(Courtesy of Sony Computer Entertainment and SCE Japan Studio)

Developed by: From Software
Published by: Sony Computer Entertainment
Available on: PlayStation 4

Fans of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s games know that fun is beside the point. As a director, Miyazaki is known for overseeing the creation of severe, esoteric games that punish swiftly and hide important information from the player. In an industry that isn’t known for singling out members of development teams for praise, Miyazaki is one of the few designers to have achieved name recognition for his directorial work, specifically on the first two Souls games as well as the newest entry in the series, “Bloodborne.”

“Demon’s Souls” (2009), “Dark Souls” (2011), “Dark Souls 2” (2014), and now, “Bloodborne”  are collectively referred to as the Souls games. Over the past six years, the series, which is the brainchild of the Japanese developer From Software, has imprinted itself onto the collective psyche of gamers and industry professionals alike. These games are not particularly conducive to relaxing after a hard day on the job – unless one harbors a masochistic streak or is a ninja with a gamepad. Newcomers to the Souls series should expect to work for their entertainment as they might if they’d decided to take on a linguistically-complex novel or some other type of artwork that’s bent on challenging its audience.

At their most basic, the Souls games are action RPGs that thrust players into a hostile world drawn from the tropes of the sword-and-sorcery genre. There are brawlers, mages, and monstrosities aplenty — some of whom are downright entrancing, like the Moonlight Butterfly in “Dark Souls.” Unlike most modern games that try to ease players into absorbing the finer points of their respective gameplay systems, the Souls games are known for their precipitously steep learning curves, where one might still be a novice after investing a dozen hours in an avatar.

(Courtesy of Sony Computer Entertainment and SCE Japan Studio)

A cursory survey of what’s been written about the Souls games reveals that a hard crust of ideology has developed around the conversation. It’s almost impossible not to read an article that doesn’t talk about their “rewarding difficulty” or “tough but fair gameplay.” So ubiquitous are these phrases that they’ve become talking points for the spokespeople of other games looking to target the Souls demographic. At the root of this ideology is the fact that the Souls games provide one of the most visible avenues forone to assert hardcore status in the gaming community. On the chat forums of video game websites, you will absolutely come across people who say that the difficulty of the Souls games is overrated. Assuming you’re a mere mortal who has hobbies other than gaming, take my advice: don’t believe them. They’re like people who say “Ulysses” isn’t that hard once you get into it.

Indeed, it took a while for none other than the President of Sony Worldwide Studios, Shuhei Yoshida, to appreciate From Software’s approach. Yoshida has been vocally contrite about passing on the rights to bring the first Souls game to the West. As he tells it, he arrived at that decision after he’d spent two hours with a preview build of “Demon’s Souls,” which he adjudged “an unbelievably bad game.”  (Atlas published “Demon’s Souls” for PlayStation 3 in North America and Europe; Sony brought it out in Japan). In the intervening years, the executive has not only revised his initial opinion but has stated that the first two Souls games tie for second place on his top-ten list of last-generation games.

At last year’s E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo), it was impossible to miss Yoshida’s enthusiasm when he took to the stage to introduce “Bloodborne” — an exclusive title for PlayStation 4. After spending more than seventy hours with the game, it seems clear to me that “Bloodborne” is the PS4’s first killer app. Some friends who have held off from buying a current-generation console are reevaluating their abstinence in the wake of its release.

The allure of a new Souls game is very much a chance to revisit an obsession. (I know of a writer whose girlfriend hid his copy of “Dark Souls” because of how it clouded his personality.) Think of these as commitment games or life experiences one can opt into. In a world of distractions, they’re objects that demand sustained concentration.

(Courtesy of Sony Computer Entertainment and SCE Japan Studio)

The most obvious difference between “Bloodborne” and its predecessors — aside from a nineteenth century gas-lit English atmosphere that meshes well with From Software’s proclivities towards gothic art —  is that the pace of combat has been quickened. Earlier Souls games permitted turtling, or cautious defensive-minded action. “Bloodborne” all but does away with this by jettisoning shields and heavy armor. Dual-wielding setups — e.g. a melee weapon in one hand and a firearm in another, or the use of a two-handed weapon like a humungous sword — are the order of the day. Other alterations include  speeding up the avatar’s dodge roll and a new window of opportunity during which one can reclaim a portion of one’s health bar by executing a timely riposte after one has been hit.

These changes seem to be a nod to the higher-level Souls players who have filled YouTube with an array of speedruns and playthroughs that use deliberate restraints like playing the game with a ladle as one’s weapon. Alpha gamers who long-ago relinquished the protection of shields and heavy armor in previous games should have no trouble adjusting to “Bloodborne.”

When I finished “Dark Souls 2,” I felt utterly burnt out with the series into which I had poured over 400 hours. But “Bloodborne’s” labyrinths and fantastic creature design ensnared me from the first. Whereas “Dark Souls 2” felt to me as if it was laboring under the weight of its forebears,“Bloodborne” feels like the swaggering culmination of them. From Software has, in the best possible way, brought the evil back.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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