Release Date: March 24, 2015Platform: PS4Developer: From SoftwarePublisher: Sony Computer EntertainmentGenre: Action-RPG
From Software and a brand new IP seemed like a match made in heaven when the PS4-exclusive Bloodborne was first announced. Or rather a match fit for hell, given the types of gnarly monsters and bloodthirsty beasts you’ll encounter on your winding quest through a gray and restless world. Bloodborne is a faster and wonderfully consistent version of Dark Souls, both lean in its boss fights and equipment drops, and yet massive in its overall scope and replay value. But while the game certainly resembles its lineage from the acclaimed line of Souls games, a few expert changes to the core design concepts make this adventure exceedingly fresh and unique from the very start. And as if this was ever a question, yes you are going to die. You are going to die a lot.
Your journey in Bloodborne begins with a menacing blood transfusion, and it isn’t long after that before your first encounter with a snarling werewolf brings you fiercely to your knees. The story in itself is as ominous and cryptic as you would imagine, with players asked to piece together the lore through mysterious cut scenes and enigmatic notes scattered throughout the environments. There’s an incredible intrigue encompassing all aspects of the game that is simply undeniable and impossible to ignore, and shadowy NPC references to the hunt, the approaching night, and other teachings only fuel that fire to explore even more. Bloodborne quickly dispels any concerns that the game has been streamlined for a mainstream audience, and its lack of explanation of certain key concepts makes for a strict and rewarding learning curve from the onset.
While Bloodborne certainly has all the makings of a traditional Souls game, some fundamental tweaks to the core gameplay make this one a different beast entirely. The most notable departure from the methodical dungeon crawl is apparent right from the start: there are no shields to rely on anymore. This is one of many ways in which From Software forces players to thrust themselves into the heat of battle, rather than to take a more cautious approach. The emphasis on swift dodging maneuvers is coupled by the game’s fantastic Regen system, which gives you an opportunity to regain some lost health by landing a follow-up attack just seconds after being hit yourself.
For those who might be worried that the Regen system makes the game too easy, rest assured that Bloodborne still offers the brisk kind of challenge that you would expect and want it to. This is because the game is very fond of enemy hoards, even more so than Dark Souls II. It won’t be long before you’re rushed by your first crowd of torch-wielding enemies and howling guard dogs, who move and attack with an unbelievable assertiveness. Therefore, it makes sense to reward players with these small chunks of health for staying on the offensive, although the aggressive fighting style has its own risks of taking further hits or making sloppy decisions in the heat of the moment. Make no mistake: the combat in Bloodborne is exhilaratingly fast.
This brings us to the actual healing system in Bloodborne, which takes a page straight from the Moon Grass book of Demon’s Souls. Health can be slightly replenished by using blood vials, which are found in the environment and on defeated enemies, or can be purchased from a vendor. This was actually a frustrating mechanic to deal with in the beginning of the game, as not being fully accustomed to the Regen system yet, I unwittingly wasted tons of blood vials and had to farm for more early on. However, it does offer an extra layer of strategy to the overall experience: if a boss fight isn’t going particularly well, do you bother wasting a few blood vials on a losing battle, or do you just take the loss and save your stock for the next go-around? And for what it’s worth, healing in Bloodborne is a whole lot quicker than taking a hearty gulp from your Estus Flask.
The other big change from the Souls games is that Bloodborne introduces guns, and lots of them. However, the guns are smartly intended as a means to stun your foes mid-strike, before following up with a devastating melee attack. Granted, you’ll still find your fair share of weapons that are primarily intended to deplete those health bars on their own, which highlights the different styles of play that are on hand here. Everything can be upgraded by utilizing several different forms of bloodstone shards, and various gems and runes add further bonuses and effects to your arsenal. Blood echoes function as currency in the same vein as souls, although reclaiming lost blood echoes can be a little different: sometimes your stash may have been imbued by the enemy who last defeated you, requiring you to now slay him in order to reclaim them. Overall though, weapons and equipment seem very scaled back from previous Souls ventures, and even leveling up your character is boiled down to a simple six different stats. But with less micromanagement, there is more room to explore the world, and explore it you shall.
It is clear from the opening hours of Bloodborne that From Software has once again designed a masterful world, one that is brimming with secrets and shortcuts for those daring enough to look. The land of Yharnam and its surrounding areas are absolutely breathtaking to behold, with gorgeous graphics and a smooth performance that will keep you fully immersed every step of the way. Softly glowing lamps replace the bonfire system from Dark Souls, but the lamps themselves are something of a rarity: opening up ingenious and often unexpected shortcuts is the primary means of progressing through the game, making each area feel that much more logically connected to the others. There is absolutely nothing like the feeling of surviving a particularly harrowing stretch of one area to open up a door leading back to one of your glowing little saviors.
Every location in the game is interconnected, save for a Nexus-like hub called the Hunter’s Dream, where you can go to level up, purchase or upgrade weapons, and travel to other previously lighted lamps. The areas themselves support one another in their aesthetics, with a pointed emphasis on towns, forests, castles, and cathedrals. And while some might feel that this gives the game an element of sameness in the consistent grayish hues and Victorian Gothic architecture, I saw it as being a much more cohesive and believable world than traversing from magma filled caverns to poisonous bogs in the blink of an eye.
The bosses in Bloodborne are few and far between, but the game is better off for it, as this allows each encounter to be that much more monumental and memorable. Some bosses are small and agile, like the tormented Father Gascoigne, who dances around a graveyard with a powerful shotgun blast and another scintillating surprise after you’ve chipped away enough of his health. Other bosses are massive in both scope and attack like the Cleric Beast, a grotesque and powerful monster who lunges with incredible speed and lashes out with a grossly malformed arm. Discovering bosses, both where they lie in wait and how to defeat them, is one of the most rewarding aspects of Bloodborne, and let’s just say there will be more than a few surprises regarding these big guys headed your way.
If there is really any gripe to be had with Bloodborne, it’s going to be about the long loading screens. I hate to be sitting here talking about loading times for a game in 2015, but they are long enough to the point of being noticed and of being an issue. Easily twice as long as the loading times in Dark Souls, these occur after every time you die or visit the Hunter’s Dream, often pushing the thirty second mark. This is not exactly ideal for a developer that’s known to kill you repeatedly throughout their games, and it becomes especially frustrating when you just want to get back into the action after your latest rage-inducing death. What’s worse is that, in order to travel between the different lamps placed throughout the world, you first need to travel back to the Hunter’s Dream hub. So that translates to one long loading screen to get back to the Hunter’s Dream, followed by a second long loading screen to get to your desired destination. Thankfully, the developers reportedly have another patch already in the works with hopes to address some of these load times.
Even though I found the story of Bloodborne to be a bit shorter than the massive slogs I’m used to from the Souls games, From Software’s latest might have the most replay value of all their games to date. As expected, you have your multiple layers of New Game+ with the same heightened difficulty and higher stakes. Multiplayer function is based off the new Insight system, which replaces Humanity from Dark Souls and serves as another example of how Bloodborne mixes familiarity with fresh ideas. Your overall Insight stat can be increased by finding and defeating bosses, as well as using a new consumable called Madman’s Knowledge. Co-op and PvP are mostly the same kind of tense and breathless affair from the Souls games, with minor tweaks here and there to the aesthetics and overall implementation.
But then you’ve also got the Chalice Dungeons, which add an entirely new depth to the playing field and give the game infinitely more longevity. These procedurally generated dungeons are packed with multiple layers of unique bosses, snaking corridors, and sadistic versions of monsters you might have encountered in the main game. You create a dungeon by performing a ritual in the Hunter’s Dream using one of several chalices that can be found in the game world. Each chalice pertains to a different type of environment to use as the base setting, and the best part is that if you come across a Chalice Dungeon that you absolutely love, you can even share it with other players online. Co-op and PvP work in the Chalice Dungeons as well, and the entire concept is just so smart and addictively fun that it feels like another full-length game is built in here entirely.
All of that is to say that Bloodborne is a unique and masterful experience, and a clear PS4 system seller. The game is brilliant in the ways it invites seasoned Souls veterans into its gloomy world, and then turns everything on its head with exhilarating and blisteringly fast new combat techniques, unexpected tweaks to the core gameplay mechanics, and a steady progression that is only accentuated by its rich and meticulously connected world. While you’ll be dying to the monstrous boss fights for dozens of hours in the main storyline, the addicting Chalice Dungeons make the game’s replay value soar to astronomical heights amidst a backdrop of shadows and despair. It is now time for us to all praise the moon.