By William Shelton
Release Date: March 24, 2015
Developer: From Software
Obtained By: Purchased
The original Dark Souls is one of my favorite games of all time. Not only was it near perfect in what it was trying to achieve, but this was a game that changed me as a person. Unfortunately neither of the games sequels managed to live up to that. Three still managed to be pretty damn good and Two had it’s moments (although too few of them), but both felt like there was something missing. With that in mind the question going into Bloodborne was “will this be another almost great game or another let down”? Lets find out.
Just like it’s predecessors the story and lore behind Bloodborne is hidden away, but unlike the Souls games a lot of it’s major themes are rather easy to understand. In the city of Yharnam the streets are filled with monsters and those who hunt them. When the player enters the picture, even those hunters seem to be suffering from the same sickness the monsters do, and some have even begun to change. You soon find that it was the Healing Church, worshipers of Lovecraftian Horrors and administrators of Blood Healing, who have brought this pox upon the city. A common sight in Yharnam is, ironically, blindness. Members and followers of the Healing Church remove their eyes to get closer to the Old Ones (ancient God Like Beings who’s Blood fuel the churches Blood Healing). While it’s a bit on the nose it’s hard not too look at the game as a critique of blind faith (pun most certainly intended). While I still can’t tell you shit about most of the bosses and why I was fighting them, the main ideas behind this game are much clearer than they were in dark souls.
Gameplay wise the game is near perfect and a great evolution from the previous Souls games. However, due to a few bizarre choices the game suffers from near inexcusable pacing issues, but we’ll get into that a bit later. The main difference between Bloodborne and Dark Souls is how aggressive the combat is here. The defensive options at a players disposal are much more limited; there’s only one shield in the game and it’s really not worth using. Instead you are given a gun that can be used to riposte and draw enemies to you, but it’s not going to mitigate any damage. Because of this dodging and rolling become more important and learning how to properly use those techniques was when I stopped dying as often as I did at the start. That new found mobility makes its way into the core combat as well as the speed of each attack has been drastically increased. I’ve said before that Dark Soul’s combat felt more like a puzzle that taught players not to get hit, here it’s a dance that teaches you to hit back.
A lot was said about the lack of weapon verity in the game, and while that is true I wasn’t as bothered by it as most others were. Hell, I didn’t even find most of the weapons on my first play through and I still found what I had to be enough to keep me entertained. This is in large part due to the new “trick weapons” the game uses. Each weapon has two forms with different attack speeds, animations and even limited combos (something Dark Souls never did), and learning the ins and outs of each was compelling enough on it’s own for me to be comfortable with the limited selection. What did bother me was the lack of options out side of that however. A few stats felt pretty useless and by the time the credits rolled I felt like the only real character build that was of any use was a strength/dex build. Arcane and Bloodtinge (which effect spells and fire arms respectively) just were not worth puting many points into. Were as in Dark Souls you could play as a magic user with no issues, Melee is the focus here and in the end feels like the only right way too play. That worked for me, I wont lie but the lack of meaningful options was kind of a bummer.
Before I get into my major criticisms there is one thing that needs special mention: the level design. This may be my favorite Soulsborne world to date. After three games of medieval fantasy anything else would have felt fresh enough to warrant applause, but what From did here was just spectacular. The Victorian and Gothic architecture was stunning to behold, and the whole world felt like it was oozing the same sickness the residents of the city were suffering from. From Soft has a gift for creating macabre worlds, and it’s on full display here as Yharnam is their opus in my opinion. But what really sold me was the layout. Yharnam takes inspiration from both the Original Dark Souls and Demons Souls to great effect. Like with Demons Souls there is a central Hub, The Hunters Dream, that you use to level up, upgrade weapons and perches items. You can also warp to any of the lanterns you’ve lit along your journey as a form of fast travel, much like the level select from the Nexus. But unlike in Demon’s Souls Yharnam is one continues place. The gravestones you use to fast travel do not take you to new area’s altogether, but places you can technically walk to from the very start of the game. While Dark Souls 3 had much the same idea behind it’s level design, Yharnam never felt like it was one linear path; the city twists and terns and loops back around on itself. There are plenty of area’s I missed by just not going down the right path, and that’s not even touching most of the chalice dungeon. This was a game that made each dead end feel like a minor victory as it meant I could go back and explore one of the other new paths that popped up along the way.
But alas, no game is perfect.
My biggest issues in the game all boil down to the revamped health system. Unlike in Dark Souls, in Bloodborne you have a limited opportunity to get back some of your health by attacking quickly after getting hit. When things are working well this means you usually don’t have to use too many “Blood Vials” (this games Estus Flasks). That’s good, because your healing items in this game don’t replenish after death. You have to pick them up from dead enemies (who don’t always drop them) or buy them in The Hunters Dream. Once your past the 20 your allowed to carry at once the extras go into a stock pile that refills used ones upon death or travailing to the Dream. When exploring levels this isn’t so much of an issue, but this kills the pacing of boss fights. Bosses attack so fast and do so much damage that even using the health regain system it’s normally not possible to fully recover, forcing a lot more Blood Vial usage. Because of this I typically burned through my stockpile rather fast and had to stop fighting the boss and go grind of Vials or enough souls to buy them from the Dreams merchants. That in itself would have been inexcusable, but that’s not the only issue. You can’t rest at lanterns like you could at a bonfire, meaning that when you are grinding in an area you have to go to the Hunters Dream, then to the location you want (with painful load times), kill the enemies there, go back to the Dream (with another long ass Load screen) and then go back the same location once again. That’s three load screens just to grind one area twice. This pissed me off more than anything any of these games have ever done as From already proved they knew how to make this system work in all the dark souls games. All they had to do was give us a “rest” option and allow for fast travel between lanterns and the grind wouldn’t have been too unbearable. This is what stops Bloodborne from being a true equal to the original Dark Souls to me. In almost every other way I think Bloodborne is the only truly successful follow up to From Soft’s 2011 master piece, but because of that bullshit it will always be in second place. It’s not quite enough to stop me from wanting to go back and beat the game all over again (and over, and over, and….) but knowing in advance just how shit that system is does dampen the experience.
In terms of sound the game rarely disappoints. The guns crack and roar, and the slashing effect, while almost cartoonish, makes the gallons of blood the character is soaked in after combat feel appropriate. Music is still sparse, but what’s there works well and voice acting is mixed as always (but the fact no one moves their mouth was hilariously distracting to me).
In the end I loved pretty much everything about Bloodborne. The enemy design was among the most creative the franchise ever achieved, the speed and fluidity of combat made the game simply feel more enjoyably to play and the story and lore pays homage to some of the best horror writers the world has ever known. With Dark Souls ending after Three games, I hope From Soft chooses to continue this franchise while fixing the few issues I had with it. If not, they should at least take inspiration from this game and give us a few more stand alone games that takes the souls formula to interesting new locations with different thematic sources.