Bloodborne review: scarlet letter

Game Info
Platform PS4
Publisher Sony Computer Entertainment
Developer FromSoftware
Release Date Mar 24, 2015

Bloodborne's greatest surprise may be how much it asked me to forget what I'd learned from Demon's Souls and Dark Souls.

From Software's games have been lauded for how they buck modern game design trends. They don't rely on cinematic storytelling through lengthy cutscenes. They don't present pivotal action moments as button-matching "quick time events." They don't offer helpful breadcrumb trails to guide a player to the next story-driving checkpoint. They're just not particularly warm and friendly.

I expected Bloodborne would be challenging — it is — but primarily I assumed Bloodborne would simply transmute a long list of medieval fantasy tropes and established gameplay mechanics to a new, slightly more modern setting. Developer From Software upended those expectations, and the result is remarkable.

You're not fighting dragons with magic spells

Bloodborne, like its ancestors, drops players into its harsh world and expects players to figure out its mysteries for themselves. To be successful, you have to unlearn much of what you've learned from other games.

Primarily set in the gothic Victorian city of Yarnham, a town overcome by a plague, the game's story drips out through conversations with other characters and the rare cutscene or voice over. But players who want to know more about the beast hunts and Yarnham's history will have to dig into the game's item descriptions to piece it all together. I didn't, and at the end of the game I had only a vague understanding of what had occurred over the course of my journey. But I was still satisfied — and more so, intrigued — by the tale of Bloodborne, for as little as it handed to me.

Like the Souls games that influence it so much, Bloodborne has fantastical supernatural elements, but you're not fighting dragons with magic spells. Instead, you're firing blunderbusses at filthy peasants driven mad by disease and bashing old clerics with a rusty old saw blade as they transform into hulking were-beasts. There are giant spiders and man-eating boars, and there are Lovecraftian nightmare creatures of the eldritch abomination, thing-that-should-not-be variety.

When you're killing those things-that-should-not-be, Bloodborne's offensive approach is purely two-handed. In your character's left hand, you'll typically wield a firearm of some type: pistols, shotguns, a flamethrower. In your character's right hand, you'll often carry what's called a trick weapon. These are melee weapons that transform from a sword to a heavy hammer, a metal cane to a bladed whip or a short axe to a long halberd. Each weapon, and each form of that weapon, has its own strengths and weaknesses. They're all fun to toy with, at the very least, but familiarizing yourself with a trick weapon, learning to love its behaviors and quirks is especially gratifying.

The fact that there are no shields in the game, save for a measly wooden plank, might instill fear in the hearts of Souls players. It's one of the crutches that From has kicked out from underneath players, but it has provided a new tool — the firearm — to prop them back up.

The game's guns are unlike any other video game gun. They can be scattershot and ineffective from long distances, and they don't deal much damage on their own. Instead, they enable players to set up deadly counter moves called visceral attacks that deal incredible amounts of damage if timed correctly.

When those counters connect, it's one of the best feelings in any game. Bloodborne pulls you through its heartbreaking lows with feel-good moments of triumph, and visceral attacks rank highly on that list.

You'll have to carefully consider when and against whom you want to set up a visceral attack. Your firearm carries limited ammunition, and while the game's quicksilver bullets aren't particularly hard to come by, you'll never want to find yourself in a position without one in the chamber.

While it's certain to turn off some Souls players, the removal of magic — and sniping with bows and crossbows — does Bloodborne a great service. Enemies have been smartly designed with the new combat system in mind. Everything you encounter can be defeated with the tools at hand; there are no dragons breathing cones of flame at you while safely perched atop a castle spire, for example. From Software has carved off the fat that made many encounters either too easy or too cheap.

Instead, Bloodborne empowers risk, courtesy of the new regain system. With regain attacks, players can recover bits of their health by striking back against a foe immediately after taking damage. The more hits you land during that short window, the more hit points you can restore, drastically altering the nature of enemy encounters.

bloodborne ogre

Chalice Dungeons

Beyond the main story, Bloodborne lets players explore what are called Chalice Dungeons, procedurally generated levels that offer, in theory, unlimited replayability. To build those dungeons, players need to track down chalices in the game's story and combine them with various ritual materials in the game's hub world. The game then constructs a unique labyrinth that turns out to be a pretty good approximation of Bloodborne's hand-crafted dungeons.

Chalice Dungeons are stuffed with treasures to find and unique bosses to fight. Players will see things in these sections of the game that they won't see elsewhere — though the Chalice Dungeon bosses simply don't compare in spectacle to Bloodborne's other big bad enemies. Still, they're fun to explore and if you manage to build a particularly interesting or challenging dungeon, you can share it with other players and explore it together.

As you adventure through the cobblestone streets of Yarnham and its outskirts — dark forests, graveyards, castles and colleges — you'll encounter beautifully and horrifically crafted monsters borne of From's imagination. Some boss encounters feel like variations on the similar theme — holy men and women transformed into massive werewolf-like wretches — but the common affliction that plagues many of these religious leaders at least helps explain some of their sameness.

Where many of Dark Souls 2's major enemies were criticized for being familiar variations on more memorable encounters, Bloodborne succeeds in reinventing how a white-knuckled Souls battle can play out. Some unfold like set piece puzzles, while others force the player to reexamine their perception of how to best engage in combat and how to use their weapons and items to the peak of their abilities.

While combat is streamlined and straightforward, other mechanics in Bloodborne are more opaque. There are new and immediately confounding gameplay mechanics to intuit, like a character affliction called "frenzy," a largely unexplained malady that apparently drives players mad enough to cause them great physical damage. Or there's "beast," a transformation state which, well, 50 hours into Bloodborne, I still don't fully comprehend, but it hasn't presented itself as a danger thus far.

Other mechanics are simpler and more streamlined. There are fewer character stats to manage, fewer items to consume and a comparatively smaller arsenal than in other Souls games. Equipment weight is gone, as is armor encumbrance. Your Hunter is always a nimble, spritely thing, unrestrained — and unprotected — by thick plate armor.

It's a distillation of what worked best in Dark and Demon's Souls. It's also a reminder that speed and skill are what will save you in combat, that taking risks will be rewarded.

Bloodborne brings back many of the mechanics that have worked well in Souls games, however, including their groundbreaking multiplayer modes. Players can leave messages in their world to help (or troll) other players with hints. And they can see replays of how other players died in their games, offering insight into the many ways you could meet your own end.

Players can now also invite another player into their world through a system that's a little more passive than in previous From Software games — players have to signal their interest in hosting a multiplayer game by ringing a bell, and hope that another player has rung a bell in their own game in order to connect. It's far less direct approach to matchmaking, and the result appears to be fewer connections between players. I've only been matched cooperatively with a few other co-op partners, and I've never been invaded by an unfriendly player.

When I have managed to connect for some co-op, the game appears to perform noticeably worse technically: namely, Bloodborne's frame rate takes a hit. I've also seen sub-30 frames per second dips elsewhere while playing solo.

Bloodborne's other major technical concern is its load times. Should you die in Bloodborne or want to travel between locations via one of its lanterns, you're looking at a load time of 20 to 40 seconds, sometimes more. If you need to dip back into the game's safe haven, the hub known as the Hunter's Dream, you may wind up seeing multiple loads back to back.

Wrap Up:

Bloodborne is a shrewd turn from its souls lineage

Bloodborne is frequently opaque, but the game's bewildering design is appealing for a reason: It's is the antitheses of the excessive tutorials and restrictive gating that are so commonplace in other games. When you do manage to decipher its lore and its cryptic rules, or manage to overcome some hard-fought challenge, it comes with the increased satisfaction that you've earned it. Longtime Souls players may blanch at its whittled-down customization options and highly focused scope. Newcomers will likely be shocked by its difficulty. But Bloodborne is some of the best work From Software's ever done, a remarkable achievement and a shrewd turn from its Souls lineage.

Bloodborne was reviewed using a pre-release retail copy provided by Sony Computer Entertainment. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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