From Software has become synonymous with the term “hard game,” in a time when video games seem to coddle us. Most games these days hold our hands with lengthy tutorials. Dying too often? Turn the difficulty down, the game says. Some even do it for you automatically. Not the case with Bloodborne. But is this a fair, albeit hard, fight, or has From Software merely dialed up the enemy’s health and given you the short end of the stick?
Your adventure begins with some sort of medical procedure being performed on you, presumably with your approval. Something about becoming a “hunter.” Much like the Souls series before it, Bloodborne is pretty vague, but still has an overarching story and a variety of characters that you’ll encounter and kill. Most of your time will be spent on surviving, anyway, and you’ll have little time to focus on the story.
Hell on Earth
You know you’re in for a hell of a time when the game’s tutorial sees you killed during your first encounter. Unlike the majority of games, where death is a minor inconvenience that resets your progress by a few minutes at worst, in Bloodborne it can be a pretty devastating defeat. As you defeat enemies, you collect Blood Echoes, which can be used to level up your character, repair or forge weapons, buy equipment, and more. When you die, you lose all echoes you had on you, period. On your next life, you will have a chance to re-collect those blood echoes, in the spot where you died previously. Enemies nearby may pick up those echoes, at which point you will have to kill them in order to pick your echoes back up. It’s a risk and reward system that Souls fans have seen before, and creates a tension that few games are able to achieve.
Not all hope is lost upon death, however. Any items that you’ve picked up stay with you into the next life. This can quickly become a crutch for most players. Pick up enough items, and you can sell them for blood echoes in the “Hunter’s Dream,” a realm that exists between locations that you fight at. This method of grinding will be a lot slower than simply clearing out a familiar area of a level and then doubling back to base, however. Eventually, when you need to level up quite a lot before facing an upcoming area boss, you will find yourself hitting a nice rhythm of decimating the local population, leveling up, and repeating. It can be cathartic, and once you figure out the layout of an area and start flawlessly killing enemies left and right, you feel like a proper fighter.
Combat is relegated to the R and L buttons. This can take some getting used to if you’re used to RPGs with face buttons for combat, but soon feels as natural as walking. You can equip two weapons in each hand – there are no real defensive items to use – and switch between them one at a time with the directional pad buttons. Your main damage dealer is a Trick Weapon, which can change between ranged and close-quarters modes. There are only a handful to collect, each with their own benefits and detractors.
Bloodborne does a really nice job of forcing you to explore. Often, it’ll seem like you hit a brick wall, and cannot progress past a couple of ridiculously difficult enemies. So you’ll level up a couple of times, come back, and kill those daunting enemies…Only to then find yourself up against ever-more stronger enemies! As you run back from where you came, you suddenly notice a path you didn’t see before, head down that direction, and promptly find an entirely new section of the level, full of enemies to collect echoes from.
By the time you see the credits roll in Bloodborne, you can expect to have died hundreds, if not thousands, of times. Sometimes by a boss, with honor. Other times at the sword of a random villager that caught you when you forgot to heal. Occasionally by something stupid, like a cliff you ran right off. Each death is yours to own and learn from, or at least feel dumb and/or greedy for. Bloodborne is a bit like Las Vegas; you can risk it all for a larger payout in Blood Echoes, but if you fail you run the risk of losing a lot of “cash.”
Multiplayer makes an appearance as well, with asynchronous, passive options to start. You can leave behind notes with templated messages, such as “beware of ambush,” or “fear giant enemy.” These notes can be ranked as “a fine note” or “a foul note,” which can help you to determine its veracity. There is a co-op mode as well, which is unlocked after a short time playing the game. Using a Beckoning Bell will invite nearby players to visit your world, which they do by using the Small Resonant Bell. As with any online game, and especially ones where you will be subject to the whims of strangers, you can restrict who can enter your game by setting a password. If another player’s password matches yours, then they will join your session. Together, you and up to two others can try to take down the foreboding bosses in the map. Each session costs one Insight point, which you do not get back except by defeating the area boss (or a random drop on a lesser enemy in single player).
The Most Dangerous Prey
Then, there’s PvP. For starters, you have to have an Insight level of 30 or higher. This will take a while, and requires that you use a Sinister Resonant Bell. This enables you to enter a nearby player’s game and attempt to kill them. If the hosting player reaches the boss for the map, then you lose. Suffice to say, this is quite a feat to perform, because there is no enemy quite as challenging as another human.
There are a couple of questionable issues with Bloodborne, none of which are deal-breaking. First, while there are apparently shields to use, they are basically useless, as, according to the developer, while past From Software games “relied heavily on shields and a more defensive wait-and-see combat style,” Bloodborne takes none of those tactics with it. There is essentially no blocking, but rather strategic firing of your firearm to interrupt an enemy’s attacks combined with dodging. I think blocking should have been included in a game with such heavy emphasis with the ebb and flow of combat. Not being able to block feels like a restriction that shouldn’t be placed on the player. The more choice, the better, I say.
On the technical side of things, the game runs smoothly most of the time; I only saw it stutter once when there were a lot of enemies walking around on-screen, but never during combat. While the graphics aren’t generation-defining, there is a lot of detail where it counts. All characters are fully voiced, and sound design is excellent. Play this game with a good pair of headphones or a surround sound system to keep you on edge. Loading times are unfortunately kind of lengthy, but this is probably because the game loads extremely large, intricate maps that have no further loading times once you’re inside. From Software’s PR firm has told us that the team is working on a patch to further improve load times, but as it stands right now there are a good couple minutes between when you teleport to a new level and when you are actually playing again.
Chalice Dungeons can also be visited, either alone or with friends/enemies. These are procedurally-generated levels that change with each visit, ensuring endless replayability. I’d go so far as to say that the Chalice Dungeons turn Bloodborne into a Rogue-like game, with death here coming at a slightly higher price than normal. What’s more, you can share any cool or particularly challenging dungeons with others, or download new ones that have been created to test your might. This is an awesome addition that makes you want to come back to Bloodborne again and again.
The PlayStation 4 finally has its exclusive killer RPG. Bloodborne is punishingly hard, but like the Souls series, not unfairly so. If you go into this game accepting of death and the lessons that it imparts on you, then you will have a much better time than if you were to approach the game thinking you were the next Kratos. With a light touch of thankfully, gratefully optional multiplayer options, Bloodborne will be played for years to come. If you see someone with a Platinum trophy for this game, you will know that you are in the presence of a badass gamer. Bloodborne cannot come any more highly recommended for RPG gamers looking for a true challenge.
Review copy was provided by the publisher. For information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.