‘Bloodborne’ Takes ‘Souls’ To New, Unsettling HeightsFiled inside: Reviews
By now, we’re no strangers to the ultra-challenging action game. The growing popularity of the roguelike genre is evidence of this, but to the gamer that tends more toward the console over indie PC dungeon crawlers, there was Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2, two outstanding exercises in difficulty—tests of a players grit and fortitude, tempered by engrossing yet ethereal narrative. Now, From Software has taken that formula and further refined it in Souls spiritual successor Bloodborne. And the result is something that, while not necessarily unique, is as amazing as we had all hoped.
One of the greatest aspects of the original Dark Souls was its deeply engrossing, yet elusive narrative. The game had a story to propel you forward to a degree, but rarely wrested control from the player for it to be experienced. It was less dictated and more absorbed from the environment. That held true in the sequel, though the overall narrative suffered from increased effort in crafting a similar story. Bloodborne refined the formula somewhat—the story is more prevalent and driving, but it can be difficult to follow individual character arcs for the various NPCs in the game, and some moments in the game were a little too vague for their own good. And while many sidequests throughout the “series” at large might require some digging, my first playthrough of Bloodborne was riddled with what might be considered mistakes, despite my best efforts to be thorough.
Still, the game does a surprisingly good job of introducing what essentially amounts to a more real morality system than most games that feature gauges of that sort. When bad things happen to the NPCs in the game as a result of your actions, its hard not to feel responsible—especially because you’re often left with little other than a keepsake item and a lingering bloodstain as a result.
The game is based in the decidedly not-Lordran village of Yharnam, a decidedly more Victorian space. There is a disease running through the city unchecked, driving many of the inhabitants insane and essentially turning them into vicious werewolf-esque beasts. You find yourself infected, as well, but by ranking yourself among the “hunters” you are able to trek outside during the night in order to not only rid the streets of those that have succumbed to the sickness, but to seek a cure and bring an end to the current cycle of infection.
You do this by employing the tools of the hunter: special guns and Trick Weapons. This time around, From has course-corrected back toward the first Dark Souls, differentiating each of the primary weapons significantly more than the second game did. This time around, however, they’ve opted for quality over quantity, with a much smaller pool of available weapons that (for the most part) occupy more specific roles to suit different combat styles. The “Trick” portion of each weapon replaces two-handing a weapon in the other games. Instead, each weapon has two forms that have their own movesets. The Threaded Cane, for instance, operates as a basic sword-like cane, but can be disengaged and becomes a bladed whip. The Kirkhammer, has one of my favorite transformation animations ever, in fact, by attaching a sword to a giant stone hammerhead.
You supplement these weapons in your right hand (yes, no more dual wielding here) most often with a firearm in your left, loaded with special Quicksilver Bullets infused with the hunter’s blood. These replace the ubiquitous shields from the other games, and are the source of quite possibly the biggest change Bloodborne has over the Souls titles. Guns aren’t meant to deal heavy damage, rather they can interrupt many attacks and, when properly timed, replace the parry of the prior games.
This leads to a more accessible game with a smoother form of combat, leaning in a significantly more aggressive direction. You’ll still roll-dodge sweeping attacks and try to exploit recovery animations from your foes, but parrying is quicker and feels easier (up for debate), there are significantly more invulnerability frames in your dodging to make up for the lack of shield. Taking damage now offers a small grace period where landing blows will recover a portion of your health, as well. Losing health is no longer quite the death sentence it used to be, and well executed combat maneuvers serve more benefit than making you feel (briefly) good about yourself. Visceral attacks (attacks against stunned opponents) have returned to their pre-Dark Souls 2 level of invulnerability, but backstabs are no longer so easily obtained.
Armor is less varied and can no longer be upgraded, so expect little more than your level to influence your overall defense.
This particular title also attempted to remove some of the prior tendency for ruined builds by removing several stats from the character sheet and simplifying the ways those stats interact with your character at large. Similarly, gear no affects movement speed and dodge speed, though it can affect your stamina regeneration rate. Spells are no longer quite so dramatic, instead becoming items that consume bullets to function. To replace the stats removed, you can apply a variety of runes to your character to introduce unique effects like reduced damage from particular sources, or restoring health on a successful visceral attack.
Weapons can be upgraded as before, but gone are the differing upgrade paths. All weapons now follow identical paths up to +10, and have three slots that can have special gems inserted to alter its properties: reducing stamina costs, increasing damage against certain enemies, or changing the damage type. These gems can be switched out for others and replaced at no cost, so your upgrade paths are no longer so dedicated, a single weapon can be adapted to changing enemy types as necessary.
Overall, these elements make the game considerably easier to get into and grow in. It’s still a tremendously challenging game—I’ve found myself stuck in more than one location, requiring me to simply put the controller down for a few hours before making more attempts. Similar to the changes made in Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, the changes don’t serve to cheapen the experience, but make it easier for more people to acclimate to and handle those experiences. And even though Dark Souls 2 didn’t have quite the magic that the first DS did, Bloodborne‘s tuned experience is further proof that From Software knows how to learn from its mistakes.
The game features a similar multiplayer system to the other games, but has less focus on hostile invasion of other players than before. Getting started in the multiplayer is still needlessly complicated (several special items are required, and the triggers to purchase them are…not well expounded upon), but is simple enough to engage in. Even better, the Humanity of the old days has been replaced with Insight, a less useful item to stock up on (no longer affects item drop rates or defenses), but that still alters the gameplay in some unexpected ways (passing certain Insight thresholds appears to unlock special dialogue with some characters, and can also affect the difficulty of the enemies you face).
The system has been further refined by removing the idea of placing down “signs” and executing area-wide searches by using certain items. You use one item if you want to help others, and a different one if you want help—that easy. Inviting others into your game will also open you up to invasion, but you can elect to open yourself to attack, as well. This all melds well with the new addition of some procedurally-generated labyrinths that can be unlocked throughout the game, allowing for a (small) sense of replayability or expanded gameplay—especially because some unique items can be found within.
Add to that the fact that Bloodborne is one of the best-presented games of recent memory, and you’ve got a winning recipe, without question. Areas are sufficiently complex, with winding pathways and branches to sate your exploration thirsts. Items are scattered all about, often in tantalizing positions you can’t quite reach right away, further fostering the sense of scale in these stages. While the game starts off in a fairly stereotypical Gothic setting (albeit a very well-realized one), the color palette does expand as you progress quite a bit, rather than offering many shades of brown.
The game sports a tone of horror far more than its brethren, which were definitely more of a Gothic-fantasy, with some horror elements. Without necessarily billing itself as such, Bloodborne was more than able to set the hairs of my neck on end—a few areas in particular were truly unsettling without relying on silly environmental gimmicks. The setting alone can instill a true sense of tension, and the only counter is that you feel less small within the space.
The Chosen Undead of the past felt like a solemn turtle, wading through waves of dangerous foes toward a destined goal—a fate, in some ways, chosen for them. The Hunters are less slaves and more apt to their namesakes: normal people that take up a dangerous mantle in order to preserve the health of their neighbors, but also to serve themselves. You become fluid as you go, dancing spectacularly around the blows of your enemies, before releasing a timely bullet to the gut to bring them to their knees, ready to drench yourself in their blood (did I mention you are slowly covered in blood as you kill, reset only by teleporting back to the Dream or death? It’s very suave).
Dark Souls was often lauded as one of the best games in the last generation, something I wholeheartedly agree with. While the same cannot so easily be said of Dark Souls 2, Bloodborne is far and away the pinnacle of the series so far. It expands upon Dark Souls‘s gameplay and concepts without alienating longtime fans, but does so without reestablishing itself in the same setting. It learns from the mistakes of the past, but still manages to capture so many emotions as you wear on: wonder at the tall spires of the Grand Cathedral, tinges of woe within the walls of Cainhurst Castle, utter horror as you explore the Nightmare of Mensis, dread as you face down people that have been transformed into horrifying beasts, with only bloodlust in their eyes.
In short: it is something that absolutely must be experienced. Pick it up for PS4 as soon as humanly possible.