There’s something masochistic about video gamers. Even if you’re playing an innocuous-looking game like “Pac-Man,” you will be killed dozens of times before you get any good.
“Bloodborne” (Sony, for the PlayStation 4, $59.99) doesn’t waste any time getting to the hard stuff. Almost immediately after it starts, you get eaten by a werewolf. Sure, you get reincarnated and armed with a couple of flimsy weapons, but if you aren’t prepared to die — over and over and over — you won’t get very far.
“Bloodborne” is the latest torture device from evil genius Hidetaka Miyazaki and his Tokyo-based studio, From Software. Starting with 2009’s “Demon’s Souls,” Miyazaki and company have developed a reputation as the cruelest game designers in the world. If you relished the challenge of their “Souls” adventures, you’ll love “Bloodborne.” If you hated those games — well, their new ordeal won’t change your mind.
Once you get past that werewolf, you’ll find yourself in a sprawling city called Yharnam, where majestic Gothic towers loom over gore-drenched streets. A nasty illness has overcome most of the populace, and the few remaining humans seem to hold you responsible. Those survivors are relatively easy to dispatch, as long as you don’t let them gang up on you. It’s the creatures that have mutated — bloodthirsty lycanthropes, sledgehammer-wielding behemoths — that will send you screaming into the afterlife.
You’re initially armed with two devices: a melee weapon that can be extended for longer-range attacks and a firearm that seems almost comically ineffective. Gamers who are used to cutting a swath through hapless enemies will lose quickly. You need to approach each encounter cautiously and learn to depend on your “dodge” button. Eventually, you get used to the attack-dodge-attack rhythm needed to defeat most of Yharnam’s creatures — until you stumble upon one of the game’s vicious boss battles.
Those guys, like the ax-wielding lunatic Father Gascoigne and the tree-sized Cleric Beast, are less predictable, and you’ll need some trial and error before you can figure out their attacks. Even then, the bosses typically transform into something even nastier midbattle, requiring an entirely different strategy.
If you lose, you get sent back to your last game save, at which point you have to slog your way back through the horde of lesser enemies you’ve already defeated and make your way back. Here’s the spot where many players will slam down their controllers in frustration — not at losing a boss battle, but at having to retrace all the tedious steps that led up to that fight.
From Software demands much of its players, including an obsessive level of patience. The studio has built an impressive cult audience for its brand of abuse, but if you’re the type of person who plays a game to relax and unwind, “Bloodborne” is not for you. I admire its uncompromising vision — but I don’t particularly like it.