When Dark Souls 2 was announced and it was revealed that Hidetaka Miyazaki, director of the first two Souls games, wasn’t at the helm, there was a fair bit of uproar from fans of the series. That was however, until leaked images surfaced soon afterward of a supposed new I.P. in development at From Software. As it turned out that new I.P. was Bloodborne, the latest Souls-like action RPG which was once again being led by Miyazaki himself. And after the underwhelming Dark Souls 2 (in comparison to its predecessors) there was, as we say, much rejoicing from Souls fans knowing that Miyazaki was hard at work on a new game. Now it’s finally arrived the only question that remains is how does it measure up to its critically acclaimed forebears? The answer, thankfully is that it doesn’t disappoint one bit, Bloodborne is a game that feels both familiar and completely new at the same time, and could possibly be From Software and Miyazaki’s greatest achievement to date.
But let’s get the negatives out of the way first, after all no game is ever perfect, although some have come mighty close. The biggest issue Bloodborne currently has is its excessively long loading times that can last upwards of thirty seconds. It’s not too troublesome when you’re walking through the game’s sprawling and seamlessly interconnected world (more on that later), but as you’ll often need to warp between different areas, or back to the game’s central hub to level up, upgrade gear and perform other minor tasks, it becomes a real frustration. Thankfully there is a patch for this in the works, so I’m told, but at the moment it’s no fun waiting for what feels like an eternity, every time you die.
Other minor problems also exist in the form of few glitches and NPC quest related bugs. In my first playthrough I missed an initial encounter with a particular NPC, one whose quest line yielded some pretty tasty rewards. An easy thing to do in any of the Souls style games, however she was then missing for the rest of the game, instead of being able to be found at a later point as she’s supposed to be. There’s a few other minor instances such as these that need to be addressed, but the other major bug floating over discussion threads involves a glitch that prevents further progress in the game and effectively screws that particular playthrough. I don’t want to head into spoiler territory by explaining too much, but should you come to an area by the name of Byrgenwerth, make sure you collect every item in there before offering your services to another player via the game’s co-op mechanic. These bugs and oversights will no doubt be patched in due course, but at the time of writing this, and as myself and many others have already experienced, these problems have detracted from the real quality the rest of the game holds.
But these problems aside, let’s get on to what Bloodborne does right, and there’s a hell of a lot it does right. In an earlier article I wrote discussing both Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2, I described the original as the best 3D Castlevania game Konami never made. It’s a statement more even apt in describing Bloodborne however, its Victorian gothic setting and tone are very reminiscent of Konami’s classic series and had they had the balls - or brains - to make a game like this and slap the Castlevania name on it they’d be laughing all the way to the bank. Bloodborne’s world is so rich and full of detail that it’s genuinely staggering how much effort has gone into bringing it, and its main city of Yarnham, to life. After awakening in a dilapidated clinic you’ll soon wander out into the cities central streets in search of prey. And it’s shortly after that that you may begin to notice red lanterns littering the doorways and windows of many of the cities residences, these can be interacted with allowing you to chat with those inside. Fearful of the events taking place within the city most of them just tell you to sod off, or laugh in your face, but a few are willing offer assistance and others even ask for your help. It’s something which can, on occasion, lead to tragic consequences or brief respites that evolve and eventually force you into in to some genuinely fearful decision making. On top of that should you choose to revisit these locations as the game’s story progresses these interactions change over time, sometimes quite dramatically. It all adds up to make the world feel so ‘lived in’, like a real city in the grips of a crisis, rather than the usual aftermath as games like Dark Souls or Bioshock opted for.
And it’s not only Yarnham that’s beautifully brought to life, although it is the sprawling city in which most of your time will be spent. Towns such as Old Yarnham, Castle Cainhurst and the labyrinthine Forbidden Forest are expertly crafted to ensure that macabre atmosphere is present throughout the entire game. And much like Dark Souls, the game’s world is expertly crafted in to a winding maze that first gives a great impression of scale, and later wows you with its intricate layout full of hidden pathways, shortcuts and other various exploits.
But speaking of the macabre, Bloodborne, although clearly having its roots firmly planted in the action RPG genre, could also be considered a fantastic survival horror game. As anyone who’s followed the build up to game may already know, the staple sword and shield combat from previous Souls games has been replaced by transforming weapons and guns, such as blunderbusses and flintlock pistols. The end result is you’ll feel far less secure without a shield to fall back on, far more terrified by potential ambushes or the hulking monstrosities lying in wait up ahead, and as the blood echoes (the replacement for souls that function as both XP and currency) tot up, the further you progress, the more that constant fear of losing them all intensifies. And knowing that, should you end up getting spanked harder than a 70’s public school delinquent, the thought of having to fight all way back to where said spanking occurred is truly terrifying. It’s not jump scares, although there are the odd one or two, instead it’s the growing sense of uncertainty and nervousness that makes you reluctant to push forward. But push forward you must, and knowing there’s no alternative is what makes Bloodborne all the more frightening. It’s showing Capcom how Resident Evil, and other supposed survival horror games, should make players feel, just as the recent PT demo did some months back.
It’s this sense of unease that sets the game apart, but it would be nothing without a robust and in-depth combat system, something Bloodborne emphatically delivers. When I mention earlier how the game feels both new and familiar a big part of that is down to the combat, it shakes up the Souls formula just enough to feel new yet manages to avoid alienating series veterans. R1 is still light attack, R2 for your heavy swings etc, however the new transforming weapons and gunplay add so much depth to what was an already highly acclaimed combat system. Combos revolve around a weapon’s standard form for individual encounters, allowing you to dash in and out of danger at ease, and the transformed versions which are geared more toward mob control with their emphasis on wide sweeping attacks and heavy knockdowns. There’s also the new eviscerate attacks which are activated by using your gun’s ability to stagger foes as they wind up their attacks, or by performing charged heavy attacks from behind. These eviscerate moves function much like backstabs and parry-ripostes once did to give you a huge damage bonus, and a few moments of invulnerability from nearby foes. It’s altogether a great mechanic that removes that backstab crutch previous Souls players often relied upon.
There’s also a new core function to the combat called the ‘regain’ system. It’s one that gives you a brief window in which to recover from any immediate damage by attacking your opponent should you be bold enough. Wait too long however, and that opportunity is missed and you’ll be forced to expend precious healing vials. This combined with the new fast combat and the enhanced dash mechanic - which now supplants roll-dodging whilst locked on to a target - all comes together perfectly to make one of the most compelling combat systems in any game available today. Its combat that’s influenced by beat ‘em ups like Street Fighter, the close quarters combat of Castlevania (once again, but in particular Symphony of the Night), and even the likes of Devil May Cry or Bayonetta. Any good developer knows where to innovate new ideas, and where to cherry pick pre-existing ones and adapt them, with Bloodborne’s combat From Software have delivered a masterclass in in this regard.
As for the game’s other core systems, the weapon upgrade system used in previous Souls games has been drastically simplified and is far less confusing to newcomers. There’s no longer any a weight system that dictates characters movement speed, something that may irk those who prefer to play as heavy tank-like characters in other RPG’s, but honestly wouldn’t fit within the game’s theme. And besides it makes for far less headaches for players who traditionally favoured agility. Obviously it follows that weapons and items have no bearing on weight either, however the number of healing vials and quicksilver ammunition you’ll be able to carry at any one time is limited to twenty of each, with any extra you collect being sent to your supply box at the game’s obligatory nexus style game hub (named the Hunter’s Dream in this instance). It’s this Hunters Dream location that also functions as the game’s warping point, as each lantern checkpoint you unlock opens up the ability to warp back to it at any point should you need to, as well as - as I briefly touched upon - serving as the place in which you’ll upgrade your character, buy new weapons, items and enhance them with rare materials.
Of course the other major component of any Souls game is its multiplayer mechanic, and in Bloodborne things have been made far simpler. No longer do players have to scrawl down signs in front of boss doors or area entrances and wait there to for the summon, or to be summoned in. Instead you simply ring your Beckoning Bell should you want help - or your Small Resonant Bell should you be looking to help out others - and then continue onward. On top of that, within the network settings you can enter a unique password to ensure you and your friends can easily find each other. There is one interesting new addition to the bell mechanic however, ring for assistance and on occasion you’ll receive a notification that a sinister women has appeared in your game and is ringing another bell. What this effectively means is that your world is now more prone to hostile invasions from other players, and that to nullify this you’ll have to scour the area to find and kill her before she beckons in a rival hunter. It’s a neat touch and one that ensures there’s no one area in the game that’s always overflowing with invasions and prone to catching out newcomers. Finally there’s also the option to play offline right from the game’s start menu should you still be dead set on ignoring the game’s multiplayer.
Once this is all said and done, and you’ve worked your way from boss to boss there’s still something extra for players to turn to that, along with NG+, looks set to ensure Bloodborne’s longevity. What I’m referring to are areas known as Chalice Dungeons, randomly generated labyrinths with unique enemies, bosses and rare loot that look set to keep players invested in the game for some time. I’ve personally not had much experience with them yet, but even after completing Bloodborne and feeling pretty comfortable in my skill level, these dungeons served to knock me back down and will no doubt provide that next level of challenge for those who seek it. Of course they are completely optional and should you have no interest in an even harder section of the game, then your free to plod on ad take no notice of them whatsoever.
All of these features, the tone and setting, the various changes and refinements to the Souls formula, and the oblique storyline that’s rich in detail for those who seek it out (or as ignorable as you like for those who don’t), have come together to make what is undoubtedly the best game so far of this latest generation. That being said the Souls games are not to everyone’s tastes, and for those who prefer a less nerve shredding experience or have a low tolerance for challenging games, may want to give this one a miss. However for those who do invest their time into Bloodborne, it’s a game with staggering design, mechanics polished to within an inch of their life, and - the occasional framerate issue aside - it’s just breathtakingly beautiful, in a dark and horrific sort of way that is.