Bloodborne is the latest release from critically acclaimed developers From Software, most known for their Demon / Dark Souls series. Following closely in the former titles footsteps Bloodborne feels instantly familiar, borrowing a lot of the core gameplay mechanics, whilst still feeling unique thanks heavily in part to its heavily stylized immersive gothic world and a tightened offensively focused combat system.
The world of Bloodborne, Yharnam, is exquisite. You begin your adventure awakening in a room core to the cities central location, and from here you’ll proceed in multiple directions ahead, behind, above and below. Easily the most impressive aspect of the intrinsic level design is the verticality and connectivity of most locations you’ll visit. There’s a constant sense of discoverability to the areas you can see beyond the cliff edge or atop the city architecture and natural progression will continually unlock shortcuts that return to areas past explored.
Easily construed as a maze, the world is ironically simple to traverse as the purposeful avoidance of quest arrows, in-game maps or any sense of heavy handholding results in you actually needing to pay attention and immerse fully into the world around you. Where comparable open world games are easy to forget I’ve got the world of Yharnam burnt into my brain, able to quickly recall to a point of interest or aware of the next objectives location with little to no instruction or indications.
This lack of information pairs well with the game’s harsh difficulty to build a tense and terrifying experience from start to end as death can come quick, often and entirely unexpectedly. Each and every death results in you potentially losing hours of progress as Blood Echoes, the game’s equivalent of experience and currency, is either dropped to the foot of the location you died or held by the enemy that killed you. You get one chance to redeem these Blood Echoes, and if you happen to die a second time before recovering them they’ll be gone for good.
Given that this is a From Software game returning to your point of death is rarely a walk in the park as every enemy from the last checkpoint, sparsely found lamps, will have respawned. This results in a constant sense of risk vs reward as you desire to push ahead to find the next lamp checkpoint or boss encounter whilst always hesitant due to risking a continually increasing amount of Blood Echoes. There’s a central hub that’s used for levelling, acquiring new weapons/armour, repairing equipment or improving weapons / yourself by using a collection of runes and gems.
Blood Echoes can primarily be used to level up your character in one of six statistics, that ultimately determine your ability to endure attacks, deal damage, access spells or equip weapons. This can feel over simplified to those familiar with statistic driven RPGs, as the level of customization and overall impact they have on your progressing character is limited. Two of the statistics, Blood and Arcane, are significantly less valuable to the physical damage equivalents of Strength and Dexterity due to both poor scaling and lack of choice for items that benefit from them. This results in ultimately only having two worthwhile damage statistics and two survival statistics.
Aside from your character you can also upgrade your weapons in both levels, using Blood Echoes, or by socketing various gems that provide a range of statistical increases from more scaling damage to added poison or elemental damage. Each weapon scales its damage on one to four of the characters damage statistics; Strength, Skill, Blood or Arcane. The level of scaling is denoted by a character alongside that skill, typically starting low with E to D scaling present but as you upgrade weapons they’ll often improve in scaling all the way to A or S values. This can provide a huge leap of damage, particularly so when paired with high quality gems that you’ll find later in the game. A weapon that initially struggled against an easy encounter will later be capable of dispatching the mightiest foe.
Lastly there are runes that you can find obscurely littered throughout the world or rewarded by interacting with the various available NPCs. These apply directly to the player adding various slight perks to add a sense of customisation, such as increased stamina regeneration or reduced damage from certain sources.
In the hub you’ll also be able to purchase a range of weapons, armour or utility items using Blood Echoes, most of which become unlocked as you progress through the game. Unlike prior From Software games there’s not a large wealth of available weapons or armours, nor do they vary considerably in their statistics or balance. This time around the emphasis is placed on preference of play and style over a straight competition of relative balance. Whilst this initially feels like a positive direction it’s not long before the lack of options or difference significantly damages the sense of discoverability as each new chest and hidden item results in no excitement and little to no benefit in your challenging adventure.
Combat itself is a lot faster and offensive focused when compared to both Demon and Dark Souls. Gone are the emphasis on heavy armours and shields to mitigate attacks and instead you’re given firearms that can be used in conjunction with a melee weapon. Being hit by an enemy will reduce your health but leaves open a window in which you can return the lost health by damaging the enemy, further incentivizing an aggressive playstyle over playing defensive.
Each melee weapon comes with two forms, typically a single handed variant such as a short sword or hand axe followed by a two handed variant such as a greatsword or battleaxe. Impressively the weapons all pose their own unique move sets that fluidly allow you to transition between these weapon states in the midst of combat during a combo attack. This adds a considerable amount of combat variety and sense of agility more akin to an action game or borderline fighter.
There’s still a few options available for defence. You can dodge by rolling or jumping to aside by button press, which will grant you a small window of invulnerability. Mastering this is absolutely vital, particularly against the larger boss enemies that can often be large enough to swing for half of the visible screen space. Additionally the new firearm allows you to stagger the enemy, if used at the precise moment an attack is about to land on you, allowing for you to land a high damage counter attack during a small period of the stagger animation. Without a doubt the combat feels vastly more refined and approachable than has been experienced in the prior Souls series.
A core item to your progression between checkpoints are the health vials, of which you can only carry twenty at a time. These are dropped randomly after defeating enemies and can often prove to be a burden as there’s a high probability you’ll quickly burn through your supply and need to go back to an easier checkpoint to farm more. This seemingly pointless grind is made further frustrating by the games questionable checkpoint travel system that requires you to travel back to a central hub before again traveling to your desired checkpoint. Each of these transitions hits a hefty load screen that sees you looking at nothing more than the word ‘Bloodborne’ for thirty seconds each time.
Whilst the average foe can be difficult enough there’s a slew of boss encounters that pit you against formidable enemies often too large to fit on the screen. These encounters come out of nowhere as you progress through the world, apparent by a suddenly large health bar present on the screen coupled with any passage out of the immediate area to become blocked. Victory or death is your only option, and given most bosses sit just ahead of the next lamp checkpoint you’re likely risking a considerable lump of Blood Echoes in the battle. The placement of bosses before checkpoints, lengthy load times and need to frequently grind more vials at earlier checkpoints combine to create a frustrating amalgamation. Though there’s no denying that the feeling of surpassing boss encounters and unlocking their checkpoint is absolutely blissful joy.
So what’s your purpose and motivation for enduring the horrors of Yharnam? Well … it’s not exactly transparent, as is common with From Software, often leaving much of the story open to interpretation. The game begins with you being subject to a strange blood transfusion of sorts that you’ll learn is a staple of Yharnam, known for being capable of resolving incurable illnesses which attracts many to the city. The inhabitants of the city, typically voices behind closed windows or locked doors, refer to you as a hunter of the night and the handful of characters you’ll encounter in person do little to expand upon the core story instead bringing you into their own messy and equally cryptic side stories.
One interesting mechanic subtlety used to gain clarity of the world is Insight, a statistic count that you can increase by encountering and defeating bosses or consuming a sparsely available item. As the count increases you’ll begin to see more of the world; particularly creatures that weren’t previously visible. The benefit of clarity comes at a cost though as enemies will utilize new abilities, particularly spells, as your Insight counter increases and there’s a rumour that it also directly increases the game’s difficulty.
The world itself is beautiful, presented in an eerie gothic style with streets littered by coffins and forests lined with looming dying trees. There’s a great level of variety throughout that sees you progress through a derelict school, ancient castle, graveyard, forests, abandoned city, grimy swamps and more; each is as terrifying as the last with enemies to match. Whilst the framerate can occasionally hiccup it generally remains stable and feels to push the platform with the amount of detail, verticality to the environments, enemies present on screen at once and particle effects littered throughout. The enemies themselves are creatively disgusting, ranging from beast-like creatures to boulder throwing giants.
The audio presentation superbly enriches the atmosphere with subtle background noises that keep you constantly checking your flank. Maniacal laughter and a baby’s cry come and go in a blip, subtle enough that you’re unsure if you heard it, alongside a fantastic musical score that stands out in each and every scene. The presentation of the world both visually and in audio is superb, and whilst Bloodborne isn’t primarily a horror game there’s no doubt that it delivers a chilling and tense atmosphere to a greater level than most focused horror games manage. There’s enough disturbing content throughout to induce nightmares, only further excelled by the often graphic and surprising attacks you’ll be victim of.
Bloodborne has enough to keep you busy with its core campaign for at least thirty hours, which can be increased further if you’re the kind to participate in the online PvP or co-op options. You’ll be able to invade other players in particular locations in a bid to take a portion of their current Blood Echoes or answer the call to support players struggling for the reward of further Insight. Unfortunately, as is common with From Software launches, the online infrastructure is rather brittle and frequently fails to connect. This is disappointing as the online additions really help grow the sense of community the game has and also build upon its already intimidating levels of tension as you fear the announcement of being invaded.
For further replayability there’s the addition of Chalice dungeons, which offer varying levels of difficulty for single or co-operative play in a handful of randomly generated dungeons. The enjoyment and rewards of which can vary considerably depending on your luck with the random generation, though thanks to being able to share this generation via a code you’ll be able to find a few extremely lucrative dungeons from a quick search online. There’s also NG+ which allows you to continue playing again and again at increased difficulties, though unfortunately there’s little incentive to do so this time around as unlike past Souls games there’s little to no variance in the replays nor additional rewards to be discovered.
Bloodborne is a stunning achievement. From Software has managed to bring their formula to the next generation with great success, easily standing as one of the biggest highlights of the generation so far and no doubt the year ahead. Although it’s not a flawless delivery with a handful of bugs, like failing attempts of online play, along with a few rough edges, such as lengthy load times. Those small blemishes aside my biggest complaint is that I want more and I want it now, and given I’ve invested forty hours already that’s pretty much a compliment. Bloodborne is an absolute blast and every PS4 owner owes it to themselves to at least see what all the fuss is about; praise the moon.