Death comes ripping
From Software’s Souls games have been carving a bloody swath through legions of masochistic gamers since Demon’s Souls released on the Playstation 3 six short years ago. Wearing the punishing legacy of creator Hidetaka Miyazaki’s challenging Kings Field titles proudly on its bloodied sleeve, Demon’s Souls, and a pair of equally unforgiving spiritual successors in the Dark Souls series have introduced modern gamers to a brutal world of insurmountable odds, towering terrors, and certain death around every corner.
Now, Miyazaki returns offering what’s arguably the most hotly anticipated Playstation 4 release of the season. Bloodborne is now upon us, slicked in blood and saddled with the crushing weight of lofty expectations from Sony’s fanbase; many of whom feel burned by The Order: 1886‘s less than stellar reception and see this visceral adventure as the Playstation 4’s best hope for making a strong case for itself in 2015.
Set in the ruined city of Yarnham, Bloodborne eschews the Souls series’ blend of Gothic horror in favor of a gritty, 19th century European aesthetic that comes across as both refreshing and pleasantly disturbing. From the winding cobbled streets of New Yarnham, soaked in crimson and littered with corpses and debris, to the dark corridors of subterranean tombs, every environment is striking in its haunting atmosphere and meticulous attention to detail.
After crafting a character in the game’s admittedly humble character creator, players are tossed into the fray naked as a newborn babe as they endure a trial by fire. As a series veteran I expected to be able to breeze through the opening trials, and I was sorely mistaken. Death comes fast, hard, and in great abundance in Bloodborne. While some of this can be attributed to the game’s greater wealth of varied enemies when compared to its predecessors, the biggest change comes in the form of a combat system that’s essentially been turned inside-out, forcing players to forget much of what they learned when powering through the previous perilous titles in From Software’s catalog.
In Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls you’d often find the best strategy for success was to walk softly and carry a big shield. Biding your time with a sturdy defense while waiting for an opening in your prey’s defenses is no longer an option this time around. Rather than resting on their laurels, From Software has decided to toss shields in the dustbin in favor of a fast-paced, reactionary dodge mechanic. Now, tapping circle will allow you to nimbly sidestep or backdash to avoid incoming attacks. With no tower shield to keep your Hunter’s supple flesh from the business end of myriad giant axes, fangs, and bloodied cudgels, you’ll have to stay highly mobile to stay alive.
Further pressing the need for quick, offensive thinking is the way Bloodborne handles the player taking damage via the “regain” system. When a monster strikes the player you’re left with a brief window of time where you can counterattack your opponent, which will replenish a portion of the damage you’ve sustained. The end result becomes much more frequent exchanges of blows as you attempt to mitigate the damage you sustain through a concerted barrage of blows.
Another new addition to the game’s combat system comes in the form of firearms. Available in a variety of forms, these marvels of technology fire off quicksilver bullets, which when timed just before an enemy lands their attack will stagger them, opening them up for a Visceral Attack. These powerful melee assaults can inflict massive damage on even the nastiest of bosses, and mastering the Visceral Attack and parry system is all but required to tip the scales in your favor against the nastiest of Bloodborne’s baddies. Again, this mechanic is dependent upon waiting until you’re a split-second from taking damage, further emphasizing From Software’s focus on risk versus reward in this outing.
While Bloodborne’s reinvigorated combat system is certainly more robust than From Software’s previous entries, the number of weapons you’ll have at your disposal this time around feels significantly dialed back. While this may come as a disappointment to some, most of the weapons in the game feature alternate forms, making them feel much more robust and multipurpose than those in the Souls games. One of my favorites was the Kirkhammer, which in its standard form is simply a longsword, great for taking on hordes of faster moving foes. However, when it’s time to bust out the big guns and deal some heavy damage you can slide the sword into a giant steel block, forming a thunderous war hammer that simply pulverizes even the most well-armored adversaries.
Speaking of adversaries, Bloodborne features a PVP mode that is quite similar to what series veterans will expect. However, you won’t be able to access this portion of the game until you’ve acquired an intellect level of 30, which can take quite a few hours. This allows newcomers to explore the game’s world, testing their mettle on Yarnham’s most fearsome monstrosities before having to worry about being invaded. Once you do encounter another player, the ensuing melee is as exciting as ever, and Yarnham’s sprawling catacombs and cathedrals make for exhilarating hunting grounds as you stalk your humanoid prey. Cooperative play returns as well, this time with the welcome addition of password-protected private lobbies, so players can actually link up with their friends without resorting to elaborate black magic rituals.
Of course, what good is a souls game without hulking bosses to overcome? Bloodborne is home to a macabre menagerie of menacing meanies who will stop at nothing until you’ve been pounded hard into the Yarnham pavement. Many of these ghouls have multiple forms as well, forcing you to stay on your toes as you attempt to get the best of these bloodthirsty killing machines. Toppling these bosses is more satisfying than ever, especially considering how much squishier your character is without a shield to brunt their constant offensives.
It would have been easy for From Software to simply rehash the same formula they’ve perfected over the past six years with the Souls games when creating Bloodborne and collect on an easy payday. Thankfully, From Software and director Hidetaka Miyazaki’s efforts to instead create a familiar yet wildly redefined title largely pays off. Yarnham is a sprawling city, filled with tons of secrets, shortcuts, and shiny tucked away relics that any fan of the series will instantly be drawn to. However, the fast and kinetic emphasis on visceral combat offers a world of new skills to master, keeping things fresh as you master the many trials that lie before you.
While the limited selection of weapons and changes to the core gameplay mechanics might rub series veterans the wrong way, those who dig beneath the title’s fleshy, fetid surface will find a challenging, carefully-crafted journey well worth the pride-crushing price of admission.
Final Verdict: 4.5 / 5
Available on: Playstation 4 (reviewed) ; Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment ; Developer: From Software; Released: March 24, 2015 ; ESRB: M for Mature ; MSRP: $59.99
This review is based on a retail copy of Bloodborne purchased by Hey Poor Player.