utterance is pure gold and, next to Thanos himself, is what I wish more of in Marvel villains. At least, insofar as making them viable as threats rather than coming off as performative and largely ineffectual. Unfortunately, much like an ouroboros, this circles back to an issue stated earlier on in this piece…

FALLEN ANGELS

It is bad enough when the film kills off some of the most interesting, imposing antagonists within the setting — but it’s worse when their deaths are treated as part of a joke or simply rote in execution. Especially when, purely out of convenience, these indomitable warriors from space who’ve likely slain thousands (if not more) by hand and able to fight superhumans to a standstill suddenly lose their competency. All of this is done in order to give one of the many heroes an easy “win” that, with everything else suggesting their only victory would be a Pyrrhic one, feel unearned and only means there are now three less villains to use within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I generally despise resurrecting characters as a rule (comics are terrible about it) but this is one of the exceptions where I wouldn’t mind it.

Notice how I said “three” and not “four”? That’s because, given his personal arc within the film (which I shall explore next time!), I didn’t mind that Bruce Banner defeated Obsidian Cull by flinging him into a force field and getting disintegrated in the process. He’s a big, dumb lizard man who only makes guttural noises and whose entire existence is to get embarrassingly beaten up by the heroes with no semblance of personality as the other Children. His loss is not one that leaves an intense absence. I could even get past how his death was downright slapstick, but it’s tough to tolerate when Proxima being flung into a War Wheel by an ill-defined, inconsistently-powered character (I hate Wanda so much) is equally comedic.

Good riddance to reptilian rubbish!

Keep in mind that, in their previous encounter, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) was retreating most of the time and easily overpowered when dealing with Proxima directly. She could’ve been killed were it not for the intervention of Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson…and why do these movies keep forgetting she’s just a normal — albeit highly trained — human?), and Falcon (Anthony Mackie…who at least has a rocket-launching jetpack with metal wings) but, now, the cosmic Amazonian mass murderer of planets is careless enough to be defeated with…whatever Scarlet Witch’s powers are supposed to be. It doesn’t matter since her abilities are derived from how convenient it is for the plot at that very moment, like an anthropomorphic Sonic Screwdriver, than based on any kind of internal logic presented by the narrative (because there is none) just like they were in the comics.

Similarly, Ebony Maw’s death functions as the punchline to a joke set up by Peter Parker referencing Aliens as a “really old movie” (okay, that was hilarious, I’ll admit) — getting vacuumed into the celestial abyss after the most obvious of tricks, becoming an oversized popsicle. Which, just like Proxima, doesn’t make sense given his prowess as displayed in prior scenes. It’s just there to make Parker and Stark look all the more amusing, as if that was really necessary (it wasn’t). Corvus Glaive’s death may’ve been forgivable, given the injury sustained in a previous battle acted as potential foreshadowing, were it not for it being so bland as getting stabbed from behind by another character off-screen as if it was a surprise (it wasn’t). Only made nonsensical by Vision (Paul Bettany) being broken to the point he’s barely functional, though he could’ve as easily distracted Corvus enough for him to be injured once more and fall back to fight another day in Endgame.

I’d ask “why?” if the answer wasn’t so obvious: there is none, save for habit and expectation via well-worn fictional tropes. To stick to a formula that has only wasted further potential under the fallacious notion that “the bad guy must die because the bad guy must die.” It’s not a rule set in stone, just like the insertion of useless love interests, but they keep doing it despite the lack of demand or obligation for it. I’m not saying these characters should never die (as that’d be awfully boring) but this is ending something as it is just beginning. Superheroes are often defined by their nemeses, to force scenarios that put their skills or abilities or own morality to the test, making this dismissive expendability detrimental to storytelling possibilities as time goes on and the roster shortens with each insipid death.

Hell, Mystery Men made that point back in 1999 — almost nine years before Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe occurred. Wish that lesson was taken to heart…

That is not to say, as much as I still take issue, this is a deal-breaker of any kind nor is it the only problem I have. Yet none of them have ruined my fondness of Infinity War even with subsequent viewings — a great deal unlike most other Marvel films. Thanos and his Children aren’t my favorite thing about the movie, they’re just one of my favorite things about it. I mentioned Bruce Banner’s arc before and there’s plenty more. That is, for next time…

[Originally posted on 3/25/19 @ Medium.com]

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]