With the release of The Old Hunters just on the horizon, I felt it was time that I finally got my review published. As always it will be spoiler free!
Coming from Miyazaki and his studio that gave us Demons Souls and Dark Souls – comes Bloodborne. A game that is fully aware of its heritage. A game takes opportunities to subvert the players expectations. A game that challenges those who come with familiarity to change everything they know of it.
Make no mistake Bloodborne is a Souls game in all but name, everything that made them critical and commercial darlings are present and correct. Starting with the crushing difficulty, everything in Yharnam will punish arrogance, complacency or just plain bad play. It is true though that the game has systems in place to make Bloodborne much more accessible than either Demon or Dark Souls to new players. Do not read accessible as easy though, the difficulty is still incredibly high, there are a number of bosses; especially in the early game, that will halt all but the most determined/skilled players. The second boss, Father Gascoigne, is a real sticking point for most players and he is the toughest boss I’ve fought in recent memory. If you can beat him then you can beat the game.
Bloodborne’s difficulty is never cheap or unfair though. Rather it is borne out of the honing of its core mechanics, it expects you to improve and if you can’t, you won’t see the end credits. Every new enemy is designed to teach you something, it really is a great example of non-traditional ways of integrating a tutorial without making it explicit or intrusive. The story also follows this rule.
There is a story here but aside from the setup none of it is presented to the player in traditional ways. There are no expositional cut-scenes, no omnipresent narrator and certainly no audio diaries. Like Miyazaki’s previous titles the narrative is dished out in minute details such as item/weapon descriptions and the snippets of dialogue and notes from NPCs living and dead. Bloodborne even goes one further and incorporates a power storytelling device in to its game play mechanics.
Insight, at first glance, acts like Humanity. However the more you play the more you’ll notice how you are rewarded with insight. Every time you kill a boss you’ll get given insight – you’ll often be given it just for spending time in the boss arena. This is a hugely important detail – you gain insight by meeting bosses – these were people transformed and spiritually destroyed by their pursuit of higher knowledge and purpose.
Insight also has thresholds as you pass these your character becomes more enlightened and less naive. The world changes both physically and metaphorically. Enemies you encounter have more attacks. Huge enemies that were invisible are seemingly everywhere and most importantly of all, every enemy will induce frenzy in the player. The more you uncover about the ‘Hunt’ the more you go mad.
Is the hunt really a noble pursuit of cleansing or is it something selfish and destructive?
Throughout the game you are given choices, these are never made apparent and unlike other game developers there is no mention of them in the pre-release materials or the back of the box. They are not bullet-points, they are fundamental design decisions. These choices can lead you to some narrative revelations, and some cracking boss fights,if you are paying attention. In a game were there are 17 bosses, defeating only 9 of them is required to finish the game. The others are all optional, and although you are never told this, the optional ones all give specific story details – whether it be their names or the items the player is rewarded with.
The major choice occurs at the end of the game (which I won’t ruin here). And it is a hugely significant one from a narrative perspective and is one that is overlooked by many players. The story is expertly told and is so fundamental to everything you do that it becomes inseparable from the game play. I can think of no higher praise than this. In a world were storytelling in gaming is slowly becoming more sophisticated Miyazaki is well ahead of the curve.
So far so Dark Souls right? Well it’s here that Bloodborne fashions itself as a stand alone alternate/companion series to its older cousins. It subverts your expectations on what a From Software game is, and it does so with aplomb.
First of all, graphically speaking, the game is absolutely stunning and it runs like a dream. Buttery smooth frame-rate (after some initial stutters) and with a gothic-horror aesthetic and architecture this is miles ahead of what we’re used to from, From Software. It really is a gorgeous game.
The great design (and beautiful graphics) extend beyond the world and continues into its models. Hunters are beautifully animated. Every swing of their weapons looks like they carry a weight, sparks fly as they hit the environment and blood spews as they rip through enemies. The boss characters is where Miyazaki’s design comes into its own however. Each one is beautifully grotesque and successfully marries man and beast together – my favourite is either Amelia or Paarl – but they are all stunning.
The boss fights are also incredibly well designed, and although they all have similar moves (including one hit kills and status effects) each one is a memorable experience. The level of tension during these fights is incredible and makes success a transcendent experience. The fighting mechanics really add to these encounters and it is different from the Souls games.
While the combat is familiar feeling; it’s incredibly fast paced. Where Souls was all about the patient waiting for openings to attack Bloodborne is all about being aggressive and creating those openings for yourself. The game even incorporates a health replenishing system where when you take damage you can regain a (generous) percentage of it back through retaliating strikes at the enemy. It is a system that requires retraining for all you Souls fans – but it is a glorious one that adds a whole new tactical dimension to proceedings; a balancing act between survival and greed.
The focus on aggression means that turtling is no more. In a really humourous touch. This is the biggest change from their norm but From Software has included one shield in the game. It is a wooden one and has the following description;
“A crude wooden shield used by the masses who have arisen to join the hunt.
Hunters do not normally employ shields, ineffectual against the strength of the beasts as they tend to be.
Shields are nice, but not if they engender passivity”
Clearly they are poking fun at both themselves and their fans and I felt this type of self-referential touches should not go unappreciated. Well played From Software!
Without the safety of a shield the game wills you to aggressively attack everything in your way (almost beast-like behaviour). With this intention the combat system must be robust and here it is. While it is simple there is a level of depth due to your character build and weapon you are wielding. Trick weapons allow you to fight short, mid or long-range and you can combine them on the fly with L1. This system effectively gives you two weapons at once, massively increases your moveset and it; best of all, works flawlessly. When you die, it’s on you.
For those who are finding it difficult to cope without a shield, or for you whose skill and confidence is growing parrying is a devastating tactic to employ and one that becomes almost required the further you progress in the game. Your gun is how you parry and; when properly timed, opens up every enemy for a devastating “visceral” attack that deals huge damage. Make no mistake that the combat system rewards experimentation and will never let you down.
With all the above and the huge amount of content (and I haven’t mentioned the chalice dungeons) Bloodborne is; without a doubt, the best game currently on the PS4.
Sure there are issues with the game, playing with friends for example is a challenge to set up and requires military precision, but it is rock steady when you load into your friends world.
Sure it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but you should, at least give it a go. I loved it and I am no fan of the souls titles. You owe it to yourself to play this, with the release of The Old Hunters tomorrow there is no better time to buy Bloodborne.