I recently managed to secure a PlayStation 4 console just long enough to complete Bloodborne and what a furious ride it was while it lasted.
It’s amazing how From has managed to deliver yet another quality gaming experience so soon after last year’s seminal Dark Souls II, but here we are again. Again do we trudge through a rock-hard RPG adventure where every choice matters and every failed combat encounter is another lesson learned.
For those who haven’t already guessed, Bloodborne is very similar Dark Souls. Souls are now Blood Echoes, Estus Flasks have been replaced with Blood Vials and lanterns stand in for bonfires. Everything is pretty much where we left it and whilst there is a slight pang of contemptuous familiarity about things to begin with, it’s not long before Bloodborne starts to establish its own disturbed identity.
The game starts as it means to go on with a quote from H.P. Lovecraft and a quickfire opening that has you battling werewolves and demented townsfolk on the gorgeously-rendered streets of Yharnam. This once pious city of beautiful Victorian architecture and Gothic monuments has been defiled by a beastly scourge and as a “hunter” it’s your job to venture in and restore order.
Unlike the fantasy leanings of previous Souls games, Bloodborne ventures headfirst into Lovecraftian territory. The plot knits together a bleak yarn of mortals vying for the knowledge of the “Great Ones” and the eventual insanity brought on by glimpsing their unthinkable machinations.
The motif of blood is strongly highlighted throughout. Vials of church-produced blood will heal your character, stronghold walls drip ruby red in the glimmering darkness, and enemies gush claret by the bucketload when struck repeatedly.
The habitually downplayed, but highly intricate storyline should feel derivative with all its Cthulian leanings, but somehow it ends up feeling fresh and it’s a nice departure from previous entries in the series. The biggest change from those games though is in the combat system where shields have been completely jettisoned in favour of more aggressive and dodge-heavy two weapon gameplay.
Veterans of previous Souls titles will find they have a lot to re-learn with regards to this new system, but the results are very successful in making combat feel interesting again.
The fresh spin on parrying; where a pistol sidearm stuns enemies just long enough for you to execute a devastating Visceral Attack, is extremely well-implemented. This is because it relies less on exact frame counting and more on intuiting enemy attack patterns and exploiting crucial openings in their defence.
When your character takes damage in combat you’re given a brief window to replenish a portion of this lost health by quickly landing return blows on your opponent. This “rally” system is one where hesitancy is punished and aggression is rewarded and combat once again feels swift, dangerous, and joyful in its perilous nature.
If nothing else, the way in which Bloodborne plays will make a good player feel like more of a badass than ever before!
This feeling of satisfaction is bolstered by the rather unique assortment of weapons that your character gets access to. From the dependable Flamesprayer canisters and holy blades to the more outlandish Stake Driver and portable cannon, you’re bound to find something to suit your beast-hunting fancy.
A lot needs to be said about the music too as Bloodborne finds a solid footing in terms of audio design. The soundtrack on the whole doesn’t tend to be as bombastic as Dark Souls, but the threatening strings and choir presence are perfectly suited to the overwhelmingly bleak setting.
The boss music is also more dynamic than it’s ever been. When the wealth of towering monstrosities, rival hunters and terrors from beyond are whittled down to a certain percentage of their health bar, you’ll often hear a noticeable shift in the music’s tone and pace. It’s a great technique that adds to the drama and frantic tension of the game’s toughest battles.
Compared to the quieter end bosses of Dark Souls and Dark Souls II, Bloodborne sports an epic final showdown that will get your adrenaline pumping whilst simultaneously testing you on every lesson you have been taught since the beginning. It’s about as tense, difficult, and exhilarating as final boss fights get and should you finally hammer home the killing blow, you’ll feel that you’ve accomplished something really special.
That is, if you attempted the fight offline.
Before I get into that point in more detail, I feel I should mention that I didn’t have access to a PlayStation network account for the duration of my Bloodborne playthrough; a niggle that I felt exempted me from offering the full review treatment on this particular occasion.
Indeed, it’s hard to get away from the fact that a good chunk of the “Souls” experience is in its online sensibilities; whether it’s reading the notes left behind by fellow online players, the constant threat of being invaded for PvP or the cooperative mode.
After witnessing my online-enabled brother tackle the game after me, I could quickly tell that the cooperative component in Bloodborne still hasn’t managed to find that ideal balance.
Using the final boss then as a perfect example: when attempted solo this fight is engaging, superbly paced and extremely difficult. However, the moment another two players pile through your fog door, the battle becomes less of a balletic dance between two evenly-matched adversaries and more a mad ganking session where the boss in question barely gets a lick in.
It seems so at odds with the game’s design to suggest that playing offline is the “true” experience, but I feel certain players risk underestimating the value in approaching scenarios like this solo. Honing such a vast online experience is no doubt a tricky endeavour, but Bloodborne makes other mistakes that you feel could have been avoided with proper care.
One of the biggest problems in this sense concerns the lanterns. An analogue to Dark Souls’ bonfire safe havens, the lanterns in Bloodborne act as a conduit leading to the Hunter’s Dream. This friendly area allows players to regroup, spend their blood echoes and enhance their character in a variety of ways.
Unlike bonfires though, the lanterns don’t have any other functionality outside of warping you directly to this hub. You can’t warp between lanterns, store items through them or activate any other useful features which might keep the player from making so many return journeys in the first place.
Compared to Dark Souls, you’ll be seeing a greater number of loading screens in Bloodborne as any housekeeping task you wish to perform will require a warp to the Dream and back again, which gets annoying.
Lanterns won’t refill your supply of Blood Vials or Quicksilver Bullets either, so when a tough boss battle (of which there are many) depletes your accumulated stash in short order, you’ll be forced to venture out to a previously-visited area and farm enemies in order to recoup your losses.
This heavily restricts your experimentation factor as any undue failure can result in a huge net loss in crucial healing and ammunition supplies. And whilst your progress is usually quite swift in Bloodborne’s brutally-realized world, it has to be said that this leap to the new generation of consoles has proved a taxing one at times.
The land of Yharnam is burdened with a higher volume of transitional loading screens than previous Souls games and you can frequently witness frame rate drops whenever a cluster of enemies start launching projectiles in your direction.
Bloodborne’s lavish graphics certainly take advantage of the hardware, but those dark and indulgent visuals make the task of simply seeing what’s actually going on more difficult than you’d really want from a game like this.
It’s the flipside of that old Diablo III controversy: it’s great to keep all the wonderful Gothic art design intact, but when everything looks black and grey, it sure is hard to pick out similarly-styled enemies and pathways from the surrounding environment.
The Forbidden Woods area is perhaps the most notoriously awkward example of this; a scenario that has players navigating a typically dark and twisted forest that seems to stretch out endlessly in a muddle of hidden walkways and camouflaged snake enemies that can be a real pain to see in the low light.
It’s partly because of the overbearing art style that you’ll outright miss a lot of content in this game, as the odd tunnel entrance or connecting path will be completely drowned out by the shadows. I had my playthrough set at the maximum brightness level and by all accounts I still missed many secrets, optional bosses, and every single NPC sidequest going.
Bloodborne seems to encourage multiple playthroughs because of this and I think the Chalice Dungeons are very much an inclusion in the same spirit. These bonus levels (which need to be unlocked via special collectibles) are randomized labyrinths that get players exploring a series of loot-filled rooms in an effort to further strengthen their characters.
The Chalice Dungeon layouts carry over from one new game file to the next and it’s possible to invite other players over to share in the unique spoils and help fight the many exclusive bosses that lie in the deeper layers.
Such trifles contribute to the game’s already solid replay factor overall, but I don’t find myself liking them all that much. Overcoming many of the story related challenges and boss battles in Bloodborne often rewards a player with ritual components (needed to open Chalice dungeons in the first place) and I dislike how that optional feature is somewhat forced upon on you as a result.
These bonus areas are also an odd facet to be seen in a Souls game as they’re recognizably “video gamey”, if that even makes sense.
I like in Bloodborne how there’s always a reason, however obfuscated, for why an enemy or boss inhabits the area they do. I’m confident that you’re able to find a narrative link for why the Blood-starved Beast resides below Old Yharnam or why an old witch haunts the abode at the end of Hemwick Lane, but in the Chalice dungeons the reason is always because “it’s a boss room”.
The whole concept of grinding loot drops and farming unique items is hardly new to the Souls series either, but features like these randomized gem drops – with their completely flavourless ascending ranks of 1, 2, 3 etc. push Bloodborne an inch closer to the sort of MMORPG mentality that has tarnished console RPGs in the past.
It can also be argued that whilst the Lovecraftian elements are well-realized and evocative of the setting, there are still a few suspect themes to be found in Bloodborne as well.
A subservient female mannequin that assists you from the Hunter’s Dream is cheekily implied to be a sex doll at one point and she remains all too happy to express feelings of love and gratitude towards the player, despite the many times you may have previously brutalized her with your weapon of choice.
You also have the awkward “mystical pregnancy” cliché reused a few times where you’ll witness a distressed spirit of a mourning mother – who has a bloody gash over her stomach just to make it painfully clear what’s happened to her – and also a helplessly pregnant female researcher who can be executed in order to retrieve a key plot item resembling a twisted umbilical cord…
Of course, you have to expect a few murky themes from anything inspired by this sort of source material, but considering the call for equal gender representation that has faced the video game industry recently, Bloodborne’s regression in this regard is unfortunate.
The reality though is that Bloodborne does a whole lot more right than it does wrong and even if it does “only” sit comfortably alongside the other Souls games in terms of overall quality, I don’t feel as if my time seeking out the game was wasted.
From Software are still demonstrably top of their class in producing AAA titles of worth and I’m now looking forward to April 12th 2016 and the release of Dark Souls III even more than I was to begin with.
Could this be the beginning of a long running spin-off of Souls games? I think it’s likely, as Bloodborne is a strong realization of another grueling, yet satisfying concept.