Mountains of Madness
Bloodborne is a game about slowly going insane.
Like Demon’s and Dark Souls before it, its most gripping moments come when you’ve learned to fear every blind corner, darkened doorway, and newly encountered monster like a paranoid lunatic, worried that some grievous harm awaits you in the uncertainty. From Software’s greatest strength, here as always, lies in communicating without ever telegraphing, in rewarding players who are willing to experiment and explore with knowledge—though often with hefty doses of risk and pain on the way there.
Bloodborne‘s particular triumph is that it leans into that concept so completely. All great game design gradually reprograms your brain to perceive its world a certain way. The very best games are those that can make that journey meaningful on multiple levels, and Bloodborne argues strongly for a place on that list.
Its gothic horror setting, with cobblestone streets, werewolf-like beasts, and gun-toting Van Helsing wannabes, makes for an infinitely more fitting backdrop than the dark fantasy of its spiritual predecessors. Director Hidetaka Miyazaki says he was inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and while that certainly shows, I think an equal debt is owed to H.P. Lovecraft. The city of Yharnam and its environs are host to occult rituals, invisible worlds, and unknowable gods, all glimpsed through the veil of what may or may not be an insane dream.
Bloodborne manages to make those themes mechanically significant, too, mainly through an Insight system that borrows a little from Dark Souls‘ Humanity and a lot from Demon’s Souls‘ World Tendency. A secondary currency of sorts for purchasing special items and calling in backup from online players, Insight gradually transforms the world around you in subtle but effective ways, spawning more and different enemies or giving familiar ones new attack patterns. Tellingly, you gain Insight by encountering the grotesque boss characters—or by consuming an item known as Madman’s Knowledge, which you find on corpses lying in the most dangerous parts of the world, often alongside an abyss with their torsos slumped over the edge to face the gaping blackness. Needless to say, From’s attention to detail and environmental storytelling are out in full force.
Of course, underlying all of this is the strong gameplay foundation that’s transformed the Souls games from quirky, masochistic oddities into breakout hits, albeit with some significant modifications. If you’re already a fan, the broad strokes will appear comfortably familiar. Die, and you’ll lose your combined currency/XP pool, here called Blood Echoes. Fail to make it back to your bloodstain to reclaim them, and they’re gone for good. Level design operates on the same principles as Dark Souls, with intricate, intertwining paths around one or two checkpoints per area, and plenty of secrets to uncover. Like in Demon’s Souls, there’s a disconnected hub world that serves as your home base for tackling your most repetitive behaviors, like shopping and leveling up. Co-op, PvP, and the asynchronous multiplayer features like leaving notes for other players or watching their deaths play out in front of you all function essentially the same as in the Souls games, and they’re just as enjoyable here.
But beyond that, everything has been touched in some significant way. Interfaces, inventory management, and the economy have been streamlined, all for the better. Beyond offering balanced pros and cons for the various damage types, armor is essentially flat across the board—completely so, now that weight classes that change your movement speed are gone. No longer can you upgrade it, either. Weapons are much fewer and farther between than you might expect in a From game (or an RPG in general, really), so you won’t find a half-dozen variations on a dagger or broadsword lying around.
Every weapon you do encounter, though, will feel entirely distinct, with its own moves and characteristics in combat that make it easy to grow attached to your favorite. That’s due in large part to a transformation system that lets you swap between two different attack modes on the fly, even mid-combo. Broadly speaking, one is usually a more powerful close-quarters option while the other is designed for crowd control, but there are some wackier outliers, like a spear that transforms into a rifle on command. The pared-down selection also means there aren’t godlike special weapons waiting to be discovered—at least not in my experience—but rather a series of equally good choices if you’ve got the character build to suit them and the resources to upgrade them.
The flow of combat has likewise been reimagined into a faster-paced, more aggressive endeavor. For all practical purposes, shields and parries are out, effectively replaced by firearms that allow you to knock back attacking enemies with a well-timed shot. The gambit essentially remains the same: Time it right, and you’ll get a chance for a powerful free shot, likely a killing blow; miss it, and you’re wide open for the painful repercussions. What’s gone, more than anything else, is the turtling playstyle that allowed you to slowly chip away at a foe’s health in the obvious gaps while waiting out the rest of the fight in comfortable defensive safety. Now, the order of the day is to press the attack, using up all your stamina to keep an enemy stunned while you whittle their health away, then giving your meter a chance to recharge with a well-timed shot.
Likewise emphasizing offense is the Regain system, which gives you a brief window to earn back any lost health by dealing melee damage to your opponent. One-on-one against a weak enemy, it’s a relatively forgiving way to save on health potions if you make a single, simple mistake. Against a larger group or a boss, however, it’s an invitation for heroic stupidity, begging you against your better judgment to go for the risky, rewarding save. Getting knocked down to your last sliver of health by a boss, barely escaping with your life? That’s classic Souls. Immediately rushing back into the fray, dodging a swipe, and whaling on your foe to give yourself a fighting chance? That’s pure insanity—and it’s pure Bloodborne.
I imagine some Souls purists might argue that these changes make the game too shallow or dumbed down, but as far as I’m concerned, they’re a huge boon. It’s rewarding, for instance, to know that I can start out with a weapon I like and have it continue to grow alongside me throughout the course of the game, planning my build from the first time I level up without the risk of finding a better weapon that undermines that plan later on. And the upgrade system is far deeper this time around, thanks to the three gem slots that unlock as you level up each weapon, allowing you to swap in damage boosts and modifiers that you’ll find hidden in the world and from slain enemies. If the Souls games revelled in a sea of possibilities, some better, some worse, then Bloodborne is all about specialization with the flexibility to adapt on the fly. Once you understand that, it’s an empowering shift.
The one addition I’m not yet entirely sold on is the Chalice Dungeon system. Designed to offer an endless amount of replayability through procedurally generated dungeons, the concept is strong, but the execution seems somewhat lacking. While the pool of potential enemies and bosses includes quite a few not found in the main game, the three main chalices I’ve experimented with so far (out of a total four) start to feel remarkably similar after a short while. Sure, you’ll get a bit of sand on the ground here, a few puddles of poison there, but they’re all built atop the same set of interchangeable rooms and enemy mobs, and after a while, more for the sake of more starts to lose its luster. Part of what makes From Software’s action-RPGs so great is their handcrafted feel, and the Chalice Dungeons don’t come anywhere close to capturing that.
Worse is the necessity of grinding to move up to the higher-tier, more challenging dungeons. Since the rituals required to access them require specific ingredients, all of which are most readily obtained by replaying earlier dungeons, progress can come in frustrating fits and starts, with a lot of mindless repetition on the way. I have no doubt that plenty of players will love their inclusion and the longevity they potentially bring, but they’re certainly not for everyone, especially if you don’t have a stomach for the lack of personality or variety.
Ultimately, though, the Chalice Dungeons are entirely optional. As much as I found them lacking, they can’t put much of a blemish on an otherwise stellar From Software offering. Bloodborne is probably Sony’s first truly great exclusive of the new generation, and it’s certainly the most enjoyment I’ve gotten to date out of my PlayStation 4. Whether you’re a Souls diehard, a fan of demanding gaming experiences, or just someone looking to add a superb title to their currently lacking PS4 library, you’ve got every reason to give Bloodborne a shot.
In fact, you’d have to be insane not to.
|Developer: From Software • Publisher: Sony • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 3.24.2015|
Though built on the same core as the Souls games, Bloodborne marks the largest departure from the status quo to date. The numerous changes, many in service of a faster and more aggressive playstyle, might not be for everyone, but if you embrace that shift, you might well have a new favorite in the From Software canon.
|The Good||A new take on From Software’s Souls formula that’s quicker and less obtuse without sacrificing the punishing difficulty.|
|The Bad||Chalice Dungeons, while mildly entertaining, are a shadow of what they might have been.|
|The Ugly||The Blood-Starved Beast, who reminds me of a girl I once dated. You’ll understand.|
|Bloodborne is a PlayStation 4 exclusive. Review code was provided by Sony for the benefit of this review.|