The first time I beat Bloodborne, I watched the credits roll in a state of disappointment. I thought many of the bosses were poorly designed, and I found the overall experience to be too frustrating to be enjoyable. But after spending a year away from Bloodborne, I recently played through it again, and it was only after beating it for the second time that I realized I am a dumb idiot with a walnut for a brain. Bloodborne is a masterpiece, an instant classic, and one of the best video games I’ve played in my life.
There’s an ocean of bloody great qualities that I could shower praise onto here, but what truly impressed me about Bloodborne the second time through was its expansion, The Old Hunters. This piece of downloadable content features some of the best boss fights in the entire game, and some of the best boss fights that I’ve played in a video game in general. One boss from The Old Hunters particularly stuck with me, though: Lady Maria of the Astral Clock Tower. Lady Maria moves quickly even for Bloodborne, a game renowned for its brutal, fast-paced combat, but despite how thrilling the mechanics, music, and visuals of this fight are, what has so captivated me about this boss is the context behind the battle.
To understand Maria, we have to understand her story, so strap in for a slightly abridged explanation of Bloodborne’s vague and complicated narrative. Maria was a skilled hunter—a slayer of beasts and monsters in the Bloodborne universe—and her weapon of choice was her Rakuyo, a twin-bladed weapon that separates into a katana and a dagger. She was also a descendant of a bloodline which, to keep things simple, could use their special blood as a weapon. Despite having access to this ability, she abhorred using her own blood in this way, and she eventually grew to abhor violence in general.
Long before the events of Bloodborne, Maria and her mentor, Gehrman, were sent by an organization of scholars to investigate a village called the Fishing Hamlet. Bloodborne is heavily inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, whose stories often include godlike alien beings who have ascended to a higher level of consciousness. A corpse of one of these beings, known as a Great One, had washed up on the shore of the Fishing Hamlet, and the scholars were eager to study how the physiology of the Fishing Hamlet’s inhabitants had been changed by their interaction with the Great One’s corpse. With this goal in mind, Maria and Gehrman killed and mutilated the villagers to closely examine their altered anatomy. It is hinted that she and Gehrman also violated the corpse of the Great One in some way, likely by stealing its child and spiriting it away to be experimented on by the scholars. It was the guilt of these atrocities that she committed in the Fishing Hamlet that eventually led her to turn away from violence, abandoning her beloved Rakuyo in a dark well as a sign of her commitment to pacifism.
This decision led Maria to work at the Research Hall, which is the area that directly precedes her boss arena. Throughout this maze of winding staircases and sick rooms are droves of crazed patients whose heads have swelled to monstrous and ever-shifting proportions. These patients were experimented on in an attempt to contact and converse with the Great Ones, and as a result, most of the research subjects were driven mad. Of the few non-hostile patients, several of them seem to confuse the player for Lady Maria, as they are blind and would be unable to identify the player by sight. They beg Maria to take their hand as they call out to her for help, which implies that she was a caretaker of sorts for these patients who brought comfort to them in their agony. What further supports this theory is that several lumenflowers—a unique type of flower that grows around the Research Hall—are found in the patients’ rooms. Lumenflowers are objects that are heavily associated with Maria, implying that she brought the patients these flowers in order to ease their pain.
Despite the kindness that she showed these tortured people, Maria eventually abandoned them, climbing to the top of the Astral Clock Tower above the Research Hall. Why she did this is never directly revealed, but it is probable that she tired of her inability to significantly help the patients after witnessing so many of them suffer and go mad. It is in the clock tower that she took her own life, likely due to the guilt of her actions in the Fishing Hamlet and her ultimate helplessness in her duties at the Research Hall.
But if Maria committed suicide, then how do you fight her in the Old Hunters expansion? Well, as you may have guessed after reading the previous paragraphs, Bloodborne is a pretty weird game. It focuses heavily on dreams and nightmares, and after Maria took her own life, her consciousness became trapped within a nightmare (a nightmare, mind you, which only ensnares bloodthirsty hunters, which unequivocally confirms that she perpetrated violence in her lifetime). It is within that same nightmare that the ruins of the Fishing Hamlet lie, and the only thing standing between you and the Fishing Hamlet is Maria. Despite her vow against violence, Maria is willing to break that vow and attack you in order to keep the secret of what she did at the Fishing Hamlet hidden. In the second and third phases of the fight, she will even utilize her special blood as a weapon against you, further breaking her own stringent principles in order to keep her terrible secret hidden.
Maria’s willingness to entirely compromise her values to protect the Fishing Hamlet is not purely selfish, however; it is selfless, and I would argue predominantly selfless. What is so tragic about Maria is that she wishes to prevent anyone else from making the same mistakes that she did; in the cutscene that precedes her boss fight, she seemingly lies dead on a chair before springing to life and stating, “A corpse, should be left well alone. Oh, I know very well how the secrets beckon so sweetly.” Her defilement of a Great One is something that she directly alludes to in this dialogue; while it may initially appear that the “corpse” she refers to is her own, as she appears dead when the player inspects her, this is also a clear reference to the corpse of the Great One in the Fishing Hamlet. Maria, better than anyone, understands your curiosity, your desire to uncover the mysteries of the world. The last thing that she wants is for someone else—in this case, the player—to do as she did, to butcher innocent villagers and violate a Great One in the relentless pursuit of knowledge.
Most importantly, the fact that Maria attacks you and uses her blood against you demonstrates how much she has changed throughout her character arc. When you fight her in the nightmare at the end of her story, her pacifism and forswearing of her bloodline aren’t nearly as important to her as atoning for the sins of her past and doing the right thing. While she does inevitably fall to the player, her final act, in some small way, at least, was an act of redemption, a rebuke of her former identity. In Bloodborne, a game which largely focuses on the cosmic horror of the existence of omnipotent alien beings, the tragic tale of Lady Maria stands out as one of the most pervasive and human stories that I have ever encountered in a video game.
From Software, Bloodborne’s developer, could have easily shirked including so much backstory to Maria’s character and the battle would still have been very memorable. Mechanically speaking, it’s one of the more challenging fights in the game and features some of the best thrills that the action genre has to offer. Its exhilarating music and stunning animation add an extraordinary amount of spectacle, but it is the context surrounding the fight against Maria that elevates it to such a high quality and allows it to affect the player in a way that most games are unable to even dream of. It is only through Maria’s actions in her boss fight, the details in the environment, and several lines of dialogue and item descriptions that we are shown her character growth. Yet with so little, From Software manages to say so much, and the effect that her story has had on me is monumental compared to the vast, vast majority of most other video game bosses.
Lady Maria is far from the only standout boss in The Old Hunters. Its final boss, the Orphan of Kos, is widely regarded as the most challenging fight in all of Bloodborne, and for good reason. He must have pummeled me to death nearly 100 times before I finally bested him. Comparatively, I died to Maria only once before defeating her on my second attempt. Despite the Orphan of Kos’ supreme challenge, it is Maria that resonated most with me as a boss and as a character. The story of Lady Maria is only a portion of the overall story of Bloodborne, and my time spent battling her represents an even smaller portion of my overall playthrough, but Maria’s story is what I can’t get out of my head, even two months after I’ve stopped playing the game.
The only reason I’ve stopped playing Bloodborne, mind you, is because I don’t own a PS4, which is the only console Bloodborne is available on. This means that I played through Bloodborne on a friend’s PS4, and as I’ve since moved to a different city, I’m unable to further explore the game’s haunting and enthralling settings. But I have no doubt that I will one day return to Bloodborne to immerse myself in one of the best gaming experiences of the last decade.