In 2011, Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team at FromSoftware struck game development gold with Dark Souls, a difficult, engaging, and unique fantasy role-playing adventure. 2014's Dark Souls II, however, failed to meet the lofty standards set by its predecessor. Fans of the original longed for the challenge and brilliant level design that made Dark Souls so memorable.
Just one year after Dark Souls II, FromSoftware returned with a brand new franchise in Bloodborne. While it may have abandoned the Souls name, Bloodborne marks a stunning return to form for Miyazaki and FromSoftware, capitalizing on the best aspects of Dark Souls while introducing new combat innovations of its own.
Bloodborne sees players in the role of a Hunter, a trained killer tasked with eradicating a recent scourge of madness and transmutations in the city of Yarnham. The story here is intentionally vague and disparate and to say more would reveal startling, well-kept secrets about Yarnham and the world it inhabits. Know that the Hunter's challenge is greater than they could ever expect.
The first thing players will notice about Bloodborne is how astonishingly oppressive it is to play. Bloodborne's atmosphere is more in line with the great horror literature of the 19th and 20th centuries than it is with contemporary video games. This is a game that makes no effort to disguise its Lovecraftian influence, with mentions of "Eldritch horrors" and ancient "Great Ones" throughout. Fans of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Chambers will feel right at home.
From the misty cobblestone streets of Yarnham to the steam-punk lecture halls of Byrgenwerth College, Bloodborne‘s environments ooze a moody ambiance. There are bloody textures on the walls, random effects scattered about shadowy rooms, and chilling screams echoing in the distance. Every aspect of Bloodborne is packed with detail and significance. Each environment plays out like its own isolated horror film.
While in the Souls games players found themselves inching around corners to avoid hidden traps, Bloodborne will have them sneaking about in order to elude wandering monstrosities. I made my character turn and run on multiple occasions because I simply could not bring myself to look at the disturbing, mutated creatures the game expected me to kill.
Twisted, derelict trees evoke fairytale forests (the Brothers Grimm kind, mind you,) and colossal, multi-limbed beasts cling overhead, watching with passive interest as the game's hero dies time and time again. This world is utterly haunting, and it makes playing Bloodborne for an extended period of time a mentally draining task.
This prevailing sense of fear is only compounded by Bloodborne's relentless difficulty. Enemies are aggressive and unpredictable, often attacking in large, unruly groups. Some use guns and bombs to strike from afar, while others slash with cleavers, torches, and swords.
Bosses completely fill the screen, and usually undergo transformations throughout the fight, forcing players to relearn certain moves and make tactical adjustments. Those who don't approach Bloodborne with diligence and patience will find themselves struggling to make progress. Bosses can seem too big, too strong, and entirely too difficult at times, but players with stubbornness and a proper lack of sanity will find themselves grinning with satisfaction in the end. With Bloodborne, FromSoftware succeeds in maintaining the addicting sense of achievement that helped make their previous games so remarkable.
It should be noted that combat is what most separates Bloodborne from the Souls games. Long gone are the days of hiding behind a shield, waiting for a chance to strike. Enemies in Bloodborne demand to be approached with an active, lethal mentality, one where dealing damage is the top priority.
New to this game is the "recovery system," in which lost health can be replenished (to an extent) by attacking an enemy immediately after taking damage. This rewarding concept makes every swing, dodge, and counter a calculated decision. Do I risk taking what could be a fatal hit in order to regain lost health, or should I retreat and use one of my scarce blood vials to heal instead? Indecision like this plagued my first playthrough of Bloodborne, and it wasn't until my second go that I learned when to try an aggressive attack, and when to cut my losses and play it safe.
In order to fully benefit from this salient regain function, one must exercise an efficient use of Bloodborne's transformable weapons and sidearms. The ability to modify weapons on the fly provides players with a seemingly limitless number of attack combinations.
Saw handles extend to form pole-arms; a walking cane transforms into a lacerating whip; a large wagon wheel turns into a glowing, angrier wagon wheel. There are some unique and funny weapons to find in Bloodborne.
Characters can also equip their off-hand with a variety of firearms used to harass enemies from a distance and stagger those nearby. Learning how to perfectly time a dodge and when to shoot in order to execute a lethal riposte takes patience and practice, but is well worth it in the end, considering Bloodborne's maddening level of difficulty. Players will want to use every advantage they can get.
While all of the weapon combinations serve Bloodborne wonderfully, this game is notably lacking in terms of weapon variety. FromSoftware's previous outing, Dark Souls II, boasted 213 usable weapons (not counting staves or chimes,) whereas Bloodborne only offers 15. The weapons in Bloodborne are certainly fun to use and modify, but the scarcity of choice deprives this game of any real replay value.
Additionally, Bloodborne only features six statistic categories to level up, so there isn't much to be said in terms of variety among character types. With every competitive and cooperative multiplayer session, players will find one of the same three or four stat builds. Souls fans were utterly overwhelmed with choice in Dark Souls II, but after completing a few playthroughs of Bloodborne, they will start to run out of options.
FromSoftware attempts to address the issue of re-playability with chalice dungeons. These are sprawling, maze-like caverns that can be accessed from Bloodborne's central hub. Chalice dungeons offer Diablo-style loot grinds for those finished with the campaign, and include many of the best bosses and blood gems (weapon modifiers) Bloodborne has to offer.
Certain dungeons are procedurally generated, meaning there are virtually endless possibilities to discover within. I found myself trudging through dungeon after dungeon when I was finished with the main game. Chalice dungeons are a nice touch, but they can't mask the fact that there are simply not enough weapons in Bloodborne.
I understand that Bloodborne isn't a Souls game – it lost the name for a reason – but when it plays and feels so similarly to one, I can't help but draw the comparison. Bloodborne even shares many of the same technical quips as FromSoftware's previous efforts: the game's frame rate tanks when the screen gets crowded, and load times are well more than "too long." Bloodborne is Souls in everything but name.
I want to be more upset about the lack of weapon and build diversity in Bloodborne than I actually am. The truth is my first playthrough of Bloodborne was so engrossing, vivid, and demented that I find myself overlooking the few weapons in the game worth using. In the vein of the great works before it, Bloodborne provides that unmistakable feeling of triumph that comes from defeating a seemingly unconquerable boss. It's a lesson in frustration and perseverance. Bloodborne left me crawling back for more.
It may not be as lasting as the Souls games, but fantastic combat innovations, a haunting setting, and addicting chalice dungeons make Bloodborne one of the best games of 2015.