Bloodborne – Review (Part 1)
Welcome to the first entry in our two-part Bloodborne review. Writer Stephen del Prado has put 50 hours and counting into the game in order to give our readers a detailed overview and help them decide if they too should make such an investment. This initial portion of the review covers some story elements as well as an in-depth examination of combat mechanics. You can read Part 2 here
Footsteps echo from the cobblestones as I creep around a corner, angling to get a better view of what might lie beyond. The screeching of metal dragged across the ground is faint is the distance, as is the shuffle of feet and murmur of voices, letting me know I’m not alone in this forsaken place. The chime of a clock tower rings out over the city while clouds move purposefully across the sky, urging me to continue on my way. I know that there is nothing behind me, yet I check anyway – fear and paranoia seem natural reactions in such surroundings.
Thus goes the summation of my earliest moments spent in the city of Yharnam, a Victorian slum of twisted iron and battered brick that serves as the setting for FROM Software’s latest PS4 exclusive action-RPG opus Bloodborne. Famed for its use of blood ministration to remedy all manner of ill health and disease, Yharnam attracts the sickly in search of a cure for their woes, as was the case with my customisable player character. What I instead arrived to find was a city tumbling headfirst from a golden age to an era of darkness, the price for their use of blood healing without proper knowledge of its origins and repercussions. The only option given is to become a Hunter and attempt to seek answers whilst ridding Yharnam of the nightmarish monstrosities infesting it.
Much like it’s Souls predecessors, the narrative of Bloodborne is woven into the very fabric of its design, emanating from the environments, enemies, weapons & armour descriptions – indeed, there is little to be found in the way of expositional dialogue or explanations of events. Puzzle-like in configuration, it requires an extreme amount of dedication to surmise what has transpired throughout the game, a hallmark of its director Hidetaka Miyazaki. I can’t stress enough that Bloodborne is a deep game with many elements to cover. I hope you can bear with me as I do my best to lift the curtain on as many of them as possible.
While Bloodborne stands tall in many areas on its own merits, it is difficult to discuss without a hefty dose of comparison to the games that have paved the way for its release. A spiritual sequel to both Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, these games are characterised by their unforgiving combat systems, the intricacy of their world design and a unique approach to online multiplayer and community interaction. Whereas the Souls games have always been in debt to Dungeons and Dragons, Bloodborne tips it’s top hat primarily to the works of Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft, creating an atmosphere of Gothic survival horror unrivaled by any other game I’ve played. Gone are the fluted armour sets, the broadswords and magic-casting catalysts; in their place are rusty saws, tattered suits and ornate handguns. RPG elements have been scaled back, with only 6 stats to invest in compared to the 15 or so in the Souls games, reducing the variety of character builds available. The economy has received a significant overhaul; enemies provide less currency, leveling up jumps considerably in price very quickly and game progress influences the cost of items. Humanity is gone, replaced by Insight – another form of currency which ties heavily into the lore of the game and whose impact on gameplay is only partially known at this point, with some suspecting it increases difficulty as more is collected.
The gameplay in Bloodborne consists primarily of two concepts – combat and exploration. Harking back to Demon’s Souls, Bloodborne uses a central hub area, called the Hunters Dream, to provide players with a place to store items, upgrade weapons and increase their level. Many elements in Bloodborne will be familiar to players of any Souls game – Bonfires are now Lamps, Souls are now Blood Echoes, Rings are now Runes – while it may sound like FROM simply did a search and replace for many parts of the game, the area in which Bloodborne most diverts away from the path beaten by it’s forebears is the combat system. With a few alterations, the traditional Souls combat formula has been turned on its head in Bloodborne, rewarding mindful aggression and speed over plodding, conservative play. To be honest, depending on the playstyle of someone coming over from the Souls games, they may find themselves at a severe disadvantage throughout the early stages of Bloodborne. Incidentally, this makes Bloodborne a perfect jumping-in point for anybody that has so far avoided this type of game.
Allow me to illustrate my point with an anecdote: I’ve finished both Demon’s and Dark Souls, in each game relying heavily on a combination of ranged attacks, magic and a shield. I would patiently circle enemies waiting for the moment to strike. If I were hit, I’d roll backwards as quickly as possible and heal. The majority of such an approach does not exist as an option in Bloodborne due to the shift in combat mechanics, most notably the Regain system. When an enemy lands an attack in Bloodborne, it is entirely possible to recoup some of the lost health by following up with a combo of your own, each successful blow netting back some precious HP. This single mechanic makes a tactic undreamt of by most long-time Souls players’ viable – trading blows back and forth in close quarters without retreating to heal. Indeed, there are a number of bosses and enemies for whom this is the only reliable tactic. For many Souls players, myself included, this may require some retraining – I could feel myself having to consciously reprogram muscle memory and battle senses ingrained in me over many hours spent under the Souls combat system in order to succeed in Bloodborne. Compounding this are alterations to the way armour and weapons work.
For starters, equip burden is gone. Kaput. You can wear whatever type of armour you like and it won’t affect your movement speed one iota. Before you jump for joy however, be aware that there is no heavy armour in Bloodborne. While there are a few pieces of armour and a large selection of clothing to choose from, they range from downright useless to highly situational. Unlike Dark Souls, where I only changed armour two to three times through the whole game, Bloodborne forced me to switch my equipped armour quite regularly to combat the different types of damage enemies dished out as well as the status effects both they and the areas they inhabited could inflict. There’s also no way to upgrade armour, which means that there is no real reason to form an attachment to a single piece or set. While this removes the ‘Fashion Souls’ elements from Bloodborne, much like every other change in the game it comes in service of balance and streamlining of gameplay at the expense of variety. The same can be said for weapons, which now come in only two categories: trick weapons and firearms.
More so than any game before it, how successful you will be in Bloodborne comes down to the synergy between your play style and your weapons. Very early on, I was given the choice between three trick weapons – on the first character I started I chose the Hunter Axe, a slow but powerful weapon. It quickly became apparent that this weapon and I were just not going to gel. I much prefer quicker, less powerful attacks which give me more of a window to utilise ‘hit and run’ tactics as opposed to being reliant on a slow, single attack to destroy an enemy. As it can be quite a while before other weapon options become available, I simply restarted and chose the Saw Cleaver, a much quicker option. To further enhance combat, each weapon now has a secondary mode enabled by pressing the L1 button, hence the reason they are called trick weapons. This shift can be done on its own or as part of a combo, often with devastating results. For example, in its regular mode the Saw Cleaver will deliver short, sharp blows to an opponent, while engaging it’s trick mode opens the weapon up to resemble a saw-bladed sword – done part way through a combo, it provides an attach with a wide sweeping arc, perfect for a bit of crowd control when a few foes decide to get up close and personal simultaneously. The aforementioned Hunter Axe becomes a two-handed halberd in its trick state, while the other 13 or so weapons all provide distinctly different trick modes when engaged. For veterans such a number might ring alarm bells, as it’s quite low when compared to the amount of weapons available in the Souls games. To make up for this, FROM have ensured that every weapon found in Bloodborne is viable throughout the entire game, provided they are regularly upgraded.
Upgrading weapons is done in two ways in Bloodborne – there is the traditional upgrade path of acquiring materials (here called Blood Shards, Chunks and Stones) to increase the weapon’s base level that in turn will unlock gem slots on it. Gems come in all manner of varieties and offer many different effects, most of which felt slightly useless to be honest. Because there were some sections of the game that practically threw gems at me, by the time I returned to the Hunters Dream to service my weapon, a large portion of the gems I’d gained were already useless, being outshone by others in my possession. That said, there are a few gems that provide tangible conditional benefits – for example, a gem might convert your weapons physical damage to bolt (lightning) damage, more effective against certain types of enemies.
The removal of shields is probably the change that had me shaking in my boots the most. During my time with the Souls games shields were a crutch, something I relied upon far too heavily rather than taking the time to learn enemy patterns or the parry system. It is telling that the only shield in Bloodborne is provided as a joke (its item description says as much) and is almost literally useless. Building upon the foundation of mindfully aggressive play encouraged by Bloodborne, shields have been replaced by firearms – pistols, blunderbuss’ and even a flamethrower. Having spent nearly 50 hours in game, I have to say that I thank the team at FROM for freeing me from my long-term shield habit. While the secondary weapons rarely do much harm to enemies, they work as Bloodborne’s parry system – get off a shot at just the right point during an enemy attack animation and they’ll be staggered, opening them up for a Visceral attack – a critical hit that will do an enormous amount of damage. The back stab, a hallmark of Souls PVP, has also undergone a change now requiring a charged attack behind an enemy before being able to ram one’s weapon into their unsuspecting spine.
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! Be sure to return when we put up part two of this review series, in which Stephen will cover the remaining aspects of Bloodborne including Co-op and PVP, exploration, Chalice Dungeons and Bosses.
Stephen del Prado