Bloodborne: The Old Hunters Review – A nightmare to remember

Few developers have as strong a track-record with downloadable content as From Software. Each of the expansions they’ve released for their games from Dark Souls onward have been spectacular, building on the core experience and further refining it. They almost always end up being some of the best parts of those games and Bloodborne is no different. The Old Hunters, Bloodborne’s first and only piece of DLC, is by far some of their best work. It addresses some of the criticisms of the base game (lack of weapon and character build variety) and expands on its best elements in exciting ways, creating some of the best encounters in the entire Souls series.

The Old Hunters whisks you away to the Hunter’s Nightmare, a realm where all hunters inevitably find themselves one day. It acts as a prison for those who become drunk with bloodlust, where they’re forced to partake in a never ending hunt until they finally break as punishment for their misdeeds. What those misdeeds are become more apparent as you progress further into the nightmare, but suffice it to say, it’s… disturbing. Without spoiling too much, it expounds on the true nature of the Healing Church, as well as the activities of Byrgenwerth and how it all ties into the hunt. It delves further into the cosmic horror angle, outright invoking one of Lovecraft’s stories in one area. It’s grim and fascinating, clarifying some of the cloudier points of the story while raising more questions.

Accessing The Old Hunters is simple enough. The key to enter the Hunter’s Nightmare is the Eye of a Blood-drunk Hunter. It appears in the Hunter’s Dream after you’ve defeated Vicar Amelia in the main game. With the eye in hand, once night falls, you head outside Oedon Chapel to the left, let yourself be picked up by the monster hanging off the side of the building, and viola – you’re in.

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You’re greeted with the same old Cathedral Ward you were just in, only now those familiar streets are distorted. The grime of the nightmare has overtaken the city, uprooting the surrounding architecture. Buildings stand crooked, some nearly toppled entirely, while others still appear to be sinking into the very ground itself. The lay of the land remains roughly the same in that initial area, but everything beyond is another story. A river of blood runs through the city, piles of corpses lining the walls, some of which still writhe. Hunters stalk the streets cutting down anything that crosses their path, the beasts now cowering in fear as you approach instead of attacking on sight.

While the hunters may fight beasts, they’ll attack you as well. This leads to a few instances where you find yourself in three-way battles, with hunters and beasts alike splitting their attention between you and each other. Such fights are thrilling to partake in, so it’s a shame that they ‘re almost exclusively limited to the very first section of the Hunter’s Nightmare. That’s in large part due to the dearth of enemy hunters in the rest of the expansion, but also the general lay of the land. Monsters and hunters remain kept apart throughout the rest of the Yharnam portion of the nightmare, never interacting with one another past the entry zone.

Disappointing as it is to see that idea not explored more, the rest of The Old Hunters makes up for that by doubling down on Bloodborne’s best elements. The combat is fun as ever, with each new foe providing an ample challenge. The hunters in particular are more balanced than those from the base game, making them much less of a hassle to contend with, especially with the addition of new weapons. Roughly a dozen have been added, including a few left-hand tools such as an iron knuckle and a shield (for blocking magic). Of the bunch, my favorite is the Bowblade, a sword that transforms into a bow that easily allows you to switch between close-quarters and ranged combat. Only downside is that you have to choose carefully which ones you decide to upgrade, as there’s just enough materials to almost fully upgrade two at most.

The environments are complex as ever, packed with secrets in spite of their small size. They’re also unnerving to explore. Take the Research Hall area, for instance. Patients roam the halls aimlessly, their screams echoing throughout the area, while those restrained to their beds cry out in agony, begging to be released from their suffering. Tools lay scattered about laboratories, some still wedged inside dead patients as part some gods forsaken experiment. It recalls the Tower of Latria from Demon’s Souls, an oft-cited inspiration for Bloodborne’s tone and atmosphere, evoking the same sense of dread and unease. Bloodborne’s never been one to stray from depicting gore (some of the endgame foes in the base game are downright disgusting), but The Old Hunters doesn’t hold back.

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Nor does it hold back in terms of difficulty. The bosses provide a greater challenge than anything in the base game. Even after having bested them several times between solo attempts and co-op runs, I still haven’t gotten the hang of them. They’re also some of the most well staged encounters in the entire game. That’s in no small part due to the music. Every boss in The Old Hunters is split into phases. As you whittle down their health, they switch up their attacks or change form entirely, becoming more aggressive all the while. Standard videogame stuff, sure – but what makes it standout here is how the music moves in step with the battle.

Ludwig, for instance – the very first boss – is scored by a low, suspenseful track during the first half of the fight. It carries an air of mystery; it doesn’t feel like a traditional boss battle theme, but it also fits perfectly. And in the second half, it goes full on bombast, the choir’s voices wailing as the strings become more dramatic to capture the scale of the battle. It’s a seamless change, the transition between phases working in perfect sync to deliver maximum impact. It channels much of what made Bloodborne’s soundtrack so spectacular and weaves it directly into the essence of each encounter.

It’s almost a shame that this is it for Bloodborne. The Old Hunters iterates on just about every part of the base game that it’s hard not to wonder how From Software could further explore the possibilities with the foundation here. But at the same time, it feels right. Bloodborne works best as a singular work, and by the end of this expansion, it felt like all the story threads had been tied up. If this is to be the end, then The Old Hunters is a hell of a send-off.

5stars

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