Full disclosure before I start the review: I am a Souls series veteran and also a huge fan of the series. In fact, I own a Playstation 4 only because of Bloodborne. Therefore, my views on the game will be coming from someone who has a lot of experience with the games. I will also try to address points that newcomers may have about the game. With that out of the way let’s move on to the review!
From Software’s Dark Souls series is known for breaking conventions of modern game design. The Souls games don’t spoon-feed the player, aren’t focused on “cinematic experiences,” have punishing difficulty that cannot be adjusted, and they don’t have a conventional story structure.
For those new to the series, the Dark Souls games are Action RPGs with simple but elegant combat. The player has access to dodge maneuvers, light and heavy attacks, and blocks and parries. All of these actions are governed by stamina, making these games rely heavily on stamina management. What makes these games difficult, however, is that the Souls games severely punishes death. If a player were to die, he drops his accumulated experience points and currency (souls as these games call it) at the point of his death. This creates a bloodstain that the player can interact with and reacquire his souls, if he makes it back to the place where he died. If, however, he dies on the way, the first bloodstain with all of his souls will disappear and all the souls contained therein would be lost forever.
Bloodborne is the latest title in the series and it also marks the return of series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki to the director’s seat. With Miyazaki back at the helm, we get to experience the same design decisions that made the series beloved by both critics and players alike. From labyrinthine level designs with twisting and winding paths that fold onto each other, to the combat mechanics that reward players for more aggressive play but heavily punishing failure, the game seeps polish and Miyazaki’s involvement is evident.
Story in a Souls game is told sporadically and given in a cryptic manner; The story of Bloodborne is no different: The game drops the player in a clinic in the town of Yharnam where The Hunter, the player character, is on an operating table with an old man who administers a blood transfusion on him. It is revealed that most of the population of Yharnam is suffering from a disease that slowly turns those afflicted into beasts. The Hunter is as well suffering from this disease and has traveled to the town in search for a cure. After creating your character, the player wakes up in the clinic with the old man gone and replaced by a note:
“Seek the Paleblood to transcend the hunt.”
Left with the cryptic note, The Hunter leaves the clinic and eventually (upon dying or accessing a lantern) makes his way into Hunter’s Dream. In the Dream, The Hunter meets Gehrman who tells him to seek the Healing Church because the church has knowledge of the healing blood. And that’s where I stop; any more and I’d be going into spoiler territory. Just know that the game’s story and lore are told mostly from NPC interactions and item descriptions, you won’t be getting much cutscenes. In short, Bloodborne is a game where you have to work to get the full story.
The gameplay of the Souls games have been standardized for the most part; but Bloodborne has its share of new gameplay elements that change-up the formula and make it a new experience even for veteran players. New to Bloodborne is that lack of a shield which is replaced by a gun that can execute parries. To compensate for the lack of a shield, the player character is given a better dodge maneuver and a regeneration mechanic. This mechanic allows players to regain lost health by attacking an enemy within a few seconds of damage being applied.
Because of the limited defensive options (due to the player not having a shield) and how Bloodborne was designed to have maze like levels, playing the game leaves the player in a constant state of fear, terror, and stress. The game accomplishes this by giving the player a decision that he needs to make through-out his playthrough: “Should I press-on, and risk losing all my accumulated blood echoes (Bloodborne’s version of souls) or should I turn back, cache in and level up?” To further add to the tension, in this game healing items are neither a renewable resource nor do they refill (from storage) when a player reaches a checkpoint. In relation (and contrast) to this, the game gives the player an immense feeling of joy and satisfaction whenever he opens up a new shortcut or defeats a boss. This “risk vs. reward” and “fear and frustration vs. joy and satisfaction” exchange is what makes Bloodborne and the entire Souls series (Miyazaki’s games in particular) stand-out from most games that come out these days.
The series has had multiplayer elements from the beginning and Bloodborne is no different. The most present element of multiplayer is the asynchronous multiplayer component of the game. Players can leave notes behind that will appear in another player’s “game world”. Bloodstains can also appear, which, when interacted with, will show some of the events that lead to that player’s death. The game also contains co-op and PVP multiplayer elements. Players may be summoned into another player’s world to aid him in getting through the level and fighting the level’s boss. The co-op session will end when either the host dies or the party is successful in defeating the boss.
PVP works in a similar fashion to the co-op. Players may invade another’s world and engage in player vs. player combat. The same mechanics work to co-op wherein the session ends if either of the players die or the host engages the boss. To balance the multiplayer for both co-op and PVP, players joining a host’s game receive a 30% penalty to their health; however unlike the previous games in the series, healing isn’t restricted for the “guest” players. The game adds a twist to the multiplayer formula though.
In Bloodborne there exists randomly generated dungeons, called Chalice Dungeons, that players may traverse to discover the treasure within. These dungeons may then be shared to other players so that they can enjoy the challenges and treasures within. While multiplayer isn’t the highlight of these games, it does provide added enjoyment and more content is always welcome.
Having said all of that though, Bloodborne isn’t without flaws.
First of all the game only runs at 30 frames per second. For a Souls game, that is the standard at this point. However, you’d expect with better hardware, From Software would be able to get the game running on higher frame-rates. Because Bloodborne is a more action focused game, the lack of 60fps creates a harsher environment. I’ve found moments in the game where I would have been able to react to an incoming attack if the game was more responsive.
The game also suffers from excessively long loading times which sometimes span a minute or two. You get these load screens whenever you teleport to a different area or when you die; so you’re going to see that Bloodborne logo over a black background A LOT.
Besides that, it’s also quite hard to join a multiplayer game. The matchmaking system of the game seems to be busted at the moment as it sometimes takes upwards of 20 minutes to even find someone to join. Thankfully From Software has announced that they are working on a patch for the load times, and hopefully a patch that fixes multiplayer would be soon to follow. We’re still stuck with that 30fps though, but overall it could be worse.
So with all that said and done, you might ask me: “As a Souls series veteran, how does Bloodborne compare to the previous entries? Is it a good starting point for someone to get into the Souls games?”
In my opinion, Bloodborne is an excellent addition to the series. You still get the same Souls experience albeit in a different “flavor”, so to speak. You get to experience the same feeling of frustration of beating your head against a brick wall that is a boss or a level which ultimately pays off with that sublime feeling of conquering a challenge. It goes back to my discussion of the “fear and frustration vs. joy and satisfaction” relationship that the Souls games have, and Bloodborne has that in spades.
The game also has the amazing level design we’ve come to expect from the series. Dark Souls II lacked this level design. It had a more “conventional” layout for its levels which ultimately lead to my disappointment with the game. Levels in that game were essentially straight lines with multiple checkpoints strewn across the level. Don’t get me wrong, Dark Souls II is still an amazing game but it didn’t live up to what I’ve come to expect from the series.
On the other hand, as I mentioned earlier, Bloodborne is designed like a maze where you’d be lucky to find 2 checkpoints in a level. In Bloodborne you have to work for your checkpoint; it requires you to thoroughly explore levels to find and activate shortcuts. Thus in my opinion: Yes, Bloodborne is an amazing addition to the franchise and it might be my favorite Souls game so far.
Now to address the question whether or not Bloodborne is the game to get into the series: Yes, it is.
In some respects Bloodborne can be considered the hardest in the series. Because it requires players to be more aggressive, it allows for a bigger margin of error. This is precisely why I say Bloodborne is a good start. If you can succeed in conquering this game, you will undoubtedly enjoy the previous titles in the series.
With all that being said, I can say with confidence that Bloodborne is an excellent game. It is still early in the year, but without a doubt, this game will make my top 10 list for 2015. If you have a Playstation 4, you owe it to yourself to give Bloodborne a shot. Be forewarned though, this game WILL frustrate you. You will die, a lot. If you can fathom enjoying a game where you could possibly spend 3 hours stuck on a segment that a veteran player would finish in 10 minutes, get this game. Not only is the game fun to play, but the enjoyment derived from beating a difficult segment or boss in Bloodborne is second to none.