I’d like to make a confession. I hated Dark Souls. It wasn’t that it was too hard, I just found the defensive combat boring, hated being invaded and killed by strangers and loathed the ‘hollow’ system that made each new try more challenging than the one before it. I thought maybe I hated the entire formula. I was wrong. Bloodborne isn’t just my favourite game so far for the PS4, it may be one of my favourite games of all time. I really, really loved it.
Bloodborne sees your mute protagonist arriving in the gothic city of Yarnham, a once beautiful place which has fallen into utter horror and despair. We’re told very little about what is going on, but we do know that it is the night of the ‘Hunt’ and hideous monstrosities have descended upon Yarnham. The protagonist must become a ‘Hunter’ and fight through the city. There’s a lot going on beneath the surface which gradually reveals itself, although it’s never really clear.
The worldbuilding in Bloodborne is hugely compelling. The lore is complex and arcane but you’re never hit over the head with anything. Bloodborne has very little exposition, but the clues are all there if you look for them. It’s a twisted and genuinely upsetting tale, one which pops into your head late at night and won’t let go. A lot of this is achieved through the setting itself, with Bloodborne’s Yarnham being my favourite example of storytelling through environmental design since BioShock’s Rapture. The atmosphere is oppressive and haunting in a way that you never really get used to.
As with Dark Souls, Bloodborne is an action-RPG, although there’s more than a dash of survival horror in there. The combat is quick and exciting, with the methodical combat of Dark Souls that I so despised swapped out in favour of a more rapid fighting style reliant on aggression and staggering foes. This much better suited my playstyle. This new focus on aggression is seen most clearly in the marvelously clever little mechanic which sees you regaining health if you strike back at your foes quickly enough after they’ve hit you. It’s so simple but so interesting, giving you a constant risk/reward decision to deal with as you fight; should you play it safe and back off, consuming one of your valuable healing items, or do you be bold and strike back, potentially leaving you at risk when you’re most vulnerable? These foes will hit you hard; Bloodborne is punishing, particularly early on, but there’s a moment when everything just clicks and you get into the rhythm of the game. Even the simplest enemies can kill you if you’re not paying attention and the bosses are brutal. Thankfully, you’re well armed, with a range of flashy and exciting weapons. All main weapons have two forms, a quicker and closer range form and a longer, slower harder hitting form. Switching between forms, as well as deciding when to use charge attacks, give battles a deceptively complex edge. Firearms in the left hand also play a role, although not as a ranged attack as you might have thought, but instead being used to parry enemy strikes which allow you to strike back with a gory ‘visceral’ attack. Bloodborne supports a range of playing styles, so you don’t have to be boxed in.
Underpinning all of the action packed goodness is an RPG leveling system which is simple enough to get to grips with but interesting enough to allow you to get creative. Your sole currency are ‘Blood Echoes’, gained from killing foes, which can be used to buy new weapons and equipment or to channel into levelling up. The main twist is that when you die, all of your blood echoes are lost, although they can be reclaimed as with Dark Souls. There’s a palpable feeling of tension when you’re carrying lots of Blood Echoes, with the decision as to whether to play it safe and carry my Blood Echoes back to safety to level up or to persevere (putting them at risk) being genuinely interesting throughout the entire game. There’s a weapon upgrade system to, as well as runes which give you personal benefits. These mechanics unfold gradually and never felt overwhelming, a major improvement over the unnecessarily obtuse Dark Souls. Don’t get me wrong, Bloodborne is still quite obtuse, but not unfairly so. This is a lengthy game too, with an epic story with plenty of other things to do, including the procedurally generated ‘Chalice Dungeons’, as well as Co-Op and PVP. These features didn’t interest me that much, I was more about the crafted content, but considering how much I loved the game without going too deep into them I imagine that people who are more into that sort of thing will be ecstatic.
Bloodborne has a few technical problems, but is generally impressive. The game looks gorgeous, with Yarnham oozing with character. The real visual triumph is in the animations however, both for the player and the enemies. The way the character moves is inherently satisfying and the weapon transitions are lovely in that impossible to describe way that presses a happy button in the back of your mind every time you see them. The enemy design is fantastic, with new spins on existing concepts. Although far from the most dangerous enemy you’ll face, one of the most memorable are the grounded crows which snarl and jump at you. There’s something so piteous about them that I’d feel bad about killing them if they didn’t scare me so much. The sound design is brilliant too, with a mournful soundtrack fueling the melancholy vibe. The sound of these creatures is just as striking as their look; the screams of the Cleric Beast still haunt me and the discordant sound of a woman singing always heralded the arrival of my most hated late game foe. One of the only real issues with Bloodborne is a semi-regular drop of frame rate; don’t get me wrong, this is no Assassin’s Creed: Unity, but it can be irritating. I didn’t find the load times as arduous as some, but they’re not helped by the fact that to get to a new area you must first return to the Hunter’s Dream hub, meaning that hopping between two areas of Yarnham involves two lengthy load screens. These issues aside, Bloodborne is a marvel.
I’m struggling to convey just how impressed I am by this game. I sometimes worry that my best game playing days are behind me, that adulthood means that I will never be able to get this affected by a game again. Although the aesthetic couldn’t be more different, Bloodborne makes me feel like old Nintendo games make me feel; this is a game made with clarity of purpose, with a series of goals that it sets out to complete and then completes them. If you’ve been waiting for a PS4 system seller, this is it.