A long time ago, longer now than it seems, I wrote a review of the original import release of From Software and Sony Japan Studio's Demon's Souls, which was initially released in Hong Kong with a full English translation. In that review, I mused that Demon's Souls was in no small way the interpretation of 3D Castlevania I had been looking for since the disastrous Castlevania 64. The game merged an oppressive, nightmarish atmosphere with an emphasis on pattern recognition and exploration, with a smattering of dark, self-aware humor sprinkled on top. Nowhere was this more evident than the game's now-legendary Tower of Latria level, a dark and claustrophobic prison tower filled with screaming ghouls, cleverly-hidden sheer drops and a horde of Lovecraftian demons, hungry for the player and their souls.
Flash forward six years, and the surprise success of Demon's Souls begat two sequels, the much-beloved Dark Souls and its bigger, more ambitious, and more uneven sequel, Dark Souls 2. And while From was hard at work on Dark Souls 2, series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki chose to instead return to his roots, partnering once again with Sony Japan for a title built specifically off of the foundation established by Demon's Souls. And while the trimmings may seem familiar at first glance, once you look beneath the surface, Bloodborne is one entirely new beast.
Yharnam? Damn Near Killed Him
Bloodborne takes place within the gothic, xenophobic cathedral city of Yharnam. Yharnam, a sprawling, Victorian metropolis, was founded by the Healing Church based on the principles of blood ministration - a medical practice in which the sick and wounded are infused with the blood of healthy and holy people in order to reap the benefits. However, all is not well on the foggy streets of Yharnam town; a deadly plague, the scourge of beasts, has infested the city for generations, causing those with tainted blood to succumb to their darkest impulses and transform into monstrous creatures. To combat the spread of the plague, the citizens of Yharnam and the Healing Church employ Hunters to put down those afflicted with the disease. Whenever the plague's effects are at their worst, the city is locked down and the Hunters are dispatched into the streets.
This is where you come in. The protagonist of Bloodborne is a largely clean slate - a foreigner who journeyed to Yharnam in search of the well-known healing properties of blood ministration, only to wind up an amnesiac on a hospital bed who is swiftly drafted into the ranks of the Hunters and sworn to stop the spread of the beast plague.
Or at least, that's what it seems.
While not necessarily as large in terms of sheer scale as some of its predecessors, the city of Yharnam is the most consistent and most fleshed-out setting that From Software has created in any game since the original Demon's Souls. While the two previous Dark Souls games both touted massive, interconnected settings for players to explore, each one had its drawbacks. Dark Souls' Lordran, while large, featured several areas that could only be described as filler, and Dark Souls 2's even larger Drangleic felt disjointed and half-thought, with elevators leading upward from a poison-infested, open-sky valley into a massive subterranean lava cave.
Yharnam, on the other hand, takes significant measures to ensure the player is aware of where they are in the setting at almost all times. While exploring the smoky, dirty streets of the city, you can easily pinpoint other areas you will visit in the future simply by looking around, and upon reaching those areas, you can often look back and see where you came from. This attention to geographic detail helps make the journey feel more cohesive, as if your character is an inhabitant of an actual world instead of a set of "levels". And even despite this emphasis on connectivity, Bloodborne still finds ways to surprise players, allowing Yharnam and its surrounding environs to introduce unexplored and unsettling territory all the way up until the game's harrowing final hours.
Returning from From's previous games is an emphasis on shortcuts - many of the environments in Bloodborne are positively massive, and by carefully exploring, players are able to unlock shortcuts that make subsequent journeys quicker in the event of their inevitable death. However, similar to the original Demon's Souls, each "level" typically has only one checkpoint, rather than the smorgasboard of easily-accessible bonfires found in Dark Souls 2. This means that players are encouraged, more than ever before, to seek out the shortcuts and side paths that will allow them quicker passage through their environments.
Of course, if you're going to be hunting beasts, you need a weapon. Bloodborne, in a striking departure from the established Souls formula, features a smaller arsenal than any game in the series up to this point. You will not be picking up fifteen different one-handed swords with slightly different stats and marginally unique textures while journeying through Yharnam. Instead, the arsenal in Bloodborne is a streamlined, focused affair, featuring a set number of Trick Weapons, Hunter-developed tools designed for the express purpose of adapting to the ever-changing nature of the beast plague. You'll pick up a wood saw that transforms into a wicked meat cleaver, a long spear with a shotgun built into the handle, and a walking stick that fragments apart into a bladed whip, among others.
While there are less weapons in Bloodborne from a numerical standpoint, the smaller pool of options allowed From to flesh each one out to a wider degree, adding a number of new moves and abilities to each weapon in addition to the ability to transform them, widely altering their usability in the middle of a heated battle. The aforementioned saw cleaver starts with faster attacks that typically target a single enemy and inflict significant damage, but it can also transform into a much longer, much slower blade capable of inflicting damage and hitstun on several enemies at the same time, allowing the player to adapt to the changing tide of battle without going into their inventory. With the ability to also switch your entire weapon out in the middle of combat, this essentially means a player has access to four different ways of attacking opponents at any given time, allowing them greater flexibility depending on who or what they're facing.
This shift in setting and structure has also changed how players handle defense. Gone are the days of hiding behind a shield in the middle of a boss fight, praying that its hits don't inflict enough stamina damage to break your guard. Instead, From has given the player access to a number of firearms to occupy the series-standard "shield slot". While these guns do not typically inflict massive damage on enemies, they can be used to stun or interrupt enemies, control spacing in large group battles, and can even be used to set up brutal Visceral Attacks - extremely powerful counter moves - if timed properly. In addition to the defensive options offered by the guns, From has also implemented a quickstep dodge maneuver, allowing players to quickly and tactically move around the battlefield without losing focus on their targeted foe. This dodge maneuver serves as a sort of replacement for the standard dodge roll usable in the Souls games, though a player can utilize the roll as an option as well if they are not locked onto a target. The quickstep is faster and allows players to get into position more effectively, while the roll is better utilized against larger foes with wider attack ranges.
However, this increased level of player flexibility and agility comes with a cost: enemy aggressiveness is at an all-time high, and the beasts of Yharnam have a strong attachment to attacking in large groups. Enemies do not back down, and escape is not always an option. However, if damaged in battle, a quick player can inflict a counterattack on their enemy, covering their character in the enemy's blood and using it to restore some of their lost health in the process. As you defeat enemies, you will collect Blood Echoes, which, like Souls in previous entries, act as both your primary currency and your experience points, allowing you to build up your character as you see fit. Similar to Souls and Diablo before it, dying in combat causes you to lose your Echoes, though careful recovery of your corpse will allow you to recover them - provided you don't die a second time on your return trip.
These tweaks to an otherwise relatively familiar Souls combat framework work wonders toward making the battles faster, more brutal and more nerve-wracking than any game in the developer's catalog up to this point.
Ages of Aquarius
One of the cornerstones of director Miyazaki's titles up to this point has been a steadfast emphasis on player-directed storytelling and exploration. While there is a core storyline and a set path the player must eventually follow in order to progress and finish the game, Bloodborne leaves almost every bit of connecting gameplay up to the player. You've just defeated a brutal enemy Hunter in a moonlit graveyard: do you climb upward into the abandoned churches and claustrophobic streets of the Cathedral Ward, venture into the death-worshipping outskirts of town, or delve deep into the abandoned, burned-out husk of one of Yharnam's previous failures to contain the beast plague? The choice is entirely yours - there are no quest markers, no trackers, and no overworld maps telling you where to go next. You're an amnesiac foreigner trapped in a massive city full of beasts, and your only set goal is to end the plague, or die trying...and even that goal might not be as simple as it seems.
This tendency toward ambiguity also extends to the game's lore, which expands and grows in unexpected directions as the game progresses, but always stops short of explicitly giving the player a definitive answer for any questions they might have. Entire side stories can pop up and vanish in the blink of an eye, and the motivations of the game's NPCs and bosses are often developed primarily through item descriptions and the state of the game world rather than expository dialogue.
Put simply, this is not the kind of game that expects you to see or discover everything in one playthrough. Like previous Souls games, From has put the onus of discovery on players, counting on the community to share its findings with each other both through in-game messages and online wikis.
Early in the review, I mentioned that Bloodborne is in many ways the perfect 3D interpretation of the Castlevania formula - a tense, quick-paced action game with an emphasis on detail-oriented exploration and pattern recognition. However, there is one other element that Bloodborne excels at: translating the tension and uncertainty of a survival horror game into the RPG format. While Bloodborne certainly works hard to make the player feel powerful, they are never truly safe - even a high-level character is still at risk against common enemies if they get lazy or complacent.
The best example of this that I've seen so far came in one of the game's optional, randomly-generated Chalice Dungeons. While exploring a balcony in a massive, two-story room, an enemy on the floor beneath me - a lanky, Ringu-inspired wraith wielding a pair of hand axes - spotted me running around upstairs and let out a blood-curdling scream, then ran off in a seemingly random direction. Five minutes later, while I was exploring another portion of the dungeon, the wraith ambushed me from behind, leaping at me with both axes from off-screen and killing me before I could even react. I was too flabbergasted to even be upset by the fact I had just lost nearly 150,000 Echoes.
In essence, Bloodborne embodies fear in a way that other horror games rarely attempt - while there are one or two "jump scare" moments, the majority of the fear in the game is provided by the brutal, unflinching atmosphere, a creeping, ever-present dread that threatens to drown the player at any given moment. In some ways, this feeling of constant oblivion harkens back to early Silent Hill titles, which generated fear in players not through "BOO!" jump scare moments or forced helplessness, but through its atmosphere, its sound design, and a subtext-driven sense that the town does not want you here.
You'll notice that I haven't mentioned much about the game's boss battles - the reason for this is that while there are many, many unique beasts and bosses to tackle over the course of the game, I believe it's important to leave their identities and victory strategies as something for players to discover on their own. Rest assured, Bloodborne is no slouch in the boss battle department, and the regular enemies you face on the path to these bosses are similarly diverse and unsettling, ranging from hordes of torch-bearing psychopaths to the undead to monstrosities that even my brain struggles to describe effectively.
The Tragic Prince
However, despite the ways in which Bloodborne excels in terms of level, monster and sound design, it is not without its drawbacks. While the streamlined focus on a smaller, more fleshed-out arsenal is certainly commendable, it came at the expense of several traditional player builds - ranged-only characters, magic-specific characters, etc. - and could lead to the game's community not lasting as long as it has in previous Souls titles.
Additionally, the online features in Bloodborne leave much to be desired. The standard Souls suite of online features - messages, helpful (and unhelpful) player phantoms, co-op and PvP invasions - all make a return, but some of them did not make the transition as well as others. Invaders can only jump into the game of another player if their potential victim is playing co-op, meaning an invasion duel is almost always 2 (or 3) vs. 1, and surprise invasions are far more rare than in previous installments.
Meanwhile, while co-op with other players manifests in much the same way as it does in other Souls titles, its implementation completely falls flat in the game's Chalice Dungeons, which feature some of the most difficult challenges and boss battles Bloodborne has to offer. In order to cooperate with another player in a Chalice Dungeon, that player must first share with you a "glyph" - a numerical ID code that acts as the seed for the dungeon - before you can be summoned into their world. However, any progress you make while summoned as a co-op partner is not saved on your end. In other words, in order to co-op with a friend through the Dungeon, you will need to have already finished the dungeon, or both of you will have to play through the entire thing twice just to progress. Considering how difficult the Chalice bosses can be - many of them feel as if they were designed to be tackled with assistance from summoned friends rather than as one-on-one duels - this is a sub-optimal implementation of the game's co-op mechanics.
As a final note, the game, while hauntingly beautiful to look at, is clearly pushing the PS4 hardware quite hard. That manifests in the occasional texture or graphical glitch, but most notably in the form of the significant loading times that greet the player after each death. Many of these elements could be improved in the future via patches and expansions, but as of this review's publication, the online play is still glitchy and inconsistent and the technical hiccups are still an active concern.
The journey through Yharnam is not an easy one. And while the experience has been streamlined compared to the sprawling excess provided by Dark Souls 2, it is also not a short one. The main game alone will likely take new players upwards of 50 hours to complete, and the seemingly infinite potential of the Chalice Dungeons combined with the series-standard New Game Plus mode could add dozens of hours to a standard playthrough. One Chalice Dungeon boss in particular took me four days of regular attempts (and upwards of fifty deaths) before I was finally able to take her down.
Bringing things back around to my Castlevania comparison at the beginning of the review, Bloodborne is able to encapsulate both sides of the Castlevania style: brutal difficulty based around pattern recognition and adaptability as well as rewarding, nuanced exploration of a sprawling, interconnected world map. My journey through one of the game's later levels brought back memories of Stage 3 of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, while my exploration of a cave in the woods that eventually led to a hidden shortcut all the way back to the very beginning of the game felt like Symphony of the Night all over again.
Put simply, Bloodborne is both a Souls game and something entirely new. In that vein, there are some individual elements that it may not emphasize in the same way as the Souls games that came before it. But taken on its own merits, it stands as one of the most brutally inventive horror-action RPGs since Demon's Souls appeared out of nowhere six years ago. Horrific bosses, incomparable atmosphere, gut-wrenching combat and some of the most disturbing background lore ever featured in an RPG all combine into an experience that cannot simply be described - you need to see it for yourself.
It currently remains to be seen if From Software plans to flesh out the game's world (and arsenal) even further with downloadable expansion content, but at the end of my first 67-hour journey through Yharnam, I feel like the hunt is only getting started.
- Versatile, reactive battle system blends survival horror tension with brutal efficiency
- Brutally dark and well-realized game world, dripping with peerless atmosphere
- Incredibly creative, visually disgusting enemy and boss design
- Haunting, blood-curdling soundtrack
- Smaller number of customization options limits replayability
- Online features are lackluster
- Frustratingly long loading times
Verdict: PLAY IT