Drink deep and enjoy the thrill of the hunt. There’s prey that needs slaughtering.
Developer: From Software
Released: March 24, 2015
Copy provided by publisher
Though classified as action role-playing games, there’s a very serious case to be made for gathering the Souls series under the umbrella of survival horror. I’ve felt more genuine fear traversing Bloodborne’s funereal streets and dismal hallways than I have across countless installments of Resident Evil or Silent Hill, treading lightly in anticipation of the next ambush or deadly trap, real and intoxicating dread mounting as I push further and further from safety into the dingy unknown.
Perhaps worse than the menace of the unknown are the very visible threats, the misshapen monstrosities and eldritch entities standing defiantly in plain sight. An oversized porcine behemoth waits distinctly at the end of a long tunnel, a mound of decayed flesh and skulls drags itself along an open road, all in plain view of an adventurer who knows there is no way to progress except through the hideous things ahead… and there’s just no telling what those things are capable of until they’re tearing their victims apart.
Bloodborne is every bit a psychological horror game as it is one about swinging swords and leveling up, perhaps one of the most effective horror experiences you could hope to have. It’s beautifully bleak, a sublime exercise in unyielding mental oppression. It’s a game so stressful it makes my neck hurt, and so brutal in its punishments that every success brings unmatched elation. Taking the very best of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, From Software has produced a near perfect example of its uniquely malevolent gameplay, all while amping up the brutality to stunning degrees.
Taking place predominantly in the Gothic city of Yarnham, Bloodborne charges players with the task of becoming a Hunter – a slayer of beasts that heals wounds via the injection of blood – in a world overrun by corrupted creatures. True to series form, Yarnham is a depressing and hopeless world, those few citizens left with a shred of humanity are all slipping into some form of madness or other, and the rest prowl the streets as malformed grotesques. Striking out from a growing array of spawn points, the Hunters carve their way through this city’s intricate hive of alleyways and paths, putting down creatures in a bid to reach one of the many boss monsters and unlock yet more of the world.
At first a daunting place, Yarnham grows to become familiar over time, as players learn from each death and begin to anticipate the dangers ahead, learning how everything is connected and where the traps lie. In time, the city begins to feel like home. A terrible home that would happily see you dead, and will see you dead. Still, a home.
Slain creatures drop Echoes, which behave in very much the same way as Souls in prior games. You use Echoes as experience points when upgrading character stats, as well as currency when purchasing weapons and items. Should you be slain in your adventure, you’ll drop your Echoes where you died and have to fight your way back – perishing again before their recovery will cause them to be lost forever. Sometimes, monsters will even steal the echoes, an act indicated by their glowing purple eyes, and they’ll need to be put down if the Hunter wants them back.
From Software is known for its precise, methodical combat, and this has not changed with Bloodborne. Fighting conforms to strict rules, and if you disobey them, you will die. Learning how enemies behave, knowing what your Hunter can do, making use of the environment and judging the correct time to strike or pull back, all of these are crucial to succeeding. Hacking away blindly is a quick way to get annihilated, as Bloodborne has no time for the impatient and foolish. When you die, it’s always certainly going to be your fault – the game gave you all the tools to survive – you just didn’t use them well.
While the Souls titles have always emphasized defensive tactics and slow, measured attacks, Yarnham’s world is significantly more aggressive, and battles have changed to reflect that. The Hunters’ weaponry swings faster, hits stronger, and covers wider arcs in order to face multiple foes at once. Dodging is more responsive, with armor weight no longer a factor in determining one’s maneuverability – in fact, there’s not really “armor” in the game at all, as Hunters are universally nimble and wear cool longcoats. As well as a melee weapon, players are armed with a gun in their offhand, predominantly used to fire at the right moment to stagger an opponent while its swinging and open it up for a tremendous counter-attack.
While the gun can be switched out for a shield, it’s far from recommended, as moving, shooting, and slashing are too important not to utilize. As someone who always played highly defensively in Demon’s/Dark Souls, the switch to a more aggressive playstyle took some getting used to, but once it clicks, the artistry of the slaughter is hard to deny as one’s Hunter ducks and weaves, lets loose a salvo of silver bullets, and closes in with a toothed saw, hammer, or whatever other weapon you might uncover. As a result of this more offensive style, healing items are more abundant, and it’s quicker to inject a shot of blood than it is to drink the Estus flasks of Dark Souls. You can even regain lost health by dealing damage quickly after taking it. There’s a very good reason for that, too.
The weapons you can acquire are not as abundant as they were in previous Souls titles, but every single one is gorgeously designed and more flexible in its use. Each gun and melee weapon behaves differently, and the latter is always able to switch between two forms. One standard weapon, the Saw Cleaver, may be used as either a short-ranged hacksaw held against the forearm, or extended to produce, obviously, a cleaver. My personal favorite, Ludwig’s Sword, is a relatively unassuming longsword that makes swift attacks, with an unusually huge scabbard mounted on the Hunter’s back. When transformed, the Hunter reached behind, sticks the small sword into the scabbard and brings it forward, because that sheathe was, itself, a giant sword.
Bloodborne is a game that lets you put more sword on your sword because you need Too Much Sword.
Some enemies are best slaughtered with one of the two weapon forms – which usually offer the choice between shorter and quicker or larger and slower incarnations – and it takes practice to learn the right form for the task. Weapons can also be transfomed mid-combo, too, if you fancy cutting in with some light slices before ending on a heavy flourish. Getting comfortable with the flexibility of one’s weapon, and learning the various maneuveres they offer, is key to having an easier time with the world.
This is not to say it will be an easy time.
Here we have a game that gives you the tools to tear up multiple beasts at once, gives you powerfully versatile weapons, and lets you heal more frequently. Fans of From Software’s harsh brand of justice may quite rightly be worried that the studio’s getting softer, but as promised, there’s a damn good reason for all these boons. Bloodborne is an altogether vicious experience. Yes, you can swing a blade and swipe at three or four fiends at once – that doesn’t change the fact there are four psychopathic mutants going apeshit at you. Your average Souls encounter has always hit hard, but these ones hit hard and hit often, with Hunters easily becoming overwhelmed should they not take care.
There are ways to mitigate problems and even the playing field somewhat. Pebbles can be thrown at singular opponents to lure them away from their friends, bait can be laid out, all in an effort to shave off the numbers before going in for an inevitable ruckus. Even so, the going will get tough – some monsters have their own guns, others are armed with flaming torches, and they of course all come in different shapes and sizes – all wonderfully designed, too, in horrible and sickening ways.
Naturally, bosses are significant parts of the adventure, ranging from pint-sized witches that surround you with shadowy demons, to gigantic masses of limbs and blades. Each one is bloodcurdling in its own way, and each one has a very good shot of murdering you. As is From’s custom, almost every boss is seemingly untouchable when first met, but through repeated encounters, smart character upgrades, and good old fashioned determination, they become encouragingly vulnerable. There’s something magical about the way in which Souls games inspires the player even as they’re grinding his or her face into the dirt, and it’s no exception this time around.
No challenge in Bloodborne ever feels truly insurmountable, always giving you just enough hope to realize that you’ve “got” this, even if it takes all day. What first induces panic and irrational mistakes eventually reveals openings through which to strike, as well as poorly defended areas of the body. Where a lesser game might cause me to throw away the controller in frustration, Bloodborne keeps me glued, because it always gives me some clue that I’m improving, that I can handle this, and that I’m going to, in the words of the Internet, Git Gud.
Perhaps the closest the game gets to a bona fide aggravating element is in its selection of bosses that take the form of other Hunters, driven mad by the Night of the Hunt. Some encounters are armed with the exact same weapons and abilities as the player, able to dodge, slice, and even heal just as much as you – albeit with unlimited bullets, no stamina loss, and one heck of a damage advantage. As with any other boss, they’re all very much defeatable, but they provide undoubtedly some of the most loathsome clashes of the game. Just wait until you run into the bastard prowling Byrgenwerth.
As someone who preferred Demon’s Souls over Dark Souls, I am delighted by the complexity of Bloodborne‘s map design, and how interconnected each area’s pathways become as you explore to unlock shortcuts – and then, in a Dark Souls twist, how interconnected each area becomes to each other! There’s something exciting and revelationary about discovering just how much the world’s areas weave together, and in unlocking each alternate route. While it’s true Dark Souls featured some of that, the degree to which it’s done here is sublime, and the use of a hub world (in this case, the “Hunter’s Dream”) to give one a familiar sense of home is most evocative of From’s seminal 2009 classic, as is the distinctly urban atmosphere.
This PS4 outing is proof positive that greys and browns in a color scheme do not automatically have to mean dreary, boring visuals. There’s something eerily handsome about Yarnham’s dispiriting gloom, another thing it shares in common with Demon’s Souls, a world densely populated by evidence of a once-glorious city brought low by decay and destruction. Everything looks so slick, from the rain soaking the cobbled streets to the glistening damp of blood and other foul fluids that seem to cling to the city’s mewling aberrations. The fact that Bloodborne is, admittedly, not all that graphically impressive on a technical level is more than made up for by the elegant artistic design and a wonderful attention to detail that marries the disgusting with the alluring.
Adding to the foreboding nature of the game is a subtle but stirring soundtrack, one that keeps itself in reserve until it’s needed, at which point it provides a rousing and minacious undercurrent to some of the most demanding confrontations. While the cast of non-player characters are sparse, each one is performed with just the right level of creepiness, as even friendly personalities seem to have some shady ulterior motive that one may never learn. This is a game in which even a most innocuous conversation with a seemingly affable clergyman fuels one’s paranoia.
Bloodborne boasts online features that will be instantly recognizable to Souls fans. Though we’re all suffering at the mercy of Cleric Beasts and Vacuous Spiders, we’re not doing it alone, as evidenced by the spectral images of other players, indicating where another person is fighting in your general location. Pools of bubbling blood on the floor indicate gravestones where one can view the last moments of another Hunter, just before they died, and you can leave notes for others, sharing clues and warnings about the environment. Notes and death pools are presented on the ground by Messengers, the personal heralds of each Hunter. They can be outfitted with little hats, and I’ve never seen characters so deftly tread the line between adorable and frightful.
Bells can be found in the Hunter’s Dream, allowing for more direct interaction. By using Resonant Bells, you will be able to call in help from another player, or answer another’s request, teaming up to tackle significant challenges. Cruel players may opt for the Sinister Bell, however, which grants them the power to invade the world of other Hunters and face them in a duel.
By finding chalices throughout their travels, Hunters can perform rituals in the hub to create their own dungeons, complete with procedurally generated layouts and a bevy of bonus rewards. Set up similar to roguelike games, these chalice dungeons are separated into floors, each with their own boss fight, as players descend into Yarnham’s version of the Underdark. It’s a nice place to grind, and dungeons can be shared with other players online, as well as explored cooperatively. It’s an extra slice of quality content in a game that’s already bursting to the seams with stuff to do.
Make no mistake, Bloodborne is a looooong trek. Simply fighting through the mandatory encounters is going to be a heck of a journey (provided you ever know which ones are plot-crucial), to say nothing of the time one may spend grinding, exploring, and facing off against the many optional and secret threats. Revisiting new areas often yields exciting changes and fresh dialog with the increasingly unsettling NPCs. The story itself is, characteristically for a Souls game, obfuscated and keeps much from the audience, but Yarnham drips in lore that’s well worth investigating, especially for those sucked in by the absorbing tone of the whole adventure.
Unlike comparably “long” games stuffed with filler content, there is no empty nebulous “stuff” in Bloodborne – every shred of its material is valuable, everything has a meaning, a place, and importance. Even as one reaches the final furlong on the path to the final fight, it’s still throwing new monsters and fresh areas at you. Those areas get less intricate and involved as the game continues, that much is true, but the consistency in sheer quality is never dropped, the commitment to freshness maintained throughout.
Perhaps my one notable criticism of the whole thing is the loading times between deaths – not a huge problem if you don’t intend to die a lot… but there’s something to be said about the best intentions.
When that’s really the only major issue, however, it’s quite clear we’ve got something majestic on our hands, and that’s what From has given us – something majestic indeed.
Bloodborne is as glorious as it is grotesque, a harsh and unyielding exercise in getting battered mercilessly while feeling encouraged the whole painful way. While very much a Souls game through and through, the switch from methodical and slow progression to a faster, ultimately more savage environment provides just enough of a twist to give it a wholly unique feel, a more empowering journey, for both the player and the opposition. Bloodborne is something truly special – a barbaric horror RPG that will giveth and taketh away in perfect measure, wrapped up in a perverse world that will refuse to let you go.
You can also hit crazy villagers with a cane that’s also a whip before toasting them with a handheld flamethrower. Because of course you can.