Weeks after my first night in Yharnam, it's time for a verdict on my adventures in Bloodborne. Well, a number for the experience so far at least. Fresh tales about From Software's new title are appearing online every day. This is a game that nobody can really claim to have mastered yet. Secrets are still being unearthed, much of the lore has yet to be agreed and rumours whisper through the net about everything from werewolf modes to hidden boss fights.
One thing's for sure though, Sony has done very well for themselves by nailing Bloodborne down as a PS4 exclusive. As enjoyable as Infamous, DriveClub (eventually) and Killzone were, they never rode such a continuous wave of hype after release. Bloodborne's appeal won't be a surprise to fans of From Software's Demon's Souls or the Dark Souls series, but what is surprising, is that it's pulling in people who aren't fans of the Souls games. People like me.
After playing Demon's Souls, I stayed clear. Unresponsive combat and the relentlessly hardcore attitude to death just rubbed me all sorts of wrong. But ever since playing the Alpha and Beta versions of Bloodborne, I started to think that maybe it was time to have another crack at From Software's games, which had become much more than a cult game -something that hit home when I saw the diverse and incredibly long line of gamers waiting to play Dark Souls II at an Expo.
Bloodborne is still maddeningly difficult, but the most notable improvement for me is the aggressive combat. Heavy weapons and charged attacks aside, swings of your cleaver (if you choose to start with one) are quick and can be relied upon to attack your opponents when you want, rather than the sluggish eventual sword swinging that drove me insane in Demon's Souls. There are inconsistencies in how attacks interrupt enemy strikes though, which can be very frustrating when they take damage but continue to attack straight through your play.
The Regain system is key to encouraging an aggressive play style as reciprocating damage quickly after taking it can earn that health back. With blood vials (health potions) sometimes in rare supply, this is a fantastic system. It's not too empowering though, the window is brief and some enemy attacks will smash you to the floor, giving you no chance of retaliating in time.
Dodging has replaced shields in Bloodborne. When locked-on to an enemy, you'll perform side steps and larger evade rolls when unlocked. It's annoying having to pick between the two, but learning the radius of your opponent's attacks is just as important. As I've mentioned in my earlier articles during this review process, I've found the dodge button is sometimes unresponsive, which can really screw you over at the worst possible times. It's not helped that sprinting is assigned to the same button.
Counter attacks are handled by your firearm, which is useless for traditional shooty face bang bang. Instead, you must fire it at an enemy at extremely close-range, just before their attack hits you, stunning them and letting you unleash an incredibly powerful Visceral Strike. Fantastic when it works, an essential tool for boss fights, but also undeniably a tad inconsistent as the timing windows often leave you with a face full of steel.
Bloodborne's enemies are lethal and can never be taken for granted as they'll gut your health bar with a few well-timed hits. Regular human (I think they're human at least) aren't particularly smart, but they'll interrupt your combos if you get too greedy by setting you on fire or thrusting a pitchfork through your ribcage. And you really don't want to get involved in group battles unless you can funnel them through a narrow passage.
Before long, you're finding new enemies like semi-flightless large crows, powerful ogres, and a pair of all too deadly werewolves. The boss fights are daunting affairs that'll require multiple attempts, a full supply of blood vials and more often than not, a fair bit of level grinding. I'm not spoiling any of them here as each of their revelations is an experience worth waiting for. Just assume they'll be bigger than you and pissed at your existence. As you would be if something kept stabbing you in the shins and throwing molotovs at you.
Bloodborne is a learning process though. In every fight you'll need to study attack patterns, look for telegraphs, windups and gauge an enemy's reach. Some monsters even change their tactics when their health gets lower, so never assume a battle is won.
Naturally, with this being a From Software title, most of your lessons are going to be hammered home by leaving your character dead on the floor. The lengthy checkpoints make death frustrating enough, but the major hurt (even more so early on) is losing your Blood Echoes, the essential currency for upgrading your character.
Thankfully, you can retrieve them by returning to the scene of your death and finding your Bloodstain. Or, in a new twist, you may have to defeat a nearby enemy who has stolen them. Either way, die before picking them up and they're gone forever. As you learn the layouts of levels and open up shortcuts, this becomes less frustrating. All enemies respawn in the same place when you die or when you return to the hub, which means you can memorise their patrol routes. But there may be some new faces in older areas later in the game. Faces that want to abduct you in a giant sack (all sorts of troubling).
Levelling up requires you to return to the game's hub, the Hunter's Dream. In this safe zone you can also visit the store or enhance your weapons. It would be exhausting to go into detail over all the things you'll discover here and I don't want to spoil anything, but what I can tell you, is that it's damn expensive.
As a physical player, I wanted to generally build up my stamina, strength and defence as much as possible. So for say 500 echoes, I might upgrade my stamina a few points. Levelling up the stat again may cost 750 echoes. Standard RPG fare, but you'll also find that all other stat upgrades are 750 now. So you really have to commit to a set of stats to boost. And then feel deflated when you find a new weapon that requires a minimum stat level that you've had no need to upgrade yet. Bloodborne was never going to be easy or fair, but elements like this feel obnoxiously drawn out just for the sake of it.
New weapons that you can use without diverting from your chosen path are rare too, which can leave the combat feeling a little stale after a while as you only have a few combos to dish out, even when you consider the extended/short versions of weapons, or the transitional attacks. It can get you down, especially if you have to grind an area for hours to beef up for a boss.
Eventually, you'll be able to spend precious items on summoning a player in for online co-op against bosses. This can make the fight much easier as you divert the creature's attacks between each other. You may end up waiting a while for a player to join though. More often than not I got bored and went in alone.
Getting to new areas generally provides new enemies who require a careful approach as you learn their attacks. I think it's this fresh taste of hell in each new area that keeps Bloodborne going. There are times when you seriously question if this is fun anymore, but you'll never be bored and getting the upper hand over previously-terrifying opponents is a very different form of satisfaction compared to defeating generic goons in other games.
Fleeting feelings of triumph alone along aren't enough to keep you coming back to Bloodborne. Thankfully, the world design is amongst the best I've seen. Yharnam is a dark take on a Victorian city and is fantastically realised with the grunt of the PS4 behind it. Cobbles glisten with a recent rain, while the low-hanging sun retreating from the Night of the Hunt gently warm some of the city's more open areas, making the malevolent creatures prowling the streets all the more disturbing. Yharnam often has a haunting beauty about it when you've cleared an area of enemies, allowing you a brief period of relaxation before stepping into the unknown again.
Darker corners hide all manner of horrors and you'll be grateful for the flaming torch you can swap into your left hand as you edge through narrow gauntlets of shadow, waiting for the inevitable pounce of claws and teeth. You'll often be stalked by the nerve-racking sound design too, maybe scuttling creatures or a sudden shriek slamming your heart sideways.
With no map, you'll have to rely on your own sense of direction when determining your position in relation to branching paths and routes you may have spotted above or below from other areas. Bloodborne's world is dense and the roads between lantern checkpoints are long. However, unlocking shortcut gates can renew your enthusiasm for tougher parts of the game and ease the pressure of running the gauntlet of busier streets. If you want to travel to an old lantern's location you'll have to go back to the hub world via another lantern and then select your location. Thanks to long loading screens this can grate and really kills your momentum.
Overall though, despite my distaste for the Souls series, Bloodborne has been a revelation. No game on PS4 has frustrated me half as much, but From Software's title has unearthed a desire to see what lies ahead despite the all the barriers. It's like Rocky Balboa said: "It ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward." It won't be for everyone, but you might surprise yourself by giving it a chance.
- Rewarding enemy encounters
- The game world design is stunning
- Regain system encourages aggressive style
- Long loading times
- Combo variation is very limited
- Attack interruptions can be inconsistent
The Short Version: From Software's title has blown away the competition this generation and is Sony's first true classic on the PS4. I'd urge non-Souls fans to try it too as I really wasn't expecting to enjoy Bloodborne this much.
It's knuckle-gnawingly difficult at times and would rather spit in your eye than point anything out for you. But fending for yourself in the incredibly well-designed environments is a rewarding, empowering and yet humbling experience that gamers will talk about for years to come.
9 – EXCELLENT: Only the exceptional need apply here. There might be one or two slight blemishes, but overall games that score a 9 are genre-leaders: must-have titles with perhaps the odd imperfection. You won’t be wasting a single penny in buying a game that scores this high. A few games of this calibre will make it worth spending hundreds on a console or powerful enough PC. Killer apps, indeed.
Platform: PS4 (reviewed)
Developer: From Software