From Software has an interesting fascination with death. Every game they’ve ever made seems to relish in making sure the player dies as much as possible before reaching the end. They also have a fascination with leaving you in the dark when it comes to plot details. This was the case with the action-RPG Demon’s Souls and its spiritual successor Dark Souls. With the release of Bloodborne – yet another spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls – this fascination seems to have continued. And as with the previous entries, this does not make the game any less beautiful, rewarding, or mysterious. It feels like a game made by From Software in every way, but with mechanics intended to reward those who like to mow through enemies instead of playing it safe behind a shield.
Gone are the dark medieval settings from the previous Souls games. The action has now moved to the gothic horror landscape with a city named Yhardam, a vast city built with cathedrals and castles surrounded by moonlit shores and dark brooding forests housing all manner of grotesque abominations. Sharp building spires, defiled streets filled with rotting corpses and abandoned coaches, and heavy use of dark imagery like cemeteries all serve to give Yhardam a much darker atmosphere than Boletaria or Lordran could ever hope to muster. It’s also thanks to a masterful use of dark palettes that serve to not only creep you out, but to inspire a sense of awe of what was once an apparently thriving and great city, now blanketed with a thick cloud of misery and brutality. It also helps that the game features some of the best graphical details the PS4 can allow. Watching blood dripping onto the ground, your coat flapping to your movements, and the look of decay along the streets is all masterfully done. While it might not be the greatest example of the PS4’s graphical capability, it still looks fantastic.
Adding to this grim landscape is an even grimmer tale of what happened to this society. You play as a foreigner traveling to Yharnam in search of its legendary medical marvels. However, Yharnam has problems of its own, having been stricken with a plague that turns its inhabitants into hideous and violent beasts. In order to survive, you must cross the city and eliminate all threats that stand in your way. By utilizing the dream-like state Yharnam is stuck in, you must uncover the mystery of this plague and rid the city of it once and for all by utilizing the skills of the hunters, those who seek to rid Yharnam of the bestial menace. To reveal any more would delve into spoiler territory. The narrative, as with the previous Souls series, is about as sparse and vague as it gets. You do get more cutscenes this time around, but they’re more content in giving context for events rather than revealing the details. The deeper details of the lorecome from item descriptions, random notes you read, NPCs you talk to, and even the environments themselves. Piecing it all together takes some doing, and even its multiple endings leave more questions than answers. But such is the tradition of From Software, and it’s engaging enough to keep you interested for the brutal ride you embark on.
As with the Souls games, this is an action-RPG with a focus on stat and weapon upgrades. The basics from the previous games are all there. The same life/stamina bar, the quick-equip options, and the movement animation, right down to the hilarious rag dolling that occurs with dead enemies. The combat still revolves heavily around timing your attacks wisely due to the slower animation wind ups than most games allow, as well as facing enemies that follow that same rule. It uses the same hub world system that Demon’s Souls introduced while combining it with the sprawling, interconnected landscapes of Dark Souls, complete with well-placed and easy to find shortcuts between sections of each area to reduce the tedium of backtracking. This is a successor through and through, and another example of From Software’s covenant with its players: they give us the tools, we figure out how to best utilize them in the brutal lands we journey through.
The other big similarity is the collection of blood echoes, which are this game’s version of souls from the previous entries. You obtain them from killing enemies, bosses, and certain items you can find along your travels. Blood echoes are your means to level up your character, purchase items, upgrade/repair your equipment, and other such uses. If you die, any you’ve collected will be dropped in the place you died, and in order to obtain them again you must venture back to that area and recollect those lost souls, but only if you haven’t died again along the way. There are occasions where enemy might pick up your dropped echoes, during which the only way to regain them is to defeat that specific foe – they’re best recognized by their eyes now taking up a purple and blue glow. You can also gain Insight, which is similar to Humanity from Dark Souls and are gained in a similar fashion, but has a few hidden functions that I won’t spoil for you. This allows you to not only be able to summon co-op partners (more on that later), but to also purchase specialty items from the Hunter’s Dream, should you obtain enough of them.
Leveling up hasn’t changed much from the way Demon’s Souls operated. There is a doll in the Hunter’s Dream, much like the Maiden of the Nexus, that allows you to pay some blood echoes to increase your stats, of which there are only six this time around: vitality (health), endurance (stamina), strength, skill, bloodtinge (gun damage), and arcane (magic resistance). The more you level up, the more echoes it takes to increase the next stat. Weapons scale at varying degrees to certain stats like always, so your play style depends mainly on what kind of weapons you prefer to use and how you can best wield them, though this doesn’t change how quickly you can swing or how effectively they can stagger enemies, only the amount of damage done in a single swipe or gunshot. You can also use upgrade materials to increase the power of each weapon, and fortify them with blood gems, which are enhancement items that each holds a specific buff or condition, so playing around with these is encouraged.
Even with those similarities, Bloodborne maintains its own identity with a few key differences from its older brothers. The first thing to note is that the action in this game encourages you to attack, attack, and attack. Yes, gone is the tactic of using a shield and waiting for the enemy to recoil before attacking – you’re even given a pathetic wooden shield sometime in the game to show you how useless the passive approach is. Now, attacking first while getting a few extra swipes as they stagger is the most potent way to progress through the streets and sewers and forests of Yharnam. Instead of shields, you now have guns, which are used to stagger your opponents should they opt to rush after you while damaging them in the process. Should you shoot them at the right moment, it allows for a visceral melee attack, similar to the riposte from the Souls series. You have a limited amount of ammo you can hold (up to 20), and you can even use some of your health to gain five bullets at a time should you run low of the normal ammo types.
A few new mechanics are introduced to aid in this. First, your armor is now relegated to…well, just being clothing options with various defense stats. Each item of clothing fits with the theme of the game, so you never look out of place whenever you swap out for better defense. With this in mind, you now have the freedom to dodge, roll, and quickstep without sacrificing speed. To aid in that, your weapons now transform. Instead of switching stances with weapons, you can change the form of your weapon and change its move set entirely. You can use a sword that sheathes into a stone maul, a spear that can be used as a rifle, or even a sword that sheathes into a wider blade to use as a greatsword. All of them can even be switched mid-swing for a variety of combat circumstances, introducing a new level of depth to the already fantastic combat. For this reason, there are fewer weapons to obtain than the Souls series, but the transformations make up for this, as you’re basically wielding two different weapons in one for each option.
Another new mechanic is the ability to gain the health you lost by retaliating against those that struck you. You have a limited window after being hit to swing back and regain that lost health, up to a certain amount if you’re taking multiple hits. This keeps the pace of the combat quick without the need to retreat for healing, though there will be plenty of that either way. If you need to heal, but don’t have an opening to attack, you can use a blood vial, the replacements to the estus flasks. These are abundantly found on enemy corpses, and you can hold up to twenty at a time, but that doesn’t make it any less likely that you will die if you use them.
This is due to the more intelligent AI patterns the creatures you face exhibit. Thought they still follow predictable patterns in order to give you a fighting chance, that doesn’t change the speed, power, and ferocity at which they unleash their assault. Often, you’re caught between fighting up to ten foes at once, either by running past enemies and aggroing them, or just by running into a prepositioned mob ready to string you up. Ambushes abound, but are easy to avoid if you’re being careful and observant. For this reason, even with the added emphasis on aggressive tactics and the health regain system, it would still be wise to avoid larger mobs, instead choosing to pick them off one at a time to keep yourself alive, while also exploiting the animation interruptions present for both your and enemy attacks. This also being a horror type setting, half the time you come across enemies you should be seeing, but rather only hear, with their snarls and footsteps and unsettling groans entering the scene before revealing themselves, forcing you into a constant state of awareness that only the best horror games excel at.
Aside from the weapons you use, there are also numerous items to collect, either as a temporary status buff for you or your equipment, methods to collect more blood echoes, or even navigation items to keep you from getting lost within a world that features no map, quest marker, or anything of that nature. These items range from elemental weapon buffs, items that reduce your susceptibility to status ailments like poison, frenzy (which isn’t explained very well aside from peeling off three-fourths of your health), etc. These items are, once again, best used for certain areas in the game, and discovering their use remains as rewarding as ever, as is reading their descriptions to obtain the lore of the world.
As for sound design, Bloodborne does a remarkable job in that department. From your boots stomping on the ground to the sounds enemies make, to even the ambient noises of the city and its outskirts, the game is a feast for the ears. The minimalist score keeps things atmospheric, with the louder, more intense orchestral pieces saved for the incredible boss fights this game features. While their patterns remain as predictable as ever, they are by no means less challenging or memorable, as they can still easily corner or pound you into submission if you don’t tread lightly and strategize on the best method of defeat. And this time, instead of fighting dragons or ancient warriors, you’re fighting creatures like werewolves, mystic spiders, and creatures that are incomprehensible to describe to the human mind, with designs seemingly inspired by H.P. Lovecraft himself.
Of course, with a game as challenging as this, begging for help isn’t considered weak. The game still features online co-op, which allows up to two extra players online to aid you whenever you beckon them with a certain item (at the cost of one point of Insight). You can summon people for that one pesky boss fight that keeps killing you, or to help uncover the more hidden shortcuts you most likely missed in some of the game’s levels. You can only be summoned with a certain item, and each time you summon help brings the risk of bringing in another player who’s more interested in ending your life than aiding you. This can be avoided by killing a special enemy known as the bell-ringing woman, after which you can feel a little safer knowing another player isn’t going to steal your echoes. If they kill you, they gain all your souls, and vice versa if you manage to kill them instead.
The game also provides indirect aid in the form of notes. Players can use an item called the Notebook to leave hints on the ground that can give other players clues for the area, like avoiding ambushes, leading them to hidden treasures and shortcuts, or even to just say something about the scenery or story in general. All the notes are premade from a list of phrases and words related to the overall game.
However, there is a new feature added into Bloodborne in order to provide more content for the game. By finding special chalices throughout the game, you can unlock the so-called Chalice dungeons, which are procedurally generated labyrinths filled with enemies and treasure that you wouldn’t normally find within the main game. There are several alters with which you can create a dungeon, and each has several levels, complete with their own batch of unique enemies, aesthetics, and boss encounters. These dungeons can provide some form of relief from the main story areas, due to their overall lighter difficulty by comparison. They’re a good distraction for when the main game has become overwhelming. However, don’t look to them for the art design, as they reuse many of the same assets – caverns lined with tree roots, stone room after stone room, all the same color – as opposed to the more varied environments that Yharnam has to offer.
This game is a grand example of what the PlayStation 4 is capable of, but some technical issues still bring the game down. First, whenever the game loads after a death or fast traveling, the times in between range between thirty and forty seconds, a considerably length of time that had me sighing in disbelief most of the time. Also, the frame rate, while it maintains a consistent thirty frames per second, does tend to dip a little whenever you’re cooperating/competing with online players or when there are several enemies on screen at a time. I even found one tiny area in the game where the framerate took a massive nose dive while I was there, only to return to normal after leaving. It didn’t appear anywhere else and there were no enemies to fight, so this wasn’t a deal breaker by any means.
Given those issues listed, I still find this game to be a marvel of level and combat design. The aggressive style of fighting is a welcome deviation away from the typically slow, methodical approach Dark Souls takes to combat. The art style and narrative are disturbing, yet richly detailed with enough gothic lore and implications to rival the best written horror stories. The world design is intricately built and connected, allowing for a deeper immersion into the decaying waste of a city known as Yharnam. The enemies are memorable and frightening all at once, as are the numerous NPCs you come across. With these things in mind, this game is still not for everyone, and is in no way perfect. The difficulty will turn off many looking for a more manageable experience that doesn’t rely heavily on memorization and planning. The long load times and frame stutters are annoying, the lower weapon selection is disappointing, and the Chalice dungeons left a lot to be desired in terms of overall design. However, this is one game you should at least try once in your life.
This game is, in the best way possible, the antithesis and deconstruction of modern design, much like Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls are. The difficulty is such that memorization of patterns takes precedent over trying to feel like a badass. The level design leads you everywhere and nowhere, such that overcoming it boils down to remembering where certain rooms and encounters are instead of guided passages meant to be simple obstacle courses. The narrative is hardly there, making you think about things and having to discover it for yourself rather than everything being told to you while you’re powering through mobs of easy enemies. While not to say that modern games are terribly designed by comparison, From Software has proven that there are still groups of people willing to think about how to overcome obstacles instead of being told “this is the best way to win,” and then accomplishing it without guidance. It allows those people to say “I did it all by myself, and I feel great.” Though it’s not a popular decision for some, I know I prefer to feel like I achieved victory through my own way rather than playing the way the director wanted.