Well, it's finally time for me to buy a PS4. I avoided it for a year and a half because there weren't any games that I cared to play that weren't also available on PC or PS3. But, since Bloodborne is a PS4 exclusive, and I'm a huge Demon's Souls and Dark Souls fan, I had to cave and buy the new console in order to play this game. Luckily for me, this game is good enough to be a console-seller, and I don't regret my purchase one bit!
Bloodborne is finally here! Praise the moon!
Soaking yourself in the blood of your prey
Mechanically, Bloodborne does not deviate significantly from its Souls predecessors. Most of the controls are the same, and the game was immediately comfortable for me, being that I'm an experienced Souls player.
But the way that the game is played deviates significantly from the previous games - much moreso than Dark Souls deviated from Demon's Souls. The three Souls games strongly favored defensive gameplay tactics and a more cautious, patient style of combat. Dark Souls II tried to encourage faster, more aggressive gameplay by further developing two-handed melee combat, but that only applied to specific character builds and was only moderately effective. Bloodborne enforces an aggressive model as practically the only viable one.
Bloodborne removes the comfort and security of a shield and replaces it with a steampunk gun. The gun's range is limited by the ability to acquire a target lock-on, and there's no manual aim that I'm aware of, so you can't sit back and snipe enemies from a safe distance. Some of the functionality of the shield does carry-over to the gun though. For example, shooting an enemy as they attempt to attack you will stun them, and you can follow-up the "parry" with a critical "visceral attack". But since this is a gun and not a shield, you can perform this parry at range, which opens up some new tactical possibilities.
Bloodborne adds guns to the familiar Demon/Dark Souls formula, but still encourages aggressive, in-your-face combat.
And since you don't have a shield, you're going to take a lot more direct hits than you would in the previous games. In order to offset this, you can regain some of your lost HP by attacking an opponent immediately after taking damage and infusing yourself with their blood. Literally. There is a lot of blood in this game, and it will stick to your character and soak you from head to toe if you survive long enough.
These features strongly encourage more active and technical play, since you're more likely to survive by counter-attacking than by running away and hiding. You can't get away with just holding up your shield and tanking through levels with the basic 3 or 4-hit sword combos. You need to learn the more advanced maneuvers and techniques that the game offers, and you need to use them. This keeps the player in the thick of the action and the pace of the game on overdrive. It also adds a lot of apprehension, since you can't run around the level with a shield up in case an enemy jumps out at you. You constantly feel exposed and vulnerable. These changes don't necessarily make the game "better" than the Souls games, but they do encourage and reward better play. Both models are valid and fun, but Bloodborne does get the adrenaline pumping in ways that Dark Souls just couldn't [outside of PvP].
Similarities to Devil May Cry abound.
In fact, Bloodborne's combination of guns, swords, trenchcoats, gothic horror, and brutal difficulty remind me a lot of the first and third Devil May Cry. While Devil May Cry encouraged melee combat by rewarding "style" points that converted directly to currency to pay for character upgrades, Bloodborne forces you into melee by making it a way to keep yourself alive! So it's more fundamental. It's doesn't get quite as fast and fantastical as Devil May Cry because the character doesn't have all of Dante's powers, and you have to deal with ammo restrictions. You can only carry a finite amount of bullets, so you can't go over-the-top with your gun or stay too far away from the action.
Limiting your bullets also has the negative side effects of limiting how much you can parry. So if you get backed into a corner and run out of bullets, you don't have a shield to protect you. In that situation, you are almost certainly dead, and there's nothing you can do about it!
The melee weapons themselves have also been changed. Instead of standard swords, spears, axes and so on, every weapon in the game is a "trick" weapon that has the ability to transform between two different states. Each state has its own properties that change the attack speed, reach, arc, damage, and other properties, and you can alternate between these states at any time - even during combos. This effectively doubles your available moveset and unlocks whole new tactics.
This increased flexibility also helps to keep the player aggressive during battle, since you don't necessarily have to retreat in order to equip a new weapon for a specific enemy or area. You can hold two trick weapons on your person at all times, so you can keep a lot of combat variations in your pocket. This also helps with PvP because the ability to transform a weapon can make it more difficult to predict a human opponent attack patterns.
The "backstab" mechanics are also different from the previous games. Instead of simply attacking from behind an enemy, you must charge a heavy attack in order to first stagger the opponent from behind, then you can follow up with the critical backstab. This makes landing backstabs much more difficult, and should hopefully eliminate one of the sources of PvP cheese. Backstabbing is now a much more tactical decision (especially during active combat), since you have to weight the damage potential against the fact that you'll be vulnerable during the brief moments while you're charging the attack.
Breaking the pace
Patch 1.03 addresses load screen:
During the time that I was writing up this review, FromSoft released the 1.03 patch
. Among other things, this patch shortened loading times and improved the loading screen. Loading times are now typically a bit shorter than the load times for the console versions of Dark Souls
. Reloading the same area after dying, and loading the Hunter's Dream are both much shorter - about 5 or 10 seconds!
Patch 1.03 addresses the load screen complaints.
In addition, the loading screen now shows item descriptions similar to Dark Souls, so it's not a boring black screen anymore.
This update completely resolves most of the issues that I describe in the following section, and the loading screens are now very satisfactory. My only complaint now is that sometimes the item descriptions scroll by too quickly and I can't read them. First-world gamer problems, I guess...
I've left the following section in this review because
- I had already written the text and captured screens prior to the patch,
- I still feel that the condition of the loading screens at release was unacceptable.
This should have been caught and addressed prior to release. Such a major pace-breaking bug could have potentially turned off a large group of players - which, for an online game, could be disastrous. But kudos to FromSoft for resolving what was pretty much the only significant flaw in their game!
Probably the game's biggest annoyance is the long, boring load screens that can take a whole minute to complete. For a game that puts so much emphasis on being faster and more active than its predecessors, these long load screens really bring the pace of the game to a grinding halt. And with the frequency of deaths, staring at load screens is very common! It may seem like a trivial deal, but in a game that is designed to kill the player frequently and repeatedly, having a good load screen (or avoiding them altogether) is important! As far as I know, having the digital download (as opposed to the optical disc) doesn't make a difference.
You have to look at this for almost a whole minute every time you die, teleport to Hunter's Dream to level up,
teleport from Hunter's Dream back to the game, are teleported involuntarily, or return from a multiplayer session.
It wouldn't be quite so bad if the load screen gave you something to look at other than a black screen with the game's title. Yes, I know I'm playing Bloodborne. I know that because the title is practically burned into my LED TV screen! Demon's Souls at least included some nice concept art. It got boring after a while once you've seen all of them, but it was something. Dark Souls had a better, much more informative load screen that showed item descriptions. This could potentially reveal minor spoilers to the player, but it was still very useful at educating the player about item functionality and game lore. Bloodborne has nothing. No concept art, no developer tips, no game lore, not even some soothing music to calm your frustration at just having died for the upteenth time. Just a static black screen with the name of the game.
Demon's Souls and Dark Souls had long load screens, but at least you had something to look at or read.
Both Dark Souls load screens actually provided useful information about the game's mechanics and lore.
Not being able to level up, buy items, or repair weapons from the checkpoint lamps forces the player to have to sit through more load screens, and further drags down the pace of the game. Going to the Hunter's Dream and back requires sitting through two more load screen! The Hunter's Dream is small enough that the developers probably could have kept it in memory at all times, which would eliminate the need for load screens when you want to travel there and would have greatly reduced the tedium.
You also can't fast travel between checkpoint lamps. So if you need to go back to a previously-explored location to talk to an NPC, grind, or whatever, you have to sit through a load screen to travel to the Hunter's Dream, then immediately sit through another load screen to travel to wherever you need to go. And if you're visiting the Hunter's Dream after just having died, then you're stuck sitting through three load screens. Argh!
In the case of multiplayer sessions, coming back from those long, dull load screens has additional problems. Whenever I want to be
summoned beckoned to help other players, I usually like to run around farming enemies while I wait. This would sometimes result in me being summoned while in the middle of battle, and then being dropped back into that battle after the multiplayer session ends.
In Dark Souls, this was only mildly problematic because I could just put my summon sign in a safe place, or hold down the block button at the end of the load screen in order to protect myself from the risk of immediate attack upon exiting the load screen. But without a shield, I obviously can't do that in Bloodborne. So exploring a level and fighting enemies while waiting to be beckoned is strongly discouraged, and it's much safer to just sit in a safe place and wait. This conflicts with the overall design philosophy of being a faster, more action-oriented game.
Traveling to another player's world is almost instantaneous. Be careful about initiating combat while your small resonant bell is active, since coming back will throw you right back into the middle of combat.
At least the devs somehow managed to skip the need for a load screen when moving from your game to another player's game. The transition is practically instantaneous. So I have to give them credit where credit is due.
Another thing that kills the pace of the game is having to go back to earlier levels and grind. But you're not grinding for experience, you're grinding for health and bullets. These consumables are restocked from your Hunter's Dream stockpile when you die, so this stockpile is slowly depleted in areas where enemies don't frequently drop
Estus Grass Blood Vials. So when you start to run out because you've been killed too many times by a boss, you are basically forced to go back to Yharnam and farm the townsfolk for Blood Vials for an hour - at least, until you've unlocked a couple Chalice Dungeons.
FromSoft applies its expert aesthetic and thematic design to gothic horror
Much like Demon's Souls and Dark Souls before it, Bloodborne really excels in the design and artistry of its world. It starts in a steampunk setting, with a Victorian gothic horror style, complete with warewolves and pitchfork-wielding zombie townsfold. But by about the fourth boss or so, it takes a sharp left turn from the relative tameness of the Bram Stoker and Mary Shelly schools of horror and dives deep into Lovecraft territory. Fans of these various sub-genres should love the respective creatures and level designs.
The enemies and environment look fantastic and really sell the gothic horror aesthetic and themes of the game.
There's a lot of variety in enemy and environments, and even individual enemies will change their behavior and attacks based on the state of the world and even the player's insight. This helps to keep some areas feeling fresh and challenging if you have to revisit them later in the game. And the various moon phases and their respective changes to lighting help to set and then reset the game's mood at various points.
As good as the game looks artistically, I have mixed feelings bout how it looks on a technical level. Characters lack facial animation and NPCs don't lip-sync to their dialogue. The game also goes a bit overboard on the shiny, reflective surfaces, in much the same way that J.J. Abrams went overboard with lens flares in the 2009 Star Trek reboot. The glare from these reflections is very easily mistaken for loot (which still appear as glowing flares on the ground) and can be very distracting. The torch also doesn't cast very realistic shadows, and the character kind of just lets it hang lazily at his side instead of holding it up to illuminate the surroundings.
Nitpicky complaint: why can't the character hold the torch up realistically like they do in Dark Souls II?
And why doesn't it cast realistic shadows?
But in other ways, the graphics look incredible. The world is littered with docorations and texture that make the world look much more organic and real than the occasional flat textures of Dark Souls. The game is constantly in motion with shifting clouds, grass and flowers blowing in a breeze, and the animation loops are all smooth and relatively seamless. Ambient lighting is pretty spectacular, and (despite its lack of real-time shading) the torch is actually useful in the game, since areas do get dark enough to need it.
The cloth physics, writhing tendrils of some enemies, and blood splattering effects are also very nice effects and add some artistic flair and grit to the game. Being covered head to toe in blood helps to create a real sense of progress. It reminds you of how well you are doing in the game, since you had to survive long enough to get that bloody. It's kind of the inverse of the rips and wear in Batman's suit that symbolize the depth of his struggle through Arkham Asylum. It would be cool if the "shake off cape" gesture actually shook some of the blood off of your clothes. But then again, the Doll in Hunter's Dream will react to your gestures, so that's a nifty, subtle touch.
The Hunter's Dream is functionally equivalent
to the Nexus of Demon's Souls.
Back to Demon's Souls
Perhaps my favorite thing about Bloodborne is that it takes many more of its design cues from my personal favorite PS3 game, Demon's Souls. While most people may look at Bloodborne as more of a spiritual successor to Dark Souls (because Dark Souls is more recent and popular), this game is actually much closer in terms of overall design to Demon's Souls.
The most obvious ways in which Bloodborne more closely resembles Demon's Souls are the presence of the central hub location (the Hunter's Dream), and the structure and design of the individual levels. While the world maintains its compact, vertical elegance of Dark Souls, the individual areas tend to be much longer than Dark Souls' individual levels, and so they feel much more like the levels of Demon's Souls.
In fact, Bloodborne's individual levels may be even longer than most of Demon's Souls' grueling dungeons! They also contain fewer (if any) in-level checkpoints, so shortcuts within the levels are now much more important, and these shortcuts exist both within the levels and between the levels. As you progress further into the level, and further away from the safety of the checkpoint lamp, the anxiety and desire to find another lamp or shortcut keeps building. But the game defers these releases, opting instead to continue to expertly maintain and multiply that sense of impending dread until you find yourself leaning on the edge of your seat, knuckles white from clenching the controller, as you slowly tiptoe your way into unknown territory, twitching at every new sound and movement. You know, the same feeling that the old and good survival horror games used to invoke!
I'm on the fence about having to teleport to a central hub every time we want to level up, buy supplies, or upgrade weapons. I definitely prefer the overall level and world design though. The sense of exploring a single, unified, and lived-in place (a la Lordran) is maintained, but it also feels like the lengthy, attritious dungeon-crawls of Boletaria. It seems to take the best elements of the "open world" of Dark Souls and the grueling nature of the levels of Demon's Souls, and combines them near perfectly.
The levels are long, grueling, and atmospheric, with more shortcuts and fewer checkpoints - just like Demon's Souls!
I say "near perfectly", because there are a few annoyances with the game world. Most of these complaints revolve around a general lack of feedback and direction about where the player is supposed to go and what you're supposed to do.
I'll admit, I had a lot of trouble navigating the opening level of Bloodborne. Yharnam is a confusing maze of ladders and shortcuts with very little direction provided to the player. There is an NPC that can give you some idea of your first few objectives, but even this is confusing. He refers to your first destination as a dead end, which actually discouraged me from going there right away, and he instructs you to go "south", even though there is no in-game map, compass, or even an east-to-west setting sun. Which direction is south?!
The end result is that you can spend a couple of hours grinding through the difficult streets and sewers of Yharnam, dying and losing your
souls Blood Echoes without the ability to level up or upgrade your weapons (since both features require you to at least encounter one of the first two bosses). If you're lucky, you'll be able to recover most of your Blood Echoes from this time, and end up with a huge stockpile of accumulated blood to spend on levels and items when you finally do beat the boss. But more than likely, you'll suffer repeat deaths to the hands of enemies that are just barely too strong for a new player to take on, but not so overpowering that it is obvious you aren't intended to fight them yet.
So the game does a very poor job of funneling the character to the intended objectives at the start of the game - something that Demon's Souls and Dark Souls both excelled at. Even friends of mine who are experienced Souls players (myself included) suffered frustration with this first level.
While Demon's Souls and Dark Souls didn't hold your hand or guide you from objective to objective, they were still generally good about providing the player with direction. In Demon's Souls, the levels were self-contained with a definite start and finish, so you always knew where you were supposed to go. Dark Souls did a very good job of funneling the player to specific places whenever it was needed to progress the story, or they'd give you a key whose description told you exactly where to go.
I was told to ascend the chapel. Well here I am,
but the door is locked. So where to now?
Bloodborne has an annoying habit of locking doors without much (if any) indication of how to unlock it. Some doors say it "can't be opened from this side", which is short-hand for "it's a shortcut you'll open later." But other doors just say "Locked" or "Closed", and that's it. It also unfortunately breaks from Dark Souls' model of providing keys that tell you what door to go to next.
Reaching certain plot points just unlocks one or more of these doors automatically without providing a key, an there's no cutscene showing you that a door has been unlocked. You're stuck needing to remember where all the locked doors were and then going back and re-checking them after major plot points. There's a couple points where an NPC tells you [vaguely or ambiguously] where to go, but not always.
Bloodborne borrows other elements from Demon's Souls besides just level design philosophies. There are enemies and bosses that are definitely inspired by enemies and bosses from Demon's Souls, particularly the Tower of Latria levels, which are my favorite from Demon's Souls. In fact, even the PvP system is based loosely around the Old Monk concept from Demon's Souls.
Insight into an air of mystery
The game's narrative also maintains a lot of the same themes as the Souls games; although, I haven't finished the story yet, so I can't comment on how the ending(s) is(are). But much like the previous games, there's a great deal of focus on the idea of your character being a small piece in a large, entropic world that is slowly falling apart. The city is slowly succumbing to a plague, unseen forces are manipulating events, and the ministers of the world's religion seem to be somehow involved - or at least complicit.
The moral ambiguity from the previous games is also carried over, and is much more direct this time around. There's a certain degree of uncertainty about who you are and what you're doing, since the enemies constantly refer to you as a "foul beast", and tell you that "it's all your fault". Some NPCs seem to be completely untrusting of you. And then, of course, there's your own "Beasthood" stat and your need for blood. It heals you, and it strengthens you. Are you the beast?
In Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, you had to make significant progress into the game before anybody started to suggest that you were a tool being used by the powers at be. Heck, Dark Souls' plot twist is even hidden behind a secret area and covenant that most players probably never even saw. But Bloodborne makes you start doubting yourself right from the start.
None of this comes from cutscenes or explicit NPC dialogue. And discovering certain mysteries even rewards the character with Insight (this game's equivalent of Humanity), which allows you to see even more of the otherwise invisible elements of the world. It's all subtle, environmental and (moreso than Souls games) mechanical story-telling. This provides limited - but tangible - feedback between the story and the actual gameplay.
Granting Insight for encountering bosses is actually a really good idea. It means that if you die the first time, you have that one insight to try to
summon beckon help on your second go. Unfortunately, insight doesn't seem to do much in the single-player game. Reaching certain thresholds of accumulated insight allows the player to see certain things that are otherwise hidden and possibly changes the behavior of some enemies. But most of the major plot points happen regardless of the character's insight, even the plot points that reveal hidden elements of the world that you would think would require insight. Having excessive insight only reveals these things sooner.
I wonder if accumulating insight was ever intended to be more integrally tied to progression in the game?
I'm guessing that in an earlier state of the game's design, the insight was probably required to progress in the game, and was more integral to the plot and player progression. This would have required that the player engage in multiplayer co-op or PvP in order to regain any insight that they may have lost by beckoning allies or having insight absorbed by enemies. But since the game requires PSPlus for its multiplayer options, the developers probably had to scale this back. If a player who doesn't have PSPlus burns all of his or her insight on beckoning NPCs to fight bosses, or loses it to enemies that absorb insight, then that player would have no way to gain the insight necessary to progress, since they can't play multiplayer. So instead, the devs probably just removed insight as a necessary requirement for critical game progression. The end result is that insight only feels minimally useful, and multiplayer can be completely ignored.
It's also a bit frustrating that you have to spend insight in order to even attempt to beckon an ally. If the beckoning fails because there aren't any other players available, or you die, or wander into the boss area before a cooperator arrives, then you're out a point of insight. I wouldn't mind these mechanics if the insight was only consumed after another player is successfully beckoned into your world.
The game only has a few covenants, but some of the co-op, PvP, and anti-PvP covenant features of Dark Souls have been merged into the core PvP mechanic. Attempting to beckon other players into your world also opens your world up to invasion from hostile PvPers. But since you rang your beckoning bell, you are also likely to have help in the event that a PvP "adversary" does show up. Not having to worry about invasion unless you actively seek cooperation does take some of the anxiety away from trekking through the levels. But I really like how the multiplayer components work together, and the levels are long and tough enough on their own that they don't really need the threat of PvP to invoke apprehension.
PvP seems to have been minimized, but the few encounters that I've had were enjoyable and intense.
Ringing the sinister bell (which allows you to invade another player's world as an "adversary") also opens your world up to invasion. So while you wait for a potential victim to be found online, you may become the victim of another player's hunt instead. This enables PvP players to be matched up against other willing PvP participants (albeit at random), and also dramatically increases the risk to those players, since they leave themselves vulnerable to other dedicated PvP hunters attacking them. So the game doesn't need all those extra covenants, because the core mechanics already take care of it. It's actually rather brilliant!
The developers also backtracked on some of the anonymity of the multiplayer elements of Dark Souls. You can't rate other players' co-op performance (as in Demon's Souls), but you can password-protect your multiplayer sessions in order to ensure that only your friends can join.
After progressing past a few bosses, you unlock the ability to enter the "Chalice Dungeons". These dungeons are procedurally-generated each time you perform a "ritual", and you can re-generate the dungeon by performing the ritual again. Each one has multiple levels with bosses at the end of each level. This appears to be an attempt to address one of the lingering criticisms of the Souls games: that their trial-and-error nature makes them easy once you know the level layouts and enemy behaviors, so repeat playthroughs are never as tense or interesting as the first time through the game.
These dungeons can even be shared with other players who can traverse them for unique rewards or to engage in further co-op or PvP. But I've yet to see any other players in my shared dungeons, nor have I bothered to explore anybody else's [yet].
It's a novel and commendable idea, and the execution isn't bad. It also isn't great. Traps, enemies, and even whole rooms get re-used frequently in the dungeons. So while they may be in slightly different places, the actual threats that you'll encounter remain fairly predictable.
The pseudo-random traps of the Chalice dungeons [LEFT] rarely come together
as nicely as the Skyrim-esque traps of the pre-designed first dungeon [RIGHT]
Every now and then, the stars will align, and a particular combination of room-selection, trap-placement, and enemy spawn location can produce a totally unique, exciting, and difficult challenge to overcome. But most of the time, these dungeons are just ho-hum treks through dank tunnels populated with incohesive and uncoordinated mobs of enemies. And many of the early dungeons will be annoyingly large and barren, with few enemies and virtually no traps. The pre-generated, first dungeon really stands out due to the fact that it is pre-designed, and you can really feel the difference between it and the rest of the psuedo-random dungeons.
In any case, the Chalice dungeons are an impressive technical accomplishment. While the levels that are generated lack the complexity and nuance of the pre-designed levels, they are pretty seamless, and they do maintain the sense of dungeon-delving adventure by combining Demon's Souls' Stonefang Tunnel and Dark Souls' Sen's Fortress, with little sprinkles of Latria and Blighttown thrown in for good measure. But the level designers at FROMSoft can rest easily knowing that they aren't going to be replaced by a computer script any time soon.
The biggest benefit that they offer to gameplay is that the Chalice dungeons are a great place to grind for vials, bullets, and blood without the tedium of replaying the same exact level over and over again. Marking your path through the randomly-arranged maze also gives you a use for those Shining Coins that you keep collecting!
The randomly-generated mazes of the Chalice dungeons can give you a genuine use
for bread-crumb items like the Shining Coin.
The most disappointing thing is that the Chalice Dungeons are completely optional! As far as I could tell, there are no essential key items or NPCs that show up in the dungeons. They can provide you with special variations of weapons, rare upgrade items, and insight from killing bosses, but the game never requires that you actually complete one of them - not even the pre-generated first dungeon! Even though it's strictly optional, it is at least decent and useful optional content because anything you earn from them is transferable into the main game.
A Souls game in every sense
Even though it doesn't have the word "Souls" in the title, Bloodborne is definitely a Souls game - mechanically, thematically, and structurally - and it offers fans more of their beloved Souls series to love - although with slightly less emphasis on multiplayer.
It also still falls victim to some of the same legacy problems. The physics are still a bit inconsistent, and enemies can attack through walls. The camera can be problematic against certain bosses and in certain areas that have obstacles that can obscure your view (transparency filters for camera-obscuring obstacles is no longer present). Pulling mobs and manipulating enemy pathfinding glitches are also still cheap ways to kill certain enemies or pass certain bottlenecks.
The mechanical variations are enough to give the game a whole new vitality and changes up the experience enough that these minor problems don't bother me quite as much as if this had been another sword-and-shield rehash of the previous games. Dark Souls II felt like it may have stretched the Souls formula as far as it could go, but Bloodborne proves that FromSoft still has some interesting and creative twists up their sleeve.
As of the time of this writing, if you own a PS4, and you aren't playing Bloodborne, then you are using your PS4 wrong!
It may not say "Souls" in the title, but Bloodborne offers similar gameplay and more opportunities for jolly cooperation.