Bloodborne – PlayStation 4
Platform: Sony PlayStation 4
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Release Date: March 24th, 2015
Nerd Rating: 8.5 out of 10
As I’m sitting down to write this review, it’s only a month away that Bloodborne, FromSoftware’s latest entry to the Souls format, will reach its first anniversary. And what a year it was. Since its release, Bloodborne has enjoyed its fair share of critical acclaim, even achieving runner-up status for game of the year. This is impressive and all, but what is Bloodborne even about? Is it some sort of fighting game with a Victorian filter over it? Is it a horror game? Is it even related to Dark Souls or Demon’s Souls? As the game’s anniversary draws near, and with Dark Souls III right around the corner, it’s about time we answered some of these questions.
FromSoftware, headed by president and director Hidetaka Miyazaki, is a company most famous for its infamously challenging Souls series, consisting of Medieval fantasy action-RPG titles that include Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, and Dark Souls II. However, with the release of Bloodborne, FromSoftware took a different turn. For one, it’s not called Blood Souls, marking a significant deviation from the company’s other titles. Secondly, while the previous three titles took place in Medieval-themed environments (and in the case of Dark Souls I-II the exact same universe) Bloodborne instead takes place in its own unique universe and time, depicting a city landscape more reminiscent of Victorian-era England.
Right from the start, Bloodborne shares a lot of similarities with the Souls structure. The game opens with a cutscene, introducing the player to the world. The protagonist wakes up in a foreign location with very little information about who they are or what they are doing there. A mysterious character greets them, using subtle hints that end up sending the protagonist on a grand journey to fix the crumbling and deranged world that surrounds them. The player goes on to explore this extremely dangerous world, killing many small enemies and large bosses, discovering clues that ultimately only introduce more and more questions about how the world around them came to be. The similarities only pile on from there. For the sake of organization, I’ll have to get to them as they come up. Let’s get rolling.
Bloodborne is an action-RPG with a heavy emphasis on the action. Taking control as an enigmatic character belonging to a class of warriors known only as “hunters,” the player explores the semi-open environment of the city of Yharnam, which is plagued by a blood-borne illness that turns men into flesh-hungry beasts. Every now and then, certain nights in Yharnam are set aside for “hunts,” where professional hunters and civilians alike roam the streets, purging the city of the excessive number of men-turned-beasts. The night of the protagonist’s awakening, as luck would have it, is a night of the hunt. Enemies are numerous and allies are scarce. Through third-person perspective, the player wanders the streets of Yharnam, killing beasts while trying to unravel the mysteries of the hunt.
There’s no other way to say this. The gameplay in Bloodborne is fast as shit. While Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls I-II saw a lot of shield use and passivity, Bloodborne does away with the concept of blocking. And it works. Instead of blocking, the three main forms of defense are dashing out of the way, shooting enemies mid-attack for a chance to riposte, and staggering enemies by attacking them before they attack you. This makes for an extremely fast-paced experience unmatched by any of the other Souls titles, creating an excellent sense of tension in fights that leads to many “oh shit” moments, since the difference between life and death can hang upon the timing of a single action. Like the Souls series, the stamina meter is extremely important in Bloodborne, governing the player’s ability to dodge and attack in a way no other game really does, demanding a high level of reflexes and strategy from the player. Bloodborne is also accommodating to many different play-styles, meaning that everyone who plays it will have a slightly different experience. This emphasis on timing, pacing, and open-ended combat situations creates a very skill-based experience, leading to a greater sense of success on the part of the player.Bloodborne‘s weapons are so distinctive and iconic that they deserve a paragraph all their own. Nicknamed “trick weapons,” the weapons available in Bloodborne are each unique, with transformation abilities that complement and add a fair bit of nuance to the gameplay that simply wasn’t there in the Souls titles. Take, for instance, the iconic Saw Cleaver: When retracted, it works as a quick and effective short-range slashing tool, but when transformed the blade flips out like an old-fashioned razor, allowing for wide sweeping attacks with a significantly improved range.
Or take the Kirkhammer: When separated from the head, the Kirkhammer’s handle works as a quick sword, and when combined, the pieces form a crushing great-hammer that punishes anything that enters its range. The weapons in Bloodborne are as varied as they are interesting, each one coming with its own unique set of moves and combination attacks that makes for a very full experience. I must point out though, that some weapons feel a lot more overpowered than others, almost like playing the game on easy mode (not that there’s anything particularly easy about Bloodborne). The Kirkhammer and Hunter Axe are the two more egregious examples. Aside from the main weapons there is a fair variety of pistols and scatterguns that act as sidearms. They’re pretty standard, but not as nuanced as the main weapons. That being said, Bloodborne‘s weapons are still excellent and fantastically-designed.
The enemies in Bloodborne are numerous and unique, tailor-made to suit the combat. Consisting of a wide range, from humans to semi-humans to full-on-beasts to piles of slime, otherworldly beings, and everywhere in between, Bloodborne‘s enemies are diverse, yet appropriate to the setting. Due to the increased emphasis on timing and precision this time around, the enemies are more numerous and aggressive than the enemies in the Souls series, likely to swarm on the player at a moment’s notice with flurrying attacks that are deadly and sometimes hard to predict.
The sheer nature of the enemies in this game create a constant feeling of suspense, and are dispatched most effectively through caution and effective planning. Every now and then, hunter enemies with fighting abilities and weapons similar to the player will show up. These fast-paced duels act kind of like mini-boss fights, reminiscent of the NPC invaders from Dark Souls I-II, and they are extremely heart-racing. The added implication that the protagonist is slaying their own maddened peers also has a certain bone-chilling quality to it.
As with any other Souls style game, the bosses in Bloodborne are a whole ‘nother beast in themselves. And by that I mean they’re mostly four-legged beasts. While a bit of a sacrifice to keep Bloodborne thematically consistent, I don’t really mind this, since each different boss feels unique in itself, with distinguishing looks, arenas, animations, and move sets that make each one memorable. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t any other types of bosses. From mob-based bosses to gigantic, hulking, hardly-able-to-move bosses, Bloodborne‘s got all the bases covered, helping to make the progression of bosses feel a little more varied and unique.
While we’re on the subject of bosses, I’d just like to point out how ridiculously hard they are. Bosses, without a doubt, represent some of the highest spikes in difficulty found in Bloodborne, so much so that I died at least 10 times while trying to fight the first boss that I ran into. The feeling of finally defeating it, on the other hand, was nothing short of marvelous. I found out later that this particular boss was actually one of three different bosses that I had access to at the same time, which is an awesome testament to the level design in Bloodborne, sporting an openness that encourages exploration, resulting in any number of unique playthroughs, which gives the game good replay value.
Speaking of the level design, Bloodborne has some of the best level design I’ve ever seen in a game. The streets of Yharnam and its surrounding areas are more sprawling and massive than any of the other Souls games, with tons of nooks and crannies for hidden content. The environments achieve greater vertical and horizontal extremes than any of the Souls games, creating a world with an excellent sense of physicality. Streets, alleys, and rooftops narrow down to hallways and small courtyards, only to open up enormously in large wooded areas. Simply put, the environments are as diverse as they are massive.
The levels in Demon’s Souls were designed as straightaways, with concrete starting and ending points. Dark Souls I-II changed things up a little, by making circular zones that wrapped back around to checkpoints through the use of cleverly placed short cuts. Bloodborne takes this idea to a whole new level with an unfathomable amount of shortcuts that, time and again, made me say “So that’s where I was this whole time!” Almost every location in Yharnam is connected, meaning that roughly 80% of the entire game’s areas can be accessed without the use of teleportation or load screens, which is a very impressive feat. Bloodborne‘s hub, or ‘safe’ area, much like the one in Demon’s Souls, is one of the few locations separated from the rest of the in-game world. This normally isn’t a problem, but the player can only fast-travel to other parts of Yharnam by first entering the hub, which seems like an unnecessary amount of steps. In Dark Souls II the player was allowed to warp between checkpoints, so this seems like a bit of a step backward.
Aside from the main areas, there are several optional and procedurally-generated dungeons that the player can unlock, which are interesting and challenging in themselves, with a few unique enemy types and bosses that won’t be encountered in the main game. My suspicion is that these enemies represent cut content from the main areas, so I think it’s really cool that the development team found a way to put their extra resources to good use. The dungeons offer excellent and sometimes much-needed breaks from the main game, allowing the player to build up experience points (or “blood echoes”) and collect items.
The gameplay and combat situations in these dungeons are so impressive and tense, I wish the development teams on the The Legend of Zelda series would take a few pages out of FromSoftware’s book. The only downside about Bloodborne‘s dungeons is that they simply aren’t varied enough. While the dungeons can vary significantly in difficulty and shape, they all come with roughly the same dungeon look, with no change-up in terms of visual style.
This review is shaping up to be a long one, so I’ll touch briefly on the graphics and art style. As is apparent, Bloodborne is dominated by many dark and somber colors, with an incredible draw distance. Standing out on top of a bridge or building, you really get the feeling that you’re in the middle of a giant city. Enemies can be hard to spot sometimes due to the colors and darkness, and I think this is to Bloodborne‘s credit. The enemies all have good designs and none of them seem out of place, adding to a greater overall atmosphere. Bloodborne runs at 30 FPS, but but with so many moving and minuscule parts that the game is constantly rendering this was probably unavoidable.
The sound direction in Bloodborne is perhaps even more impressive. Enemies make the most grotesque and troubling sounds, while the rest of the world is filled with ambient, hollow noises that create a very real sense of dread and horror. Music only ever plays during boss fights, helping to make them feel that much more important and epic, and the tracks are very good and well-written. Like the Souls games, Bloodborne‘s NPC voice acting is stellar. Some voice actors are return actors from some of the Souls games, while others sound completely new, each of them speaking with thick, cockney British accents that really drives home the gritty, Victorian feel of the Bloodborne world. I’m really impressed with how good the voice acting is in this game, so instead of going on and on, I’ll just leave this here.
As far as story goes, Bloodborne really pulls its punches. This is a nice breath of fresh air. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good story, but too many games these days front-load the player with lots of unnecessary cutscenes and excessive explanations. In Bloodborne, however, very little about the world is told to the player, short of identifying for the player what their goals are. A lot (and I mean a lot) of the story in Bloodborne is lore-based, consisting of things that the player must glean through alternative methods, such as reading item descriptions, analyzing the layout of items and areas, and listening to optional dialogue. I think more games should do this, because it’s a perfect compromise, allowing uninterested players to go along their way without being burdened by a story they don’t care about, while offering a significant amount of content both optional and hidden for those players that really want to immerse themselves in the game’s lore. In my opinion, the lore is engaging and consistent, adding to the larger atmosphere, while promoting a vibrant online community of discussion.This is the part where I admit that Bloodborne was my first Souls-type game. That being said, one of the greatest obstacles for me as a new player was the ridiculously complex and non straightforward level up style. While fleshed out and very involved, its rules simply didn’t make much sense to me, resulting in a horrible character build by the end of my first playthrough that prevented my finishing the game. Granted, I could have finished had I resorted to farming for items and levels, but I simply didn’t feel like doing that, so I started over. This is not a good thing.
Through the collection of blood echoes (or experience), players level themselves up, choosing which skills and traits to level up each time. The part where this stops making sense for new players is that some skills have ‘points of diminishing returns,’ where they will stop offering as many benefits per level, and certain weapons ‘scale’ differently according to different stats. After reading up extensively on leveling in the Souls series, it finally makes a lot more sense to me, but the lack of tutorials to help new players understand this system is simply confounding. The fact that any new player would have to read up elsewhere on Bloodborne‘s leveling system is perhaps a sign that it needs some work.
The online experience in Bloodborne is pretty standard, as far as the Souls format goes. Through a semi-online format, players can occasionally invade each other’s worlds for the reward of extra blood echoes, allowing for interesting and tense duels. Excessive healing can be a bit of an issue, since healing is hard to punish, but the fights are still pretty good. The invading process is also a lot more straightforward and streamlined this time around, so it’s good to see that FromSoftware is finally tightening that up. Besides PVP, players can also join each other for co-op play, helping each other fight bosses and clear areas. I’m glad this is in there, since it helps mitigate the extreme difficulty of some parts of the game. While co-op play was notorious for glitching out bosses in Dark Souls, it feels a lot better this time around, with some bosses still presenting a significant challenge, even to a group of players.
Well, here we are. Dark Souls III is right around the corner, and from the looks of things, it will be borrowing heavily from Bloodborne‘s art and gameplay styles. This is good news, since Bloodborne turned out to be such an impressively controlled and innovative departure from the traditional Souls structure, earning its place as more than just a spiritual successor to the series. The combat is excellent and well-paced, the enemies are challenging appropriately designed, and the world and lore of Yharnam feels fully realized and thought-out.
Bloodborne is not without its issues, such as weapon scaling and the leveling system that feels determined to alienate as many new players as possible. These problems, however, are made up for by the sheer amount of things it gets right, which create an unforgettable world that I find myself returning to time and time again. All in all, this game is an excellent installation for this generation of consoles, leaving myself and many others excited about what FromSoftware has in store for us with their next title.
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