After the unprecedented success of Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls and Dark Souls II, Hidetaka Miyazaki and his From Software return with the PS4 exclusive Bloodborne. Following a similar blueprint to the Souls’ games, does Miyazaki’s latest effort deliver the goods, or is it a crushing disappointment? Read on to find out.
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
(Review copy provided by Sony)
Okay, so I’ve played Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls and Dark Souls II, all with varying degrees of success. I enjoyed all of them, especially the fact that they didn’t hold your hand and force feed gameplay or narrative down your throat. You were left to figure out certain mechanics or story elements on your own, creating a wonderful sense of mystery and exploration around proceedings. It’s great then that Bloodborne follows the exact same approach.
The game opens with you in a clinic of some sort, with a creepy looking blind man calling you ‘Paleblood’ and stating you need a blood transfusion. You need some Yharnam (the place where the game is set) blood in you apparently, says the old man. This gives the opportunity to create your character. As you’d expect you can edit the way he or she looks and set a name, but you’ll want to pay the most attention to your characters origin. The choice you make here impacts the stats you start off with, essentially setting your class if you want to talk RPG clichés. I went with military veteran, giving me leg up in strength, vitality and endurance area. A wise choice if you want to be that bit more effective in combat scenarios. Anyway, with that done, Bloodborne gets to business as you begin to see strange creatures and pass out. You eventually wake up and from this point on are left to fend for yourself without any weapons whatsoever. In true From Software fashion, and no surprise to Souls’ veterans, you die when you come across your first vicious beast. Don’t worry, it’s all part of the plan, you’re supposed to die. It’s almost like Miyazaki and his team are getting you used to the inevitable early on.
In this instance, as death is planned, you’re “transported” to a place known as the Hunter’s Dream. This serves as safe zone or hub of sorts, where you can eventually level up your character, upgrade weapons, repair them, purchase items and sell any unwanted riff-raff. This first visit to Bloodborne’s hub sees you “gifted” a melee weapon and gun. You also, via messenger notes coming out of the ground, learn about Bloodborne’s basic mechanics, including how to attack enemies. This is about as giving as the game gets, so don’t expect similar handouts as you progress through the game. Seriously, I’m not even joking.
You return back to Yharnam, better equipped to take out the wolf-like beast. However, before doing exactly that, you’re introduced to the lamp checkpoint mechanic. Yes, Dark Souls veterans, they work exactly like the bonfires. Spread out quite sparsely throughout the world (usually available after defeating a boss), you must light these lamps to register checkpoints around Yharnam. Not only do they save your progress up to that point (well, kind of), lighting them also gives you access to the Hunter’s Dream where you can spend your Blood Echoes (Bloodborne’s currency) on everything I mentioned previously. These lamps form a vital part of the game, even if the distances between them can be infuriating at times. And that’s something I can vouch for, but more on that later.
Almost immediately after you take down the beast, you’re thrust into the dark and creepy city of Yharnam. Plagued by an endemic illness, the residents of Yharnam have turned into foul creatures. Oh and there are gigantic monstrosities too. You, a hunter, are left to roam the streets and somehow uncover the secrets the city is hiding. That’s all you’re given to work with, after that the story unfolds via the gameplay and Yharnam itself. It’s all very natural, you never feel short-changed by From Software’s narrative approach. There are a few cutscenes now and again, but Bloodborne doesn’t rely on them or overuse them. When they’re used, it’s for a reason. I’m going to spoil anything, but the story is surprisingly interesting. More than I thought it would be anyway, going to some very interesting places.
The same approach is applied to gameplay too, and it’s simply glorious. As soon as you step out into Yharnam, it’s no more “gifts” and very little help. The enemies come at you thick and fast. Notice I said enemies, there’s a reason for that. Unlike Dark Souls, most enemies in Bloodborne will attack you in groups. They’re arguably more intelligent than their counterparts in the Souls’ series. It certainly felt like that to me, making the ability to target individual foes that little bit more important. But, either way, this is where the one key difference compared to From Software’s previous efforts comes into play. Unlike Dark Souls, attack is the best form of defence. You still need to be strategic and clever about when you attack, but blocking out enemies isn’t really much of an option. You do come across a shield or two during the course of the game, but they’re not of much use. A melee weapon in the right hand and gun in left is the way to go. The former has two modes of attack, light and strong, but can also be transformed into a longer more powerful version of itself. It will have better range and deal more damage, but the downside is you won’t be able to use your gun. It’s an interesting dilemma, especially because the gun is quite useful, but not for the reason you might think. You see, while using your gun just for shooting is good for crowd control, its best use is for parrying enemy attacks. Just before an enemy hits you, shoot your weapon and you’ll have a window to counter by holding the normal attack button. I found this extremely useful when dealing with the bigger, more powerful foes and some bosses. It’s not easy to get the timing exactly right, there’s an element of risk and reward, but if you get it right then you’ll find certain encounters a little bit easier. To put it bluntly, the combat is fantastic. Simple yet deep and immensely satisfying. Each time you take down an enemy it feels great.
And no matter how you go about taking down an enemy, you gain Blood Echoes. For Dark Souls veterans, this is Bloodborne’s equivalent to Souls and the game’s currency. If you die, you lose all the Blood Echoes you accumulated up until that point. You can get them back by returning to the point of your death and collect them off the ground or kill an enemy that’s managed to nab them. The latter method wasn’t present in Dark Souls, and (once again) hammers home the offensive nature of Bloodborne. On the other hand, if you die as you attempt to get back your lost Blood Echoes, they’re gone forever. Harsh, but that’s just how Miyazaki and From Software roll.
Another brilliant element of Bloodborne’s gameplay is the regain system, emphasising the ‘attack is the best form defence’ philosophy. When you get hit by an enemy, you have a limited window of time to regain the health you lost. This is indicated by the chunk of health you’re going to lose highlighted in orange. If you don’t successfully hit the enemy or enemies back in time, you lose that health. If you are successful, you regain the health back. It’s a brilliant mechanic, but one shrouded in danger. Like much the game itself, it’s anything but easy to successfully pull off. Okay, maybe early on it is, but it gets progressively harder when you’re up against stronger, faster enemies and even bosses. Yes, you can use the regain system to your advantage against bosses, but it’s hard. Very hard. Kind of like the gigantic beasts themselves, and there are plenty of them.
Quite possibly one of my favourite aspects of Bloodborne, the boss fights are just incredible. They’re difficult, sure, but out-of-this-world exhilarating and immensely satisfying when you actually complete one. I swear, I actually fist pumped the air when I finished one of the early boss battles I was struggling with. The words ‘YOU DIED’, I’m pretty sure I saw them like 20 times before I finally nailed the boss. Each time I died, I got a little bit more frustrated and a little bit angry, but not at the game. Well, maybe when the camera didn’t play ball with the targeting system, but 99% of the time I knew it was my fault. It was me, I was being too rash and stupid with my attacks. Even still, when I finally did it, that feeling I got was up there with the best any game can provide. I forgot about being pushed back to the last lamp checkpoint that was 30 minutes or an hour away, I was just basking in the glory of my victory. Pure, unbridled joy. Hell, I even felt that way when I took some of the “standard” enemies out, although there’s no such thing in Bloodborne. Every creature, no matter how big or small poses a real threat, especially if you get complacent. Without going deep into spoiler territory, you take on a “different” type of enemy later in the game too, on a few occasions. I certainly didn’t expect it, but it introduced an interesting dynamic and a different type of challenge to proceedings. Okay, I won’t say more. Zip.
What I do want to say more about are Bloodborne’s visuals, Yharnam in particular. It’s so wonderfully crafted and put together, oozing an immensely atmospheric, gothic feeling vibe. It might not be pushing the boundaries of the PS4’s technical limit, but Yharnam’s art style and everything in it makes it a joy to explore. Boss battles aside, exploring the world, finding new areas, and taking in the hauntingly beautiful visuals, I enjoyed it more than ever imagined I would. I still remained on slight edge when stepping into a region, mainly due to the fear of the unknown and new enemies, but that was balanced out nicely by the discovery a fantastic looking new environment. Speaking of enemies, every single creature you come across in Bloodborne looks disgustingly beautiful, with special mention going to the bosses. They suit the tone of the game and Yharnam itself down to a tee, managing to instil a sense of fear and dread in you with consummate ease. The same sentiment applies to the Bloodborne’s audio as well, it’s spot on. Character voices (human or otherwise) are suitably creepy, and the music accompanying some of the boss battles is epic. Sadly, there are a couple of slight negatives though. During some battles the frame rate dips quite noticeably. It doesn’t impact the gameplay too much due to the nature of the combat, but still worth pointing out nonetheless. Also, when you die, the loading times are a bit on the long side, usually clocking in at around the 30 or 40 second mark. Death already brings with it massive punishment at times, even if it’s your fault, and I found this to be a tad frustrating at times.
In terms of the single player side of the game, Bloodborne can take you anything up to around 40-50 hours to complete. Add another 10-15 hours onto that if your struggle or go exploring the wonderful world the game has to offer. There’s the online side to Bloodborne, asynchronous, co-op and PvP. The asynchronous side of things is similar to Dark Souls in that if you’re connected online you’ll see the ghosts of other human players roaming Yharnam. It can be a bit creepy at first (I actually got scared at one point), but you get used to it after a while. The other side of this gives you the ability to see notes left by other players warning you of dangers coming up or simply trolling you. It’s brilliant, because the majority of notes are actually helpful and there’s a real sense of hunters helping each other out. You can obviously do the same and leave messages around Yharnam via your notebook. Just make sure they’re helpful. Don’t be the troll. Please.
The co-op side of Bloodborne is fairly simple, allowing you to host or join session by using the reckoning bell and small resonant bell respectively. It’s fun and certainly helps in terms of progression, but there are a couple of prerequisites to cater to before you can partake in co-op. You need to have at least one insight point (you gain these as you progress, improving your knowledge of the world in general) and to not have defeated the boss in the current area. The latter makes complete sense given that it’s more than likely you’ll be taking advantage of co-op to take down the tough bosses. I certainly used it for that and that only. At the other times, I preferred to take on the game by myself. Finally, you have the PvP, initiated by reaching level 30 and using the sinister resonant bell. If you do that, you’ll be able to invade another human player’s game and try to mischievously kill them. Much like the co-op, the host must not have killed the boss in the area for you go ahead with proceedings. Again, there is some logic behind this as the invading player’s goal is to kill the host before he or she slays the boss. It’s tense stuff, and as a host player who had someone invade their game, I speak for some very real experience. Suffice to say, I died. Wait, there’s more! Bloodborne also features Chalice Dungeons, accessed by performing a ritual back at the Hunter’s Dream. These dungeons are procedurally generated, filled with all manner of enemies and bosses. Needless to say they’re tough, but can be tackled via three player co-op if you need help or PvP if you’re feeling lucky. So, yeah, there’s all that and a new game plus option too, if you want to go back in for awesome punishment! Plenty to keep you busy in Yharnam for a long, long time.
Despite the ‘attack is the best form of defence’ approach (works superbly by the way), just like the Dark Souls games that came before it, Bloodborne is an incredibly challenging yet immensely satisfying action RPG. It will beat you, kick you and laugh at you in the process, but you’ll always come back for more. Why? Because it’s your fault when you die. Because you know you can do better and take that huge boss down next time. Because you want to experience that moment of pure, unbridled joy and stick two fingers up at the game when you’re done. Because you want to explore the desolate yet beautifully crafted world. More than that, even with the long loading times and minor technical hitches, you simply want to keep playing an incredible game. Seriously, it will test you, but if you’ve got the skill and patience, you need Bloodborne in your life. The best game on the PS4 so far, and an essential purchase.