Developer: From Software
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment Japan Studio
Release Date: March 24, 2015
The church, with its ominous eaves and sulking arches, seems to beckon him closer. The yowling of beasts permeates the air around him, hair on his neck standing at attention. There it is. The miasma of fog that obscures something far more sinister behind it. The hunter knows what awaits him through that gateway. Judgement. Penance. Sins too numerous to even count. Among the gravestones, he will be waiting. It is there that the hunter has witnessed a man pushed to the very edge of his sanity and his very mortal existence. Echoes of his own awakening and the subsequent hundred after that, never really wanting to stray from the sanctuary of the Dream but knowing there was no other way. Step through the fog. It is time, hunter.
The First True Next Generation Title
There are few games that will test your mettle quite like Bloodborne. It is a wholly frustrating yet immensely satisfying experience that will leave you with a true sense of accomplishment. This is, of course, old hat for those who’ve been in on the From Software train for a while now. Those who were dealing with pure black world tendencies or who have praised the Sun in the past will know the score already. The uninitiated will balk at just how difficult this game is. It will be the first foray into the darkness of a Souls game, make no mistake about it, this is very much a Souls game, for many. It will result in thrown controllers, sweaty palms, fits of panic and rage. It will also leave players pumping their fists in triumph, barking at their television screens like lunatics and begging for more. There are few experiences out there like this. It is a unique journey that will result in so many deaths it will seem unfair or, perhaps, even cruel. Those are just lingering doubts chirping in your ear, Hunter. Those who are bathed in the blood and born from it know exactly how fantastic Bloodborne is. A company known for going against the modern trends of game design, relying on fundamentally sound ideas and then subverting them has done it all over again with the absolute best exclusive console title released so far in this generation.
What From Software did with Demon’s Souls back on the PS3 almost felt like arcane trickery – a game that not only featured smart AI, opaque storytelling that demanded the player dig deep into item descriptions and the like to piece together the story but also required one to learn how to play it. There were other layers of design on top of that were, well, a bit impenetrable including the white and black world tendencies, but the resounding chorus of praise for it were well earned. This was an entirely subverted third-person action experience that pulled no punches, told a story worth working to unravel and gave players a true sense of accomplishment. Dark Souls further iterated on what was established in Demon’s Souls and has become something far beyond “just a great game” for some and a cult for others. It became a badge of honor to beat it, to endure and survive it. The sort of “I’m in the club” mentality that has become attached to the game, like it or not, is one that demonstrates just how profound an effect From Software has had on the gaming community. The sequel has its detractors and its supporters, but there is one thing that applies to all of them. There is a certain cadence to combat and a way to play these games that really defines them.
From Software wants players to completely forget everything they’ve learned prior and, instead, walk along the razor’s edge of Bloodborne‘s addictive and wholly exhilarating combat system. There are no shields here, a mainstay of the series prior, nor are there weights or encumbrance to worry about. The shield has been replaced, instead, with a gun. It is inaccurate, doesn’t do much damage, and there certainly isn’t much incentive to build a character around using it – but it is crucial to learn the ways of the gun. Where the sword and board approach of prior games allowed for a back and forth banter of steel and flesh, the firearm replacement allows for staggers and crucial openings for devastating attacks. They provide counters that can be life-saving, visceral and provide some of the most intensely satisfying moments imaginable. The days of raining arrows down on foes from far away or blasting enemies with magic are long gone. The result of this stripped down and streamlined approach is a much more raw, in your face and ultimately faster paced game. It isn’t quite Dark Souls meets Devil May Cry though it isn’t far from it either. Encounters don’t feel artificially inflated for difficulty but, rather, challenging in a very organic way. I cannot stress enough just how great the combat is in this game.
Single encounters are dangerous enough, but taking on multiple enemies requires dexterous fingers and nerves of steel. Boss fights in this game run the gamut of intensity personified to mechanic-heavy gems that rival some of the very best that have come before it in prior games. The nerve-wracking affair of dealing with NPC Hunters – where a single misstep can spell certain doom – are nearly as intense as the boss battles.
The razor’s edge analogy really feels apt thanks to the Regain mechanic. The impetus to get in there and mix it up is bolstered thanks to the fact that for the health lost by enemy strikes it can be gained back by successful hits. Keep swinging. Never stop swinging. It is a great derivation on the combat we’ve all known and love from the prior games. Committing to strikes is still the name of the game but if enemies manage to retaliate players aren’t left with the options of just dodging and avoiding right after. Each hit can bring one closer to victory and, ultimately, it speaks to the approach of Bloodborne compared to the other Souls games. What it really means, though, is that this is the best game to come from the devious mind of Miyazaki and company since the original Demon’s Souls.
Not Quite The Same
The Estus Flask and Lifegems of the past have been replaced by Blood Vials. Players will be flush with these items in the early stages of the game. It would have been nice, like the Estus Flask before it if Blood Vials were renewed upon visiting the Hunter’s Dream. This means that later in the game “farming” trips are almost a necessity to gather up healing items. Later on the item drops change significantly as stat-boosting and other crafting equipment start to replace the flow of healing items and ammunition for the sidearm. It is a conscious choice on the part of Miyazaki and his team as most will need the health in the early sections of the game, learning for the first time or relearning how to play a game of this type. All the excess collected go directly to the Storage vault in Hunter’s Dream (an admittedly nice touch). Later on, though, players should have gotten far better at working through enemies and dealing with what Bloodborne has to dish out. This is not a game one can just stumble through. This is a game the demands its player’s full attention and to learn its systems, master its mechanics and become a better Hunter in the process.
Character advancement takes place in the Hunter’s Dream (the new Majula/Firelink Shrine/Nexus). Talk to the living doll perched next to the stump near the entrance? One can channel those Blood Echoes (the game’s currency that replaces the mainstay of “Souls”) into boosting that level up. Collect various blood-related gems, scraps and detritus? Increase the various stats attached to that weapon of choice. The area is small with relatively little going on aside from the few NPCs present. It does, however, provide a nice respite from the continued onslaught that awaits players once they’re back at the lanterns (much like bonfires before them) that link the various spots throughout.
You Like Shortcuts? I Heard You Like Shortcuts
Miyazaki and his team – in prior Souls games – crafted levels that ranged from more straightforward gauntlets to the absolutely maddening labyrinths, though one thing connected them all: the concept of shortcuts. Remember Castlevania? Think more in the Symphony of the Night vein, when backtracking occurred, but it wasn’t a bother. Levels were interconnected and looped back on each other and hidden means of progress were littered throughout. This game is a clinic in regards to the design of its levels. Somehow From Software gave us the 3D Castlevania-esque game we’ve always wanted. The Gothic architecture mixed with the burgeoning Eldritch horror and dread that infects every facet of the game makes for a compelling journey that only gets better as it goes along. The placement of secondary routes, shortcuts and the like is smart. Smart in a way that few design teams ever aspire to anymore. There will be other Souls games in the future no doubt, but the bar has been raised mighty high in regards to Bloodborne from a pure design standpoint.
You Don’t Have To Go Alone
The option to play online or offline is given to players from the first moment they boot into Bloodborne. If one chooses online play, that opens up invasions and co-operative play. Want to summon folks for co-op play and down the boss that has been giving you fits? Use the Beckoning Bell for an Insight point. It will allow summoning of a friend and could help with that boss you’ve been banging your head against the wall with. If you want to open your world up to being invited in? The Small Resonant Bell will do the trick. If, however, you want to leave a co-op session or, just stick to your world, the Silencing Blank will help you with that.
This also extends to the procedurally generated Chalice Dungeons. The Chalice Dungeon provides yet another means of plumbing the depths of Bloodborne’s depravity, and offers a chance at dungeon-specific loot that adds a bit of longevity to the game after the initial playthroughs are done (though don’t skip NewGame+ as it is well worth your time).
The game’s initial release was, for the most part, relatively smooth – though loading times from title to actual gameplay, transporting between the Hunter’s Dream and various locations throughout the world were atrocious. Small bugs here and there that were related to the Suspend|Resume feature of the PS4 were also present, but nothing game breaking. The release of Patch 1.03 delivered on the promises from the developer to improve load times, fix bugs and generally improve performance.
Bloodborne is something of a marvel really. It not only works to bring in new players to the Souls series, but it also challenges those who have been inside Miyazaki’s madness from day one. It weaves a macabre tale with Lovecraftian implications in the opaque sort of way that personifies From Software’s approach to narrative. It is, by far, the most satisfying game the company has made in regards to combat, featuring boss fights that are superlative, some ranking among the very best we’ve seen before, and a step above what players got in Dark Souls II. There are moments that will test your resolve, make you rethink even playing this game entirely. Don’t give up. The rewards that await players who stick around, learn how to play and excel are vast. It will be a journey that induces rage, elicits triumphant shouts and proves that the Souls formula is still successful after the missteps of Dark Souls II. The impeccable level design meets gorgeous art direction in a game that personifies what a next generation title should be. This is the best console exclusive game on the market right now and it is well worth the frustration and time spent playing it to reap its rewards. The new king is here. All hail, Bloodborne.