Why do I subject myself to From Software’s will? By now I should know that anything they cook up is simply a recipe for an insurmountable amount of pain. These aren’t relaxing respites from the hustle and bustle of daily life, nor are they interactive films; they are hell. Pure, unadulterated hell. Yet despite having the experience loom over my head until I’ve beaten it (I swear I sometimes I look forward to going to work more than being murdered for the 200th time in Dark Souls), I can’t get enough of it. Whether it be of the Demon or Dark variety, there’s an addictive quality of accomplishment that simply isn’t had anywhere else in modern mainstream gaming. From Software is following up last year’s punishing Dark Souls II with spiritual successor (or more accurately “spiritually renamed”) Bloodborne, one of the biggest first-party PS4 releases of the year. Surely, though, a title Sony is hoping to push to the masses couldn’t be that punishing, right? …Right?
Unsurprisingly, Bloodborne doesn’t offer much in the way of story — at least on the surface level. Players take the role of the Hunter who heads into the ancient city of Yharnam, said to house a medical remedy that would cure any disease. Unfortunately, however, the city itself is itself diseased, overrun with a plague that has transformed its inhabitants into monsters. Facing seemingly insurmountable odds, the Hunter must plunge deeper into the depths of Yharhnam to learn its secrets.
Much like its predecessors, there’s not a lot of story given after the introduction. The basics of the plot are pushed forward by short cutscenes and NPCs which appear in the game two ways: as hidden and talkative (but still human) townsfolk behind doors or as fellow Hunters that are seen in predetermined locations in the world. These Hunters generally are of assistance after a short conversation, giving a special item to the player, but some are hostile and will attack. The behind-closed-doors NPCs, on the other hand, can sometimes grant quests that generally involve finding a safe place for them or bringing an item to a relative or friend. This combined with item descriptions help players piece together the story, but it’s still rather minimalistic and up for interpretation. As always, however, this is appreciated in a game of this nature as it adds to the mysterious and brooding atmosphere constantly penetrating from it.
Bloodborne‘s gameplay is very similar to its predecessors with a few noticeable differences that give enough separation to make it come into its own. First things first: this is not a hack ‘n’ slash title. While it looks like one at surface level, nothing could be further from the truth. Those who begin simply running into battle and swinging away will be up for a rude awakening as they are likely vanquished upon the first enemy encountered. Instead, Bloodborne relies on patience, timing, reflexes and strategy. Whereas its predecessors put an emphasis on shields, Bloodborne instead focuses on the offensive. In fact, we could only locate a single shield in the entire game and it wasn’t all that helpful.
When facing an enemy, the best thing to do is either run up and strike the first blow or hang back and wait for it to attack. When it attacks, you can dodge and counter before it attacks again. Some enemies will attack in successive combos that players can easily get caught up in, while others will lay one devastating blow before taking a few seconds to recharge. After facing an enemy type a few times, its attack patterns are learned and can then be used against it for a relatively simple sweep. Because Bloodborne is constantly throwing new and more difficult baddies at your feet, however, strategies must be constantly adapted. Battles in general are more exciting than in Souls past. Enemies are much more proactive and abundant and make sitting back too long relatively impossible.
One of the coolest additions Bloodborne brings to the formula are transforming weapons. Instead of having to stick to the same attack pattern, players can now transform their weapon into an entirely different beast with the tap of a button. The Saw Cleaver, for instance, can be swapped between long and short form; long form is more powerful and has a longer range, but takes longer to recharge, while short form is weaker and has a shorter range, but can be swung in successive attempts. While the saw cleaver might be most players’ weapon of choice throughout (thanks to Bloodborne’s clever upgrade system, it doesn’t render older weapons obsolete the second a newer one becomes available), there are some seriously cool weapons later in the game. One is a hammer sword that locks into a giant hammer on the Hunter’s back to deal huge amounts of damage at a long range, while another is basically a killer wagon wheel.
Of course, the most visually apparent change to the established formula is the addition of guns. Players can now wild a variety of firearms in their left hand with the ability to fire them at any time. These weapons are more of a luxury than a guarantee, however, as they run out of ammo that can be quite scarce. Thankfully by hitting up on the d-pad, health can be exchanged for a few more bullets if desperately needed. Because of this and the fact that weapons are quite slow and relatively weak, however, don’t expect to be running through Yharnam guns blazing. These are more supplementary weapons to be used to shoot at a distance, antagonize and help stun more powerful enemies.
Another interesting addition to combat is the Regain System. Because of the fast-paced nature of the combat system, it’s hard to avoid taking damage in some encounters. This would quickly devastate all but the most seasoned players, so a way has been added to ensure that playing aggressively isn’t an instant recipe for disaster. Upon taking damage from an enemy, the portion of health taken will become orange in the health bar. If an enemy is hit before it disappears for good (a matter of a few seconds), the health can be earned back. This isn’t a guarantee, however, and can oftentimes force decisions that otherwise wouldn’t have been made, resulting in even more damage being taken. It’s an interesting dynamic that fits will with the Bloodborne formula and helps balance its more offensive nature.
Death also isn’t as punishing in Bloodborne as in previous outings. Instead of losing humanity and a good chunk of the health bar simultaneously, players do now not become inherently weaker upon dying and respawning. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t still penalties, however; all previously slain enemies respawn, items used on the dying run aren’t regained and all Blood Echoes (we’ll get to those in a second) are lost unless picked up again. While the most hardcore of Souls players might scoff at the idea of this less invasive death system, it’s always seemed a bit unfair in previous games and makes Bloodborne much more manageable whilst still being punishing.
As Souls fans were liking scratching their head about the aforementioned “Blood Echoes,” know that they’re basically a renamed “Souls.” For newcomers, Blood Echoes are gained from defeated enemies and can be used to level up and buy new equipment and items. One cool change to this system is that instead of just sitting on the ground in the area the player was vanquished, nearby enemies can now absorb them. To gain echoes back on the successive run, the enemy containing them (evidenced by a telltale blue eye glow) must be vanquished. As sometimes extremely powerful enemies can absorb Blood Echoes, this adds a new layer of strategy that makes players cautious of being defeated by too powerful of an enemy.
Multiplayer has been significantly altered for Bloodborne. The first difference is that scrawls on the ground were slightly reworked to now be a notebook that players can use to leave messages behind on scrolls. The scrolls are visible to others and generally contain helpful information (even the developers contribute). Be wary, however, as some trolls may try to mislead in their notes, but they can be up or down voted to avoid this happening too often. To team up with a fellow Hunter, two items will be needed: the Beckoning Bell and the Small Resonant Bell. The Beckoning Bell allows players to attract others into their game while the Small Resonant Bell allows players to be attracted into the game of those using a Beckoning Bell. The Beckoning Bell is given to players almost from the onset while the Small Resonant Bell cannot be purchased until ten insight points are earned. Even then, its location is unexplained and many players might gloss over it completely. It just goes to show you how hardcore From Software is that they would practically hide an item essential to multiplayer.
Upon another player answering the call of the Beckoning Bell, they will be transported into the summoning player’s game. Once inside, they can team up with the player until they die or the boss in the area is defeated. If a summoned player is slain, they will retain any accumulated souls, which is a nice bit of silver lining for offering help. The summoned players will see the reduction of some of their abilities to avoid making things too easy, meaning that even in co-op, no battle is easy. If no player is around to help or the game is being played offline, the Beckoning Bell can be used to summon an NPC. The NPC is generally quite weak, but does a fine job distracting the enemy as the player sneaks up from behind.
Bloodborne’s co-op mode is more advanced than its predecessors, but it still leaves a lot to be desired. While a crude password system has been implemented to allow players to team up only with friends, the matchmaking process can take upwards of two minutes without notifying the player its progress. This will likely lead to a lot of players simply giving up thinking there’s not an available player or at the very least be annoying for friends frequently teaming up. Every time we teamed up, we experienced lag issues even on two very strong connections, which do slightly hinder the experience. The lag was never bad enough to feel frustrating or make co-op unplayable, but it’s noticeable nonetheless.
That then brings us to the biggest issue with Bloodborne, which are its horrendous loading times. Not only does matchmaking take a long time to load, but going from area to area or from Hunter’s Dream (home base/central hub) can take over forty seconds and never takes under thirty. Once loaded, there are no further loading times, but in a game where death can happen hundreds of times and every few minutes at the more difficult parts, having to sit through this load time so frequently is exhausting. In fact, the average player will likely spend an hour of their time with Bloodborne simply loading it, which is unacceptable. Of course, it’s not a big enough deal to make anybody curb their time with the game, but it’s an optimization issue that should have been addressed before shipping and hopefully is in an upcoming patch.
As a first-party PS4 exclusive, many will be looking to Bloodborne as a barometer of the console’s power. While it might not be demo material in the same way as something like inFamous or Killzone is, Bloodborne is beautiful nonetheless. The Souls games have never exactly known for being attractive, but Bloodborne revitalized the franchise on a technical level by offering an immense amount of details throughout Yharhnam. Simply stopping for a second at practically any point throughout the experience will reveal detail in almost any direction; realistically textured cobblestone streets, multiple items sitting against walls, castles in the distance where individual bricks can be seen and even ominous sunsets. The dark Victorian nature of the game doesn’t lend to a traditional sense of beauty, but Bloodborne presents a darkly attractive world that feels alive. When combined to the similarly Victorian-set The Order: 1886, Bloodborne offers a rich experience without generic environments basked in grey. It’s an achievement for From Software and hopefully one that will be built upon in their future output.
Make no mistake: Bloodborne will put hair on your chest. There will be disagreement on whether or not it’s harder than the Souls series, but it’s clear From Software did not dumb down the formula. It will be interesting to see how the general public reacts to such a punishing experience, but those who brave it will be rewarded with a true sense of accomplishment rarely felt in the medium. This is an expertly designed action title that blows most every other game in its genre out of the water. The stages are clever, featuring layouts that perfectly flow in and out of each other, while the Gothic style is a perfect fit for the gameplay and boasts some truly inventive beasts throughout the adventure. On a technical level, the presentation boasts strong framerate and a stunning visual palette that evokes some of the greatest classical horror imagery. The one blemish are the abhorrent loading times, which is a shame as they’re simply an optimization issue rather than a design one. Expertly crafted on practically every level, Bloodborne is a deviously delicious experience that deserves to be experienced by anybody valiant enough to conquer it.