Bloodborne takes place in Yharnam, a city dedicated to disease. Like Baltimore in The Wire or Dublin in Ulysses, Yharnam is an active participant in Bloodborne’s story. It functions similarly to a narrator, a constant presence that sets the tone and provides hints at the deeper meaning that simmers beneath the surface of the events we witness.
On the surface, Bloodborne is a violent Gothic horror story. You slash your way through grotesque beasts, giant Frankenstein’s monsters and a deranged army of citizens wielding pitchforks and torches. The city is beset by a plague. People are turning into beasts. You’ve been inducted into the ranks of the Hunters, an elite group of beast-killing maniacs. It all seems rather straightforward. But beneath the immediate threat of fang and fur, a cosmic horror churns.
Deep and terrible secrets haunt Yharnam. Midway through the game, nightmares infest reality, eldritch terrors emerge, and madness of a truly Lovecraftian nature (i.e. in the vein of famed horror author H.P. Lovecraft) takes over. It is a complete paradigm shift. What started out as a simple beast hunt becomes a fight to maintain sanity against the revelations of the cosmos, and the relationship humanity has to the cold void between the stars. The narrative shifts focus to reveal a presence thus far unseen—a slithering, creeping truth: the gods are aliens. They don’t understand your prayers anymore than you comprehend their motivations. And the plague you’ve been fighting? That’s actually human nature, unveiled in all its beastly glory.
Bloodborne shifts frictionlessly from heart-pounding Gothic horror to existential cosmic horror without skipping a beat because one is nested within the other. The horror of the infected body remains and amplifies as we discover that infection is the body’s natural state. When “the plague” isn’t some foreign invasion from without, but a corruption within our very nature, human life itself becomes the disease that must be cured by fire and the knife.
And there was no pre-release material that hinted at this twist. No trailers showed it, no journalists got the scoop. It was an utter surprise to everyone playing the game.
If that’s the overall narrative arc of Bloodborne, how can the new expansion, “The Old Hunters,” contribute to it in a significant way? It would seem as though the pattern was set, and any addition to the mythos would run the danger of being a stapled-on afterthought. Once the Lovecraftian twist is revealed, how do you surprise people yet again?
These are the questions I pondered while playing “The Old Hunters.” And the answer is: you double down on your premise, and you double down hard.
“The Old Hunters” delivers a condensed and rarefied version of everything that made Bloodborne great. The atmosphere is hauntingly beautiful; the very first thing I noticed was the radiant, roiling clouds above nightmare Yharnam, with a splintered ember orb hanging in the pocked sky. The levels are scarier and crazier, and they loop and intertwine in ways that defy expectation and demand a transcendent sense of spatial awareness. The bosses are wilder, punishing, and consistently counteract intuitive assumptions so that experienced players must fight their very instincts as much as these insane abominations. And the weapons are glorious, ornate tools of sanguine destruction, like a six-foot long mechanical spinning saw or the petrified forearm of a dead god. “The Old Hunters” ups the ante with each element, but not in a way that diminishes the original game. Instead it permeates the original experience and enhances it, like adding spice to a hearty stew.
With “The Old Hunters” Yharnam has a new district added to its damp, blood addled streets: The Hunters’ Nightmare. A pocket dimension tucked away inside the first third of the game, it’s a twisted version of Yharnam that reveals yet another facet of the city’s character. Except in the nightmare, beasts don’t roam the streets causing havoc and misery—fellow hunters do. The spirits of hunters addicted to the thrill of the chase overrun the wide-open spaces of nightmare Yharnam, where encounters quickly spill onto one another in a chaotic melee. Instead of death-choked alleys and narrow cobblestone traps, the nightmare throws huge hunters and yawning valleys at you, then swarms you with quick, powerful foes decked out in the latest transforming trick weapons.
Initially, this remixed reversal throws you off your game, and you have to fight muscle memory and expectations in order to regain that precious hand-eye equilibrium. It seems like a dirty trick until you internalize these new, mutated rules of engagement, and the violent dance continues with a few added steps. By layering and overlapping pre-existing elements in unique ways, “The Old Hunters” takes the tried and true Bloodborne horror-action aesthetic and makes it new again.
Just as the levels are intricate, dense layers of overlapping geometry, so too is the emotional experience of playing “The Old Hunters” a multifaceted cocktail of emotional responses. When you are caught in a loop, up against the wall of an unbeatable-seeming boss, frustration mounts. A thick fog descends on your mind. Then, you see the pattern, and it just clicks. You can’t force it, you can’t make it happen, but if you keep trying and adapting, it cracks open like the shell of a well-shucked oyster-monster.
It’s true of Bloodborne, and it’s doubly true of “The Old Hunters.” The expansion fits perfectly with the original game in much the same way that Gothic horror segued so smoothly into cosmic horror—they fold together like origami. The original game and the expansion merge to form an intricate overlapping puzzle of compressed layers. In part it’s due to the oblique storytelling methods employed in the game. The big picture is never laid out explicitly; all we get are breadcrumbs of information that demand interpretation, tiny details in the environment that trigger the imagination.
By the same token, this ambiguous narrative is not grafted to the original, stapled on as an afterthought, but forms another layer of interpretation that confounds as much as it elucidates. In true Bloodborne fashion, expectations are abused. “The Old Hunters”’ narrative — while unable to contain the same metaphysical twist as the original game—does offer nuggets of insight that destabilize more than they settle. Characters that haunted the original game from the sidelines are suddenly centre court, but seeing them up close spawns more questions than answers.
“The Old Hunters” combines honest difficulty with eerie ambience into a tapestry of wonder and trepidation, where the mind becomes more receptive and you develop a heightened sense of awareness of your surroundings. Beauty and danger collide in an experience utterly unique to this game and its cousins Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. At any moment you might be overwhelmed by sheer aesthetic delight, a pack of rabid, bloodthirsty troglodytes, or both. It’s a unity that depends on overlapping layers of environmental complexity, enemy difficulty, narrative mystery, and ubiquitous artistry that are mutually interdependent. They hinge upon each other. If you take one away, then the whole edifice collapses.
And of course the game’s hard. It’s brutal. It makes your fingers feel like inarticulate sausages. You’ll hate yourself every time you die, every time a boss clobbers you for hours, every time you don’t look before you leap, and every time you miss a dodge or a parry or a backstab. “The Old Hunters” is bad for your self-esteem.
Until you beat it—then you feel like a champion.
Cian Cruise is a writer living in Toronto. His work has been published in McSweeney’s, Kill Screen, and Hazlitt. His website is ciancruise.com.
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