Death… As gamers, we as a community are used to dealing with such problems, at least in a virtual sense. Although, since the console revolution back in the 90’s with on-board save states and the introduction of memory cards, it’s been more of an easy-going sort of death as we just hit continue or load the last save and we’re back at the last checkpoint and continue our almost stress free journey.
In 2009, From Software decided that checkpoints and hand holding were for crying babies, cravens and lightweights, and unleashed Demon’s Souls upon the Playstation community, bringing back something that had been mostly lost since the home computer generation died out with the rise of the console. The days of Commodore, Atari and Sinclair… The days where losing your life meant returning to repeat large sections of games, if not being bounced all the way to the beginning to start anew.
Since the success of Demon’s Souls as a legitimate, new IP, we’ve seen the brutal monster evolve into a series that has gained many fans who felt that our hobby was missing something a little more hardcore. Both Dark Souls and it’s sequel have managed to pull masochist from all platforms into the dark, medieval worlds and keep them locked up in irons, pleading for more pain.
Both fortunately and unfortunately, From Software now bring you Bloodborne. Great news for those who wish to plunge into a new Souls style title, but also bringing frowns to those who decided to opt for Microsoft’s console over Sony’s or are one of the PC elite. Bloodborne is and will remain, a PlayStation 4 exclusive.
If you’ve ever played a Souls title, you’ll be aware these games opt to drop you headfirst into sprawling, maze-like surroundings, weaker than a newborn and make you work for your supper. There is no change in this department and you’ll feel right at home, although home is possibly the wrong word as it’s more like being blindfolded, kidnapped and dumped in the middle of nowhere with a butter knife to defend yourself.
You’ll create your character, aesthetically tweaking him or her until happy then by choosing an origin that decides your beginning statistics. You can opt for more strength and vitality, giving you a slightly better chance to survive or maybe you’re a glutton for punishment and want to start with the minimum stats, bad-ass that you are.
Bloodborne begins as you awake from what seems like a nightmare, lying on a slab in a clinic and basically, left to your own devices. No back story, no weapons, no map and definitely no help. In fact, there’s not much of an instruction manual either, so it’s up to you to use your head and figure out what to do next.
What you’ll probably do, like most of us, is either run and try to find somewhere to hide or, you might want to attempt to fist fight the member of Team Jacob that’s munching down on a tasty, fresh cadaver in the next room. Punching large werewolves, while fun, is not very efficient unless you’re the Silver Surfer and may just end in your first gory demise.
However you manage to progress, you’ll eventually end up in the main hub of the game, called Hunter’s Dream. This is where you’ll learn some extremely minor information from a mysterious man named Gehrman on what you’re doing here, earn your first weapons and garner some knowledge on how to control your character. You will be returning here quite a lot throughout the game too, only unlocking some of the tools that can be used after completing certain objectives.
The Hunter’s Dream is a little like the Nexus in Demon’s Souls too. Using the headstones found in the gardens, they act as a teleportation to anywhere you have visited in Yharnam, as long as you’ve used the lantern-like checkpoints scattered sparingly throughout the huge city and its surrounding area.
When you set foot back on the cobbled, brooding, Victorian-esque streets of Yharnam, you will be a little more equipped to deal with the strange beings roaming the streets… But not by much. This is your chance to learn that exploration and caution are key to surviving. It’s also the perfect opportunity to learn the new combat system.
Unlike it’s forebears, Bloodborne does not arm you with a shield to protect yourself, nor does it lighten up on the savagery of its denizens. In fact, they travel in larger groups, carry more dangerous weapons and will gang up on you, burning you with torches, stabbing with blades and trying to turn you into a human marshmallow by spitting you on their pitchforks.
Instead of running in, Saw Blade flashing like you’re some sort of gothic Kratos, drawing out single enemies, using the environment to your advantage and thinking before you attack will always favour you in the long run. Learning quickly that your off-hand gun is great for staggering enemies is also beneficial.
Bloodborne offers you the chance to be on the offensive, rather than hiding behind a huge piece of shaped metal and picking off enemies’ health, you see. Using a combination of gunshots, swings with your main melee weapon and figuring out that the said weapon has a secondary, longer range and harder hitting function, eventually will have you ripping health from crazed freaks, rather than chipping away at health bars for minutes at a time.
Weapons, as mentioned previously, have two functions. Not only do they offer distinct types of attack, range and power in each form, but they also change visually. The Saw Blade is a short-sword length means of murder, but with a tap of L1, it flicks open like a giant, serrated straight-razor for clearing a wider arc in front of you. The Hunter’s Axe is a short chopper (pardon the expression) to begin with, extending its handle as you transform it into a halberd of spinning death, absolutely perfect for AOE damage. That’s only the starting weapons too…
As you murder your way through, you’ll obtain Blood Echoes, which is Bloodborne’s version of Souls. These are used to purchase stats, items and armoury goods from the Hunter’s Dream and again, are lost when you die. If you can pick your way back to your scene of death, you can absorb them again and continue with nothing lost. If you shuffle off the mortal coil before you manage this, you’ll have lost them forever.
Insight, which is awarded for killing bosses, completing certain tasks and by using particular items are also used as currency. Some of the better equipment found within Bloodborne can be bought by means of the messengers, little undead goblin-like creatures, that live in the fonts of your hub.
Dodging, sidestepping and rolling all play their part too and this is your main form of defence in Bloodborne. It’s also not as hard as Souls games to quickly dive out-of-the-way of vicious attacks aimed at you, as From seem to have given a bit more thought into the stamina system, giving you plentiful endurance to nip in, swing a few times, dodge, swing again and run like hell before you get stomped into a blood-hole.
That’s not saying you won’t die as much, just that if you take the time to learn enemies unique attack patterns, you’ll be more equipped to handle a couple of hits before retreating and waiting for the next opportunity to attack. As with all games in the series, patience, observation, positioning and opportunity are king. I might coin that term as POPO.
From have also given a bit of leeway for being a bit cack-handed and if you get hit, you can earn some of your health back by instantly going in for a bit of vengeance. Your health bar will deplete when attacked successfully, leaving an orange bar marking the health you’ve lost. If you manage to connect with a couple of retaliation swipes, the bar will start to fill again, saving you from using a health consumable that you will definitely need for later encounters.
Encounters such as the many bosses, mini-bosses and larger minions that litter the streets. These behemoths are a different story, having greater attack power, using unique attacks and most can reduce your hunter to something resembling a large spillage in a ketchup factory in a few hits. POPO also applies here but to a much larger degree.
Not everything that moves is deadly however. Sometimes you’ll meet a helpful individual that offers advice. Sometimes they’ll progress the narrative and sometimes the bastards will leave you standing on their doorstep while sounds of merriment ring from within. These people seem to know a lot more about why you’re in Yharnam than you actually do and it’s worth checking every door with a red lantern and dead ends, just in case you miss someone. You can also find notes left by the locals explaining a little more, building the story as you go.
While there are numerous beings to hinder or help your progress in Bloodborne, each with their own hideous identities, Yharnam itself is the most charismatic character in the game. Glistening cobbles lay underfoot. Towering steeples and residencies rise above you, almost sneering at your presence between their dirt-caked walls. The foliage in the misty, dank forest surrounding the city feels more menacing than some of its inhabitants and the tight corridors of the cathedrals, sewers and unlit passages threaten death at every turn.
Yharnam is also a huge maze with dead ends, locked gates and long drops to contend with. It’s scale is truly amazing when you realize that the large areas not only cover street level, but also builds vertically, up and down. Looking out from a veranda in a lofty tower over the city and realising that you can visit its furthest landmarks is a fantastic revelation. As is looking down and seeing how deep the city lies on its lowest levels.
I can honestly say that with a week of gameplay, I still haven’t managed to see the whole of the city. There are hidden areas, doors to unlock that contain valuable treasure, NPCs to meet that may offer some help, items, insight into the cryptic, sparse narrative and the chance to join one of the covenants that offer special badges and runes that aid you in your progress.
You can play the game at a breakneck pace if you think you’re skillful enough. I’ve seen a few speed-runs myself and they look impressive. Not, however, as impressive as taking the time to let the imagery, well created world and it’s atmosphere immerse you.
Not only do the visuals inspire fear of the unknown and the unexplored, but the sound direction can possibly only be matched by earlier Silent Hill games. A not so distant scream pierces your ears as you turn into a seemingly empty lane. Sudden church bells reverberate as you try to locate the source of the low snuffling of canine beasts or the steady rhythm of lumbering footsteps somewhere off to your left, or was it right? Was that a scratch of claws I heard as I slosh around the waste of a fetid sewer tunnel?
NPC’s are well casted too, with the usual depressive tones of humanity, lost in a dark and cruel world. There are also members of the community who are probably a bit mad and seem to be having a good laugh at you and the city outside their comfortable doors. Lines are delivered with feeling, giving you a sense of the despair that’s fallen upon the citizenry.
Combing the available sensory techniques, From Software have created a jarring, sometimes terrifying adventure that will keep you bent forward on your seat, scanning the entire screen for danger while trying to keep your cool in case there’s a battle ahead and trying not to crush your DualShock 4 as I almost did a few times. Especially in a boss fight when you only have one Blood Vial left and you know a couple more hits will turn your enemy into a floating pile of dust.
If you are finding things a bit tough, you can always invite someone to your game by using the summoning bells that are gifted to you early on in Bloodborne. Ringing this will send out a message to other gamers playing online and let them join you in battling through Yharnam. This is great when trying to take down a tough boss or if you get lost, at least you have someone close by to watch your back. Not only that, but you can invade someone else’s game too. Something best left until you’re a bit more learned with the combat system.
Another addition to Bloodborne are Chalice Dungeons. These are accessed by finding Chalices, funnily enough, and some extra ingredients that will determine the type of dungeon you’ll end up dying in… I mean venturing through. The earlier levels are not too much of a challenge, but as you continue to experiment, you’ll soon be ringing the summoning bell and changing your Keks while you wait for help.
While wandering the depths, you’ll be awarded with Blood Echoes, deeper dungeons offering them at a higher rate. There are also rare weapons that will give you the option of using special blood gems, items that upgrade statistics or properties that will help vanquish your foes. If you fall into the gamer category of ‘looter’, you will love Chalice Dungeons.
There is definitely much more to speak of regarding Bloodborne, some that I’ve encountered while trying not to soil myself and some that I’ve yet to uncover. If you have read a review that explains every feature, location, detail, boss and mechanic that the game has to offer, then that reviewer must have a time machine or read an in-depth official strategy guide. It’s certainly not feasible to see everything in a week unless you’re deprived of sleep, food and using superglue to keep your eyelids open. Bloodborne is monstrous in size, scope and story and you’ll have to pace yourself to manage to ‘complete’ the game.
Before a recent patch there were one or two glaring issues. One was a progression problem that stopped players getting past a certain point in the game. The second was an abnormally long loading time after dying. Both have now been successfully patched and as far as I can see, were the only problems with Bloodborne.
Finally, From Software have tweaked and pinched the Souls formula into what seems like perfection, offering something that feels entirely new to a series that managed to get hardcore role-playing back to where it belongs. It’s almost always your fault when you die, retreading old ground just makes you more familiar and better at playing, and without using actual puzzles, the game’s plot, mechanics and locations are an enigma that you will enjoy trying to solve.
Remember: Speed-runs will ruin the game. Don’t wear tight trousers while playing, especially if your arse creeps forward in your seat. Always, always stay at a safe distance from smoke and never forget POPO. So far, Bloodborne has set the highest bar for pure gameplay this year. Buy it now! If you don’t have a PS4… Buy one, then buy Bloodborne.
This review is based on a PlayStation 4 exclusive copy of Bloodborne supplied by the reviewer.