Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4
Bloodborne will always be viewed from a skewed perspective. Living in the heavy shadow of From Software’s own incredibly successful Dark Souls series, it has much to prove to be considered a great game in its own right. It becomes immediately clear from the title sequence, with its melancholic choir lead music and clunking metallic sound effects that Bloodborne is a Souls style game. Indeed as the player dives into the game there is an instant familiarity: the uncompromising physical third-person combat system, the punishing death mechanic that plunges the player back to a previous checkpoint with all enemies respawned and a mysterious inexplicit storyline hidden in item descriptions and hinted at by the environment. Yet, while Bloodborne may be cut by the same rich hereditary marks of a Souls game, with Hidetaka Miyazaki retaking the reins as director (after taking only a supervisory role during Dark Souls II’s development) there is a clear desire to reassess and redesign the classic formula. Bloodborne is perhaps something less shrouded by obscurity, minor changes arguably aligning it with more aggressive hack and slash styled RPGs, but the result is certainly no less impressive.
You take the role of a hunter. An outsider subjected to a bizarre experiment allowing you to gain strength from your slaughtered foes and revel in the blood spilled (in the form of Blood Echoes which have replaced souls, the previous unit of experience). Sent out onto the ravaged streets of the city of Yharnam you are tasked with rooting out the cause of the evil that is twisting the minds of its inhabitants and mutating them into vicious beasts. It's a plot that on the face of it seems simple and clear compared to any of the pondering Souls' melancholic journeys, yet the dark secrets that lie at the core of Bloodborne are just as creepy and surreal, eventually erupting into rather extreme Lovecraftian horror that even manages to outweird the Souls games.
Completely unarmed on your first encounter, death comes swiftly and predictably, a statement of intent for the rest of the game.The iconic YOU DIED text, harvested from the Souls series, fades onto the screen and you are unceremoniously dumped into the Hunter's Dream. This area acts as a hub for the whole game - the player able to transport themselves between checkpoints (the bonfires replaced with lamps), as well as level and improve their equipment. It is an interesting mechanic, reminiscent of the Nexus in Demon’s Souls, that provides the player with a home area without breaking the mysterious and melancholic atmosphere of the game. However it is also the root cause of what is perhaps Bloodborne’s greatest issue that of loading times, something that we will discuss later.
Eventually the player will find their way back to Yharnam, armed with a choice of weapons provided by the dream, and get revenge on that creature that defeated you earlier. Much like its spiritual ancestors, the fighting in Bloodborne is intense. Every swing of a blade must be deliberate, every dodge or roll precisely timed to avoid an enemy’s attack, each move considerate of the swiftly depleting stamina bar that leaves the player unable to act. Any mistake is costly; often resulting in death, it is an uncompromising system that teaches you with the thrash of a brambled stick and rarely with a sweet carrot. The result is almost the polar opposite of other third-person action games such as Shadows of Mordor, where the player single-handedly can defeat hundreds of bloodthirsty orcs, in Bloodborne rashness is death, lack of planning is death, foolishness is always death.
It is strange then, given the above, that one could argue that Bloodborne is actually friendlier to newcomers: there are a number of systems incorporated into the game that actively encourage players to perhaps fight more aggressively than any of the previous Souls games. Due to the nature of the hunter and their symbiosis with blood, the health lost from each hit taken can be restored by damaging their opponent within a limited window. The result means the player can be slightly more open with their style, accepting incoming damage before retaliating and quickly recovering the lost health. This creates an interesting and clever dichotomy: it gives the player a chance to recover from mistakes but the resulting aggression can often lead to hot-headedness and inevitably death. Controlling this urge and learning when to attack is all part of the learning process.
The ever-dwindling supply of health-recovering estus flasks that are a symbolic part of the Souls experience are gone, replaced instead with blood vials that are found throughout the environment and often harvested from the bodies of dispatched foes. This means that a well stocked hunter will often enter fights with full health and be far less wary of healing in battles. They do still run out, but in general hunters will rarely have to retreat back to a lamps to recover, making progression between these checkpoints slightly faster and marginally less stressful than Dark Souls.
Perhaps the most noticeable change between Bloodborne and any of the Souls games is the ability to handle a ranged weapon in the off-hand. Given to you in the Hunter’s Dream, this becomes a key part of your repertoire. The limited supply of bullets fail to do much direct damage to your foes and can rarely be used to kill from afar, but instead act as a form of riposte. If the shots are timed correctly (with a window of opportunity far larger than the ripostes in other Souls games) foes will be momentarily stunned allowing the hunter to charge in and perform a visceral attack causing tremendous damage, often slaughtering enemies in one move. Again, much like the health recovery system, the guns encourage aggression offering huge risk for great rewards. For example a huge brute wielding a brick no smaller than you can be brought to his knees with a single shot, timed to counter his swing. Yet mistime this shot, or attempt to fire during unblockable moves and ultimately you will be buried beneath his blows. When this system works it is beautiful, there’s a huge feeling of elation at pulling off a successful visceral move, yet at the same time it creates a lot of frustration while learning those attacks that can be repelled and which will simply shrug off the shot causing your untimely demise.
Comparing this to the off-hand of most Souls players - wielding a hefty shield to protect them from incoming damage, biding their time to find the right moment to attack - so it becomes immediately obvious that combat in Bloodborne is meant to be more aggressive and ferocious, the hunter relying on timed dodges and cunning timed shots rather than hiding behind a defensive shield. Indeed Bloodborne almost does this mockingly, the description of a near useless wooden shield found on a perished corpse stating: “Hunters do not normally employ shields, ineffectual against the strength of the beasts as they tend to be. Shields are nice, but not if they engender passivity.”
Meanwhile in the main hand the hunter wields their trick weapon, called as such because it hides a whole alternative form that is called upon at the flick of a button. As in the Souls games before it, this can be swung with either a quick attack or a stronger slower attack and combinations of the two. While there are vastly fewer actual weapons in Bloodborne, each trick weapon feels unique, with different attack patterns and timings catering for all kinds of fighting styles. The result is that while players will quickly pick a favourite that suits how they play, certain encounters will require a change of tactics and while a change of weapon could help, often a switch to the trick form could save them from death. A cane dislocates into a whip, a cleaver swings into a longer-ranged scythe, a long sword (a personal favourite) breaks in two becoming vicious daggers. Learning when each trick is required is again all part of the learning process, but it is a process that adds a great deal of options and dynamic to each fight.
Since every weapon can be fortified with various blood stones and then further modified (in a format similar to Diablo) with gems found throughout the world, it is possible that the very first weapon you discover could see the hunter to the end of the game. This is certainly a strange concept for an RPG, but given that Bloodborne is as much about learning the timing and reach of each weapon, improving as a player rather than the stats behind them, in a way it makes sense. It could be said that the variation in action becomes a little stagnant due to this, but it also means that no one weapon is necessarily better than any other and even so there are enough weapons and stones available throughout the game that the player can change their gear later if they wish.
Players of the Souls series may mourn the loss of the variety in the inventory which was often packed to the rafters with all kinds of junk, but actually the refinement feels far more sensible. Indeed this is something that can be said about many of the changes made to Bloodborne. Everything is refined, the deadly rough edges of Dark Souls smoothed off in a fashion to make it less incomprehensible. You are unlikely to wander off into areas that are way beyond your skill (notoriously everyone first went straight into The Catacombs in Dark Souls, an almost end-game area that was bizarrely open from the start), items are far less mysterious with descriptions that usually give some context to their use. There are also far fewer areas where dangerous drops can kill with one misclick, or treasure chests that might decide to eat you instead of handing you items. Indeed most of the niggling issues that put many off Dark Souls are gone, making a far more approachable (but still extremely difficult) AAA game.
But there is some cost to this. Part of the praise that Dark Souls has received in the years since it was released is due to its mystery, a love spawned from understanding a thing of complexity, awareness slowly dawning on you after tens of hours of confusion. There are far fewer random areas hidden behind secret walls for example. Also gone are statistics such as the poise of armour and their burden. There’s no opportunity to play bulky characters weighed down by their armour but unlikely to be stunned if hit by an opponent, or conversely a naked fighter, lightning fast but knocked out if touched. In addition there’s not really an option to play as a magician, spells removed from the game in favour of items that have a multitude of effects at the cost of bullets, but none with enough power to rely upon completely. There’s variation in the weapons in Bloodborne but the actual play styles are certainly reduced due to this.
The one area in which Bloodborne really suffers? Loading times. As mentioned earlier the game’s pacing is seriously hindered by loading. It loads when you die, which is often, and it loads when you teleport to new locations, which is often. While a patch that has just been released has helped reduce these times marginally, it is still a big issue. The frustration of dying and then staring at a random item descriptions (a function that replaces the Bloodborne symbol since the patch) will be enough to defeat some players, more so than the monsters in the game. Load times average around thirty seconds, which might not sound like a lot, but when you can often die within a minute it becomes excessively repetitive. The game does not even help itself either - forcing you to transport (and load) first to the hub of the Hunter’s Dream to level up or shop before teleporting (and load) elsewhere. It’s an instance where a more simplistic design could have really helped remove a large amount of frustration.
Let’s talk multiplayer. The Souls series has always followed a predictably mysterious way with its both asynchronous and synchronous multiplayer concept and Bloodborne is no different. Players can leave cryptically limited messages lying around the place to give advice to (or on some occasions hinder) other players, or they can ring a bell in their inventory to either summon another hunter to their world or ring another bell to allow other players to summon them. If you are struggling on an area then often a quick solution is to ask for help and other hunters will soon appear in your world to share the burden. Fighting monsters, and especially bosses, is much easier with help as most creatures struggle to comprehend fighting multiple opponents sometimes making proceedings rather farcical. Death may always be a few heartbeats away, but in cooperative multiplayer those heartbeats are slower, less panicked and perhaps it is someones else’s death anyway, leaving you strutting some mocking gesture as their corpse is tossed to the side. Personally I’ve always found multiplayer in Souls games rather destructive of the wonderfully oppressive atmosphere it creates playing solo and tend to stray away from it, but it is at least an option to make some progress if an area or boss is really bringing you down.
Player versus player returns as well, though it is much more limited than in Dark Souls. Another bell can be rung to invade another player’s realm and attempt to kill them but in general the areas where this is possible are greatly reduced and there is far more warning if an invasion is imminent. Essentially it means that hunters can avoid PVP if they wish. There are also far fewer covenants (groups that call their members to perform certain tasks usually related to multiplayer), all of which are deliberately difficult to discover and join, making them a much more endgame prospect particularly when compared to Dark Souls II that had a wide range of covenants to join and some available from near the start. Essentially Bloodborne does not want to confuse the player further before they really have any kind of grip on the game, a statement that certainly cannot be said about any of the Souls series.
There is one other mechanic in Bloodborne that is wholly original compared to its ancestors, which is also in some way related to multiplayer. At a fairly early stage in the game the hunter gains the ability to open a whole new set of dungeons that are unconnected to the main story line (but cleverly still part of the narrative). Some of these areas are procedurally generated which makes them far less predictable compared to the main areas and can be used for farming certain items (needed to open up deeper, more difficult, dungeons, as well as more blood echoes). Players can even open up their dungeons to the public and supply the key to their friends to allow them to play the same dungeon, and fight together if playing at the same time. It is certainly a fun addition that adds a great deal of depth and replayability to the game, the only issue is that these randomly generated areas, as is often the case, become rather mundane and repetitive after a few attempts. Large blocks of land are repeated and it all becomes a bit too generic, particularly when every level of the dungeon becomes a hunt for a switch to open the area to a boss. In a way it shows us how superbly achieved level design and atmosphere is in the mains storyline of Bloodborne since these areas without it feel rather lacking. Still the whole game can be played without even touching these dungeons, so the decision is left up to the player.
Is Bloodborne the best game released by From Software to date? A problematic question of course. Games like any entertainment are full of personal preferences and subjective feelings, and From Software’s games with their unique atmosphere and mystery leave the player in a fantastic sense of wonder. Yet often we find that it is the original game, the one that took their virginity as it were, that remains in the mind years later. For the intrepid few that discovered the series early it will be Demon's Souls, for many more it will be the commercially successful breakthrough Dark Souls or even perhaps the less impressive but still fantastic sequel. Now, some will find the next-generation Bloodborne the gateway into this fantastic sequence of games and it will be this game that sits close to their heart. We would argue that while the refinement of so many areas of the game certainly aids newcomers, making it the better gateway drug, the few things that are lost are felt heavily. Even ignoring the loading times, it is a smaller game in terms of content and with the removal of poise and magic overall there is less chance to alter one’s playstyle and feels less replayable as a result. And yet it is still utterly fantastic to play. It is still one of the best action fighting mechanics in gaming. It still invokes that deadly and intense sense of failure matched with the heady highs of success that few other games (if not any entertainment) can match. It is still enriched with the uniquely mysterious touch of Miyazaki and From Software and that is all that it really needs to be.