Being released early in the year is often a death knell for end of the year recognition. In the video game world, acknowledgement is rarely given to anything prior to early September, where publishers and consumers have dictated important releases begin. It makes sense then that Sony decided to release the expansion to its most well-received game of the year with Bloodborne: The Old Hunters. As a side story to the main game that can be accessed fairly early on, The Old Hunters is an experience equal parts engaging and infuriating, more so than even the base game. Somewhat short and intermittently sweet, The Old Hunters is a densely-packed and tightly-crafted work for the faithful. Those who fell in love with the city of Yharnam and are looking for a reason to return have finally found an excuse while others might want to avoid the aggravation.
Stucturally, The Old Hunters is a bit like a sandwich made with stale bread. It's brutally tough to get through the ends, but the middle is a fresh and invigorating palette cleanser, a tasteful mix of simple, yet effective, exploration and combat. The expansion is relatively stand-alone, it affects very little of the main game except for introducing new weapons, items, and a new covenant.
From a narrative perspective, The Old Hunters sends the player into a nightmare where he encounters the memories of past hunters who had previously been only mentioned in passing. The expansion almost seems an exercise in attaching faces to names that are important only to those who scoured the item definitions. The content is split among three zones — The Hunter's Nightmare, The Research Hall, and Fishing Hamlet — and four bosses, as well as one hidden boss. Each zone and boss is quite distinct, though the difficulty varies wildly from location to location.
Players begin in the Hunter's Nightmare, a reworked Central Yharnam that teams with insane hunters and grotesque monsters. At the beginning, the area is in midday, a stark contrast to the dusk and night of the main game. Here is where the first wake up call for players is, as some of the enemies are equipped with new, unfamiliar weapons from the get-go and can appear in groups. This is the only time in the DLC where there is recycled content, as veterans of the game will recognize many of the important landmarks, but at the very least it has all been reorganized to feel a bit newer. It is the least interesting area in The Old Hunters, however, and feels more like a prelude for what is to come.
It isn't until the ending of the first zone where the expansion really starts to shake things up. The first mandatory boss fight, Ludwig, is an exceptionally difficult two-phase boss, complete with a mid-fight cutscene. At that point in the game, he is by far the most difficult of the bosses you have to face. This sentiment seemed to be shared by many, as the easiest place to summon allies to help was right outside of his boss arena. Fortunately, the reward for beating him is the Holy Moonlight Sword, a FromSoftware staple across multiple series and genres.
After the fight with Ludwig, however, the majority of the rest of the expansion is smooth sailing. Beyond Ludwig lies the Research Hall, a single building that houses many horrific experiments. It is also the most interesting of the three areas. Multiple floors connected by swirling staircases, each with numerous rooms with no immediate clear path to the final destination, make the area seem almost maze-like and really helps capture the series' penchant for intricate level design. The hunters that filled the Hunter's Nightmare are gone, replaced by more insane and deformed byproducts of experimentation. Despite being the most interesting and closest in style to Bloodborne proper, it ranks as the easiest part of the DLC and can be completed quite quickly. Even the boss of the area is a fairly simple, if visually interesting, one.
This is little more than a prelude to the highlight of the entire package, the boss fight with Lady Maria. She does not get her own area; her arena is immediately accessible upon completing the Living Failures. While able to be parried like most human bosses, thus making her a totally manageable boss fight for those who can competently perform a central component of the game, Maria is equal parts violent and elegant, quickly traveling across the arena and gradually increasing her range and damage as the fight continues in one of the series' most beautiful fights. The Astral Clock Tower, a unique area in its own right that is only used for this boss fight, is a sight to behold. The biggest problem with this section is that it is over far too soon.
The final area of the main path of the expansion is the Fishing Hamlet. The hamlet is a rainy and dilapidated village filled with fish people. It's a nice change of pace to the game's city and interior landscapes, with the winding pathways of the rundown shacks encrusted with coral contrasting with the overly Victorian feel of the rest of the game. It also happens to contain some of the most difficult non-boss sequences, as the giant land sharks, which may or may not be carrying boat anchors, are some of the most aggressive enemies in the game. These guys just do not stagger, yield, or relent in their never-ending quest to impede the player's progress, to the point it just became easier to pass them. For it's uniqueness, Fishing Hamlet is fortunately the largest part of the expansion and contains many of the expansion's splitting paths.
But as the DLC comes to a close, again the difficulty comes rushing back in as the final boss, the Orphan of Kos, makes its arrival and throws up the second of the brick walls of progression. Kos is a wild and erratic boss but unlike Ludwig, who becomes more reserved in his second form, he gets even wilder. His AoE attack covers the arena except for a small patch of land near the entrance and he dashes and bounds across the field in a much less clear manner of attack. Persistence and patience is absolutely necessary, but his difficulty feels appropriate as the climax of all the content. Making matters harder still, summoning help for the fight proved much more time consuming.
The Old Hunters feels a bit short for what its offering. Ignoring the boss fights that served as a roadblock for a few days, nearly the rest of the content could be explored in a few hours. More talented players can clear the content in a night or two, though admittedly a lot of its appeal comes from the list of new weapons and items that open up a lot more combat opportunities, especially for PvP.
What The Old Hunters does demonstrate is a very good reminder of one of 2015's better games. Lost in the shuffle that is the rest of the year, The Old Hunters serves to exemplify why exactly these Souls-style games work and continue to be worthwhile investments of time. The DLC's difficulty spikes provide a hearty challenge for those looking for it, but will almost certainly prove too frustrating for those not dedicated to the games. By the time of this writing most of the content has been uncovered already, so it is not as substantial as some other expansions, but it does make up for it in density. Still, this one is definitely for the fans.