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What the Hell’s a Souls-Like Game; Why Do People Like Them; And How Do I Get In?

Casey helps you to avoid gatekeepers and get into the iconic Souls-like games!

Promotional poster for Dark Souls: Prepare to Die edition

Legend has it that Hidetaka Miyazaki, then a coder at FromSoftware, took over Demon’s Souls, a project that was already written off as a failure. This excited him because, in his own words, “I could turn it into anything I wanted. Best of all, if my ideas failed, nobody would care – it was already a failure.” It demoed horribly and well under-performed sales despite its relatively favorable reviews. Playstation Magazine said in a positive review that it was “best left to the most masochistic, hardcore gamer.”

Despite its poor beginnings, the game would become a sort of legend, one of the most elusive, creative, and unique games of the past 15 years. Sales would snowball off its growing reputation of callous cruelty in game design and inscrutability in narrative design. Previously known primarily for mech-combat games, FromSoft hard pivoted to lean into this, creating six more games in the image of Demon’s Souls since its release in 2009.

Elden Ring - PS4 & PS5 games | PlayStation (US)
Elden Ring promotional image

Dark Souls 1-3, BloodborneSekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the upcoming Elden Ring, and several other games made by other developers like NiohHollow Knight, or Remnant: From the Ashes all fit the mold of “Soulslike” games. Each is distinct in many ways from even its own sequels, but by and large, these work off a core set of game mechanics that we’ll dig into later:

  • The player has individual rest spots that act as checkpoints.
  • Healing is restricted between these points.
  • Enemies and the world around you can kill you very easily.
  • If you die, you lose all your progress made since last resting.
  • You can regain lost currency by picking it up in the place you died.
  • If you die before doing that, all of that currency is lost.
  • The world is often dark and full of perils; the story is often melancholic and bleak, and it’s usually told through obscured and easy-to-miss pieces.
Bloodborne on PC: What we know | PC Gamer

These games are known for multi-layered stories that are hard to get all the details of and explain very little of their own mechanics. In a meta sense, the games also have a reputation of promoting communities that boast about their skill and compare “real” ways to play the game.

I don’t fuck with that. If you’re playing the game, do it your way. There are a million ways, and yours isn’t going to be for everyone. There’s nothing wrong with it, even if you’re exploiting glitches in the game. It’s a game, so have some fun, damnit!

But that’s just background! Now that you’re caught up to speed, we can get to the tips. For the purposes of this piece, I’m going to keep it straightforward and stick to the one I know best: Bloodborne (2015). A lot of these tips will apply to any Soulslike game, but I’ll only be using Bloodborne terminology for ease.

I’ll note here that Bloodborne carries major content warnings of horrific body transformation, pregnancy-based horror, eye-based horror, spiders, and snakes, as well as some other themes sprinkled that may be potentially triggering for folks. These five, though, are next to unavoidable (though the spiders and snakes are only contained to a couple sections). I’m also going to stop italicizing “Bloodborne” every time I say it because it’s easier this way.

Watch Someone Else Play

This is my #1 tip. Find someone you like and watch them play it. These games’ stories and worlds are cool as hell (especially Bloodborne’s,) but you don’t need to actually play the game to get the full experience of them. You can watch explainer videos, read wiki pages, or even just pick up art books and see how cool it is.

For getting a more primary experience with the games, you want to watch someone play through it. The difficulty here is finding people that play the game you want to watch and in a way that gives you what you want from the game.

For me, this was the first positive experience I had with these games in 2018 when Natalie Watson played for the first time on a chaotic Waypoint livestream where they debate the pronunciation of “bob-OMB.” It was a recipe for disaster for someone’s first time with a trying game. But she was surrounded by kind, caring experts who coached her through the game’s mechanics while also minimizing the kind of alienating behaviors that put people off these games. There wasn’t the overwhelming “tee hee you’ll see this thing about the game” or “the optimal play would be this.”

This livestream would go on to be a series known as “Big Boy Season,” where she plays through the entirety of the game with several great emotional moments. People helped her through and answered her questions. I recommend it because, as someone who had bounced hard off these games multiple times, I actually for once felt like I could try my hand at them. It helped that the Waypoint crew is and was warm, welcoming, and understanding, and of course, it was great to see that Natalie turned out to just be a fucking natural. (I will note that the Old Yharnam segment can be trying to watch as Natalie tries at an optional jump for a cosmetic improvement as the others on the stream are talking about a wide variety of different things over the almost 3 hours it takes to succeed, but I think the payoff is great if you stick through it)

Talk to Someone Who Likes It (that you know isn’t a jerk)

Similarly, friends can be an invaluable resource. Make clear how you want to play the game, how much information you want, and what kinds of tips you’re looking to get.

These games thrive on learning things you didn’t know you could do and sharing cool things you figured out or happened to you with friends. Play into that! Get help, revel in your accomplishments.

Trust me when I say that everyone who you know is a fan of these games is dying to talk about them and get people into them. Though if they unsolicited start talking about ways you “should” play to be “better,” that can be signs that they’re looking to recreate their own joy rather than help you reach yours.

Focus on Progress, Not on Failures

This is my #1 tip about playing the game itself. When you die, you lose your positional progress (how far you’d moved since the last checkpoint) and your currency (how many Blood Echoes you’d gained). That’s it. The game can’t take any other kind of progress from you. This means that dying in the game can be frustrating, but it can be freeing in a sense. It makes each step not about how much more you have to do again as much as it is about how much better and easier you can do it next time.

Sure, the consumables you used in that life are still used, but nothing else in the world changes. Any items you picked up, doors you opened, people you talked to, enemies and traps you learned about, and levels you’ve gained is all permanent progress. After you die, if you pick up your Echoes (or defeat the enemy that has them), you’ve effectively only lost time and energy.

So if you don’t care about losing the Echoes, you can just run around any area and explore, bypassing enemies. This is actually kind of a key part of the game: When you’re in a new area, your only goal is to explore (expect that you’re going to die and learn from what killed you), and when you’re in a really familiar area, your only goal is to get what you need and get through it.

Now I’ll say here something that I think is important to say for things like this: It’s okay if you don’t like it. Not everything is for everyone, and there’s no shame in not wanting the challenge, not being able to keep up, finding some parts too frustrating, or any of another million reasons you don’t want to play or stop playing any game.

Something other people really, really enjoy can just be something you don’t, and it’s as simple as that.

r/bloodborne - i love bloodborne players so much.

Playing Offline Hides Some Guidance, But Also Shields You from Gamers

The game allows the player to pick from preselected words to make notes that will sometimes appear in other players’ games. These can be helpful tips, people tricking you into jumping off a ledge, or they can be meanspirited jokes. The latter two stand out more often than not, but the former can be a major help in pointing out places and things that might otherwise be overlooked. Just brace yourself for the unfortunate fatphobic, misogynistic, transphobic, or otherwise groan-inducing “jokes” from time to time.

Playing online can also open you up to what is called “Invasions.” This means you can be playing your game as usual, and another player enters your game to kill you. You’ll have one shot at dueling another player, and for some people, this can be one of the coolest parts of the game!

Bloodborne has the advantage of you only being susceptible to invasions when you’ve summoned help otherwise. You’ll usually only do this when you’re running to a boss, so the window is slim, but it could disrupt your flow. This means you are less likely to be caught wholly unaware.

It’s a double-edged sword. I’ve never played in online mode, so I’ve missed out on both ends of it, for better and for worse.

Bloodborne How To Kill First Boss Cleric Beast

You Can’t Level Up Until A Point

Okay, I’m gonna get into tips about the actual game mechanics now, and I’ll do my best to explain terms as I use them.

Like the title says, you can’t level up until you gain 1 Insight. This is a killer for a lot of folks. Typically what you can do to make an area easier is to fight a couple guys, retry until you get used to them, pop back to the Doll, level up, and the numbers are slightly more in your favor, making the area slightly easier.

But… you can’t do that in the first area of the game, which is an absolutely wild decision in my opinion. The ways to correct this are to find and use an item called “Madman’s Insight” or to see a boss (you don’t have to beat it, just see it to gain the Insight) and that mysterious number in the top-right of your screen will tick to 1, allowing you to talk to The Doll and level up!

How to Avoid Attacks | Frame Dodge Guide | Monster Hunter Rise | MHR (MH  Rise)|Game8
gif from Monster Hunter: Rise displaying “iframes”

Roll Against the Punches

In the gif above, you see the player roll into a giant monster’s tail sweep. Logic dictates that the player would be hit by the tail on account of it going right through them. Luck would have it that this is a video game, and video games with dodge rolls often have invincibility frames or “iframes.”

You’ve likely heard this term if you’re familiar with fighting games. If you’re not, though, it is kind of just what it says on the tin. During a certain action, the player cannot be hit for a certain number of frames (or seconds) of animation. So if you roll at the right time, you can’t be hit.

This is obviously tricky and the most directly technical aspect of the game, but there’s a way to make it easier: Roll into or past the attack. Just like in the gif, aim to be where the blow is coming from. This minimizes the time that you overlap with the damaging part and has the added benefit of most often putting you in position to attack your opponent.

Practice this. Find a guy with a drawn-out, obvious attack, and roll into the attack. If you’re afraid of dying, go back to that thing I said above. Learning the game is progress, and the game can’t take that from you.

YARN | The closer we are to danger, the farther we are from harm. | The  Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) | Video gifs by quotes | 1d9dec2a  | 紗
Pippin in Lord of the Rings saying “The closer we are to danger, the farther we are from harm.”

Be Brave

Bloodborne has a “Rally” system, meaning once you get hit, you have a window where you can recover some of the health you lost by damaging enemies. It appears as a quickly-depleting bar connecting where your health was and where it is now; attacking can make your HP take steps back up to where it was, rewarding aggression.

Combine this with the last tip, and we have a key philosophy to these games that Pippin says above; Let yourself take the risk to get hit, so you know when you’re safe and when you aren’t. Don’t worry about dying and falling behind, or whatever, especially in the first area, because if you get this down, you tone down a ton of the difficulty of having to run away from your opponents, then back in to hit them, then back out, and so on.

Another trick is that sometimes, to dodge something, you don’t even have to roll or sprint! You can just calmly walk out of the way and spend all your stamina on a counter-attack.

To be more general about it: Be tactical. Save your stamina. Roll when you need to. Get behind your enemy, and wail on that butt.

(Side note: As long as you have ANY stamina, you can roll. When you’re attacking, figure out how many swings you can normally get in a combo before you run out of stamina. Save even a sliver of stamina, and it can make the difference between victory and defeat.)

da share z0ne on Twitter: "JUST WALKED OUT OF JEREMYS PLACE IN DA MIDDLE OF  A STORY https://t.co/G781iJuepW" / Twitter
da share z0ne’s classic “hit da bricks

Be Not Brave

You don’t have to take every fight; you don’t have to win every fight; you don’t always have to fight fair.

If you’re sitting on enough Echoes to level you a billion times over, and it looks like you’re going to lose a fight, you can just run! Even if it’s a boss, you can pop around a corner and buy yourself enough time to use a Bold Hunter’s Mark to bring you back home.

Similarly, if you’re low on health and don’t want to take the risk to run in to get that last blow on the annoying enemy, just throw some Molotovs their way! You can trap some larger enemies in doors and attack them from beyond their reach, and you can glitch enemies, attack them from outside their reach, etc.! Look around your environment for ways to make the fight easier. For most bosses, you can even search their name and “cheese” and get a video on how to manipulate them so you can continue on with the game.

I never specifically glitched an enemy I didn’t want to fight, but I will wholeheartedly defend anyone who does. It can be part of the fun, and it can help you get out of a frustrating spot. No one worth your time is here to stop you from playing the game how you want to play it.

Bloodborne brick guys - YouTube

You Can Run Out of Healing

Your character can carry 20 or more Blood Vials, which is a huge amount of healing. However, these Vials don’t come back. You have to get more. Running out always is a huge point of frustration in this game for folks.

First thing I’ll say is that if you’re early on, frustrated, and you run out, you can just restart your game. Obviously, you lose time and progress, but you’ve learned more, and it can feel better to start fresh than to try to salvage a mess. If you’re not doing that, you have two solid options for gaining Blood Vials:

Once you’ve opened the gate to the left of the first lantern, you can stick left and head down to these two guys underneath a bridge. Both of them drop Blood Vials very consistently. You can pop down, kill these guys, pop back for them to respawn, repeat. It’s grindy work, but it works.

You can also buy Blood Vials in the Hunter’s Dream. Left of where you first spawn, in the fountain just past the doll (but still on her elevation level), you can trade Echoes for Vials. I always did this with my leftover Echoes after leveling up, especially if I knew I was going somewhere I was going to die a lot. You can stockpile quite a few, and this can help you funnel some farming where you need it.

Bloodborne - More Screenshots Show Armor, Weapons and Detailed Graphics

Weapon Tips

Find a weapon you think is cool and stick with it. Don’t be afraid to try other options—I think every single one is cool as hell—but any of the weapons you start the game with can carry you just as far as any of the others. I used Threaded Cane all through the game and the DLC, and the only reason I changed for the last boss fight was that I thought the new weapon was one of the coolest I’d ever seen in a video game.

There’s a benefit to being familiar with your weapon, but you’ll run into a ton of sick-ass weapons that you’ll wanna mess around with. It’s all about preference.

Some quick mechanical things: If you change your weapon’s form in the middle of a combo, there’s often a special attack associated with it. Use this to chain different modes often for a really powerful effect! If you’re wielding two-handed, your L1 and L2 tend to become other attacks since you aren’t holding a gun! You can also often charge your R2 and L2 attacks by holding the button and releasing them after you see your character glint.

When you’ve seen a weapon you like, you can look at its “Attribute Bonus.” This determines how much benefit it gets from your character’s stats ( – being no effect, ranging from D to S, with S being strongest effect). These bonuses go up when you upgrade as well, so don’t be afraid to swap and upgrade another weapon to compare! Only the last couple levels of upgrade use items that are limited per game, so don’t be afraid to throw some money and shards around to just mess around!

15 Tips for Bloodborne Beginners - GameSpot

Character Build Tips

One thing that is a little less flexible, though, is your character. When you level up, there’s not really a way to undo that. This means that if you’ve been leveling to improve your weapon based only on Strength and you want to try a weapon that is based only on Skill, you’ll have a harder time making that pivot. For the most part, there is overlap, and you can kind of know what to expect: Strength weapons hit harder and often slower; Skill weapons are more about being tricky and dancing around your opponent or hitting them from afar.

When leveling up, you can see the impact on your character’s stats that directly impact the game. Your “R-hand WPN 1 ATK” and the like correspond to what the base controls would have as “R1” attack and such.

Here’s a specific exception to Bloodborne: It’s best to not invest heavily into Arcane or Bloodtinge unless you’re already really confident in your abilities. Arcane will help with some special abilities, and items like Molotovs and Bloodtinge improve the damage of your gun (which you’ll most likely be using just to parry, as I’ll describe below). However, unlike most other Soulslikes, you don’t get enough spells and equipment to make these worthwhile until way late in the game, so these builds don’t majorly pay off until you start a new game plus. (after beating the game, you can just restart with your same character and equipment; enemies will scale up in difficulty. This is called NG+ or new game plus)

One other thing I’ll mention that becomes relevant later on in your game is that stats have invisible “Soft caps” and “Hard caps.” The soft cap means that you start getting diminishing returns increasing a stat after that point; the hard cap means that you start getting basically no return on increasing it. These are easy to search for and to notice. Just once you get to around 30 or higher in a stat, start looking at how much actual impact you get from leveling something up.

Miscellaneous Tips

Talk to every NPC until they repeat a line of dialogue. Red lanterns indicate that someone is waiting inside. You can talk to the door.

A ton of details about the story are revealed in item descriptions. You don’t need to read them, but you get a lot more narrative if you do.

When exploring new places, look around a lot. Paths can be obscured by destructible boxes, and enemies can be hiding just around the corner. Be suspicious of open spaces and items. If you haven’t seen the trap, you probably fell for it.

Enemies have what is called a “leash.” After they’ve been following you for a certain amount of time, they’ll stop or won’t attempt to follow you after you pass a certain point. Learn where you can run through without issue.

Enemies add up quickly. Try to take on as few at a time as you can. Use the environment to your advantage to funnel groups; use ranged weapons to attack individual enemies so you can deal with smaller numbers at a time.

You can use enemies’ leash to run in, ambush one guy in a big group, then run back out, so the group doesn’t follow you, so you don’t get surrounded or have to deal with a big stack of enemies.

Learn what enemies make your life miserable. Find a way to kill them first. These are often enemies with ranged attacks or small enemies like dogs and rats that rush you down. For ranged enemies, it’s usually best to just rush them, hit them once or twice, then run elsewhere. For fast enemies, retreat and they’ll catch up to you quicker than the other enemies; take them out, then move on.

Learn what enemies take time to kill. Try to kill them last. This is usually the biggest guy in the group or the guys with shields. They’re rarely threats by themselves, but if they’re standing next to a guy you’re trying to kill, they can disrupt your combo and get you killed by the others. Similar to fast enemies, try to pull their friends away from them and then kill them last.

When you knock an enemy down or when you sneak up behind one, you can do a visceral attack by essentially hugging them from behind and pressing R1. You have to be at the right angle and press it, not as part of a combo. You’ll enter an animation where other enemies can’t even hit you, so you can use this to your advantage. You can practice this on a lot of the guys in the first area, particularly to the right of the street.

Learn how to parry. The big guys for Blood Vial farming are great for this. It takes bravery, but just stand still and let them hit you. You want to shoot them with your gun RIGHT when the blow is about to connect. This will knock them down, and you can walk up and visceral them. You can do this on almost any enemy roughly your size and on some larger than you, even bosses. If they react when you shoot them, you can likely parry them, though it may be tough for some. If you want to make parrying easier on yourself, start with the Blunderbuss and just use that; it’s a short-range with a big burst, hard to miss your target, even if you get the timing right.

If you don’t want to mess with parrying, It might be best to start with the pistol, which you can use to pull individuals from a distance. Once you have the Spyglass, you can also use it to “aim” a gun for longer shots.

Learn how certain enemies react to certain actions you take. If an enemy is easier to kill after they do a certain action, you can sometimes trick them into doing that. For instance, shielded enemies can be annoying, but sometimes you can stand right in front of them, wait for them to attack, and then dodge behind them, bypassing the shield.

Large enemies have big swings but often have trouble hitting you quickly or up close. If you’re at their feet, it can be easier to dodge their attacks while still being in range of your own. Just make sure you’re not under their feet!

You’ll get items for Chalice rituals. These are done on the gravestones along the lefthand path to the Hunter’s Workshop Manor. They are self-contained dungeons that are good for trying weapons and practicing, but you by no means have to do them. They’re also tied into the story but in the deepest of lore sense. Totally optional.

To access the free Old Hunters DLC (which, in my opinion, is the best part of any FromSoft game I’ve ever played, though possibly the hardest), you’ll get a weird eye. Go where you got the top hat. You’ll remember the spot. The enemies here are strong to where I’ve only done this essentially right before beating the main game’s final boss.

There are many optional areas and branching paths in Bloodborne especially. It can be tough to figure out where you need to go next. Look up an area you’ve been to on the wiki (You can just search “Bloodborne ,” and that’ll usually bring it up as the first result). There will often be a panel on the side that says “Next location,” and either the location you’re on or the next will have directions of how to get there. Cycle through a few “Next Locations,” and you should be able to get to somewhere new. These pages will also have a “Recommended Level” listed if you want to have a comparison for level based on location.

You can only lock on to hostile characters. If you see someone and you can’t lock onto them, they’re likely an NPC you can talk to!

You can kill any NPC. Only the Doll and Gehrman respawn. Be careful when setting down your controller facing someone!

This is a broader story tip that’s vaguely a spoiler, so I’m putting it all the way down here. A good rule of thumb is that men go to the clinic and women go to the chapel.

Another vague story tip is to do all the side quests you wanted to do before you go into the lake.

Final future tip is when you get to the caged man boss, you can try to figure out on your own how to beat him if you’d like. I would recommend watching a video of someone beating him.

Well, that’s all I’ve got! If you’ve made it all the way down here, thank you for reading! If you’ve got other questions or concerns, feel free to tweet at me @Caseycrook; I am always thinking about Bloodborne or my tabletop RPGs and love to talk about them.

So long for now. Until then,

Hunt your beasts, and think no more on the secrets of the night.
That is the very best a hunter can do.
Just don’t let the blood intoxicate you.

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