It would be easy to dismiss Bloodborne as a Dark Souls sequel. As a dark, brutal action RPG created by From Software, it’s not entirely unwarranted. But to stop there would be a disservice to the game and the people who have crafted one of the best offers to hit the PlayStation 4 yet.
Bloodborne is, without question, a difficult game. It’s demanding, deadly, and frustrating. It’s also opaque and obtuse in ways that sometimes seem unintentional and in other ways feel entirely intentional.
It’s also gorgeous, gross, fast and fun. It’s full of difficult, satisfying combat, incredible places to explore, and some of the best monster designs around.
A Whole New World
Yharnam is a dying city. At the center of the city’s culture is a church that researches and cures illnesses using blood. An illness torments the city, though, transmitted through that very blood. Those that remain in the city are going mad or already long past, transforming into beasts. Hunters are unwanted outsiders who come in to hunt the beasts, many eventually going mad themselves.
Bloodborne is built on the same sort of ambient storytelling that gave Dark Souls its sharp claws, making the game world itself one of the most important characters.
Yharnam is, both in architecture and populace, the quintessential gothic world. In the city proper, narrow alleys and twisting staircases are lined with rusting iron fences and hastily boarded up windows. Carriages, trunks and suitcases, the remainders of failed escape attempts, obstruct pathways.
The city was, at one time, densely populated. Buildings climb skyward, and even the smallest of structures is somehow intimidating. The grand cathedral, of course, is monolithic, Cyclopean.
Outside the city are dense, foreboding forests. It’s not totally dark out there — lanterns light the way occasionally. But it’s dark enough that things out of sight can stay that way until it’s too late, if you’re not careful.
But it’s not just about those real places. The world of Bloodborne feels, around every corner, inspired by the same kind of ideas that fill the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. Except that where many stories are slavishly devoted to the specifics of his stories, it seems like the artists at From Software took inspiration. A twisted religion, scholars studying things they shouldn’t, and inhabitants of remote villages driven mad.
One area, a sort of rocky swamp littered with toxic pools, is populated with these grotesque, writhing squid-like creatures. The white landscape and stark sky look absolutely otherworldly. It’s a place I felt genuinely uncomfortable being, like a total alien.
Bloodborne is easily some of the best environment design I’ve had the chance to play through. Every new place a pleasure, for lack of better word, to explore.
The monsters, too, make for some of the best art I’ve seen. We’ll get into the combat a bit later, but first I want to address just the designs.
I’ve never been so disgusted by so many monsters as I have while playing Bloodborne. While I never like taking damage in a game, and will do what I can to dodge the monster’s attacks, it’s not just that in Bloodborne. I didn’t want the monsters to touch me. I felt gross fighting many of the monsters. Even the townspeople, what’s left of them, are twisted enough that it felt like I might catch something if I stayed too close. It’s hard to say more than that without spoiling things.
There are, of course, some pretty standard monsters that I’d expected to see in a game like this, but if a game monster has ever made me feel the way the Fly man did, or the giant with the bloody sack, or the Witches of Hemwick, it was only a couple memorable monsters here and there, not a whole procession of them.
As often as I call for games with more color, I want to see more of this, too. Inspired, cohesive art design that begs you to explore every inch of it and monsters that you can’t look away from even if you want to.
Down and Out in Yharnam
While I ultimately enjoyed Dark Souls 2, it was a difficult road to find it. After more than 20 hours with the game, I still hated it. It wasn’t until a friend pulled me through a few victories that I was able to get my legs and find my way through the rest of the world myself.
Bloodborne, on the other hand, hooked me almost immediately. Not just the aesthetics we talked about before, but the game itself is different enough from its predecessors to make it pleasantly refreshing to old fans and still accessible to newcomers.
I won’t lie: Bloodborne can be a very frustrating game. Death is frequent and sudden. With that said, I have a bad habit of rage-talking to games that feel cheap and poorly designed. I’ve been able to keep my mouth shut for most of my time with this game.
Combat requires skill and focus, but it has a different flavor from Dark Souls. One of the big new elements to combat in Bloodborne is the Regain system. Simply put, if you take damage, you can take it right back if you’re the right kind of aggressive. Taking a hit doesn’t necessarily mean you’re one step closer to having to visit the home base. The Regain system rewards aggressiveness but still punishes random button mashing.
Fights are also faster, more acrobatic experiences. There’s no heavy armor to speak of in Bloodborne. The clothing in Bloodborne is of a very Gothic Victorian style. A few of the outfits reminded me of the 2001 movie Brotherhood of the Wolf, even. You won’t be clunking around in onion armor.
Because combat is faster, group fights are more common. They become exercises in crowd management and careful use of attack and dodge. While you can hit multiple enemies at once — and often do — careless attacks will result in a dark outcome for your hunter.
Countering is now crucial to mastering the combat of Bloodborne. Sword and board-style gameplay is nowhere to be found, and magic is out the door as well. Most characters will find themselves with a melee weapon in one hand and a firearm in the other. The firearm is used, primarily, to interrupt attacks and create openings for devastating moves called visceral attacks. The timing on these can be hard to master, but they’re deeply satisfying once tamed. The sound that chimes when you land an interrupt, followed by the animation when you execute is great feedback on a hard-won ability.
What makes it tough to master, though, is that there’s tons of variety in not just the way monsters look but the way they attack, as well. From serpents with long reach and boulder-throwing Yeti-things to fly men ready to pounce on you and enemies that can leap a lot further than you’d expect, enemies move and attack in so many different ways that getting used to one doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme.
While the game is difficult to master and sometimes frustrating to play, though, the design of the world does a lot to mitigate that. If I came up on a particularly annoying brick wall, I’d go find something else to do. Each time, there was something else. I found a door I hadn’t noticed before, which took me to a whole new area I’d missed. Instead of banging my head against a tough boss, I was exploring a new place, leveling without grinding, and learning to fight a new set of monsters.
Talking to other people who played the game, experiences against bosses have varied. I needed help to get through most of Dark Souls 2, but Bloodborne has been a primarily single player experience. I’ve found the bosses tough but often pretty manageable. There are still some times you might want to rethink putting a glass table in your living room, but they don’t usually last too long.
This is still a game by From Software, though. That means plenty of unnecessary obscurity and poorly explained mechanics. The effects of collecting too much of something called Insight, for example, are never explicitly explained. It would’ve been nice to know what the music box did about 20 hours ago.
Multiplayer now allows you to set up a password to let you hunt with friends, but it doesn’t tell you that you have to be relatively close in level and when you try to pair up you never get any feedback about why it’s not working.
There are a few very real technical issues, too. Nothing I experienced ever broke the game or, really, even affected it in any substantial way. But the framerate does stutter. It’s especially noticeable when doing a diving roll through a bunch of pottery in a room with lots of light sources. The framerate will chug and sound will grind for a split second. I noticed it, but I never felt like it was hindering my ability to play the game.
The load times, too, are a sore point. Sony says that the team at From Software is working hard to shorten those load times but, as of the writing of this review, they can range from 30 to 60 seconds. These come up at each death or each transition to or from your home base. If you decide you want to jump from Old Yharnam to the Nightmare Frontier, you’re going to spend a minute or more looking at a loading screen that simply has the Bloodborne logo and nothing else. This is especially annoying when you’ve hit a temporary brick wall and are dying frequently.
Bloodborne is a frustrating game, and I don’t want anyone to go in thinking otherwise. But it’s worthwhile, too. Despite some yelling, I’ve enjoyed nearly every moment with the game, and it’s a world I can’t wait to dive back into for more punishment and triumph.
Bloodborne is already one of the best I’ve played this year and possibly my favorite on PlayStation 4 so far.
Disclaimer: We received a copy of Bloodborne for the PlayStation 4 from the publisher. We completed over 27 hours of the campaign before writing this review. If public online play significantly changes our impression of the game, this review will be updated to reflect that.