If you saw my previous review of Bloodborne, you’d know that I hated my initial playthrough. That’s because I had no idea what the hell was going on when the game acted like I needed to know everything. Every conversation was cryptic, every environment was dripping with convoluted item descriptions, and the game’s environment rapidly shifted between juxtaposing tones. It was a confusing mess.
It also didn’t help that the game was obscenely hard and punishing. Constant deaths and lost progress are not a good combo to encourage replayability. I wasn’t seeing the appeal of this game. I watched lore videos online, which were definitely informative (shoutouts to VaatiVidya) but I feel like I shouldn’t have to do external research to actually enjoy a game’s content. It isn’t school.
But then I picked the game up again, 6 months later. I knew the environments, used different weapons, and became attuned to them. The experience was actually fun!
But I still didn’t know what was going on. The game’s lore and story were lost on me, and the lack of easily understood exposition bugged me.
But then I found Upper Cathedral Ward. And the experience of exploring this level was like finally answering a thousand-year-old philosophical postulation. I became woke, as the youth of America say.
See, Upper Cathedral Ward is an optional area in Bloodborne. You never need to visit it. But, if you find the key in:
Y A H A R ‘ G U L T H E U N S E E N V I L L A G E, which is a village that is easily viewable from any point in the city. Solid name guys.
you can then open a thick, locked door that was mocking you for the last 10 hours of gameplay. This door with its, stoicism, apathy, and general door-ness. You open that door, finally, slowly, and through the cracks of the separating doors, you see this image:
A terrace, with a strange creature in the right corner, trying to climb the terrace fence. This creature, resembles an engorged fetus. Okay.
Immediately, the first creature you see is different from any of the werewolves, infected villagers, and zombies you’ve seen before. This looks…mournful. It doesn’t attack you at all unless you provoke it. It just seems like it wants to escape its cage, but can’t, due to its physical abnormalities.
These enemies are called Celestial Larvae, and, even killing them doesn’t provide much of a reward. Their presence is the antithesis to all previous, aggressive enemies you’ve encountered. It’s a stark, deliberate contrast, that captures the attention.
After you meet this creature, you take a staircase upwards to your left, and find a cobblestone bridge. On this bridge are two of these lovely folks:
waiting to give you a nightly greeting and prayer. What’s interesting about these guys, is, they are enemies from much earlier in the game. They wander Cathedral Ward (regular Cathedral Ward, not upper) attempting to attack the player if they walk by. Earlier in the game, you also hear rumblings of the Healing Church, one of the biggest influencers of Yharnam, being split into three sects of power. Upper Cathedral Ward contains a group called “The Choir,” which attempted to communicate with the gods above. They wanted to study them and harness their power, to become gods themselves.
These Church Servants are the only humans you see in Upper Cathedral Ward, so seeing them previously mingling in the lower portions of Cathedral Ward, immediately signifies to the player, that their mission likely failed. They aren’t better than any other human. They are equally deranged as the monsters who attack the player. It’s the first bit of environmental storytelling in Bloodborne that resonated with me. Without saying a word, I pieced together a story bit all on my own, and I felt proud for it.
As you read further into this article, you will learn that Upper Cathedral Ward is one of gaming’s best examples of having so much revealed to you through doing so little. This environment doesn’t have the best boss or enemies. In fact, it has very few opponents. It isn’t very long either, as it will probably take an average player about 30 minutes to complete the area. But the small environmental touches it does use to highlight the methods of the Choir, the loftiness of their dream, and the final punchline of the area, are what makes it so special.
After the bridge blokes are slain, you cross, and come across a massive, opulent gate. Around the gate, are slithering Celestial Larvae. These can be inferred as Choir members who attempted to reach godhood, but just became monstrous husks.
I think the fact that they do not provide much experience upon death also contributes to their narrative of failure. They’re fodder for you at this point, and while they may have been formidable fighters in their time before transformation, they threw away everything in their life for a lofty dream. It is somewhat admirable, and incredibly tragic.
After slaughtering the fetus friends, you book it up another staircase to the interior of a large manor, and the indulgences of The Choir become apparent to the player. While Yharnam, the previously area in the game you explored before has Gothic architecture, Upper Cathedral Ward has a fairly standard mansion with red carpets, chandeliers, and fine bedding.
This environmental change marks a tonal change through environmental storytelling. The world you knew, the city you knew, was not as it seemed. It is multi-faceted, it has hierarchies, and maybe, with the knowledge they gained from the gods, The Choir forwent the Gothic aesthetic for something more practical. But, that’s just wild speculation.
After some further exploration around the massive halls, you eventually open a door that leads to another terrace overlooking Yharnam. And you see this:
Surrounded by alien stone architecture, you see a fleshy skeleton-like figure, posing ominously. This pose is an attempt to make contact with the gods above. It’s a haunting image, because it shows that, even the act of communication has horrible ramifications on an individual. It shows that humans cannot escape their mortal shells and become anything greater than their physical capabilities. It’s either you fight during the hunt and live in the terrible, disease-riddled Yharnam, or die, attempting to achieve greater meaning in life.
It also gives you a glimpse of the player’s futility in this world. The entire game, the player has been building up strength and becoming a super powerful hunter. But seeing this? Seeing that, even attempting to converse with higher beings reverts you to this husk? Seeing The Choir members previously attempt to talk with the gods and becoming horrific monstrosities is chilling. You know that there is an almighty power above you, and you can never stop it. It will always have influence and greater power than you, no matter what. Maybe it influences your decisions. Maybe it grasps causality as well, and maybe, in the end, there is no meaning in life.
I mean, there’s no meaning in life for the Celestial Emissary. This is the stupidest boss in the game. It’s literally just a bigger version of the enemies around it.
But don’t worry, this isn’t how Upper Cathedral Ward ends, not at all. Because, if you break the window in the arena for the Celestial Emissary, you find that there is a little more to this area.
In the hallway after breaking the window, you find a dead Choir member holding a spell called, “A Call Beyond.” Here is the description of that item. Try to read it in the most over-the-top, Victorian way possible for maximum Bloodborne experience:
“One of the secret rites of the Choir. Long ago, the Healing Church used phantasms to reach a lofty plane of darkness, but failed to make contact with the outer reaches of the cosmos. The rite failed to achieve its intended purpose, but instead created a small exploding star, now a powerful part of the Choir’s arsenal. At times, failure is the mother of invention.”
If you didn’t understand that Bloodborne-ese (not many people do, it’s an archaeic language), this spell is a result of the Choir attempting to reach another plane of existence. It also highlights the nihilistic themes present in the game. That, regardless of your efforts, you cannot escape your position. The best The Choir could muster is an exploding star spell, which is a goal that they never wanted. What makes matters worse, is this is the hardest spell to cast in the game. An exploding star is the best magical ability that humans can hope to muster. An explosion spell is the best humanity can do.
Further into the depths, you find a ladder, that takes you underground.
AND IT IS HERE, THAT YOU FIND THE FINAL PIECE AND GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT OF THE CHOIR, AND ARGUABLY, HUMANITY:
A big, gloopy, tentacle monster. Wow. really making major scientific breakthroughs Yharnam. This is the best we’ve got?
This creature is called Ebreitas, Daughter of The Cosmos. It is the method The Choir uses to communicate with the gods, called The Great Ones. They have this creature chained up and tormented here. It is just lost in the physical realm, and cannot return to its place of origin. It’s pretty depressing.
Ebreitas’ presence also makes light of a previous spell in the game called the “Augur of Ebreitas.” This spell is laughable, but it is literally you turning your arm into a tentacle, and flailing it. It’s nothing special. It further represents the theme that mankind are just physical shells, and that access to arcane, eldritch magic is such a lofty, terrifying goal. Like, people train their entire lives, to turn their arm into a tentacle.
But Ebreitas’ mere presence also shows the limitations of humanity. Humans cannot comprehend what The Great Ones are saying, and thus, gain all their knowledge through dissecting Ebreitas and subjecting her to torment. Perhaps it was Ebreitas who turned all those Choir members into slugs at the beginning, but, that’s also wild speculation.
The fight with Ebreitas is also fairly unique. It’s one of the few bosses who attacks using arcane magic with light limb flailing. Most bosses in Bloodborne only flail their limbs, and you roll away from those crazy arms. Ebreitas saunters around, not really flailing. I appreciate that.
The arena is also beautiful compared to other locations. It has a blue hue to it, which juxtaposes the colour red, that represents the beasts previously seen in the game. It shows that, the cosmic beings you fight in the later portion of the game are vastly different from the first half. Using a subtle colour hint, it signifies the shifting tone that you experience.
Once you beat Ebreitas, you’re left with a feeling of revelation. You learn what humanity is capable of. You learn a lot about the mysterious events preceding the game, and you gain more insight into the world. And all of this is done using level design. Not a single spoken word conveys this information to you. And, to me, that makes Upper Cathedral Ward one of the best levels in video games.
I mean, to me at least. Some people think it’s just a building.