April 01, 2015
I’m going to straight out admit this: I’ve never played a Souls game. Not even tried it. Not that it didn’t interest me, because it did, but it came at a time when my attentions were fixated elsewhere. It does leave me perfectly poised to attack From Software’s Bloodborne, the spiritual successor to the developer's Souls games. It's a fresh new IP for a fresh – well, kind of fresh – new console.
Bloodborne is what we’re going to call a Souls-like. It’s a Souls-like in that the design tenets that From Software adhered to with Demon's Souls and Dark Souls are all more or less present, but unlike the Souls games, Bloodborne places an emphasis on quick, visceral combat and dodging, rather than on blocking and hunkering down behind a shield.
You play as… well, a hunter, thrown into the world of Yharnam because… well, we’re not sure. Even after completing the game, getting to level 90+, unlocking most the trophies, fighting all the bosses, reading as much lore as we could get our hands on, and still, we’re not sure what the hell Bloodborne is all about. It’s got something to do with nightmares, cursed blood and well, yeah, that’s all we really picked up. You do get to explore some fantastically realised environments and get knee-deep in the blood and eviscerated guts of some truly disgusting – and big – monsters.
Let’s be honest though, you’re not going to play Bloodborne for the story or even the production values, which are shaky at best. You’re going to play for the fast-paced combat and, more importantly, the challenge it offers. It would have been nice to have a purpose in the world other than to simply disembowel anything that moves, but alas, that wasn’t to be.
"Shaky production values?" you exclaim, "What is this you speak of!?" Well, where do I start? First off, there’s no lip-syncing, which just seems lazy, then there’s the fact that enemies can often glitch under the map, then there’s the collision detection on enemy (and your own) attacks, which means you can get hit through a wall. The targeting system also has a mind of its own sometimes and the soon-to-be-patched load times are brutal.
You’re going to die a lot in Bloodborne. That’s just part of the overall experience, but having to wait 40-45 seconds each time to load after said death is almost inexcusable. Brutal games that push you to the limits of your pain threshold are usually well-known for throwing you right back into the action, but Bloodborne isn’t in danger of doing that anytime soon.
Bloodborne is also a game that refuses to hold your hand, which can be both a daunting prospect and a challenge to relish. Looking for where to go next can often result in some highly interesting adventures, but starting out as a newbie to the Souls-like games, it’s a bit of a kick in the teeth.
Menus aren’t explained so something as simple like equipping a piece of armour can’t be done in one menu but can be done in the other, and something as simple as learning how to hot-map items to the d-pad can feel like you’ve conquered Everest. I don’t want hand-holding, but being set off in the right direction would be nice. It’s a new franchise, a new IP, and should have been treated as such. How was I meant to know that I had to bring a doll back to life in order to bank my Souls – sorry, I mean Blood Echoes – in order to level up? It’s a little ludicrous and beyond comprehension at times.
When you start to find your feet though, Bloodborne grows and grows into the epic experience that we not only wanted, but we deserved. Does that excuse the earlier faux pas? No, but it makes them a little more bearable. The game is designed in a way that lets you set your character up how you want them. In fact, the Saw Cleaver – the weapon you can start out with – was the weapon we ended the game with. After upgrading it, attaching blood gems to it, we were able to turn it into a formidable weapon. It's the same with the outfits somewhat – the first outfit we bought was the one we ended the game with. It’s about finding what works best for you.
As I’ve previously alluded to, you’re going to want to play Bloodborne for its combat, the challenge of taking down a foe 10-times your height and the sheer surrealism. Sure, it’s unfair at times and when you lose 100,000 Echoes because of an absurd design choice, but it’s a game that encourages you to brush yourself down and try again. And if the challenge proves too much, there's always co-op. If you need more of a challenge, then there's PvP in which you can pit yourself against a rival hunter or seemingly never-ending Chalice Dungeons to tackle.
The combat is surprisingly deep as well. Sure, you can mash R1 until the cows come home, but combine it with the transformed form of the game's Trick Weapons (like the inventive Kirkhammer) – triggered using L1 – and the gun, and you can unleash a frenzy of attacks on a whole range of wacky and challenging foes.
Bloodborne is a game that manages to keep itself interesting from start to finish, mixing things up as you wade through the cobbled mist-laden mean streets of Yharnam, through the Forbidden Forest and to some of the secret areas that you could easily miss if you didn’t take a chance to stop and smell the roses every once in a while.
Stumbling into an awe-inspiring boss encounter, meeting new enemies and that risk versus reward gameplay – as in, "I’m carrying 150,000 Echoes, do I go back or do I soldier on in the hope of hitting a lamp?" are what makes you keep playing Bloodborne and what makes it such a rewarding adventure.
There’s nothing more satisfying than lighting a lamp – which is effectively a fast travel point – having defeated a boss who makes you look insignificant, or quite simply opening a shortcut that means you no longer have to fight through the hordes of the afflicted to get to where you want, should you happen to meet your maker. In terms of minute-to-minute gaming, those thrills in Bloodborne are what sets it apart from its rivals.
Considering that Bloodborne is an unequivocal challenge from start to finish, its trophy list is actually fairly manageable. It’s a list that encourages that you explore the deepest, darkest secrets its world has to offer, and more often than not, can result in some of the game’s more memorable moments. Some of the secrets are easily stumbled upon, while others need meticulous thought, but it does everything that a trophy list should do in a game like this, and that’s rewarding exploration and encourages wacky lateral thinking.
Our only gripe? Putting a trophy on each of the game’s numerous endings, something we still question from developers in games like this – we’ve had our experience, let us draw a line under it, not seek out other ways to see our tale end. In all though, it’s quite easily the easiest Souls-like list that exists, but is still one hell of a challenge.
Despite all of its flaws, Bloodborne is a worthy adversary. However, its various issues and lazy game design are a slight on what is otherwise an excellent From Software title. It’s a game that creates memorable experiences, elicits moments of supreme joy, but one that can often cause frustration. Not because of its difficulty, we embraced that challenge, but because of its execution. Bloodborne is quite easily a beast, but more importantly, it’s an impressive offering for Sony’s PlayStation 4, albeit a slightly flawed one if ever there was one.
There’s a lot of nothingness in Bloodborne when it comes to audio, but when the score kicks in, the floorboards are creaking and you’re listening to the faint wailings of a crying baby, it’s enough to send shivers down your spine.
It’s not the prettiest game on the PS4, but its art-style and direction are something to bask in. How the world changes depending on the sky is a true pleasure, as is the lighting engine. It struggles to maintain a constant frame-rate at times, but these instances are few and far between.
The combat is quick, free-flowing, and truly meaty. You feel every hit, breathe a sigh of relief over every near miss and rejoice at every boss takedown. This is not a hack n’ slash Souls game, instead it’s a new take on the formula, one that works almost perfectly.
We applaud the lack of hand-holding and freedom, but lament some of the other design choices, like not giving you the basics of the game from the offset. Enemy attacks clipping through walls to hit you, enemies glitching under the map and brutal load times mar what would otherwise be an excellent experience.
Japanese developers have been notorious for ridiculously challenging lists over the years. Bloodborne’s sits carefully on the fence. Challenging, encouraging players to explore and more, it’s a great list from From Software.
Bloodborne is what we like to call a flawed masterpiece, yet despite its niggles, we can’t recommend it highly enough. Sure, there’s some interesting design decisions and at times, often lazy game development, but it’s a game that takes no prisoners. It holds no hands. It pulls no punches. It challenges your inner saint. It’s a beast, and one that should be tried, even if it defeats you.