Bloodborne Review: Bloodsoaked Masterpiece

As the credits began to roll across the screen, Bloodborne presented a sense of satisfaction that very few games are capable of. Like prior games in the Soul’s series, Bloodborne is not a game that’s been inherently designed to be beaten. It’s not a game that adapts to your inability so that it can force you through the segment you’re struggling with, it’s a game that’s designed with inherent challenge that you will need to overcome internally if you want to be met with success. It’s this design, that made the Bloodborne’s credit roll all the more of a reward, not everyone gets there, and it feels like a genuine achievement for those that do.

This perfectly encapsulates what many find enjoyable in the Soul’s series, when the stakes are upped and the difficulty is higher, the sense of accomplishment following your success is also greater, and thus it’s the difficulty that drives many to enjoy Bloodborne. Some describe the experience as masochistic, enjoyed by players that enjoy suffering, however this notion over simplifies the games deliberate design, ignoring the fact that Bloodborne would not be nearly as enjoyable if this difficulty were not accompanied by it’s profoundly refined gameplay design, rooted in its visceral, melee based combat.

Difficulty is only a positive trait within an environment where the experience feels fair, and while it’s easy to make a game difficult, it’s much less so to make a difficult game feel fair and well designed, and this is what sets Bloodborne’ apart from its competition. As you make your entrance within central Yarham – Bloodborne’s appropriately bleak and depressing Victorian setting – the game quickly shows its intentions by presenting you with a seemingly insurmountable challenge. Over ten hostile villagers clamour around a bonfire in the town square, and it’s made clear that this is the only direction in which you can progress.

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While this immediately steep difficulty may seem somewhat unfair, Bloodborne is in reality, more than willing to lend a helping hand with its design. Prior to this large scale bonfire encounter you will have had experience with one of each villager type either individually, or within a small group, and each of these instances offer ample opportunity to study the enemies attack patterns and practice your own offensive skills. The game then merely asks you extrapolate these skills to a larger scale. There are many approaches you may choose to take for this encounter, but many can lead to success provided you are both thoughtful and posses an understanding of the enemies capabilities, and of course your own.

Subsequently, as I contemplated the utility of my inventory of items, it became clear that the pebbles I had collected may have some use here, and quickly the seemingly large scale encounter became much less so as I was able to isolate these villagers, one by one, and replay the smaller scale engagements I had experienced previously. This effectively modified the instance into one that wasn’t incredibly demanding of my execution on the gamepad, but instead merely one that required thoughtful consideration and tact, and that’s Bloodborne in a nutshell.

The rest of the game is much the same,  it provides you with opportunity to learn, and only punishes you for not doing so. Bloodborne challenges you to analyse your environment and come to the most plausible resolution to the particular encounter, be it a boss or smaller groups of enemies. In this way it could be said that there are variable levels of difficulty that you directly moderate with your chosen approach to combat. If you analyse where the bosses swings fall, and the range of his attacks, you can invariably isolate weak points and opportunities that punish these attacks, without getting yourself harmed. Alternatively, you can try a more challenging approach where you just ignore the bosses vulnerabilities and simply dance between his swings with the games dodge button and granted invulnerability frames.

Bloodborne’s combat has been refined in relation to its predecessors too. Everyone, regardless of their build has a much more effective evasive manuever in their roll attack, and by unifying these styles of play From Software were able to create a much more focused and balanced game, where the difficulty doesn’t randomly spike because you enter an area that isn’t best suited to your particular character build. You’re not forced into a gruelling or unfair experience because the boss fight just doesn’t work that well with your lumbering roll because you’ve equipped heavy armour, and everyone is granted the universal tools (invulnerability frames) to overcome everything the game has to throw you. The game remains difficult throughout without ever feeling unfair and sense of a persistent but not insurmountable challenge manages to keep the game engaging, without becoming tediously frustrating.

Additionally, Bloodborne’s unique weapons add something fresh to the games combat. Each of the games fifteen or so melee weapons are labelled as ‘trick’ weapons, which results in them being able to transform through two, distinct forms. Crucially this adds plentiful versatility to each weapon, as it becomes essential to know when and where to use each form, and set of attacks. Melee attacks themselves are split between blunt and thrust too, with variable efficacy depending on the particular enemy you’re fighting off at the time. This adds a much welcomed additional level of depth to the games melee combat, and learning the properties of all of your attacks, including when and how to use them can be quite a satisfying experience.

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Somewhat surprisingly is the integration of firearms, but these actually fit very well within the games otherwise melee orientated combat system. Guns do relatively low damage, fire relatively slow projectiles, and generally, aren’t that effective in dispatching your foes. However, stopping power is generally not their purpose, instead they take the role of the parry button, with a well timed bullet able to stun a foe and enable the player to initiate a visceral, melee attack.  This mechanic is much more versatile than parrying in previous Soul’s games as it enables you to counter a wider variety of attacks either up close, or from afar. You can even parry the use of items and other non-offensive attacks with a well-timed bullet, though the general strictness of the timing allows these instances to feel very rewarding when successfully executed.

Despite all of these systems and their interaction with the games balanced difficulty and thoughtful design, there’s is however one particular mechanism that’s hasn’t been especially well considered. In order to heal in Bloodborne you require blood vials and for newer players these will be absolutely essential to progress, enabling you to heal up small mistakes and continue the hunt. This resource is limited and it’s quite easy to run out after a couple of failed boss attempts. The problem then, is you can’t retry the boss without healing vials, and in order to gain more, the player has little choice but grind for resources. This process can be repetitive, dull, and in terms of a design perspective the loss of souls serves as a perfectly sufficient punishment without additionally forcing players to sit through several loading screens and expend a large quantity of time hunting down blood vials before being able to tackle the boss once more. It’s a purposeless waste of time, one that the player simply shouldn’t have to go through irrespective of the number of times they have failed.

Fortunately this the vial’s system is but one flaw within an otherwise well considered experience. Alongside the renovations to the games combat systems, the somewhat cliché knights and dragons theme of the Soul’s series has been replaced with much more varied and interesting inspirations. Initially exuding a definite Victorian theme with enemies range from relatively typical werewolves and pitchfork weilding villagers to more obscure creatures with a strong Lovecraftian vibe. Players will progress through all manner of environments each with their own hazards and themes and despite the at times drastic contrasts in these areas, Bloodborne is designed in a manner that makes everything feel believably interconnected in one way or another.

There are also plenty of secrets and shortcuts to be found. The latter are a crucial aspect of the games design, as although bosses do not usually feature nearby checkpoints (lamps), opening up each of these shortcuts reduces the time, and difficulty required to return to the boss arena. These then serve an important role in preventing the game from becoming frustrating, and offer at least some sense of progression and reward in the likely event that you fail to clear an area or boss on your first try.

Visually each area does a nice job of validating the next-generation hardware, with remarkable lighting, and much improved environmental textures and character models when compared to previous titles from From Software. At times the framerate can stutter, but generally this is very much restricted to very specific segments of the game. Smoke and extensive particle effects in particular cause the framerate to suffer significantly, and it’s unclear why they were included at all when they impact performance so drastically, yet offer so little to the gameplay experience. Despite this, the vast majority of the experience ran very smoothly, and in general the game is very pleasurable to look at.

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The games narrative on the other hand is really rather thin, featuring only a small number of cutscenes and rather minimal dialogue dispersed as lore through the games inventory system. At times there are NPCs to speak to, although they generally have very little to say, and much of the games narrative leaves room for the players own inferences in order to make sense of what’s going in. The community as a whole often has a say in the interpretation of different segments of the games lore, and for some it may be interesting attempting to decipher how everything fits together, and make sense of the goings in the player experience of Bloodborne.

Despite this, those looking for a strong and focused narrative will be disappointed. The game offers very little of a direct story to tell, and depending on your decisions near the end of the game, the narrative as a whole isn’t liable to make an awful lot of sense. It’s difficult to say if the aforementioned lore truly hides the answers, or given enough information humans will simply make connections that weren’t intended to be made there, but there’s certainly a value to Bloodborne’s almost community driven narrative, even if it’s not one that everyone will appreciate.

Fans of the Soul series will be familiar with Bloodborne’s set of online functions, enabling players to play either co-operatively, or competatively within each others worlds. For the most part this functionality has been improved, and there’s something to be said with the manner in which these features naturally integrate into the game, and avoid breaking the players immersion with the game. For those unfamiliar, these online functions allow you to be invaded, or summon co-operators at any time, during the game. New to Bloodborne you can set a password so that only your friends may find you for co-operative play, and this helps a lot when attempting to play the game with a specific set of people you know.

Player versus player gameplay has however seen something of a downgrade, or rather, it’s integration has been reduced when compared to previous titles in the Soul’s series. No longer can players be invaded by others at any time, instead the presence of a bell ringing woman is required to summon you into their world. Sadly, the woman does not naturally occur in most areas of the game, and is only summoned by those playing co-operatively. This reduces the integration of this unique online element of the game, and while some may take solace in the knowledge that they won’t randomly be attacked by another player, its a shame to see the innovative player versus player mechanics take a back seat, as it has always been a feature that characterises the series.

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As well as these online modes, a new set of dungeons are available for those looking for something to do, particularly once the main quest-line is beaten. Chalice Dungeons offer unique, procedurally generated dungeons for players to undertake, featuring a wide variety of themes, and gameplay features. These dungeons range in difficulty depending on the items offered to generate the dungeon, and each feature a unique set of bosses and loot for the player to enjoy. For the most part despite their procedurally generated nature these dungeons are reasonably well designed. From Software decided to keep the dungeon layouts relatively simple, with each floor featuring a single switch that opens the boss door, you then simply beat the boss to enter the next floor, and repeat until the dungeon is complete.

This simplicity is quite crucial as these chalices feature no map to speak of. While one does not expect a map from games in the Soul’s series, the Chalice’s like to use rooms and themes across the entire dungeon, so at times things can look quite similar from one segment of the dungeon to the next. Doors and ladders can also be difficult to spot at times, and on occasion I found myself running around for over ten minutes searching for the exit. These dungeons don’t flow as well as the core, hand crafted experience of Bloodborne, but the challenges they pose are terribly enjoyable, with bosses and enemies that aren’t even introduced in the main game.

Additionally, each Chalice dungeon offers its own set of loot, with players are able to obtain variations and upgrades for their existing weapons only within these dungeons. This adds plentiful replayability as players find themselves diving deeper and deeper into the dungeons in search of better gear and resources, and this assists in a range of activities from aiding in their quest to beat harder dungeons, progressing further through new game plus or better equipping your character for player versus player engagements. Challice dungeon’s add  unprecedented replayability to the series, allowing the game to continue providing players with fresh content long after the credits have rolled on the main storyline.

In all, Bloodborne is a phenomenal role play experience, characterised by extraordinary combat design which when coupled with stern yet fair difficulty and brilliant level design makes for what is perhaps the most satisfying action orientated role play experience we’ve ever experienced. Bloodborne’s world is full of character making it an absolute pleasure to explore while additional features such as multiplayer modes and procedurally generated dungeons enable the game to hold the players attention for an unprecedented amount of time. The game suffers from a few small technical hiccups with regards to its framerate and long loading times, and having to backtrack for health vials can feel a little tedious at times, however none of these issues are substantial enough to significantly detract from Bloodborne’s brilliance. Bloodborne offers some of the best third person combat mechanics and level design ever conceived in a video game of its type, and as such finds itself as one of the very best games we’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing.

Author: Jozef Kulik

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