When my PC power supply popped back in 2010 (taking the mainboard, CPU and graphics card along with it!), I decided to replace it with a PS3, and immediately began picking up all those games that you simply couldn’t get on PC. This included the sublime Red Dead Redemption, and a bit of a gamble on a cult Japanese game called Demon’s Souls, which I’d heard good things about but had no clue really what to expect. While the former was an exceptional videogame, one of the best on the system in fact, the latter became one of my most cherished gaming experiences of all time. Simply put, Demon’s Souls is still to this day one of the best videogames I’ve ever played, and when spiritual successors in the form of Dark Souls and Dark Souls II came out, I hungrily gobbled them up, and loved every minute of it. But despite this, part of me wished that From Software and Sony would return to the gothic-horror orientated feel of the original ‘Souls title, and when the first leaked footage of “Project Beast” started to surface on the internet I got excited; *very* excited. What initially seemed like it might be a sequel to the original ‘Souls game later turned out to be a completely different ‘Beast in its own right, that game of course wound up being Bloodborne, my most anticipated game this year and one of the reasons I’d picked up a PS4. It easily could have failed to live up to the massive hype, and the goal-post for world design had been pushed very high by Dark Souls and gameplay enhancements elevated by Dark Souls II, but Bloodborne lives up to it all. If you want the ‘TL:DR’ version of this review let me tell you, this game is sublime and a true classic, if you want to know why then read on and fear the old blood.
After creating your character, using a fairly robust character creation tool, you awake undergoing a blood transfusion as part of “Blood Ministration” in a dark Victorian/gothic city called Yharnam. The reason for this procedure is unknown, but it results in first horrific hallucinations of beasts drenched in blood, and later you dying and being trapped in a “hunters dream”. Indeed, post-transfusion your character has officially become a Hunter, one who prowls the streets on the night of the hunt, when the moon is full and beasts begin to stalk the streets of the cyclopean city, tasked with trying to find an end to the perpetual night and end the scourge of beasts that has overrun the town. The people you meet will either be cowering in their homes behind fast-closed doors, or patrolling the streets in lynch-mobs determined to end the life of anything that isn’t an identifiable Yharnam local, especially a pesky outsider such as yourself. Like much of the game, Yharnam is heavily influenced by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, with the twisted city and antagonistic locals being very reminiscent of somewhere like Innsmouth, from The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Indeed, as the plot progresses there is ever more talk of ‘Great Old Ones’ and cosmic horror, and slowly but surely Bloodborne becomes a tale of religious organisations messing with esoteric knowledge that is beyond human control. It’s probably the best Lovecraftian game ever made, and as a huge fan of the Cthulhu mythos, it’s a perfect marriage with the ‘Souls formula. Not only is the game dark and melancholy as ‘Sous games always are, but now it is also infused with genuine horror iconography and themes; this game can get pretty damn scary and is almost survival-horror in places, as you creep through subterranean crypts and nightmarish graveyards anticipating the next grotesque event to unfold.
I keep mentioning the ‘Souls games, but Bloodborne tries to differentiate itself from previous entries in this series in a number of ways, not just in terms of its plot and setting but also in terms of gameplay. Gone are the days of slowly padding through well-illuminated environments behind a large heavy shield, here you often *have* to use a torch or hand lantern and there are no shields whatsoever (the joke wooden plank doesn’t count – it’s useless!)! In the place of defensive sword and shields is a new hyper-aggressive and brutal melee combat system, where you often wield a gun in your left and a close-quarters weapon in your right, with the former being used to riposte and parry attacks rather than long-range damage-dealing. When reading the previews for this game, I was actually quite reticent to use guns in a ‘Souls game, but in practise they work absolutely wonderfully and trying to parry without one now will seem oddly dysfunctional. The close-combat weapons themselves are all transformable, and often switch with the touch of a button from short to long range, or sometimes activate secondary effects such a an electrical charge to damage certain vulnerable enemies. This change is important, as it gives each weapon a wide range of utility and different fighting styles, something that replaces the sheer number of different weapons in ‘Souls games. Personally, I found myself using my starting weapon, the Hunters Axe, for pretty much the entire game; upgrading it as I went until it was maxed out. This allowed me to really become comfortable using the weapon and I instinctively knew its reach, speed and the arcs of its swing, which helped when the enemy encounters are now so fast and so brutal. Some will not like this change in Bloodborne, preferring the variety of different builds that the ‘Souls games allows for, with the myriad different weapon and armour sets, but it’s a much tighter game here and combat feels play tested and perfected to the nth degree.
There are still a good number of different outfits and weapons for you to experiment with however, and with the removal of equipment burden you now only have to worry about which armour set provides the right type of resistance or defence buff, depending on the situation. And the situation will change constantly, as Bloodborne has a good variety of locations, which all fit together cohesively in its sprawling interconnected world. This game is almost like a “Best of ‘Souls” in terms of its world design, which means you have a Nexus-like hub area in the “Hunters Dream”, providing a place for respite and levelling up character and weapons, as well as a complex vertical and horizontal labyrinthine world like Dark Souls. Indeed, gone is the constantly tripping over new bonfire approach of Dark Souls II, and you will hardly find any lamps in some areas, instead unlocking shortcuts and ways to loop back around the levels. The world design itself is also a series high, with a lot of thought and testing gone into each area; nowhere seems rushed or throwaway this time, and even optional hidden areas feel fully fleshed out and expertly constructed. This extends to the enemy designs, especially the signature bosses and mini-bosses that litter the game, with each feeling unique and many standing out as particularly memorable. Take the very first two for instance, the Cleric Beast is a large and powerful adversary with slow and well-telegraphed moves that hit like a truck, while Father Gascoigne is more unpredictable and faster hitting, requiring you to learn the parry and riposte system using your firearm. Later in the game boss fights can turn into chases through labyrinthine libraries, or one-on-one battles against gigantic celestial horrors, or a game of tag with invisible witches; there’s a *lot* of good variety here and it requires brains as well as brawn.
Also unique to Bloodborne are some new stats such as “insight”, which people are still picking apart as they play through the game multiple times. The most immediate effect of insight is that it lets you summon other players into your world to engage in cooperative play, which is crucial if you’re having trouble killing a boss or navigating through a particularly tough area. But the more insight you have, the more you see things that were previously hidden from view, such as colossal alien creatures hanging from the sides of buildings (as pictured above at 40 points of insight) or multiple eyes popping up all over things. It also has the added effect of making the game more difficult in some areas, such as giving enemies new attacks or causing new enemies to spawn, and causes some strange interactions with a couple of others stats such as “Beasthood” and “Frenzy”. Frenzy is an effect to simulate your character being driven mad by the things he/she is witnessing, and having more insight often makes this more severe, because your character has more arcane esoteric knowledge and thus is driven insane quicker; causing a lot of damage. Having more insight also reduces your Beasthood stat, which in theory is how close to turning into a beast you are; there are even things in the game that will increase your Beasthood on purpose if you wish, but I was never able to use these effectively because my insight was too high – eventually hitting the cap of 99! There are also a couple of other stats that relate to Bloodborne’s version of magic and ranged weapons, such as “Bloodtinge”, which affects the strength of your blood-infused bullets. Even though it was much touted that magic had been all but removed from the game, there are still a variety of esoteric weapons and spells that you can access during the game providing your “Arcane” stat is high enough, and I will dedicate a future playthrough to using some of these arcane weapons in a special character build.
A criticism levelled at Bloodborne is that it doesn’t have as much replayability as previous ‘Souls titles, due to the reduced number of weapons and playstyles, but I don’t think this is true. Already I’m wondering what it would be like to use some of the skill-based weapons instead of the strength orientated ones that I used, or the arcane magical items, or to increase my ‘bloodtinge’ and try some more offensive ranged attacks. There is also the usual “New Game+” option similar to the first two ‘Souls games where you can play through the story again with your original character and equipment, but with the difficulty ratcheted up a few notches. Something new and unique that Bloodborne also introduces to the ‘Souls formula are the Chalice Dungeons, which are completely optional extra areas, sort of like a mini-game in themselves, and which add to the lore and story of the game whilst also providing a challenging end-game as well as a lot of replay value. Some of these dungeons are even procedurally generated, and while they don’t have the same genius level design as the core game, there are enemies and bosses that you will *only* find in these optional areas. During my playthrough I explored every nook and cranny of Yharnam, including all optional areas and bosses in the main game, but only touch on a couple of the Chalice Dungeons out of curiosity. My playthrough lasted for 45 hours and I’ve hardly scratched the surface of these subterranean spelunk-fests! In the future I intend to dedicate a playthrough to exploring these underground labyrinths, and to me there is a *lot* of good replay value here, not to mention some sweet trophies including a gold trophy for one of the final dungeon bosses.
|Bloodborne is an exceptionally well made game, with amazing visual design running on a rock-solid next-gen graphics engine, fantastic sound effects, voice acting and music, and gameplay *perfected* to deliver a quality experience so rarely seen. If you are already a fan of the ‘Souls game then this is a no-brainer, but even newcomers are encouraged to give this a go. Personally, it’s another truly classic game for me, and an instant entry into the hall of fame. Bloodborne was worth the wait.|
Bloodborne kicks off my “Month of Souls” but I’ll also be taking a look at the Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin re-release of the game on PS4. Check my blog for other articles on this videogame series including a round-up of all previous games, as well as some features written for the Band of Bloggers “From Software With Love” theme over the month of April 2015.