Bloodborne Review – Prepare to die, again.
Bloodborne, like its spiritual predecessor, Dark Souls has forced itself into my consciousness, occupying my every waking minute and dreams. Going to sleep after being bested by a boss only to wake up with a new tactic evokes emotions and feelings rarely created by games. Like Dark Souls before it, Bloodborne does a great job of drawing you into its world and making you feel the pain and anguish of the protagonist and the few NPCs scattered around its beautifully designed re-imagining of Victorian London. The feelings of helplessness and frustration borne out of being killed for the dozenth time is only matched by the sense of triumph when you finally beat the horror you have been facing for hours. From Software have mastered the art of of walking the thin line between anguish and joy.
The world is filled with grandiose cathedrals, winding alley ways and nightmares, filled with beasts and civilians turned mad from the seemingly never ending night. Your character is brought into this world as an outsider, tasked with ending the hunt and the night with which it brings. Waking in a small doctors surgery you head out on your grand adventure to side step, dodge, roll and kill a variety of beasts, from lycans to malformed crow-dogs.
Your arsenal, while not as extensive as previous From games is still well balanced enough to cater to a variety of different play styles. Each of the weapons comes with two forms which can be changed mid fight to execute a variety of different combos and attack sequences. To compliment the melee weapons players are given a choice of side arm guns. These guns take over the role of the shield from the Souls games. No longer are players able to block attacks, waiting for an opening, rather they are encouraged to take the fight to the enemy with parries and quick attacks. This emphasis on faster, more aggressive game play is also complimented by the ability to regenerate portions of lost health after being attacked. Players have a small window with which they can combo foes to restore vitality, but that too becomes a double edged sword. Many a time I would run headlong into an enemy (or group of enemies) to try and restore a small portion of lost life, only to be beaten to death by my own impatience and frustration. As a player who enjoyed the Souls games, this change of pace was difficult for me to come to terms with at first. I had been so used to patiently approaching enemies that I found I would often be killed quickly trying to be too aggressive or by mistiming a gun parry. But soon I struck the right balance and the combat became intuitive and fun.
Another change to the healing systems from the Souls games is the healing potions, no longer are these replenished at checkpoints, but instead are finite and require you to occasionally farm for stock. The same goes for the quick silver bullets for the guns. There were times I would find I would have to take an hour or two to dedicate exclusively to farming blood vials, this games version of estus flasks as I has used my supply fighting a boss or trying to get through a certain area. These occurrences were rare but did create a little frustration as it would slow the pace of the game as you had to return to previous areas to kill as many enemies as possible to get blood vials.
The game itself takes the form of an unconventional action RPG. The game offers very little in terms of assistance to the players, with item descriptions being vague or in some instances down right confusing, to the levelling system not being particularly easy to come to terms with or understand. For example players cannot level up until they have received at least one insight, this games take of humanity from the Souls games, but this isn’t explained anywhere. It instead comes down to trial and error to discover. Like the Souls games so much of this game is expected to be discovered and shared by the online community, but as a new IP this could be off putting to new comers. I have had a few online discussions with new players at their wits end and ready to give up on the game as they have not been able to get into the lore and levelling systems due to the lack of coherent explanations. It’s admirable that the game has such a large, thriving online community but as a new IP, and one that is intended to draw players into a new style of RPG and storytelling as well as being touted as a system seller for Sony, a little more in the way of optional tutorials may have been a better idea.
The story can be as vague or as extensive as you wish it to be. There is very little in the way of exposition, instead lore and background is given through item descriptions and rare notes scattered around the world. Piecing the story together can become a game within itself. The game boast three alternative endings, all of which are entirely open to interpretation, as is the intention. But as with the levelling system this can be off putting to new players. If you don’t spend the time to read all the flavour text you may find that you begin to lose interest as you have little reason to care about what is going on or what your intended goal is, instead it feels like a game of nicely designed areas randomly connected with a series of boss fights. But if you spend the time to involve yourself in the story you will find a story that transcends it gothic horror themes into something much more.
The game also includes a new aspect in From games, the chalice dungeons. These are optional side areas, accessible from the hub world, Hunter’s Dream. They place players in tiered dungeons where they can finds exclusive loot as well as dungeon specific bosses.
Multiplayer is also available in both cooperative and PvP forms. Like in Souls, players can summon other players into their world to assist them, or they can be invaded by other players. The always online nature of the game means there is no pause menu, so the game is constantly running. My experiences with the multiplayer were attempts to summon players for assistance, but each time I tried this I was unsuccessful. There are discussions online that seem to suggest certain areas have issues with summoning, but I would imagine that will be fixed in future patches. There is also an offline mode, but you will still be unable to pause in this mode.
The biggest issue in Bloodborne is the painfully long load screens. In a game where you are expected to die frequently, loads times of 30 seconds to a minute are unacceptable. While these times can allow you to reflect on your last defeat and compose yourself, it can also severely slow the pacing. This compounded by the fast travel system. Once a lamp (which serve as checkpoints) are lit, you can return to them via fast travel, but to complete this task from the over world is impossible. Instead you are required to return to the Hunter’s Dream, an ethereal plain in between worlds. This adds an extra two unnecessary load screens. Load times have been improved in a recent patch, however they really need to remove the unnecessary trips to the Hunters Dream in order to travel to different areas of the world.
The world, as in Souls, has been lovingly crafted. Intertwining areas, that appear to be disconnected from the outset suddenly become connected by intuitive level design and smartly placed unlock-able short-cuts. This metroid-vania style of level design really stands out in today’s gaming landscape and the semi open world nature of the level design rewards exploration. Certain areas and items can be completely overlooked and ignored if the world is not explored fully. The designers have managed to pace the variety of areas well. The game starts off in a re-imagined Victorian London, and remains in these areas for the first fifteen hours or so, but as these areas start to become tiring, the world leads you to new areas, such as a labyrinthine forest or an abandoned castle. The areas can also give some context to the story and players that have spent the time to involve themselves with the story will appreciate the way the levels flow and connect.
Graphically the game looks nice but is by no means best in class. Cloaks and capes move with the wind and blood splatters the face and clothes of the protagonist. The Havok engine is used again giving the world a tangible feel as most pots and vases can be smashed, and the bodies of fallen foes lie on the floor, easily caught underfoot and dragged along. It is these small touches that make the world feel real, and allow some of the graphical shortcomings to be ignored. There are times there are some bland looking textures, but mostly the detail is very good. The biggest graphical issue is occasional frame rate drops. There are areas that the game drops to about 10-15 fps, and in a game that requires precision in its combat and dodging, those frame rate drops can be the difference between life and death. But for a game with such scope I can forgive the occasional frame rate drop.
Reviewing Bloodborne is difficult without calling constant reference to the previous From Software Souls games, however this is its own beast. Yes the combat, storytelling and world design are very similar, but there are enough differences to make this game stand alone from its older step siblings. The game is aimed at the die hard Souls audience, as well as attempting attract new players to this style of RPG. The game while difficult, is still easier than the Souls games, which makes it slightly more accessible to new players. In a world where developers are increasingly scared to take risks, Bloodborne stands out in the market as something that has tried something new, and succeeded. This is shown by the sales figures reaching over one million, even prompting a congratulatory tweet from Microsoft.
Bloodborne PS4 only on Playstation.