As platform exclusives go, Bloodborne isn’t the usual offering. It’s not an already established and loved IP like Halo or Infamous, and it’s not a game that’s designed to appeal to everyone. No. Just like the Souls games that preceded it, Bloodborne is far from a welcoming title to entice new players to the console, which important exclusives often do. Instead what we have here is a game that’s for the hardcore gamers out there that have been waiting to get hold of a true, killer app. And the term has never been used so fittingly, as Bloodborne is a killer app, in many ways, not least in the joy it’ll take in dispatching players time, and time again.
Although Bloodborne is a new IP it is, of course, also a known quantity, as it comes from the makers of the infamously tough Souls series of games, From Software. We all had an idea of what was in store when the game was announced, with that being difficult, punishing combat, towering bosses that show you no quarter, and the expected loss of in-game currency and XP upon death. Yes, Bloodborne has all of this, but as much as things have stayed the same, they’ve also changed. I should make one thing clear from the off, though. You’re going to die, a lot. I don’t care if you’re a newcomer to From Software’s RPGs, or you’re a Souls veteran who’s beaten the past games many times, Bloodborne will kill you, often and in many ways. So, get ready for a challenge.
Gun and blade
Comparisons with the Souls series when reviewing Bloodborne are unavoidable, and for good reason. The Souls series was superb, and Bloodborne continues the style to the letter. What we’ve got here is a game that’s a Souls relation through and through. However, along with this familiarity comes plenty of unfamiliar, new elements, and although the game always feels like a Souls title at heart, it also feels fresh at the same time. How does it achieve this? You may ask. The short, simple answer lies with the new combat system.
Unlike Demon’s and Dark Souls, where combat was slow, methodical and defensive, rewarding careful play and tactical battle skill, Bloodborne is the exact opposite. It takes the slow pace of Souls, strips out the core combat style, throws away the shields, and injects a new dose of speed and evasion. It’s fast, dangerous, and rewards sharp reflexes and those who learn their foe’s attacks.
This is Bloodborne in a nutshell, really. Fast-paced combat that focuses on evasion and well-timed attacks, counters and ripostes, all using a selection of transforming melee weapons and enemy-staggering firearms. Even with all of this, it’s still Souls combat, and fans of the series will adapt to it quickly, and fall in love with it all over again.
As always, even the lowliest of enemies can topple you if you’re not careful, and rushing head first into a new situation without being careful and analysing the environment or watching for traps and ambushes will often lead to a quick death. When death comes, however, it’s always because you did something wrong, something you could have done better, so the urge to press on and learn from your mistakes is one of the major driving forces, just like a proper Souls title.
The general scope of combat has also increased along with the speed, and the new range of switchable weapons and firearms make for a complex and hard to master system. Each weapon has a whole move list, with various advantages depending on their form, such as increased range or damage, balanced with slower attack speeds, and you can even transform the weapon whilst in the middle of a combo attack. Charged attacks can do heavy damage, and if executed from behind can open foes up to a critical hit. Ranged weapons like the blunderbuss and pistol don’t do much actual damage, but are mainly used to stagger foes. When timed correctly (just as an enemy attacks), you can stun them, leaving them open for a critical attack. This is a technique that makes many foes, including some bosses, much more manageable, but it’s hard to master, and if used incorrectly can leave you wide open. Just like Souls‘ parries and ripostes, it’s all about mastering the timing.
This speedier combat is all made more difficult thanks to the lack of defensive options. There are some more traditional items, such as shields, but these are few, and nowhere near as effective as they are in the Souls games, which means in battle you’re always open to damage if you don’t avoid it. There’s little magic to speak of too, so don’t expect easy options like Iron Skin or powerful ranged spells to cheese foes. This is all about skill and speed.
To address the balance, From has added a new regain system, which is a brilliant touch. When you take damage, you have a few seconds to attack your foe to regain lost health, denoted by an orange section on the health bar. So, if you get hit, there’s a big focus on pressing the attack instead of running away. This ensures combat stays fast and frantic, but also serves as an aid to the player, offsetting the lack of defensive options, and making your struggle easier, as long as you stay aggressive.
The shift up in gear in terms of combat really does set the game apart from the previous From releases, and Bloodborne‘s combat feels like a whole different sport. It’s far more Ninja Gaiden and DmC in a way, and you’re always having to duck, weave and counter, especially when tackling the game’s staggeringly tough bosses. Bloodborne may actually be the most difficult From software game yet, eclipsing the Souls series’ heavy challenge. Even as a Souls veteran, having completed all previous games several times, Bloodborne gave me a real run for my money, and even once I adapted to the new combat system, the challenge was ever present, not just with combat, but in other ways too.
Long and winding road
Yarnham, the main setting of the game is a sprawling mass of streets and alleyways, with all sorts of locations and shortcuts. It’s much more complex in terms of layout than the Souls games, but is also organic, non-linear, and interconnected, just like the impressive world from the first Dark Souls. To make your life easier you need to scour the world for hidden items and secret paths, the latter of which are numerous and rewarding, either awarding useful items and gear, or opening up essential short cuts that make progression much easier. Rushing through the game and not taking time out to explore will make your time here much more difficult. You’ll also miss out on many of the side quests and extra world information, which can often be found by talking to citizens of the city locked away in their homes. One such conversation, for example, gives you an item that can make an early boss much easier, but this is easy to miss if you’re not careful.
As you fight through the various locations, killing foes, you’ll pick up al sorts of items, such as essentials like healing blood vials, quicksilver bullets for your guns, and other consumables, such as molotovs and antidotes. Items drop often and in decent numbers at first, and you’ll always have healing items, but the more times you replay an area and kill the enemies there, the less items will drop, leading to a careful balancing act of progression and farming.
Enemies are also much more aggressive here, with a wide range of attacks and tactics, and they can use the environment just as well as you, often hiding, waiting to ambush you. This includes mini-bosses, and the big major foes, which are no longer denoted by a fog gate, often attacking you out of nowhere. Fog gates are used once you fall to a boss, and many are preceded by cut scenes, but they’re less telegraphed this time, so if you’re walking around with a large amount of currency you may want to be careful, lest you lose it all in an unexpected boss encounter.
Speaking of currency, Bloodborne uses the same approach as the Souls games, in that you accumulate currency as you kill foes and hunt bosses, only this time it’s not souls you’re collecting, but blood echoes. As always, these can be lost when you die, and you have a chance to get them back if you get back to the spot where you died without dying again. However, this time your blood echoes will only be sat on the ground waiting for you if you’re lucky. Most of the time, enemies that spawn near your death location, or those that kill you will absorb your echoes (denoted by glowing eyes). If this is the case, you need to kill this foe to regain your lost echoes. This isn’t bad if it’s a normal, rank and file foe, but if it’s a larger, more powerful monster, it creates a tense battle for all of that experience.
Blood echoes are used much like souls in the previous games. You can use them to buy items from merchants, as well as in crafting and upgrading weapons. Their main use, however, is to level up your character, making them stronger and giving them more endurance, weapons skill, and resistances. The more you level up, the higher the cost of each level increment.
Levelling up is simple enough, but it does also raise some concerns that harken back to Demon’s Souls. Although Bloodborne is more accessible in terms of actual gameplay, many mechanics are not explained well, or at all, including some of your character stats. Arcane, for example, is a little mystifying at first, as there’s no real magic in the game. Instead, this stat deals with weapon elemental damage. It easy enough to figure out, but isn’t as clear as it could be.
Other elements are equally vague, such as the rage feature, what happens with items that you pick up when you’re at full capacity, and even simple things like acquiring the basic game items. The hub world, The Hunter’s Dream is mostly left unexplained, unless you stumble over certain features yourself.
It’s all part of the Souls-like experience, but this intentional level of mystery will no doubt put some people off, and lead to people struggling through certain sections of the game because they simply don’t understand what’s going on. If in doubt, don’t feel bad for consulting the wiki.
Bloodborne retains the asymmetrical Souls multiplayer elements fans love, such as phantoms running around, the ability to see the last few seconds of another player’s life to help avoid pitfalls and the option of leaving and reading helpful messages. It also has co-op and PvP, but this is handled in a different way than before.
Using another currency called Insight, you can use a special summoning bell to request help from another player. This consumes a single insight point, but gets you some much needed help. PvP is handled in the same way, using a different bell to advertise your willingness to indulge in some player combat. Apparently, using the co-op bell also opens you up to invasion, although I never saw this in my play through.
It’s an interesting change from the mark-leaving method of the Souls games, and the limited uses means calling for help is now something you’ll need to use sparingly. Of course, this multiplayer is just the start.
Bloodborne‘s story mode is complemented by the new Chalice Dungeons. These randomly generated dungeons are created using different chalices, found within the game’s story. Performing rituals with these is how you create a new dungeon, which is randomly created. These dungeons can be tackled solo or as a co-op team, and you can also share your created dungeons with others, making for a huge level of replayability on top of the main story replayabiltiy, thanks to new game plus modes.
The Chalice Dungeons are a great addition to the game, and although these randomly created levels are not of the same impressive scale as the main game, they’re no less enjoyable, and having what is essentially an infinite amount of new content to play without involving DLC costs is a major bonus.
Lessons not learned
From Software has done a fantastic job with Bloodborne, but there are still some issues that need dealing with, some of which carry over from the previous games. Most notable are the loading times, which are just painful. Whilst they’re not the longest loading times I’ve ever seen, in a game where you die so often, and so have to reload constantly, the times are a major annoyance, especially when you just want to get back to a boss for another try. All you can do is sit and stare at the Bloodborne logo, anger rising within.
The camera has taken a big step back here. Although not perfect, From had managed to improve the camera in Dark Souls II. Here, though, the camera can be a problem. Fighting in smaller areas often leads to camera obstructions, and some bosses (including the very first), can be overly tricky, mainly due to a camera not knowing how to avoid the environment. It’s possible to overcome this with practise, but a more fluid camera would be welcome.
Connected to this camera issue is the frequent problem of getting stuck on the environment when dodging and fighting. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve died because I became stuck on something, unable to move, and the flaky camera makes this worse. True, it’s all part of the challenge, and being aware of your environment is paramount, but it can also be frustrating, and I can see many finding the game far too hard due to such problems.
These issues don’t damage the game much, though, and although I’d really like to see the loading times sorted out, they don’t detract from the huge level of enjoyment and challenge Bloodborne delivers.
It’s still every bit the tense, foreboding game I’ve come to expect, and in many ways, it improves upon Souls in this regard. Before, when exploring a new area of fighting a new foe, you had your trusty shield to help protect you, letting you feel your way around new challenges. This isn’t the case in Bloodborne. You’re essentially naked here, with no real protection, and so you’re always on edge, ready to dodge or roll out of danger. Fighting new foes is always tense, as you just don’t know what to expect, or how you’ll need to react, and entering a new boss fight fills you with dread, as the adrenaline pumps, getting you ready for the ordeal to come. It’s just bliss, and is what gaming is all about.
Bloodborne really is everything we hoped for, and is the next evolution of From Software’s infamously tough games. It takes everything it needs to from the Souls franchise, covers it with a delicious new Gothic horror setting, and adds in a whole new bag of tricks to produce one of the best platform exclusives I’ve played in a long time.
The end result is a superb, and difficult action RPG that makes full use of the PS4’s capabilities, and delivers a game that’ll likely make Xbox One owners green with envy. This is the PS4’s killer app, make no mistake, and if you’re a PS4 owner looking for a challenge, this should be the only game on your list.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.