There is something special about Bloodborne. From Software’s latest title, exclusive to the PlayStation 4, is undoubtedly the best game of the year. Sublime in its architecture and engaging in its game design, Bloodborneis an atmospheric journey that is destined to leave a lasting impression on all who spend the time exploring its Gothic setting.
Any discussion of Bloodborne is sure to eventually touch on two key points: the game’s difficulty and how it feels compared to Demon’s Soulsand the Dark Souls games. These are important points, frankly, and are essential to fully understanding and experiencing Bloodborne.
In terms of difficulty, I am happy to report that Bloodborne is a hard game. I say this not in a condescending way – as other critics might be quick to allege – but rather in an optimistic tone. Yes, Bloodborne is hard. Yes, it might alienate some players. But no, the game is never unfair. You see,Bloodborne – as I have written about in the past – is remarkably open in its approach to gameplay. Within a few minutes of awaking in Yharnam, players have been taught the necessary skills to survive in the game. They may be cryptically written, sure, but those who take the time to read the ‘tutorial’ messages will find that they have been adequately taught the basics for survival.
Because of this, Bloodborne is allowed to present even the most dedicated gamer with a considerable challenge. The game is brutal, fast, and often unforgiving. You will die and you will have moments of seemingly insurmountable frustration, but working through those moments is essential to learning how to play Bloodborne. Game Informer’s Brian Shea, who admittedly had no experience with any of theSouls games prior to diving into Bloodborne, recently wrote about the game’s difficulty and how it requires you to abide by its rules, stating:
“Developing an understanding of how From Software requires you to play is of utmost importance. This isn’t a game world that bends to your will and yields to your play style. If you don’t learn to play by the rules of Bloodborne, you will die even more than you would otherwise. In today’s climate of accommodation and accessibility, Bloodborne is a shock to the system that requires the uninitiated to relearn how they approach video games. The perceived loss of progress is not something we’re used to anymore in the age of the autosave, and it took me several hours to get past that. It wasn’t until I realized that as long as I was able to learn from my mistakes, progress wasn’t lost that I truly began to embrace Bloodborne.”
Much like the concept of the game’s difficulty, Bloodborne’s lineage is imperative when discussing the game. Bloodborne is a departure from both Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, favoring an emphasis on fast-paced combat built around the ‘high stakes, high reward’ philosophy often employed by character action games. This stands in stark contrast to the often-slower, ‘sword and board’ gameplay style favored by past Soulsgames. For many who loved From Software’s previous work, it may be difficult to break the time instilled tradition of blocking at all times, but after spending dozens of hours with Bloodborne, I feel as though it would be hard to ever go back to the slower-paced combat of previous entries.
Getting these two topics out of the way allows for a much more direct critique of Bloodborne as its own entity.
As a video game, Bloodborne is nearly perfect. I say this as a critic who firmly believes that no game is inherently perfect, but I will be damned ifBloodborne isn’t close to it.
From its outset, Bloodborne puts tonal setting and atmosphere first. Yharnam, the central location of Bloodborne, is a town plagued by Beasts. The Gothic, cobblestone-adorned streets, present the player with an oppressive atmosphere of despair and mystery. Everything inBloodborne feels intentionally crafted: starting from the enigmatic opening segment, down to the emphasis on exploration and implicit understanding of the player’s desire to do so. Bloodborne, more so than any of From Software’s other Souls titles, rewards those who search every nook and cranny of Yharnam’s dizzying streets. Shortcuts and cutbacks abound in virtually every location the player comes across in Bloodborne, creating for a game that feels both masterfully interconnected and wondrously large.
In many regards, the locations of Bloodborne have a way of being presented as characters themselves. Each new section of Yharnam, sinister forest, or majestic cathedral boasts awe-inspiring architecture.Bloodborne’s emphasis on world-building and architectural design are among the most nuanced and well-imagined ever seen in a video game.
Of course, stunning architecture and solidly designed locations might not matter much to some players if they are not nice to look at. Bloodbornelooks consistently great. The numerous character models exude solid Gothic sensibilities that feel naturally at home when examined alongside the setting of Yharnam. Lovecraftian-inspired elements can be found throughout the game as well, adding an unsettling layer to an already haunting video game experience.
Blood is used in spades throughout Bloodborne. Fighting enemies causes your character to become bathed in the life essence of downed foes. After grueling fights, there are few sweeter rewards than seeing your Hunter emerge victorious with their clothing swathed in crimson. In addition to its obvious importance to combat, blood also serves as the primary currency in Bloodborne. Much like souls in the Souls games, players acquire blood from slain foes which can be used to level up, upgrade weapons, or purchase items.
Fighting through the countless enemies in Bloodborne is a consistently enjoyable experience, aided by the numerous tweaks implemented by From Software since the Souls titles. As mentioned earlier, Bloodborne’scombat is frenetic and requires quick thinking and movement. Adding to the player’s constant need to always look for an opening in combat is the game’s Regain System. With the Regain System, players are able to earn back a portion of their health after being struck by a foe. Though the window to take advantage of the Regain System is small, it is almost always worthwhile, nudging players towards an invigorating, offensive play style.
Helping players stay on the offensive are the transforming ‘Trick’ weapons of Bloodborne and the game’s usage of firearms rather than shields. Each primary weapon that a player finds in Bloodborne has different transformations that can be enacted at any point during combat. The game’s signature Saw Cleaver for example, starts small and fast, but can be extended in the middle of a fight to stagger enemies and eviscerate them with its new scythe-like form. The guns available to players can be used to pull enemies from a distance as well as fire at a foe while in the middle of an attack, causing them to be stunned, similar to the parry of the Souls games.
Learning the varied nuances of Bloodborne is no small task, making tackling the game’s bosses consistently feel like a difficult test.Bloodborne’s bosses are a memorable bunch, which I won’t discuss in detail because of potential spoilers. Much unlike Dark Souls II, the bosses that players face off against in Bloodborne are inspired and represent a satisfying level of diversity. Father Gascoigne, one of the first bosses inBloodborne, is destined to be remembered as one of gaming’s hallmark boss fights thanks to its breakneck pace and memorable moments. A later boss fight requires players to chase down their foe through a series of fog-filled rooms before ultimate squaring off. The variety in boss fights is a treat especially for veteran Souls fans.
Narratively, Bloodborne presents itself vaguely and enigmatically. Much of the story is told through short interactions with non-playable characters or gleaned from item descriptions. Bloodborne’s story, for those who take the time to understand its different layers and facets, is a dark, Lovecraftian tale that fits exceptionally well when compared to the game’s atmosphere and art direction. From Software, especially Hidetaka Miyazaki, have long championed mysterious narratives told through implicit storytelling, of which Bloodborne is perhaps the best example. While the meager story direction may turn some off, but there is plenty to read and understand if you are willing to truly invest some extra time.
Much like the ‘experience at your own interest’ element of Bloodborne’snarrative, a lot of content in the game requires an investment by the player. Numerous characters, events, items, and even bosses can only be accessed upon completing rarely explained objectives. Those accustomed to the type of exploration and iteration that Bloodbornerequires will find an almost staggering amount of content – more than enough to warrant a second or third playthrough – that adds to the game’s already established mythos.
In addition to the content that players must simply find to experience,Bloodborne also allows players to tackle areas known as Chalice Dungeons. These randomized areas are meant to add a different kind of replayability to the game but they do not completely hold up compared to the impeccable nature of the rest of the game. Although enjoyable to explore the randomized dungeons to an extent, especially since there are unique bosses and scenery, the Chalice Dungeons feel relatively tame compared to the constant challenge of Bloodborne proper.
Cooperative and player-versus-player gameplay makes a return inBloodborne. This time players can set up private groups to ensure that summoning friends is much easier. During cooperative play, groups of three can team up to fight through areas and tackle enemy bosses. For perhaps the first time in any of From Software’s games, cooperative play feels properly implemented. The concession towards allowing password-protected summoning is a wise move, ensuring that those who wish to experience the mysterious game with friends can do so exclusively.
As is apparent, there is an overwhelming amount that can be said aboutBloodborne. Few games ever manage to create such a richly imagined world. Full of terrible creatures and hauntingly beautiful scenery,Bloodborne is a game that takes the concepts of atmosphere and chaotic combat and elegantly packages them together in the form of a must-play title.