STRAIGHT IN THE VEIN
Bloodborne is a PlayStation 4 exclusive and the most recent title by From Software, developer of the niche Souls sub-genre of action role-playing games. As a stranger to the city of Yharnam, the player adopts the title “Hunter,” discovering the populace’s many dark secrets and vanquishing the horrors that shamble through its streets. The plot unfolds through interaction with the environment in a way familiar to veterans of Souls games, building the mystery around this place and the particular evening all of these Hunters find themselves traversing. With a more responsive combat mechanic, fast-paced gameplay and a different setting from past From Software games, many feared that this game wouldn’t live up to die-hard fan expectations. For many, an even larger question: is there enough reward to be worth the sheer difficulty of the game?
Bloodborne‘s gameplay is fairly straight-forward if you’ve never played a Souls game, and flat-out obvious if you have. Defeating enemies awards experience points that can be spent on leveling-up or on gear. Dying means that any unspent points will either be left on the spot of departure or picked up by the murderous enemy. Either way, you get one opportunity to reclaim those points. If you die again before that happens, then those points are gone for good.
But if you’re playing the game online, then you’ve got a bit of an upper-hand. Scattered throughout the land, you’ll find messages left by other players, often of a helpful nature (and sometimes just hilarious). Are you about to be ambushed? What’s that behind you? What’s the best tactic for handling the next baddie? These are all very helpful hints that you’ll regularly find throughout your travels. If nothing else, you’re certain to find solidarity among other Hunters who have fallen to the same treacherous path or maybe even a little encouragement.
However, there’s really no reason to sugar-coat this point: Bloodborne is kick-your-teeth-in hard. From the very beginning, it holds no remorse over brutally killing you over and over again, but even if something feels like an insurmountable obstacle, you always get a chance. Allow me to explain with an example:
In the first few minutes of gameplay, most players die. You begin with no weapons to defend yourself and you’re quickly met with your first enemy. You can fight back, and of course you should, but the whole point of this first encounter is to die. In this way, Bloodborne demonstrates three things about itself:
- You’re going to die a lot, so get used to it and get to know Hunter’s Dream, the world you enter when you die.
- It is merciless: You’re dropped in front of a man-beast without so much as a spoon, and basically asked to die. Go ahead and try slapping it to death.
- Its entire approach is a passive one: It will not tell you where to go, what to do or even how to play, so you have to discover it for yourself. I learned the entire control scheme before ever noticing that Hunter’s Dream has a small path to briefly teach the basics, but it never told me it was there. That’s the closest to handholding that you’ll find.
But possibly the most important lesson this first death presents is the ability to overcome. It actually is possible to defeat this first beast without dying. It may be improbable, but it’s not impossible. And even if you didn’t know that, the lesson is still valid. When you emerge from Hunter’s Dream to encounter the beast again, you’re more fully equipped with a set of weapons and maybe even some knowledge if you’re a little more perceptive than this reviewer. With all of that in tow, you might be able to win the battle.
You might be able to win every battle. You won’t, but you could. Though it’s presented in that first obstacle, this lesson recurs throughout the game and only becomes more prevalent upon discovering a boss battle. These challenging struggles will often leave you breathless from their relentless attacks and evolving tactics, many of which come in three stages. It can be a bit of a marathon to learn and outlast these monstrosities, but the addition of another defeated will leave you craving the next opportunity for satisfaction and pride.
Then again, one boss or one section (or all of them) might be too much for you to handle alone, and that’s where the multiplayer comes in handy. At any point, you can request a helping hand from another random player (or a friend after some significant coordination), and that Hunter will remain with you until either of you feel it should end, until you (as the host) die, or until the area’s boss is defeated. Watch out, though! There are also players looking to invade unsuspecting worlds. Sometimes, looking for help might bring about your own demise.
This is all fine in theory, but there are a couple of catches. Since cooperators are entering someone else’s world, they aren’t making much progress for themselves. The game rewards those who can help another player defeat a boss, but even with two (or three) Hunters in battle, that can be a daunting task. So, there may be very few Hunters in your area who are offering assistance, and that can result in a bit of downtime if you really can’t get past your most recent challenge alone.
This game’s bosses can be aggravatingly difficult, but what many find to be most unforgivable is that Bloodborne does not tolerate miscalculation in any of its encounters. You may have the best, decked-out weapons and armor Blood Echoes (those experience points we were talking about earlier) can buy; you may be 20 levels above your foe, but if you haven’t taken the time to learn the enemy’s weaknesses or to develop solid tactics, if you’re not paying attention, it will wipe the floor with you. That can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who you are. Bloodborne was not developed to be a game for everyone. It’s a very hard game, something fans of Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls will likely appreciate, but that doesn’t mean Souls virgins should feel left out in the cold and sequestered to a low-bandwidth Twitch streamer’s antics if they want to experience Yharnam.
It may be an unpopular opinion, but I didn’t enjoy Dark Souls. After playing a few hours of it, I decided it wasn’t for me. It was too slow, too brutal, and even though I love fantasy settings, it just wasn’t pushing the right buttons for me. I’ve never played Demon’s Souls and I doubt I’ll ever touch Dark Souls 2. And yet, there are few people I would not encourage to at least try Bloodborne if for no other reason than because it is an experience you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. It’s quicker than Dark Souls, more deep and dark (I know… the irony!), and each new environment complements the last so that the end result is a cohesive and rich world.
But seriously, let’s linger on that setting a little longer because it’s just too gorgeous to let go that easily. The gothic horror of every scene bleeds suspense and encourages a curiosity unseen in most games that lack cutscenes. Shrieks of distant shrouded figures and twirling witches toting torches in one hand and blades in the other only amplify this feeling of dread and genuine mystery. Everything about this place begs to be discovered, but answers are so seldomly offered that Yharnam never loses its singular tone.
Unfortunately, the only thing that breaks up that immersion is the game’s performance. While its style and presentation are at times jaw-dropping, enemies a long way off sometimes stutter across the screen or pop into the environment once you approach. Combined with some lengthy loading screens, this is by far the game’s worst aspect.
The Verdict: 9.8 out of 10
Bloodborne is very nearly a masterpiece. For a game that thrives on frustration, the most annoying part shouldn’t be a long wait time to matchmake with another player or to respawn. Still, these are elements that hardly detract from the overall experience. Yharnam is simply too enthralling to miss even if your adventure only lasts a few minutes, a few hours, or a few months.
For more information about what the score means, check out our official review scale.
Jordan Loeffler is an Associate Editor for MONG who drives a 2006 Pontiac Vibe with Minnesota license plates even though he lives in Portland, OR. She’s seafoam green, and she drives like a wave. You can also follow him on IGN and on Twitter.