When the time finally came to write a review for Bloodborne, From Software’s new and extremely hyped game and so-called savior of the PS4 (which recently passed 20 million consoles sold, so don’t worry, there’s nothing to save, thank you very much,) I had to sit down and think about what would be the best way to face it. Because even if Bloodborne is a new IP, it would be silly not to admit that it’s basically a new entry in the Souls series in all but name. So how should I judge it, then? How to review it without constantly drawing comparisons between them? How to evaluate its shortcomings and changes in regards to those games if, at the end of the day, it’s still a new series? Finally I decided that the fairest thing to do would be to evaluate Bloodborne for what it is while, at the same time, I will talk about some of its gameplay changes compared to Souls, but not let them negatively influence or affect my impressions and score.
Title’s premise is simple enough: The city of Yharnam is corrupted by a horrible plague that’s turning people into beasts. Hunters are in charge of killing the beasts and contain the plague. Our main character is a Hunter who arrives in Yharnam during the “Night of the Hunt” after hearing the rumors of strange happenings, and immediately gets involved in something much bigger, and it will be up to us to stop the eternal night that’s coming. Like all the other games directed by the genius Hidetaka Miyazaki, Bloodborne’s story appears to be pretty basic at first, but only because they choose to show us only the bare minimum. Those who explore and take their time will find a larger story than what the game allows us to see at first sight.
Those who already played a From Software game before will already have a basic idea of what to expect in Bloodborne from a gameplay perspective: a third person RPG, aggressive enemies we’ll have to fight (preferably by picking them one by one, since just one of them can mean death if we’re not careful,) and amazing boss battles against nightmarish creatures that would make H.P. Lovecraft roll in his grave (roll in delight, of course.) We’ll also find a myriad of NPCs, both friendly and hostile, some of whom will be part of sidequests, the kind that’s impossible to complete without a guide. The biggest gameplay twist in regards to the Souls games is the focus on offensive play, unlike the more defensive and methodical approach of that series. You will be attacking a lot more in this game than on any of the Souls. Instead of waiting for an opening on an enemy’s defenses we’ll have to be much more aggressive, and since there are no shields we’ll be relying on our rolling and sidestepping abilities as defense methods.
Unlike in Souls, there aren’t different classes in Bloodborne, but we will choose between different origins for our character, which determines our initial stats but not much more. At the start of the game we’ll also pick up a starter weapon, which can easily carry us through the entire game if we decide to constantly upgrade it. Weapon variety seems to be much smaller than on the Souls games, but at the same time these weapons feel much more unique so we won’t be constantly changing to another weapon just because of better damage output. Finding a weapon and a style we’re comfortable with is a crucial part of the experience and, again, even our starter weapon can take us to the end of the game should we want it to. Still, there’s quite a variety of weapons including axes, swords, maces, and even a cane that turns into an electric whip. Each weapon has two forms and we’ll transform them by pressing L1 into their stronger form, trading increased damage for decreased speed or having to wield it with two hands, losing our ability to fire our left hand gun.
Oh yeah, there are guns in Bloodborne.
We’ll have a healthy variety of guns to choose from, with different kinds of ammo. Buckshot, two bullets at once, even a goddamn cannon once you progress further into the game. Our shots don’t actually do much damage, but a well-timed shot will stop most enemies on their tracks, or even stun leave them stunned so we can do a Visceral Attack, Bloodborne’s version of the Parry/Riposte mechanic in Souls. But, if you really want to do some serious damage and just go all guns blazing, leveling one of our stats increases the total damage our bullets do. At the same time, we can only carry a maximum amount of 20 bullets at any given time, so the parry mechanic can’t be abused and we’ll have to time it just right, giving the combat an extra dose of risk/reward. Anyway, since some enemies drop ammo when killed it’s hard to actually run out of it. And even if we do, pressing up on the d-pad gives us five extra ‘blood bullets,’ at the cost of a bit of health. In order to heal we will use Blood Vials, of which we can also carry a maximum of 20, and we can buy more or get them from enemy drops. Bullets and vials, as well as other inventory items can continue to be picked up after going over the limit of 20, in which case they are taken directly into our storage where we can have a maximum of 99 on top of the 20 we’re carrying. Should we die or go back to the game’s main hud area (more on that later,) they are automatically refilled.
By the way, let’s talk about blood.
In Yharnam (and therefore, Bloodborne) blood is important. Like, really important. When we start the game, our Hunter gets a transfusion of special blood in order to be able to join the Hunt. People in Yharnam drink blood recreationally, or as a medicine. We recover health by drinking blood vials. Even our frenzy is cured by drinking a special kind of blood that acts as a sedative. Solid chunks of blood (called ‘echoes’) act as the souls from the eponymous series. During the whole game there’s a recurring theme of how blood usage and abuse may or may have not had something to do with the plague, and it’s a really interesting and creepy concept.
So, back to the game.
World design in the game is amazing. I’m glad to say that, after the disappointing world of Dark Souls 2, Bloodborn shows From back at their best, taking elements from all their latest games. Yharnam is an interconnected world nothing short of the awesomeness of the first Dark Souls (to me, the apex of From’s level design.) Each area has one or more lamps, which act as checkpoints where we will respawn when we die. On every area we’ll also unlock really clever shortcuts that help us to ease the punishment of dying by shortening the distance we’ll have to travel in order to get to the place where we died the longer we progress. When we die, all the shortcuts we opened will remain open. Further into the game we’ll even see how some of the levels that appear to be miles away from each other are actually connected in mind-blowing ways. At the same time, we’ll use the lamps to return to Hunter’s Dream, the main area of the game that also acts like a HUD, like The Nexus in Demon’s Souls or Majula in Dark Souls 2, where we’ll return every time we need to level up or buy items. A baffling design choice is that the only way to move between levels is by going back to Hunter’s Dream, and from there, warp to anywhere else in the world instead of freely warping between areas. After letting us do this on the second half of Dark Souls and the entirety of Dark Souls 2, it really feels as a step back, design wise. Another questionable choice is that sometimes we’ll have to farm for souls (sorry, ‘echoes’) and we can’t just reset the enemies in the area by interacting with the lamp. Instead, we need to go back to Hunter’s Dream and then back to the level, which added to the unusually long loading times makes for a dull experience, which could be made better by just changing that really small thing. Also, since the weapon and armor variety is not as large, there’s little to no motivation to explore every nook and cranny of the world, because most of the times loot is just regular items or slightly better versions of them. There aren’t any legendary armor sets or weapons, and even the cool weapons you can find can also be bought in Hunter’s Dream.
Gameplay gripes aside, Yharnam is still a design and visual wonder and, in my opinion, the best world From Software has made so far, esthetically and atmosphere wise. It’s great to just lose yourself in this horrible and yet charming place, with its labyrinth streets and hidden terrors.
And if we’re talking terror, we need to do a whole paragraph for Bloodborne’s creature design, which ranges from the more classic beasts to the most abstract horrors as the game goes, showing how our actions affect the way the world itself works. Comparing the monsters and bosses from the first and second halves of the game I almost felt I was playing a different game, but everything somehow makes sense in the giant mindfuck that’s Bloodborne’s story.
Boss battles are pretty much what you’d expect from the series (damn, I did it again,) but there’s a great variety of bosses. You got the big and slow monsters, the fast creatures that can pack a punch, the humanoid things. Some of them use melee attacks, others use magic. A lot of them will make us rage and want to throw our DS4s out the window. Anyway, those who’ve already played Souls before won’t find many surprises as far as gameplay is concerned and, barring a few exceptions, most bosses only took me a few tries. I never found a boss that had me raging for a week or made me want to quit the game. Even the harder bosses took me a couple hours at most, and I never felt the need to look for help online or coop. Of course, this doesn’t mean everyone will have the same experience I had and I’ve seen some Souls veterans write about how some of the bosses in this game gave them trouble after having steamrolled some of the Souls bosses I had to get help with. But in my personal opinion, there isn’t a moment in Bloodborne where you have to get good, like Flamelurker in Demon’s Souls, or Ornstein and Smough in Dark Souls (which is, to this day, considered to be the Dark Souls boss fight for a reason). Anyway, as I said earlier, both the variety and quality of the bosses in Bloodborne is excellent and I never felt I was fighting a filler fight, like I did sometimes while playing Dark Souls 2. Also, some of the best areas and bosses are optional, so we’ll have to especially pay attention if we don’t want to miss out on some of the best content in the game.
Through the game we’ll also find different chalices we can use to enable an optional game mode called Chalice Dungeons. These are basically underground labyrinths where we’ll find loot (mostly the elements needed to unlock later dungeons, but also better versions of our weapons, for example) and new bosses. Each Chalice Dungeon also has an original, predetermined version and then different, procedurally generated alternate versions. Some of these dungeons are much more challenging than anything in the main game (at least in New Game difficulty) and we’ll want to wait until we reach NG+ to tackle them. And while a good idea in theory, Chalice Dungeons can get repetitive fast, since we’ll have to play them over and over in order to grind for the materials we need for the other Dungeons. Playing through a dungeon you’ve beaten before, steamrolling through everything since your level is now too high, only because you’re missing a specific kind of stone is not fun, and feels oddly against From’s usual design philosophy. It’s a shame that some of the most interesting fights in the game are only accessible through this dull, monotonous mode.
But the only big negative in the game, at least right now, is the online. By the time of this review it’s really hard to summon help or joining someone else’s game. I’ve waited, in vain, for over ten minutes at times. Apparently, From made some changes to their online design after the Souls games to avoid random invasions (you can only be invaded now when ringing the bell that asks for help from other worlds,) but I never got to experience that whole side of the game during my playthrough due to how badly it works right now. I’m sure it will get patched further down the line, but right now it was the big black stain of the game for me.
Having said all this, Bloodborne is still an amazing game, and probably the best exclusive available for the Playstation 4 right now. Through all of the 35 hours it took me to complete I was completely hooked, and when I wasn’t playing it I could only think about it. I don’t think anyone was expecting any less considering From Software’s latest output, but it’s still nice to see an exclusive live up to expectations for once. Even if it’s a more focused, straightforward experience when compared with the Souls series, it exceeds on what it sets out to do. It’s not a perfect game (no game is) but even with its flaws the good greaty outweighs the bad. And if some gameplay changes in regards to that other series can be disconcerting to those waiting for the second spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls, Bloodborne isn’t afraid to embrace its own identity in order to provide the best possible experience, and that’s what matters.