The Souls series never really appealed to me as it seems its target audience was a certain subsection of gamers who craved games that gave their player nothing and took from them everything. I didn’t really fit into that mould and despite the raving reviews from my friends I couldn’t bring myself to invest the time to see if there really was something to them. For some reason though Bloodborne held a mild level of intrigue for me, probably because I didn’t know it was made by the same developer. After many weeks of being told I needed to play this game I eventually relented and began my journey into the world of a genre that I’d held at arms length for many years. Now here I am, some 35 hours of game time later, and I’m wondering why I held out for so long.
It is the night of the hunt, a time when beasts and monsters roam the streets of Yharnam and terrorized the populace to no end. You are a hunter, well at least you’re told you are, sworn ally of the healing church whose duty it is to rid the streets of these foul creatures and bring about the morning. However the plague that has befallen Yharnam is not all that it first seems and it citizens ruthlessly attack you on site, saying that you’re cursed. Oh dear hunter, the challenges that lie ahead are sure to break you but do not fear; death is just another part of life here, one you will become intimately familiar with.
I’m not sure if it’s the drab colour pallette or gothic aesthetic but Bloodborne doesn’t really look like a current generation game on first pass. The combination of muted colours and strategic use of specularity certainly feel like a lot of previous generation games that came before it although there are the moments where Bloodborne does provide a visual experience I have come to expect. I think partly this is for performance reasons as Bloodborne is the first PS4 game I’ve played that’s visibly chugged during several very intense action scenes. Overall it doesn’t look bad, maybe just a little on the dated side, something which could almost be wholly attributed to its visual style which is reminiscent of previous generation games.
Bloodborne is being called an action RPG, which would put it in the same category as games like Dragon Age, but it feels like these kinds of games need their own sub-genre to more accurately define the game experience. The base elements of an action RPG are there: real time combat, levelling system and item progression, but the way the game actually plays is so far removed from other titles in the genre means the experience is vastly different. The combat relies on precise timings, reactions and understanding your enemy at a much deeper level than traditional RPGs would ask you to. Player skill plays just as much of a role as items and levels do as you can have all the gear and in the world yet still find yourself pinned to a wall by a couple choice enemies. It’s a genre that, to be frank, is actively hostile towards the player which is what makes it so rewarding when you finally get to say fuck you and beat it.
At first the combat seems relatively straightforward: enemies telegraph their moves widely and it’s up to you to figure out if you can interrupt them with your own or if you need to get out of the way before they hit you. The challenge then comes from knowing what moves an enemy can do, what the timings of those are and, should there be more than one of them, which one you should deal with first before trying to move onto another. This means that every new area you come into is a minefield of new movesets, abilities and strengths/weaknesses which have to be learnt, understood and exploited in order for you to be able to progress. It’s not so much of a learning curve as it is a learning brick wall, one the game is specifically designed around to make your life hell for the first couple hours.
Indeed the very first section of the game, the one where you need to complete a loop to unlock your first shortcut and start making meaningful progress in the game, took me a grand total of 3 hours to complete. That section. played properly, can be done in approximately 10 minutes and so I spent much of my time dying in numerous stupid and, what seemed at the time, unpredictable ways. Of course the more I died the more I began to understand the mechanics I was playing with, what I could get away with and how I should approach everything to make sure I had the best chances of surviving. Eventually, after butting my head against what felt like an impenetrable wall for far too long, I finally made it through to my first shortcut and that’s when the game started getting interesting.
You see Bloodborne, and all games that preceded it, revel in the idea of not holding your hand at all with the only tutorial coming in the form of a few notes scattered across the ground in your overworld area. How levels work, what the currencies are and what they mean, how you upgrade your weapons and how you can unlock other ways to improve your character are all things you have to discover incidentally or, like I did, Google furiously. It might surprise you to learn that I don’t count this as a negative of Bloodborne as many games I’ve played take a similar approach and the flip side to it seems to be that great communities are born out of sharing details like this. Once I had gotten to my first “safe” point I started to become intrigued about where I should go next and all roads pointed towards the first boss: The Cleric beast.
The boss battles are the ultimate goal for any hunter in Bloodborne both for their challenge and progression that they will provide you. They are, put simply, a terrifying thing to behold as they’re often several times your size and have attack patterns unlikely anything else you’ve seen before. For the most part you’ll be able to figure out what approach best suits you after a couple runs however there are some fights which will either require you to up your skill significantly or, and this can be heartbreaking, leave the fight and go and level up some more before you face them. Indeed after throwing my body at Martyr Logarius for hours on end I was forced to leave the battle to replenish my stocks of blood vials, something that made me feel so defeated that I considered just giving up then and there. I didn’t come back to that fight for a very long time but when I did the satisfaction I got from handing his ass to him is something few games have been able to give me.
The level system, whilst retaining the obtuse nature of the rest of the game, is one that requires you to balance all your requirements against each other. Being a jack of all trades will make the game incredibly difficult and will ultimately net you no benefits so you have to choose a few stats you want to excel in and then seek out the items that best suits that. Reading through some guides will help you make the right decisions early on to support the kind of playstyle you want to pursue, especially when it comes to points of diminishing returns, soft caps and hard caps on benefits that each point gives you. My Strength/Skill build seemed to work out quite well for the way I wanted to play the game and after I finished my initial playthrough I was able to start looking at dumping points into other stats to unlock certain choice weapons that I wanted to experiment with.
Bloodborne is mechanically sound for the most part however the hit detection they use does have its limits and sometimes its behaviour can be completely out of line with what you expect. I had numerous times when my sword went right through an enemy and failed to connect (no blood, sound nor enemy taking damage) and other times when enemies appeared to be able to hit me when their models were no where near me. Whilst death is an integral part of the game when they’re not the result of you getting greedy or stupid it does little to endear the game to you and indeed I stopped playing when these sorts of things happened too often. There was also the few performance slow downs I mentioned previously which were thankfully rare however in a game where timing and precision are key these sorts of things can be devastating if they happen at the wrong moment.
Bloodborne’s story is interesting although the way it’s presented, through various small bits of dialogue and vague allusions to things, makes it hard to discern whether or not it’s actually a good story. Sure you have enough to understand the motivations of certain characters but much of the lore behind the beasts, bosses and other NPCs are mostly built up out of conjecture. Sure this provides a healthy amount of discussion among the community however after reading the 100th fan theory about why the Great Ones can’t have kids you start to want a little bit more than just what everyone thinks it might be. Unfortunately it seems like closure isn’t something the developers of Bloodborne are interested in giving us so I’ll just have to say that the story is serviceable but far too vague to be much more than that.
Bloodborne is a game I honestly didn’t want to like when I started out playing it and indeed I was willing to give up very early on in the piece just so I could be done with it. However once Bloodborne got its hooks into me I couldn’t help but be intrigued as the game taunted me with ever greater challenges and the prospect of even better loot. I can remember clearly the point at which I transitioned from the terrified hunter, one who would walk around every corner, to the slayer of the night, one who feared no beast and laid waste to anyone who dared cross him. There are few games that can take you on a journey like that and make your progress feel meaningful but Bloodborne does it beautifully, all the while gnawing away in the back of your head that it could all come to a crashing end if you let your hubris get the better of you. If you’ve been putting off playing this style of game because it seems too harsh then I’d encourage you to give Bloodborne a few hours of your time as that frustration could soon turn into obsession, one that will be rewarded handsomely.
Bloodborne is available on PlayStation4 right now for $99.95. Total play time was approximately 35 hours reaching NG+.