As my bronzed blade sinks into his shoulder ligaments, soaking us both in blood, the rabid villager swears at me.
Then he slumps over, dead, and some ethereal power in his blood—blood echoes, I’m told—is added to my own. Meanwhile, his physical blood, along with the blood of several men like him, is becoming caked into my coat. I shudder as I retract my blade.
I’ve just gotten to the city, and I’ve been told that I’m something called a hunter. So far as I can put together, the role of hunters is to protect Yharnam—a sprawling, Dickensian city of iron and squalor—from beasts that wish to prey upon it. They’ve failed. Werewolves, giant rats, and other horrors more terrifying and difficult to describe wander the streets. And with them, homicidal men and women like the ones I’ve been fighting. I’m not sure what’s gotten into them, but there are rumors—the title of the game being one of them—that some blood-based sickness or curse has taken them, turning them feral. Or just turning them dead. Coffins are everywhere, stacked up in every spare corner of the streets.
My understanding of Bloodborne so far has been scattered, fragmentary, coming in bits and pieces. I’ve spent about five hours with it so far, and I’ve spent nearly all of that time wandering the first few areas, a burned-out area of Central Yharnam. The only people I encounter who aren’t trying to kill me are hiding indoors, speaking to me only through closed doors and windows. Even then, they mostly just tell me to go away. They don’t need no trouble.
Other than that, all my time has been spent in combat. Fighting is fast and cruel. It feels hungry, like the enemies are aching to get at me, to cut and bite the life out of me. It’s almost personal, hateful.
Recently, I came to a bridge. On the other side of it, a group of eight or so villagers stood there, carrying torches, pitchforks, and blunderbusses. They’re looking right at me, waiting to see what I do. I creep up slowly, extending my transforming blade from a short saw into a scythe. They charge. Behind them, a hulking beast sets a boulder on fire and throws it in my direction. This was a trap. For me. I barely made it out alive.
Yharnam is immense. I’m used to the structure of games like this—Bloodborne was made by the same team that made the first Dark Souls, and I’ve gone on about those games enough in the past. These games place you in environments that are meant to feel real and complex, interlocking and intricate, with shortcuts and secrets and loose ends. You can, in any of these games, easily wander away into an area you’re not technically “supposed” to go to yet, with no warning from the game design itself. You’re free to explore and fight your way through whatever you think you can handle.
Yharnam, however, is big and complicated even by those standards, and it exists on the edge of what I can reliably keep track of. There are no maps, as I understand it, forcing me to hold a mental picture of the place in my mind. I find myself struggling with that, and I always feel dangerously close to getting lost on some cobbled stone street. It makes the ambiance, all fire and shadow already, even more oppressive.
I feel like a bug that Yharnam is trying to shake off its back.
There are empty wheelchairs everywhere. I don’t have any insights connected to this. It’s just creeping me the fuck out.
The first boss I face is called the Cleric Beast. It climbs over the barricades at the end of a bridge, and creeps toward me menacingly. It’s all tendrils, its entire lanky body like vines of gnarled muscle and flesh. One of its arms is larger than the other, stretching into twisted claws. It’s fast. I feel constantly as if I’m on the defensive, finding places where I can strike, looking for opportunities to heal. One of the wrinkles of Bloodborne’s fighting: You can recover from injuries by counterattacking, regaining stolen life from the enemy who took it. This means the best way to deal with the Cleric Beast is by getting into the thick of it, its kudzu flesh practically wrapped around you. Barely alive, I am a whirlwind of blade and flesh. I have no choice but to be.
The other interesting thing about the Cleric Beast is his name. After I finally fell the terrible thing, the game assuring me that my PREY has been SLAUGHTERED, I pick up a pendant from it. The items you pick up always have interesting descriptions, little bits of detail about the world scattered around. Tiny glimpses of some sort of narrator, a curatorial presence keeping the player just on the outer limits of informed. Sure enough, the pendant tells me that it used to belong to a cleric. And that clerics were the first hunters, and also the first to turn into beasts.
There’s religious imagery everywhere in Yharnam, and much of it is on fire. In the first major street I come upon, which is crawling with murderous villagers—a veritable angry mob—I see crucifixes in the Catholic style, a figure who looks very much like Jesus (is Yharnam supposed to be somewhere in our world?) suspended from the crossbeams, crown of thorns and all. They’re almost all smoldering in the twilight. It occurs to me that I’m not sure if the light on the horizon is the sun, covered by clouds, or the glow of distant infernos.
There’s a bonfire around the corner with a stake in the middle, of the burned-at-the variety. Faith—and the connection between people of faith and the beast hunt—seems to have played a huge role in whatever happened here.
I make note of it, but, to be honest, as I move on from my fight with the Cleric Beast, it’s not what I’m most worried about. I’m most concerned about the possibility that I could turn into a beast while fighting them. Or that I’m already the beast, that I’m the prey and everyone else are the hunters. After all, the few sane in this town tell me I’m the outsider. It would certainly explain the outbursts, the embittered viciousness every enemy approaches me with.
The only friendly person I’ve so far encountered, a dying man who will only speak to me through a closed window, tells me to go to the Cathedral Ward. There are clergy there, and they might have answers. Or they might try to kill me. But it’s where I’m heading regardless. If I am a hunter, this is my calling. And if I’m a beast, then at least I’ll give the hunters a challenge.
Jake Muncy is a freelance writer, editor, and poet living in Austin, TX. In addition to functioning as Loser City’s Games Editor, his writing appears on The AV Club, Ovrld, and anywhere else he can convince people to post it. You can contact him by email or twitter, where he tweets regularly about video games, the Mountain Goats, and sandwiches. He has very strong feelings about Kanye West.