Dark Souls was about the futility of life, or rather, immortal life. Trapped in their personal prisons amongst the ranks of crazed, Hollowed Undead, the tired souls and sad sacks mocked the player for fighting against an unbeatable fate. Dark Souls was so defeatist and grim that even the game’s most brightest and optimistic soul had been driven to madness. To live in Lordran is to suffer, and better to lie down and die than battle against an seemingly invincible force. Bloodborne couldn’t be any more different. Where past From Software games believed a good defense was the best offense, Bloodborne transforms the player into a whirlwind of violence. The time for fatalism is over. The dark cobbled streets of Yharnam will run red with blood.
Built atop the foundation of the beloved “Holy F*** This Is So Hard” Souls series, Bloodborne shares a number of characteristics that are immediately familiar to anyone who has dipped their toe into the Hidetaka Miyazaki’s demented playground. Having skipped Dark Souls II, Miyazaki returns to direct a game that blends the central hub mechanics of Demon’s Souls, the non-linear exploration of Dark Souls, and the otherworldly horror of H. P. Lovecraft. Bloodborne’s most dramatic change is a combat system that favors fast action over defensive turtling. The new scheme takes some practice but with patience, trial and error, and an uncharacteristically difficult (yet educational) opening area, Bloodborne’s new fighting style is easy enough to grasp.
Players are cast in the role of an outsider, a hunter who has traveled to the gothic city of Yharnam in search of a local tincture famous for curing all ills. There’s a tenuous connection between that back of the box summary and the story as it unfolds on screen. In typical fashion, the plot and world building lore are buried deep within an obtuse narrative structure and it’s up to the player to make sense of it all. What you get out of the game depends on how much work you’re willing to put in. It is so easy to miss important details, like subtle environmental changes and a notable NPC’s specific quest path. The city itself is a Lovecraftian labyrinth of madness and death, and danger lurks around every corner as man and beast lie in wait to murder unprepared visitors. Like Lordran, it is designed with interconnecting passages and shortcuts that tie all of the environments together. The only respite is in the Hunter’s Dream, an interdimensional safe zone where the player can purchase supplies, manage weapons, and increase stats using Blood Echoes collected from fallen enemies. Anyone who has played a Souls game before knows that character advancement can get expensive as the required amount of Echoes goes up with every level. Blood Echoes are valuable and lost if the player is killed. You can recapture lost Echoes by reaching the spot where you died but will lose them for good if defeated before reclaiming them. Bloodborne twists this design further by letting enemies who land the killing blow to absorb your bank of Echoes.
Bloodborne is uncharacteristically action heavy but for a reason: to pull players out of their comfort zones. I spent previous Souls adventures with my shield raised at all times and learned to evade more than necessary during every single engagement. To encourage more active play, Bloodborne’s carrot on the stick is the chance to earn back lost health. I was initially concerned with this system, believing the maneuver required some sort of high speed, timing based mini game (like active reload in Gears of War). Thankfully, gaining health is as easy as striking nearby enemies during a comfortably short window of opportunity. Healing items are also available to replenish lost health. Anyone concerned that this system makes the game easier are in for a surprise.
Weapons have undergone a very interesting evolution for Bloodborne. There’s a much smaller catalog of melee weapons compared to the previous games but each tool can transform into a more advanced tool. The Hunter’s Axe, for example, is a one handed weapon that turns into a large, two handed polearm. The Hunter’s Cane is a bludgeon that hides an impressive blade whip. And then there’s the Kirkhammer, a short blade that has a massive, solid rock hammer for a scabbard. Each weapon has different move sets in each of their forms, the most important being a charge attack. Holding down the alternate attack command for a few seconds will launch a devastating move that, when used from behind, stuns the enemy and opens them for an incredibly powerful visceral attack. For most monsters, this is enough to kill them in one hit. Supporting these melee weapons are pistols that ostensibly replace shields as a means to parry attacks. It’s not a very effective range weapon, but if you shoot someone just before they strike, they’ll be stunned. As someone who struggled trying to parry in Demon’s and both Dark Souls games, this method is much easier to master.
In Dark Souls, Humanity was required to make yourself human in order to summon comrades or invade other player’s instances. Insight replaces Humanity and is obtained by encountering and defeating bosses. There’s more to Insight than just summoning people. The game reacts to the amount of Insight you possess in drastic and subtly terrifying ways. Items and objects that were once invisible nonchalantly appear as if they’ve always been there and enemies develop new attacks. Some of the more nightmarish creatures revealed by increased Insight can cause the player to fall into a Frenzy that, if maxed out, slowly drains away health. There are many layers to be uncovered in Bloodborne, from unexpected transportations and the procedurally generated Chalice Dungeons that change each time you access them.
On the PlayStation 4, Bloodborne is pretty in its grotesque, nightmarish facade. However, the game’s frequent use of earthy color tones and “busy” environments requires some eye adjustment - for me at least. Enemies have a tendency to blend in with their surroundings so well that surprise attacks are a pain in the ass for the first hours of the game. Special effects and graphical enhancements make it easy for enemies to be concealed but they do cause some dips in the framerate. There are also glitches that need to be taken care of. Blood splotches that detail the last moment of another player’s life don’t work outside of the Hunter’s Dream. The most bothersome problem are the shockingly long load times. Whether it’s waiting to respawn after dying or warping to the Hunter’s Dream, you’ll be stuck staring at a black background with “BLOODBORNE” written in white for almost a minute each way. Getting to the Hunter’s Dream takes half the time but the wait is still painfully long. I’ve grown to accept the wait and treat it as “cool down” time and I’m sure the time is to ensure seamless progression between zones, but that doesn’t excuse the issue. Sony and From Software have promised to fix the issue an an upcoming update.
In spite of the game’s technical issues, Bloodborne is still a really great game that I am completely obsessed with. No other game has replicated the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction like this. The euphoria experienced after defeating a really difficult boss, especially if it had you up against the ropes, is one of the best feelings in the world. And the PlayStation 4 makes it easy to share these unforgettable moments. The community also makes the game all the more exciting. Everything is fresh and waiting to be discovered. I especially enjoyed the time spent around Twitter, the virtual watercooler, with Darkstation alums Nick and Ryan, sharing our victories, defeats, and discoveries.
Bloodborne has all the flavors and trimmings From Software fans have come to savor. A high risk/reward system, unrelenting difficulty, imposing and creative boss fights, an obtuse narrative, and unconventional combat. The departure from a medieval setting offers a welcome change of scenery and Yharnam is an unnerving and psychologically terrifying playground. Souls fans will easily gobble it up. Newcomers are welcome, especially since the combat has been dramatically changed, but be prepared for a game you’ve never experienced before.
Teen Services Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.