Bloodborne is not as brutal a game as it first appears. The “hack and slash” action RPG is truly frenetic in its required reaction time but relatively slow in terms of its pacing. I died a total of 3 times to the first boss before discovering that, at least for my level of video game expertise, grinding was required before I could finish him off. It’s proper to note that I didn’t follow any sort of walkthrough or research before playing the game and instead followed Central Yharnam’s level design choices while playing. My skills of observation, or lack thereof, led me to Father Gascoigne before I ever approached the Cleric Beast.
By turning away from the Scourge Beasts who had crushed me on every other attempt to follow the bridge, I discovered a looping path to a gate I was able to open leading me back to the primary lantern of Central Yharnam. Fighting through the whole path created a clear gameplay loop for this section of the game. Complete the whole path, take the lantern back to Hunter’s Dream, level up using my blood echoes, repeat until I’m strong enough to defeat either Father Gascoigne or the Scourge Beasts.
Interestingly enough, I was able to defeat Father Gascoigne first, then return to the Scourge Beasts and then take down a significantly underpowered Cleric Beast. I think this sort of free flowing decision in level design undermines a truly central narrative but encourages player agency and heightens the impact of decision-making for the player. Investment in the game increases as impact of player agency does, at least in theory. This makes Bloodborne, as a whole, less brutal than older more restrictive titles like 2000’s Phantasy Star Online in terms of player morale.
While revolutionary, Phantasy Star Online, a launch title for the Dreamcast and one of the first console games to utilize online gameplay, had a host of design frustrations and was ultimately easy to disengage from. It’s level structure, while almost always beautifully recurrent like the loop created by my choices in Bloodborne, is fixed and entirely designed to stifle agency. I would suggest this is required by the limitations of the hardware, but only vertical expansion is out of the question for Phantasy Star Online’s map system as the character cannot jump or fall.
Another tax on Phantasy Star Online’s sense of agency and, by association, player morale is its veiled stat assignment system. Feeding support items to your Mag, a floating virtual pet that assists you after it is charged from a certain amount of damage, is the primary way the player exerts their agency on the strengths of their character. This is briefly explained to the player, but no effort is made to detail the way feeding the Mag different items effect its statistics. That sort of system can be viewed as both a hinderance to clarity of design and as an opportunity for discovery and individual achievement within the system. The fact that Phantasy Star Online gifts you with multiple Mags throughout your quest lends itself to the second interpretation but only at the risk of player frustration as they are forced to use a subpar Mag before discovering a new one. Alternatively, this means that stat assignments in Phantasy Star Online are never permanent and can be interchanged based on the situation, a brilliant design whose purpose is underused in the normal difficulty of the game.
Despite its failings and occasional drudgery, Phantasy Star Online bears a striking resemblance to the “Souls” styled games from From Software and is, in my personal opinion, one of their largest inspirations in terms of design. While Phantasy Star Online lacks a dodge move, both discourage the player from encountering more than just a few monsters at once, create a dedication to an initial attack pattern in which the only way to cancel one of your attacks is to attack again, and contain stereotypical boss battles, in which cooperation with a teammate is of immense value, to book end their areas. I would strongly encourage any lover of the From Software series of games to at least give this older game a chance. It can easily be played on modern computers, but is also on the original Microsoft Xbox, the Nintendo Gamecube, and the Sega Dreamcast.