Note: We’re revamped our video game reviews. You can check out our review guidelines by clicking here.
Over the past few years, developer From Software has been at the forefront of a new wave of really, really difficult games. Their decidedly un-user-friendly Souls RPGs have been unforeseen hits, and they’ve been able to parlay that success into a exclusive deal with Sony for their latest sadistic treat, Bloodborne.
Bloodborne‘s bones are similar to past From Software games; it’s another bitterly challenging die-and-retry RPG, but the flesh and blood over those bones has mutated just a bit. Bloodborne is more action-oriented, and trades in the dank caves and dungeons for more of a survival horror aesthetic, but has From Software truly given birth to something new with Bloodborne?
Like most From Software games, Bloodborne largely avoids traditional storytelling techniques. There’s very little in the way of cutscenes or narration. You’re left to piece together what’s going on from random NPC ramblings and short notes unearthed in various dark and dusty corners. Here’s the broad strokes as I understood them: You’re a beast hunter, and you’re on a ill-advised (and ill-defined) quest in Yharnam, a city once renowned for its blood-based medical research. You’re looking for a particularly powerful form of blood called Paleblood, but most of the city has unfortunately been afflicted with some sort of disease which transforms them into all manner of twisted beasties.
Bloodborne‘s developers a good job of making the tangled town of Yharnam seems like a place packed with secrets, like every new twist and turn could contain some new revelation. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. It feels like From Software could have gone further with the world of Bloodborne and given us more characters, more secrets, and more backstory. Numerous areas of the game are packed with stacks of books for you to knock over, but you can’t read any of them. Once you’re finished Bloodborne, you may find yourself looking back and wondering what the hell it all meant. In the end, Yharnam and its surrounding areas feel a bit illusory. A lot of very pretty monster-filled corridors, that don’t lead to as much as you were hoping.
Make no mistake, Bloodborne is a pretty game. It isn’t mind-blowing from a technical perspective, but it’s a triumph of art design. Yharnam is a gnarled labyrinth straight from your worst nightmares, and the game’s gangly, hair and rag-wrapped enemies are unlike anything you’ve ever seen in a video game before. Bloodborne is the rare horror game that doesn’t really need “scares” to be scary. Simply existing in this dark, tainted world can be severely off-putting.
Bloodborne is, at its core, still a Dark Souls game. Like those games, Bloodborne is an action RPG that’s all about making gradual, drop-by-drop progress. Bloodborne isn’t afraid of wiping out that progress either. When you die — and you’ll die a lot — you’ll lose all your experience and cash (which are the same thing in Bloodborne), although, like in past Souls game, you’ll have the chance to retrieve them if you can make it back to the place you died. In another feature from past Souls titles, other players can leave (sometimes) helpful tips and supportive messages for you in your game. This time around, unfortunately, the passive multiplayer features are firmly locked away behind the PlayStation Plus paywall.
Bloodborne‘s battle system is its biggest departure from the Souls formula. The Souls games reward cautious, defensive play, while Bloodborne very much wants to turn you into a button-mashing psycho. There are no useful shields in Bloodborne, and most enemies can take you down with a mere two or three solid shots. Thankfully, you can reverse almost all the damage an enemy does to you if you quickly damage them back. If an enemy manages to get a shot in, your best strategy is usually to take the fight to them, getting in close and pounding the attack button as hard and fast as you can. It’s certainly a different approach than Dark Souls, but it’s kind of a stretch to call button-mashing “innovative.”
Another change from Dark Souls is the Hunter’s Dream, a home base of sorts where you can level up, improve your weapons and shop in peace. Again, though, the Hunter’s Dream is only innovative in the sense that it’s different from Dark Souls. Home bases are a fairly common RPG staple.
Really, the only truly unique thing about Bloodborne is its world. The city of Yharnam is basically a 19th century Raccoon City or Silent Hill populated by mutant versions of creatures from Grimm’s fairy tales and Middle Earth. It’s a fascinating setting, but I wish I could have gotten to know the world of Bloodborne better. There’s a fine line between being tantalizingly mysterious and frustratingly vague.
Bloodborne may not bring a lot of innovation to the table, but From Software prepares its old dishes well. Learning enemies’ patterns and finally besting them is deeply gratifying. Finally, taking down one of Bloodborne‘s intimidating bosses feels like a truer accomplishment than anything else you’re likely to experience in a video game. Trust me, don’t take on any bosses right before bed. If you manage to pull off the win, you’ll be on an adrenalin high for the rest of the night.
Yharnam is perhaps the best puzzle-box world From Software has created to date. Exploring every corner as you venture further and further from your last checkpoint is an exhilarating, and slightly terrifying experience. Few things make you feel more intrepid and clever than making it to a new checkpoint, or finally finding that elusive shortcut that will get you to a boss more quickly.
That said, Bloodborne‘s execution is far from flawless. All too often, you’ll die deaths that don’t really feel like your fault. The game’s lock-on system is flawed, often losing the enemy you were locked onto in the middle of a particularly fraught throwdown, or focusing on some minor foe when you want it to center on the troll caving your skull in with a giant axe. The game’s camera leaves something to be desired, too, often leaving your lost and disoriented, particularly during the game’s pulse-pounding boss battles. Some of these problems were less frustrating in the deliberately-paced Souls games, but they don’t cut it in the more action-oriented Bloodborne. The fact is, Bloodborne is only so-so as a hack and slash action game.
Another unavoidable fact about Bloodborne is that for every hour of absorbing exploration and exhilarating action this game gives you, it forces your to bang your head against the wall for an additional three or four. You’ll spend long stretches of Bloodborne essentially achieving nothing. Trying and retrying bosses hoping for that lucky combo that will get you the win. Grinding through the same areas over and over on auto-pilot for experience. Lumbering back to the place your last died in hope of retrieving the experience you just lost.
Bloodborne‘s peaks are very high, but here’s the stark reality; you won’t be having all that much fun the majority of time you’re playing the game. Maybe the game has to be like that. The moments of victory probably wouldn’t be as sweet if you didn’t have to pay for them with blood, sweat and repetitive grinding, but it feels like the balance could be better. There has to be a viable middle ground between hand-holding modern gaming, and the non-stop roadblocks Bloodborne throws in your path.
Bloodborne isn’t really a terribly large game. Some particularly insane players have beat the game in under 40 minutes. The average gamer will probably take closer to 30 or 40 hours.
There’s plenty of incentive to come back once you’ve “finished” the game. There’s sidequests, a more challenging New Game+ and randomized “Chalice Dungeons” that will really test your mettle. Really, Bloodborne is more of an experience than a set story, and if you enjoy your first trip through Yharnam, I have a feeling you’ll want to come back. This is a game you’re going to dig out of the closet periodically when you get a little tired of all the overly-friendly games on the market today.
As mentioned above, it’s a bit frustrating that the ability to send and receive messages from other players requires a PlayStation Plus account. I can understand the game’s co-op features requiring PlayStation Plus, but simply receiving messages can’t be more than a minuscule strain on Sony’s servers. It feels like a cash grab, but I guess Sony needs to get that extra money where they can because, thus far, the game doesn’t feature any sort of DLC. So, at least that’s refreshing.
Bloodborne is pretty remarkably stable by modern standards. I haven’t experienced a single crash or game ending bug. Really, the game’s only technical flaws are a bit of frame rate stuttering and slowdown and fairly lengthy loading screens. Thankfully, Sony and From Software are promising to fix the loading issue, although when that fix is coming is anybody’s guess.
Bloodborne was an opportunity for From Software to truly push their formula forward, but it’s more of a sidestep instead. A change of scenery rather than a meaningful shakeup. It’s slightly disappointing because a game that challenges players while still respecting their time could be a huge deal. If there’s a developer capable of making that happen, it’s probably From Software, but, unlike the protagonists of their games, they chose to take the path of least resistance.
Sony would like us to believe otherwise, but Bloodborne remains a niche product. If you’re already a fan of From Software’s games, Bloodborne will provide a somewhat more frantic form of your favorite drug. If you’re not a fan, Bloodborne won’t convince you otherwise. If you haven’t yet experienced From Software’s unique brand of sadism, enter the streets of Yharnam with caution, hunter.