You awaken and find yourself in a nightmare. The great city of Yharnam is a charnel-house, overcome by an unholy plague known as the Scourge of the Beast. The residents of the city have barred their doors as sunset approaches, relying only on scented braziers and whispered prayers to ward away the lycanthropes that have the run of the city. The only living things that walk the streets of Yharnam tonight are beasts, and the Hunters who slay them. And as the Blood Moon rises, the line between hunter and beast may soon disappear entirely…

Bloodborne is the latest action-RPG from Japanese developers FROM Software, and is both a new IP and a continuation of their infamous Souls series. You control a nameless, amnesiac Hunter, one of an elite breed of warrior who specializes in battling transformed humans who have fallen victim to the Scourge of the Beast. Trapped in Yharnam on an especially inauspicious night, you must travel through the winding streets of the city, storm the inner sanctums of Yharnam’s religious elite, and eventually penetrate beyond the veil of our lucid reality itself in your quest to end the Scourge and prevent the beastly transformation of every man, woman, and child.

Although nominally an RPG, since the player can spend ‘Blood Echoes’ on leveling their Hunter, the gameplay is pure action, relying on reflexes and tactical nous to succeed, and it’s entirely possible to beat the game without leveling up once (although this isn’t recommended). The core gameplay loop is based around your stamina meter, a pool of roughly 100 stamina points which will be expended by a few seconds’ worth of actions, and will recharge just as quickly. Striking a blow and an evasive roll both pull from this same resource, meaning the player must constantly manage their stamina reserve to successfully avoid enemy attacks, whilst dealing damage themselves using light and heavy attacks, with different damage outputs and stamina costs. It’s this core conceit that drives the unforgiving and ferocious combat: pressing buttons without thinking about the consequences will result in my not having enough stamina to evade an incoming blow from one of Yharnam’s monstrous beasts, and possibly my demise.

This gameplay will be familiar to anyone who’s played Dark Souls, although FROM have mixed the formula up for Bloodborne. Previous Souls games had slower, methodical play, allowing you to utilize a shield which would block damage at the cost of slowly-regained stamina, resulting in a measured battle of raised and dropped guards, fishing for an opening. Bloodborne supercharges your stamina regeneration and throws the blocking mechanic out of the window, replacing shields with a gun held in your Hunter’s left hand. Blasting a beast with a quicksilver bullet at the right moment will result in the monster being staggered, inviting your Hunter to close in for a Visceral Attack – a powerful counter-strike that can kill many opponents outright. Rather than hiding behind a shield and waiting for an enemy to exhaust its attack animations, in Bloodborne you have to stretch your reflexes to breaking point, waiting until you see the whites of a werewolf’s eyes before you interrupt his lunge with a snout-full of quicksilver. It’s a thrilling upgrade to the combat, and although the early hours of the game had me crying for a shield, I no longer miss them. Player movement has been sped up too, and the sometimes clunky evasive rolls of Dark Souls have been replaced with dizzyingly fast and stamina-cheap quick-steps, performed when a Hunter is locked on to a beast. Your speed itself is a defense, and coupled with the new Rally system, which allows the Hunter to regain lost HP by damaging an enemy within a short time window, you’ll find that your defense, instead of blocking, is often blood-thirsty offense. The game’s combat is just as punishing as its predecessors, if not more so, but when you’re playing well the battles are blistering and euphoric, a chain of quick-steps and strikes, gunblasts and near-misses, parries leading into visceral attacks that flow into another effortless dodge as a beast claws the empty air. In-game sources speak of Hunters becoming drunk on blood and losing themselves in the Hunt, and once you’ve cleared a courtyard of five enemies without taking a hit, you’ll start to see what they’re talking about.

Moments like this are rare, of course. Bloodborne is probably not the hardest game ever made, but it’s unashamedly punishing. FROM’s games have amassed a cult following over the past decade for their deep, demanding combat systems, and Bloodborne is no different. Yharnam’s beasts will introduce you to the business end of their claws mercilessly from the opening act of the game, and when you run into your first blood-addled Hunter, adversaries who can match your speed and ferocity move for move, the game kicks into a higher gear still. Dying a dozen times in an hour is not uncommon if you’re exploring new territory, and when I was getting to grips with the changes to the combat system I died far more than that. Every single fight can kill you, and there are no ‘easy’ enemies, perhaps excepting the glacially slow legless zombies you encounter in some water-logged areas – the only enemy type, I believe, that never killed me during my playthroughs. The game never allows you to rest on your laurels either – as soon as you’ve gotten to grips with one attack pattern, the next area will throw something totally different at you. The homicidal townsfolk and werewolves of the early game give way to ever stranger and more punishing beasts, some of which have multiple battle stances and a wide palette of attacks to chose from. The combat is designed to test you to the limit, and does.

This challenge is even explicitly acknowledged within the plot. At the start of the game your Hunter’s consciousness is drawn into an alternate world known as the Hunter’s Dream, access to which is granted by dream lanterns. When slain you will reappear at the last lantern you touched, without any Blood Echoes you gathered, but still in possession of your items, and with any shortcuts or elevators you found still activated. Every level is a gauntlet of ambushes, shortcuts, tempting items, and carefully pitched combat. You’re intended to die, learn something, and get a little further next time, and some NPCs even remark on your immortality – those who’ve previously lived within the Dream know that death can’t stop you, an interesting inversion of most games’ stories, which never acknowledge the many attempts you may have made on a particular section.

Although from Dark Souls onwards FROM games’ difficulty has been made into a marketing point, I don’t see it as the point of the games exactly. I don’t enjoy the challenge of Bloodborne simply because I’m a masochist – the challenge creates a deeper investment in the game’s world. Everyone in Yharnam is terrified of the beasts, and I, the player, am terrified of them too: at the start of the game a lunging attack from a fully-grown werewolf will kill me stone dead. The bosses are the utmost expression of this challenge, each creature a climactic struggle that can take heroic reserves of patience to master and defeat. These bosses don’t just feel like epic story moments – they are epic confrontations, forcing me into close quarters with some of gaming’s most terrifying adversaries, making me fight them over and over again until I recognise every animation, every feint and tell. I don’t scour every corner of Bloodborne’s labyrinthine environments out of duty or boredom – I’m searching for treasure from necessity, not wanting to miss a weapon or item that might get me through the next fight in one piece. I take Bloodborne’s world seriously because the gameplay forces me to.

Fortunately the game has a world worth paying attention to. FROM’s games attract cultural attention because they’re not afraid to kill the player a hundred times per playthrough, but I think they’re also masterclasses in environmental storytelling and level design. Yharnam feels real, somehow. Whereas Dark Souls drew from familiar Dungeons and Dragons sources, conjuring up crumbling castles and magma-lit caverns, Bloodborne draws from the Gothic tradition, giving us a vaguely Victorian world of mist and gas-lamps, top hats and greatcoats, dagger-sharp railings and moss-choked cherubs. Central Yharnam’s alleys and courtyards establish a visual style that pushes the Gothic to a dream-like point beyond absurdity – every house has spires and twisted gutters and gargoyles, and enormous cathedrals loom over the city like a fun-house mirror of Notre Dame (there’s a really nice essay by Ario Barzan about Yharnam’s architecture). I have to admit there were times when the relentless gothic darkness became more comical than scary – it would appear that the dominant industry in Yharnam before the plague was carving statues of weeping women, as they’re found at every single junction – but broadly the visual style is outstanding. I’ve never seen a game that looks quite like this, and the environments don’t let up throughout the game. After familiarizing us with the Yharnam palette during the first act of the game, later locations strike a contrast that astounded me; a special highlight was the Nightmare Frontier, a strangely beautiful otherscape modeled on the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland. You’ll also visit a cursed, blizzard-bound castle straight out of Dracula, an overgrown hamlet that’s home to eye-encrusted witches, and a moonlit forest infested with slithering parasites.

The atmosphere created by the artists and sound designers is second to none, and they’re able to craft horror stories using architecture alone. I’ll never forget my first sight of Yahar’gul, the Unseen Village a late-game location where the dark heart of Yharnam is revealed. The Blood Moon is high, bathing the streets in crimson light, and the truth that was previously hidden from your Hunter’s sight is laid bare. The lower levels of Yahar’gul are crowded with petrified bodies, residents fleeing an unseen catastrophe who’ve been turned into stone by some occult force. Their bodies are so thickly packed at some points that they’re becoming part of Yharnam itself, melting into the buildings. It was an eerie echo of Pompeii, and one of many points while playing when the level design made me say to myself ‘What the fuck has been happening here?’

This is a question that’s never entirely answered. Bloodborne’s story is elliptical and poetic, told mostly through item descriptions and inference – the non-hostile characters you encounter, in true FROM Software style, are rarely in a mood to divulge anything much beyond cryptic clues. Miyazaki, the lead designer and writer, has said in interviews that the tone of his games is inspired by his childhood, when he’d read fantasy novels written in English. He loved the stories, but his grasp of the language wasn’t good enough to follow them fully, and he said he wanted to create narratives that echo that sense of mystery. Suffice it to say that Bloodborne takes influence not just from the 19th Century Gothic of Stoker and Shelley, but also from internet-favorite author Howard Phillips Lovecraft, pulp magazine purveyor of cosmic horror and eldritch truths. What starts out as a gas-lamps and werewolves story becomes something much stranger, and the Beast Scourge is just a part of the puzzle. Miyazaki has drawn not just from Lovecraft’s well-known late work but also from his mid-period Dream Cycle, especially The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath.

Your Hunter has a statistic known as Insight, which represents the depth of their inhuman knowledge. Discovering certain areas or creatures will raise this statistic, as will consuming an unpleasant item known as the ‘Skull of a Madman’, and once the Hunter gains certain levels of Insight the game world will begin to change. Extradimensional creatures which were once hidden from you are revealed, and some adversaries become exponentially more dangerous with higher levels of Insight, due to a new debuff known as Frenzy, a very damaging status effect which you become more vulnerable to at higher Insight levels. I wished this Insight mechanic was used more than it is – honestly there are only a few new things to see with high Insight, and I would’ve loved to see some more surreal effects, like the hallucinations in cult Gamecube hit Eternal Darkness – but it’s a smart addition nonetheless, and a clever early hint that there’s more to Yharnam than you first see.

The story is open to interpretation, but at heart Bloodborne is obsessed with reproduction and evolution. We discover that there is another world, known as the Dream, and within the Dream reside the Great Ones, god-like creatures that are beyond human understanding. The Healing Church – Yharnam’s dominant organization – has been using the blood of a Great One to heal Yharnam’s populace of all illnesses, gaining wealth and hegemonic power in the process. However, this blood transfusion seems to cause sporadic outbreaks of the Beast Scourge, which the Church suppresses with the use of Hunters, who are also fortified by ever-increasing doses of space-god blood – a tactic which has worked until the current, apocalyptic beast outbreak under the Blood Moon, a celestial event which seems closely linked to certain of the Great Ones.

Meanwhile, powerful forces in the upper echelons of the Church are desperate to contact the Great Ones directly and learn from them, perhaps even ascending themselves and becoming denizens of these dreamlands beyond our base reality. Within each man or woman, it seems, is the potential to become either a god or a beast. There are intellectual schisms between the scholars who would ascend to a higher existence through insight and contemplation, and some who would forcibly evolve our race via the use of supernatural transfusions, although it’s the latter faction who gained power in Yharnam and caused the current catastrophe. There’s a recurring conflict between knowledge (represented by the eye) and action/birth (represented by blood), and the familiar horror trope of the werewolf gains an intriguing new resonance in this context. What the Great Ones themselves want from us is naturally less clear, but as the game says, ‘Every Great One loses its child, and then yearns for a surrogate.’ When the Blood Moon hangs low in the sky, a womb may be blessed…

You’re given a lot of puzzle pieces, and no one right way to put them all together. I wouldn’t like to call Bloodborne a great work of literature, and when you explain the plot in lucid terms it ends up sounding like gibberish (I haven’t even touched on the mysteries behind the Hunter’s Dream, or the Plain Doll, or Queen Yharnam, who gave her name to the city, or your search for the elusive substance known as Paleblood). But I found myself invested in the horrible world, and the game’s refusal to spell anything out for you ends up working in its favour. Rather than giving you an infodump about the schism between the Choir and the School of Mensis, the Healing Church’s elite factions, Bloodborne leaves you with inference and hints, such as the presence of a corpse in Choir clothing found in the underground prisons of Yahar’gul. The player is totally free to run in, grab a key, and run back out without ever thinking about what the corpse might imply. But the level designers placed it there for a reason, and there’s a tiny piece of the narrative present in the clothing they dressed a background corpse in. This level of care and detail is present throughout the game, and allows you to experience the story at your own rate, in your own way, and draw your own conclusions. The game is admirably indifferent about whether you experience the baroque plot or not, in stark contrast to many worse-written videogame stories that ram themselves down your throat in unskippable cut scenes. There are three enormous, fully-developed secret environments with totally unique art assets which must’ve taken months to develop; all would be incredibly easy to miss, and the game is, again, totally indifferent as to whether you discover them. There’s even a secret final boss and ending, the preconditions to finding which are so obscure and odd that I’m not sure how anyone’s supposed to work it out without the internet. It is, in short, a truly interactive narrative that gives up its secrets to those who are willing to put in the work, and will remain utterly opaque to people who don’t. In the same way that your struggle with the challenging combat makes you care more about the game, I’d argue that the obscure and poetic story fragments draw you in and make you more invested in working out what’s really happening, and the endless dissertation-length posts about Bloodborne’s lore available online seem to prove my point.

I can certainly level some criticisms at the game, but I don’t have many. There were times, mostly fighting creatures larger than my Hunter, when the camera felt like the real enemy; it can sometimes get stuck on the geometry of larger bosses, and in fights like the early Cleric Beast battle, locking on can be an active detriment to success. The healing system has been changed – Dark Souls carefully restricted you to healing from Estus flasks, special items which would be renewed once you died and resurrected at a bonfire. Bloodborne gives you blood vials instead, which are farmable consumables rather than rationed but renewable items. I find Bloodborne’s system of gathering these vials, whilst not exactly poorly implemented, a regression from the Estus flasks. I always knew I’d have healing items available to me in Dark Souls, and it was up to me to decide how to utilise them. Bloodborne basically requires you to grind early areas like Central Yharnam to build up a stockpile of vials, especially once a few ill-judged attempts at a new boss reduce your supply to zero. This is tiresome, and it is especially tiresome since Dark Souls sidestepped this issue so deftly. There are also far fewer effective playstyles than in previous titles. Heavy armor doesn’t exist and your character moves at the same speed no matter what items they have equipped, stripping out a layer of complexity from the combat. Magic has been relegated to a couple of arcane relics and ‘Hunter Tools’, which bizarrely draw from the same quicksilver bullet resource as your firearms, despite not firing bullets. There are only a handful of weapons in the game, in contrast to Dark Souls’ Barbie-worthy collection of accoutrements and special swords. It just doesn’t have the same variety of viable combat-builds that the Souls games have, and if you don’t enjoy the fast-paced, glass cannon style of play that Bloodborne encourages, you’re out of luck. I love the combat, and I think the focus on one style has paid off, but I can see it being off-putting to some.

I could go on and on – I’ve not touched upon online play, or the transforming Trick Weapons, or the Chalice Dungeons, or the excellent musical score, or the recently released Old Hunters add-on pack – but I’ll cut myself short. Bloodborne is a masterpiece, a heart-pounding action-RPG hybrid that to me is the new console generations’ first necessary game. Those who’ve had to endure my company at any point since 2011 will know that I consider Dark Souls one of the greatest games ever made, and will therefore recognise the compliment I’m paying Bloodborne when I say I honestly can’t make a choice as to which title is better. I’ve been playing for nearly sixty hours at this point and I still haven’t experienced everything on offer. The challenging combat can prove a brick wall at first, and I repeatedly gave up on playing before I ever reached the first boss because I couldn’t make my way through a deeply frustrating encounter with two werewolves, but once you progress past the pain barrier there is a dark and bloody treasure-chest of marvels waiting for you.