I suppose I should start off by saying that I’m not a veteran Souls player. I did play Dark Souls a bit on the PC, but the conversion was fairly bad from the console so I didn’t really get what I think would have been an otherwise good experience. Now we have Bloodborne, which is being released as an exclusive PlayStation 4 title. It features a different mechanic that is supposed to appeal more to console and dare I say, casual players, yet maintains the core Souls feel. In many ways, the game is a masterpiece. But that doesn’t mean that it’s the right purchase, or even a good one, for everybody.
Given that I am really the targeted audience for Bloodborne, or at least someone they want to play it, I figured I would tackle the review. Basically I’ve played games my whole life and am comfortable with them, but have never really been into Souls. If you fall into the same boat and want to see if Bloodborne is right for you, then read on and see if you are up for the, very difficult, challenge.
Bloodborne is set up as a third person hack and slash RPG, though it’s much different than anything else in that same genre. Unlike most RPGs, your choice of character and indeed play style is very limited. The game is set up to have you become an in-your-face fighter going toe to toe with everything you meet. No other style of play will work. You can’t become a tank or hide behind a big shield like a knight. There are no effective ranged combat classes, and no spell-flipping mages need apply. You have to play it hard and fast and get bloody, dodging when you can and parrying with, of all things, a pistol.
Your character has two main weapon slots, one for a bladed weapon, and one for a gun. At times you can get weapons other than guns for your off-hand, but it’s pretty much a bladed weapon and pistol setup. Unlike most games however, the gun is used mostly to parry, not to actually damage enemies. It will take a few hit points away from them, but since many have hundreds – bosses have thousands – of life points, that’s not where you will be making your dent. Instead, the pistol is used to interrupt enemy actions, effectively parrying blows. This sometimes stuns them for a few seconds, allowing you to move in and get a visceral attack that does a lot of damage. Figuring out exactly when to shoot to interrupt an enemy, and especially when you can actually stun them by doing so, is a key to surviving more than a couple minutes in Bloodborne. And you sure won’t get past any of the bosses if you don’t. Unfortunately, the only way to figure this out is by painful trial and error, and lots and lots of deaths.
The game also forces you to fight up front because each time you are hit, you have a few seconds to respond with blows to your opponent. Each time you hit them back within that window of time, you regain health like some kind of combat vampire. You can often heal completely back to full if you land a flurry of blows against someone who just clocked you. But the window for that to happen is limited, so again, you have to more or less be up in your opponent’s face for the combat.
When you die, you lose any blood echoes (which are basically experience points and money both in this game) that you were carrying, which are gathered by slaughtering foes. You can go back to the point where you died and re-collect them. They will either be on the ground or picked up by a nearby enemy, which will then have glowing eyes so you can spot the thief. If you die again before you can retrieve them, they are gone for good. But if you get them back, it’s like nothing ever happened. Unfortunately, all the monsters are resurrected each time you die, so there may be a lot of hard-fighting road that you have to reconquer to get back to where you missed that parry (which is the most likely cause of death early on). Having the monsters constantly re-spawn is more than a little annoying, but you can use it to your advantage, since it means you can farm a level over and over again, collecting blood echoes which can be spent on upgrading your gear and improving your character’s statistics.
Once you feel you have enough blood echoes, you can find one of a limited number of portals that returns you to the Hunter’s Dream area, which is a safe place where you can buy weapons and upgrade your character. Returning to the dream also resets all the monsters in the game, so doing so is not without a little bit of a penalty, though you can also use this to spam your way through levels, spend your blood money and then run through it again and again.
The plot of the game is mostly hidden from the player. I’m told that hardcore Souls players like this and I did find it kind of interesting. I even started to come up with my own story about why I was there, but being really into story in a game, I really wanted a lot more clues as to what the heck was going on. Your character is supposed to be affected with some condition called Pale Blood, and you are adventuring in this twisted, dark world to try and find a cure for that. In fact, Yharnam is a city that drinks blood for healing and recreational purposes, as creepy as that sounds. The problem is that somewhere along the line the blood got tainted, and the people turn into monsters.
However, for you, being infused with special blood is what powers your abilities and may be helping with your original condition. You find a note in the first room that basically says to go out and explore the world. I suspect there is actually something clever going on under the surface with the relationship between the hunters (you) and the monsters, but finding that link will take a very long time for most people to discover, probably too long to keep many player’s interest. Compared to a game like The Witcher III, which puts a compelling main plot right in your face from the start, Bloodborne only grudgingly gives up its plot, and requires quite a lot of work to get there. For better or worse is for you to decide.
The game is beautiful, and the levels are all very well done with some amazing detail. In fact, you can stand on bridges or high buildings and look out across the landscape and see where you will be going. For the most part, everything rendered is really in the world, not just some pretty background. There are also quite a few details that are hidden, like shortcuts through levels that can only be found by exploring every little nook and cranny of Yharnam, and breaking boxes, coffins and anything else that gets in your way. I do love games that reward players who seek out Easter eggs and it’s practically a full-fledged egg hunt here. There are also many cool little details, like cloaks billowing in the wind at the right time, or blood soaking your leather armor as you fight more and more creatures, and get increasingly drenched in it.
The sound is also top notch including all the (somewhat limited) voice acting and the musical scores during some of the battles is really epic. In addition to that, all the monsters make various spooky noises, both when they are fighting you and when they think they are alone.
Let’s get down to the difficulty, which is likely going to be the biggest sticking point for most players, and the biggest fear for most players thinking about getting into the Souls series or Bloodborne specifically. There are no difficulty sliders or options in the game. Assume that it’s set on Hard, or at least a level above Normal compared to almost every other title. Personally, I find that when walking around levels, that the difficulty is fierce, but fair. If you run around like an idiot, you are going to get overwhelmed. Instead, Bloodborne forces you to take things slowly, checking your corners, squinting to see through smoke and even looking up and down from time to time. Often the game will hide enemies ready to ambush you when you pass, or will give you the opportunity to take on large groups more one on one if you take your time and look for openings. Fighting multiple opponents is possible if you are really good, but should probably be avoided as much as possible for most people. Exploring the levels is actually one of the most fun parts of the game, at least the first few times before everything respawns yet again on you.
The boss battles however are a different story. To me, it seems like From Software just purposely made them to be near impossible in difficulty. It’s like they forgot that the point of playing games is to have fun in some cases. That said, you can probably defeat most bosses if you are willing to put in a lot, and I mean a lot, of time trying to do it. Then again, it depends on your play style to some extent. For me, the first boss battle, the Cleric Beast, was pretty darn scary, but I was able to learn his patterns (he’s pretty slow) and defeat him in three tries. I felt pretty darn good about that, but learned that he was actually an optional boss. Who knew? At least he drops a badge that lets you purchase a really nice weapon back at the Hunter’s Dream.
The second boss, and the first one you actually have to fight, was a different story for me. Called Father Gascoigne, he is actually a hunter like you who has turned all the way into a monster. He’s quick and damaging, and armed with a huge axe with a lot of reach and a shotgun type pistol. I did my best, trying to stagger him and get visceral attacks in, but his quick pistol and reach, plus speed, kept doing me in. I died over 20 times trying various strategies and was about to give up, rather pissed off that perhaps 90 percent of the game was locked off from me. Here is a $60 title that I essentially wasted my money on since I never thought I would get out of the first area.
So I started grinding the first level that I could get to. I learned how to fight each creature in it, including how to kill that giant pig in the sewers who is almost a boss in itself, but which can be cheat killed if you sneak around behind it. I collected blood echoes and leveled up my character, especially vitality so I could hang for longer and make more mistakes without dying, and my weapons to get just a bit more damage in with successful strikes (and more healing when doing a riposte.) And I was learning the game mechanics.
It took another couple tries, but this time I was able to take out Father Gascoigne. He is also part of a quest in the game, so if you explore everywhere you can get to, you will eventually find a little girl who will give you an item that makes fighting him, especially in the last third of the fight when he transforms into a true beast, a lot easier.
Oddly enough, the third boss I came across, after going through the really interesting lower city level, didn’t give me that much of a challenge. By then I had found a semi-secret area and obtained a rifle spear, which has one of the biggest reaches in the game, which made the fight with the Blood-Starved Beast a lot easier. But all that grinding taught me a lot about the game. I’m still not going to call myself an expert, but I feel reasonably confident at going through levels and finding secrets, and don’t totally wipe out each time I find a new boss.
So is Bloodborne the game for you? If you are easily frustrated, I would say no. Bloodborne makes you work for everything you get in the game, even uncovering snippets of the story is no easy task. And it offers no fallback. You can’t adjust the difficulty. If you can’t hack it, the game makes no apologies and is happy to leave you behind. I can see a lot of people just tossing their controller down in frustration and saying the hell with it. But if you stick with it, I think it can be very rewarding, and even fun. The game is well-made and really gets the blood boiling, it’s just going to be a very slow boil for most players, especially those not familiar with the Souls mechanic or overall gameplay philosophy. So there you go. It’s a fun title and can be rewarding, but it’s very unforgiving. Play at your own risk, and good luck to you if you give it a try.