Bloodborne: The Best Castlevania
I had two realizations. The first was that the demanding exploration and nail-biting boss fights of Bloodborne weren't all that much different from the Metroid and Castlevania games I've loved for years. When it comes to the vaunted difficulty level, I'd say on measure some of the bosses are a bit more demanding, The exploration is about the same. They're not too challenging if you're paying attention, and it's mostly the unknown that gets you: what new creature lies ahead? What does it do? Where's the next save point?
The second realization is that the Souls/Blood Echoes mechanic brilliantly ups the stakes while also making the game more forgiving. In Bloodborne, for the unfamiliar, when you die you drop your current pool of Blood Echoes, which are the single currency you use to level up your character, buy items, etc. If you can get back to where those echoes dropped (or defeat the creature that picked them up), you can retrieve them. If you die again, those echoes are lost, but nothing else is--any items or weapons you gained stay with you. By contrast, if you die in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, you don't merely respawn, you reload. The enemies aren't merely right back where you left them, you've lost the experience (and the tools) you picked up killing them in the first place.
The result of this is that exploring Bloodborne is always tense. You are always trying to judge whether it's best to push ahead, or to chicken out and return to a point of safety (a lantern) and invest some of those echoes in items and levels (which can never be lost.) Like in Castlevania, returning to a save point in Bloodborne causes all the enemies to respawn. You know that if you chicken out, you will have to get right back to where you were, and face the same decision eventually.
And that's when it clicked for me. The Blood Echo system, the respawning enemies, all of these hooks require that the difficulty is pitched at just the right height. If you don't fear what lies ahead, there's no sense of risk in progressing. If getting back to where you were isn't a sufficient challenge, then there's no cost to going back. But if you can't return to safety and invest your echoes in something that can't be lost, neither is there a point to retreat. The boss battles are the tentpoles of this structure, the skill checks that demand not only that you can play, but also that the level design, twisty, turny, and full of shortcuts is rewarding to explore. After all, what use is a shortcut in an area you won't ever need to return to? And the desire to find a shortcut back to safety makes exploration still more enticing. To press forward or retreat--one of gaming's most basic choices--and it's perfectly realized here.
Bloodborne marries this elegant structure with a speedy, intense combat system that sets up a similar tradeoff between caution and aggression--giving you a small window in which to press an attack and regain lost health. I can say with certainty I have died because of being both too aggressive and and too cautious in Bloodborne, either staying in the fray too long, or letting my character take an irrecoverable dip in health by retreating after a bad hit. It's a simple mechanic that demands that you learn the difference to succeed.
It also had a pitch perfect aesthetic for my tastes. It's supremely unsettling, full of grotesques and haunted religious iconography, in a setting where the industrial revolution of the 18th century has clearly begun to have its effect, but much of the culture is still shaped by much older institutions.
I still think that the environmental storytelling approach is better at obscuring the story than actually telling it, a means of taking a fairly cliche tale seem more intriguing than it actually is. To some extent, it serves the game, that you never really know what's going on. But at the end of the day, Bloodborne isn't on this list because of its storytelling, but because it is one of the most singularly tense experiences I've had in my gaming career, and over the course of play, it also revealed itself to be one of the most smartly designed.