A few weeks ago I finally completed Elden Ring. In the absence of that uniquely Soulslike mix of migraine-inducing stress and emphatic dopamine blasts that only FromSoft games offer, I felt a pull to go back to a certain place in the developer’s back-catalogue. Something about the comparatively linear, tighter world design of Bloodborne spoke to me after the breathtaking openness of Elden Ring. I wanted to ween myself off the Soulslike experience by playing a healthier, more condensed iteration of that experience.
And yes, I’m aware that that makes me sound like someone with a substance problem, but coming off a FromSoft game after spending 150-odd hours in it needs to be done with caution, lest you find yourself playing mindless mobile farming games as a rebound to the challenging experience you’ve just been through. I’ve seen it happen. It’s not a pretty sight.
So to Yharnam I returned, buttoning up my dandy waistcoat and strapping on my high leather boots that should prevent the gore and gribble of its deliciously decaying streets from saturating my socks.
The initial impressions were as powerful as I remembered. The story, while by no means simple, is pleasingly direct compared to Elden Ring, and completing that first loop of Central Yharnam to open up the gate back to the initial Lamp (or Site of Grace, for ye Tarnished) gave me that satisfying sense of achievement I was seeking. The shortcuts, the clutter of coffins everywhere, the weird inhabitants speaking from behind locked doors. It was good to be back.
And yet, something also felt off. Much though I tried to bask in the glorious Gothic architecture, and the foreboding sense that unspoken higher powers have a stranglehold on the city with great cosmic claws, I just couldn’t get past the sense that there was something preventing me from losing myself in what for me has always been one of gaming’s most unique and evocative settings.
I’d look up towards the Cathedral Ward of Central Yharnam, and everything in the near-mid-distance shimmered with pixellation. Looking at the bloodied moon menacing over the city, I could clearly see on my 50-inch TV that it was surrounded by a murky low-resolution skybox. As enemies moved to strike me, their limbs would seemingly blend with the jagged scenery around them. I knew some years had passed since its release, but did it really always look and feel this sludgy?
Even at the time of its initial release back in 2015, Bloodborne was, on a technical level, a bit of a shambles. For a start, it lacked of anti-aliasing, a vital tech in modern games which smooths out the jagged lines around every object in the game. In a game that’s so artfully packed with clutter, railings, gnarled trees and dense urban geometry, it becomes, like our old friend Ludwig the Accursed, an ‘unsightly beast.’
No small amount of fuss was made about the fact that when the PS4 Pro came along, Bloodborne didn’t get the ‘Pro’ facelift like many of its peers. So no bump up from 1080p resolution and – more significantly – no improvement to the framerate that would top out at 30fps (though was quite capable of dropping to an N64-like 24fps).
This was not a good look for Bloodborne in 2015, it was an even worse look when the Pro came out in 2017 and modernised many of the console’s best games (sad fact: Bloodborne is just one of two games in our PS4 top 10 that didn’t get a PS4 Pro Enhanced patch, the other being Persona 5). But another six years on from that, and Yharnam is looking (and feeling) seriously worse for wear – and not in the beasts, plagues, and malevolent outer gods way it was intended.
The baseline conditions for gaming have changed since 2015, especially since the mid-generation console upgrades standardised 4K gaming (or would offer the choice between higher frame-rate or higher resolution). In 2015, the 32″ 1080p TV I played Bloodborne on was pretty standard fare. While 4K TVs did exist, console and computer hardware was not yet really in a place to take advantage of those things, so our eyes were yet to be spoiled by the pristine clarity of higher resolutions and the luxury of the huge screens we’re used to today. Suffice it to say, Bloodborne desperately just doesn’t look it belongs on my 50″ 4K TV. If I could hear the game, I think it would be shrieking like a beast that’s just been hit with a Molotov Cocktail, desperately trying to flee back into the darkness.
FromSoftware has form for poor optimisation. There was the whole mess around the original Dark Souls PC port, and Elden Ring was pretty shoddy itself. At this point however, every other one of FromSoft’s Soulslikes can be played with buttery-smoothness. Dark Souls got a remaster that brought it up to speed, and you can still crank 50-60fps out of Elden Ring on modern consoles. Even Dark Souls 2 – the black sheep of the series – got more love from its creators, getting repackaged into Scholar of the First Sin and running like a dream on consoles and PC to this day.
Outside of Sekiro, Bloodborne is FromSoft’s most aggressive and fast-paced game – more dependent than any of its peers on smooth performance. Its splattery visceral combat still feels wonderful – more dancerly and elegant than the endless rolling of the Souls games – but it’s obscured by technical cludge. This high watermark of weird fiction in gaming feels like it’s been left to rot, just like the city in which it’s set. Its myth endures, but the reality is that it’s becoming less and less palatable to play as advancements in gaming and TV tech leave it behind.
FromSoft’s complete silence amidst the endless calls to bring the game to PC (which would inevitably be accompanied by a remastered version for PS5) makes you wonder if Bloodborne is perhaps, like Red Dead Redemption, such a minefield of bad code that it’s barely working as it is, and trying to fix it up to ‘remaster’ quality is just too much of a headache for FromSoft to confront.
In the meantime, I may have to put to rest my desire to relive the beautiful nightmare that is Bloodborne. Through higher resolutions, and crisp anti-aliasing, and searing framerates, I now have too much Insight, and I suspect that continuing to play this incredible game in its creaking state will only lead to madness.