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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.