The executives at Sony have probably been breathing easier the past couple of weeks, because with Bloodborne, they finally have their first true system-seller for the PS4. This is the must-have game that The Order: 1886 failed so spectacularly to be.
Despite both featuring beautifully rendered atmospheric Victorian-style settings, the two games are polar opposites. The Order was universally panned for being short, more of a movie than a game (and still having a ridiculous and poorly executed story), and dully conventional (PS2-like, even) in its gameplay. Take note, game developers. If you’re ALL about the story, 1) that story better be good and 2) you’re probably better off making a short game along the lines of Valiant Hearts: The Great War or Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season One. Bloodborne, on the other hand, indulges only rarely in cutscenes and tells most of its story through environment (and in-menu item descriptions). There’s kind of a story there, but it emerges mostly in hints and impressions and is the kind of story that could only ever work in a game—where it works pretty great. Also unlike The Order, Bloodborne can easily suck 60 (in my case) or many more hours of your life away, and is All. About. The. Gameplay.
I’ve written elsewhere about how Bloodborne’s difficulty is immaculately designed to be rewarding rather than cheap, so I won’t retread that ground too much here. Suffice it to say that Bloodborne forces you to play intelligently to progress and does a great job providing the brutal training grounds to help you become that smart of a melee action player. This isn’t my #1 genre and I’m no savant at it, but by the end of my playthrough, I felt considerably more badass than I did going in. When I got lazy or complacent in Bloodborne, I died, and that usually meant a hefty penalty in the in-game currency of Blood Echoes. It didn’t matter if it was hour 4 and I was at level 13 (you start at level 10) or hour 54 and level 90—there was something around that could kill me in 3 blows or fewer if I got too cocky. Or too sleepy. When playing late at night, I’d quickly realize when it was time to hit the sack because as my brain slowed down, I was no longer able to progress through the game—it demands your best. And I respect that, because it’s a sign that the game respects me.
The World and Story:
Bloodborne’s semi-open world is beautiful and well-designed. It’s much bigger than I initially expected, though smaller than I wished it to be when I finally got to the end, which is the sign of a good game. The developers apply their gothic horror design to a nice variety of locations beyond the crumbling city in which you first find yourself—to tell you more would be to spoil some of the surprise, because Bloodborne’s story experience is about exploring space. Fans of H.P. Lovecraft will certainly feel at home in this world, though. The story, such as it is, revolves around a city where blood is uses to heal, power up, and distort, and the lines among these uses is blurry. You will occasionally encounter NPCs, either on the street or behind doors and windows, and the choices you make in speaking with them can have surprisingly large impacts on the side quests and the main endings you experience. The game has two main endings and one secret ending that is incredibly easy to miss, so if you definitely want to experience it the first time through, check out a walkthrough because a couple surprisingly small and even arbitrary things can derail it. Which isn’t necessarily bad, because it adds to the game’s sense that you can’t expect to get what you want on the first try—not even with endings.
I call Bloodborne’s world semi-open because at first areas are relatively linear, until you progress far enough into them to begin finding branching paths, unlockable shortcuts back to the beginning, and the lamps that replace the Souls games’ bonfires as (few and far between) checkpoints. Generally you can expect to find a checkpoint at the beginning of a new area and not find another until you defeat its boss, at which point a new one will appear. This setup leads to the better of the game’s two frustrations: you will die when you encounter a new boss—probably multiple times, unless you’re a much better gamer than I. (Later in the game as I became more powerful, I sometimes only died on a boss once, and once beat a boss on my first try, but other bosses still killed me a few times before I figured them out.) And when you do die, you’ll have to re-run that area from the start point to get back to the boss, learn it’s technique a bit more, die, then do it all over again. It can be extremely frustrating running the same section of a level over and over. These were the times I got closest to rage quits—the bosses were hard but fair, but getting back to them over and over felt maddeningly close to punishment. There’s usually an unlockable shortcut that gets you to the boss relatively quickly, but it will still beat you down a bit to have to re-run so often, particularly in the first quarter of the game or so.
The second major frustration of the game—the interminable loading screens—are less forgivable. A game that kills you as often as Bloodborne should not make you wait 40 seconds (no exaggeration) to restart or fast travel to another checkpoint (in the main world—fast traveling to your ‘home base’ area is the only thing that is quicker). Supposedly a patch is coming that will work on this, but it’s not here yet and if it was a fixable problem, I would think it would already be fixed, so probably the patch will only be a slight improvement if/when it arrives. I tended to keep my phone on hand to browse Twitter or Facebook during the loading screens so I wouldn’t stare at the word “Bloodborne” on the loading screen and want to scream while I waited to be massacred yet again.
But Bloodborne is worth the wait and the brutal difficulty. The array of weapons, armor, and stat-boosting runes are fun and tinkerable (though less extensive than in Dark Souls II, I believe). Despite the variety, after some experimentation, my main weapon pairing for the whole playthrough returned to the weapons I chose at the very beginning—the Saw Cleaver for melee and the stun-happy Hunter Blunderbuss as my firearm. The game lets you have a secondary blade and firearm available with quick buttons, and I switched these up somewhat, but never used them nearly as often as my starter set, which I focused on when upgrading my weapons. These got me through the game with few problems, though there were a couple fights that caused me to switch to other weapons combos. More tactical players willing to train themselves on the ins and outs of multiple weapons might find it beneficial to being able to pick the best combo for the job in various fight situations, but I only did this about 15-20% of the time and it worked alright for me.
Multiplayer and Dungeons:
Bloodborne’s multiplayer is similar to the Souls game, in that it mostly consists of seeing ghosts and notes from other players (when you play in online mode) and creating your own. You can also choose to invite another player to your world to help you with a level or boss, but doing so also allows invaders to come in and attack you—there’s actually a whole factional PvP side game related to this that can be unlocked by exploring an optional area of the game (look up “Vileblood” if you want to learn more about this). Bloodborne also adds a new feature to the formula with Chalice Dungeons, (mostly) procedurally generated areas unrelated to the main quest that let you hone your skills, acquire rare items, and level up (though they will cost you in Blood Vials—health packs). The dungeons have some interesting bosses, including a big trophy-rewarding final boss that I haven’t yet devoted the time to reaching, though I probably will on my second playthrough (where I get to start the New Game Plus with all my ending stats from my first playthrough, though the enemies are also stronger).
I will end my review of Bloodborne by saying that it is delightfully creepy. Coming across this in the dark is terrifying and awesome. Things will happen and creatures will appear that will make you yell and plead and negotiate with the awful death that has come upon you. Most bosses switch up their approach partway through a fight and I would often find myself exclaiming “No, don’t do that, what are you doing, stop, no, oh God, what is that, oh wow, nooooooo no no no no no, ge—uuuugh,” ending with the familiar “Bloodborne” loading screen. Often I would go from in control of a battle to dead in three seconds. Three creepy, coldhearted, but fair seconds. A horror setting works great for From Software’s style of gameplay because it matches the awareness that you can die at any second, and will actually die at quite a few of them. The impressive enemy variety keeps that creepy factor going deep into the game with both blatant and subtle innovations, and the game’s several optional/unlockable areas often have their own enemy types unseen elsewhere.
This creepiness extends to set pieces as well. Bloodborne does a terrific job making your first foray into a new area almost like a playable cutscene. To give an example, in one optional area high atop the city, I found myself on the balcony of a Great Hall dominated by a giant lit chandelier. After fighting off a few enemies, I proceeded down the grand staircase to the main floor, but as I descended, eyes down on the terrain below me, suddenly the room was beset by leaping shadows. Something had set the chandelier swinging wildly—and from the size of the chandelier, I knew in a split second that something must be either big or numerous. I looked up just as the chandelier fell to the ground and shattered, plunging the room into darkness. And in that darkness, moving quickly, I saw many sets of purple eyes.
This kind of well-plotted terror occurs, in bigger or smaller ways, throughout Bloodborne, and it’s incredibly entertaining. It’s a well-directed experience that occurs in gameplay rather than cutscenes, which makes it even scarier because I know I can die any moment. If any of that sounds good to you, I recommend that you pick up Bloodborne. Keep at it until you kill the first (or maybe second) boss, even if you’re frustrated, because once you get the hang of it, it’s a terrific ride.