Bloodborne is the latest game to be released by From Software, the renowned developers behind the Souls series and masters of an RPG sub-genre often regarded as “not for everyone.” However, immediately, I have to stop and ask myself: why do we need to express this concern every time we choose to praise one these games? Personally, I think it’s because the veterans amoung us are perhaps a little unnerved that so many more people are taking up an interest in gaming; whether it’s those who were previously uninterested or the younger generation. And it’s true, some of these players may not be accustom to (or enjoy) this style of challenge in a game, but that’s still no reason to apologise for it.
I recently heard someone say: “for two people to see the exact same thing, and for one to love it, and the other to hate it, that is the true definition of art.” It really hit me hard, because I never stopped to consider that the way a game plays, could, in fact, be the most genuine artistic quality about it. If you are new to this style of RPG, you first need to understand that these games won’t hold your hand. They’re intentionally designed to push your limits, but not in a way that’s unfair or punishing. More than anything, it’s a learning experience, something you have to master, and the game greatly rewards those who are diligent. Bloodborne, as a spiritual successor, rings true on these fundamental principles, but, at the same time, isn’t afraid to do things differently. The result is a much more elegant experience, and one that is equally accessible to fans and newcomers. Like art, it’s not for everyone, but it is remarkable none the less.
To set the scene, our protagonist has arrived at the cursed city of Yharnam because of its medicinal reputation. Through blood ministration, it has been said that the Healing Church can cure practically any ailment; thus, attracting countless travellers from foreign lands. The problem, however, is that this special blood has slowly transformed many of the residents into beasts; with those few remaining having since gone mad from pursuing “the hunt” each night. To no surprise, you die, but this is only the beginning as you are revived and told to seek the “paleblood,” but also not to think too much about it and just get out there and start killing beasts. From this point, you’ll occasionally encounter the odd sane survivor who’ll maybe talk with you direct, but, as a whole, Bloodborne deliberately chooses to be vague in its approach to storytelling. In fact, I’d say that it challenges players to seek out answers almost as much as it wants you to overcome the foes it throws at you. While it’s not mandatory, I really appreciate that it respects our intelligence.
What’s great about this approach is that it makes sense if you just want to play and dig no deeper. Kill beasts? Yep, got it! On the other hand, there are few games that offer as much lore as Bloodborne. Everything, right down to the gameplay mechanics have some sort thoughtful explanation behind it, you just have to pay attention and look closely. While some of this information is delivered by the way of dialogue or item descriptions, it’s almost astounding how much insight you can derive from stopping to examine the world around you. While the tone comes across as heavily gothic at first, you’ll find that the game is surprisingly diverse in its direction, as well as rich with Lovecraftian-inspired themes. It’s a tale of cosmic horrors and the corruption of men, and it will reward all who seek to uncover its secrets. I’ve often been a little blasé when it comes to Souls lore, but not this time. Bloodborne stands strong in being unique in many of its ideas, and I’ve been so utterly captivated in understanding the genius of its cruel and imaginative world.
I have to admit, I had concerns that the artistic vision for Bloodborne might have stifled by focusing primarily around a city, but this was simply not the case. In fact, there was a surprising amount of variety: from the burned out districts of Old Yharnam to the mysteries within the Forbidden Forest. In my review of Dark Souls II, I expressed some concerns about the world design lacking the congruence of earlier titles. It felt like a series of areas simply chained from one to the next, and that style kind of bothered me. Bloodborne is a much more intimate world, where everything is clearly interconnected, and will always lead you back to the city. It’s a glorious return to the metroidvania style of design that worked so well in the past, but takes it one step further by focusing on quality over quantity. The architecture alone is remarkable, but it’s the pace at which the world opens up that keeps you engaged. It always feels as if you’re making progress, and there is nothing more satisfying than unlocking a shortcut that returns you to somewhere you recognise.
Where I felt Bloodborne excelled greatly, as opposed to its predecessors, is in the way that it respects your time. My first playthrough was just under 40 hours: a very solid amount of time to invest in an RPG, but noticeably shorter than Dark Souls II. What’s interesting is that I don’t think there was necessarily less, but instead a much better progression curve that allows players to sufficiently level up by working through each area; as well as greatly rewarding those who are willing to step off the obvious path and go exploring. In fact, many elements about the game have been somewhat simplified, but in a way that tries to remove unnecessary micromanagement. For example, there are only six main stats to upgrade, and how these will apply to your character build is clear. In addition, there is no more equipment weight to slow you down: you can wear whatever you like. The difference, however, is that gear mostly serves to boost certain resistances rather than physical defence. Instead of upgrading, you’ll more so focus on what best suits your situation.
In Bloodborne, I always felt that if I played smarter, not necessarily harder, I could win. It wasn’t just a case of grinding for better numbers, and that felt very refreshing. It’s also why I like to call this a more elegant game because it refines a lot of the series’ fundamental principles. Personally, I’m really glad that the designers chose to return to the idea of a hub world; providing players with a central point for everything that’s essential. But I especially appreciated the focus on weapons being more about playstyle rather than something you churn through for better stats. To clarify, you’ll still upgrade weapons with rare items, as well as equip them with special stones for stat bonuses. However, you’ll quickly discover that there are much fewer in number, with each starting out relatively weak with the intention of having you master those which best suit you. You see, each weapon has a “trick” function, where you can transform it between two forms: short/quick and long/powerful. It sounds simple, but it’s where the biggest changes start to come into play.
It is vital to understand that Bloodborne is going to be a much more aggressive game. It feels familiar, especially in how it controls, but you should disregard any strategies that involved shields, as well as how you learned to approach enemies in the past. The focus here is weapons, and it’s about picking your moments and getting right into it. The way this is balanced out is with a mechanic that provides a temporary window to recover lost health by attacking, as well as more enemies which drop healing items frequently. This doesn’t make the combat any easier – you’re going to die often – but, should you play it smart, you can go much further in your exploration than you ever could relying on Estus Flasks. Learning to master the physicality of your weapons of choice is absolutely critical, but the biggest change is the introduction of firearms. Don’t mistake these for offensive weapons, however. Guns are meant to be used as tools to attract/fend off hordes of enemies, and, more critically, to set up devastating counter-attacks. If you can master this tactic, and learn to bring even the biggest enemies to their knees, everything else about the combat will fall into place.
Essentially, everything about the game has been better designed to empower the player. Not by making it easier, but by providing us with better tools to work with. Simple things, such as the menu and controls being more intuitive are a given, but there were also lots of little things that simply felt better. Multiplayer is easily the most improved element. For a start, the awful mechanic of “hollowing” was thrown in the bin, and for the better – I hated it with a passion. Instead now, players earn a new type of currency called “insight:” which you collect by beating bosses, helping other players, or by consuming special items. The mechanic goes much deeper, but insight has become a core part of multiplayer. Basically, you unlock a series of bells, which can be used to beckon, co-operate or invade. It’s simple, and you don’t need to wait around after ringing. You can also set up a password to more easily find your friends. It is by far the best system they’ve ever created, and while I didn’t rely on it to defeat the game, it was often rewarding to play with others.
In addition, the multiplayer carries across into the “Chalice Dungeons,” which is a new feature original to Bloodborne. Essentially, these are optional labyrinths – many of which are procedurally-generated – that players can choose tackle on the side. These dungeons can be accessed by completing special rituals in the hub world, and offer fresh and exciting challenges: including new enemy types and bosses, as well as great rewards. Personally, these were a major highlight for me, as they offered new ways to play and even more replayability for those looking to squeeze the most out of the experience. It’s still an idea in its infancy, but one I see becoming much more prominent with future games.
Something I also really liked about Bloodborne is how it expertly bridges the gap between RPGs and survival horror. Naturally, mechanics such as permadeath and resource management lend themselves to the genre, but it’s all the fascinating lovecraftian themes that take it to the next level. While the Souls series has always been visually interesting, I’ve long felt it could be much stronger without the Western RPG undertones. It goes without saying that the new PS4 engine is very capable; with perhaps the odd frame-rate hiccup and some lengthy loading times to put up with. But, artistically speaking, what Mr. Miyazaki has achieved with Bloodborne, is nothing short of an audio/visual masterpiece. Everything about this nightmarish world oozes virtuosity: from the meticulously detailed architecture of the city to the hideous beasts that wander its streets. There is not a single component that is without inspiration, so even when you feel as if you should be repulsed, or even afraid, you won’t ever want to look away. There is simply nothing else like it.
At the time of writing, I want to say that Bloodborne is nothing short of a masterpiece. There is simply no other game this generation that has resonated with me so profoundly. Like a controversial piece of art, I completely understand why someone might not enjoy it, but I do think the industry as a whole should be able to appreciate it for what it is. Personally, I see a deep Lovecraftian-inspired universe that begs to be explored, coupled with an elegant progression curve that genuinely respects those players who strive to overcome its challenges. Essentially, Bloodborne cuts away all the fat which held back its predecessors, and instead focuses on an exhilarating and aggressive style of gameplay that encourages an even greater strategic approach to combat. It’s a game that is arduous but rewarding, and even better when experienced with other people. I recommend it to all, because you can’t know if you like it until you try it.