The Dark Souls franchise came and left a massive mark on the modern gaming scene. With its famed difficulty, mature storytelling, and a fantasy setting thick with horror elements, it took the community by storm and became one of the most beloved RPG franchises out there. I reviewed all 3 of the games, but that leaves us with two noteworthy omissions: Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne.
While Demon’s Souls feels very much like a part of the franchise, Bloodborne was connected only in spirit. With a new setting and new systems, it feels unfair to judge the game purely on how it compares to the Souls titles. As such, I’ll write my review for it as I would review any other standalone title.
The bleeding never stops
Bloodborne sees the player take control of a hunter, a character who has come to the city of Yharnam in search of something called “Paleblood”. Yharnam, you see, is a city famed for its medical technologies that use blood, which allows the priests of its “Healing Church” to easily cure many illnesses. Or at least, so it seems. Once you set foot into Yharnam proper, you find that the city is plagued with a disease that transforms its inhabitants into werewolf-like abominations.
It’s the “Night of the Hunt” and those who are relatively sane now march through the streets, hunting down those who are beyond saving and throwing them on the pyres, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they themselves no longer look Human either. And these denizens of the city of blood don’t take kindly to a foreign hunter wandering about.
Bloodborne takes the player on a journey where they must cleanse the streets of monsters and the deranged, but as you further explore the story and learn more details, the dark past of Yharnam is steadily revealed, and the horror elements that lie at its core become increasingly prevalent. While I won’t spoil the plot, I will say that the adventure becomes increasingly surreal to the point where you start questioning if your own character can still be trusted.
You don’t have to make this journey alone. Many houses will hang lanterns from their windows to indicate where you can speak with NPC’s, which bestow information and can set you off on side-quests. Additionally, friendly hunters and chatty foes can be found wandering Yharnam, which also have stories and quests related to them. Especially the fellow hunters can be longtime friends and companions in battle, or they might turn on you when the hunt begins to mess with their mind.
A fan-favorite character is The Doll, a beautiful maiden in an elegant dress who acts as a caretaker in the HUB area. She shares story details with the player and acts as a medium through which they level up. Her adoring dialogue and helpful nature is certain to endear her, but it has to be said that other characters are a bit harder to grow fond of due to how rarely you’ll encounter them.
Story score: 10/10
Bringing a knife to a Gatling Gun fight
The game is, effectively, a hack & slash action-RPG that borrows some elements from horror games. Players must explore the twisting and complex city of Yharnam and its surrounding settlements in order to encounter bosses and find items that further the story, all while dealing with a variety of enemies.
Combat is technical and challenging. Even basic enemies can take bites out of your health bar with a single swipe, and they are often backed up by large brutes and vicious monsters. It’s not uncommon to turn a corner and be beset upon by a werewolf that chains together a few moves that kill you in seconds. Players have to observe and choose when to attack, and they can use a dodge move to dance around foes. Alternatively, they can take the hit and then quickly counter-attack, which restores a bit of HP for every hit the player lands within a brief window of time. Of course, this can also open you up to being hit even more.
For fighting, players get to choose one of three weapons at the start, all of which are eccentric “trick” weapons. A cane that turns into a whip, a saw that can turn into a cleaver, and an axe that extends in size; all these weapons and others you find later have alternate forms with different qualities to them. Along with traits that determine the damage they do and how well they scale with stats like strength, its this transforming quality that makes Bloodborne‘s weapons so amazing and fun to experiment with.
You can perform a variety of light & heavy attacks that change depending on which form of the weapon you use, and you can also chain the transformation into an attack itself. The combat system isn’t exactly deep, but it’s visceral and fast-paced enough to get away with that. You also have guns for long-ranged damage, and you can stun foes by shooting them just as they attack you, opening them up for a powerful counter-move.
Normal enemies are fine and dandy, but Yharnam is also home to a variety of bosses that are the stars of the show. You’ll fight many monstrosities with interesting tactics to them, as well as a number of gimmicky bosses that are good for variety. In the heat of battle, however, some frustrations do rear their head. Those counter-moves often fail to trigger properly, the game is prone to framerate issues, and there is annoying input buffering that can sometimes mean the game will still have you perform an attack, even after exiting a 4-second knockdown animation that interrupted your move.
Bloodborne is a difficult game with parts that many might experience as unfair. One mandatory area will present players with a large, open field where they take constant damage, including a big hit whenever the “frenzy” meter (representing insanity) fills up, all while having to deal with powerful enemies. And some bosses I would have to retry for hours, representing dozens of attempts, some of which would scarcely last 10 seconds before the boss would murder me. The trek back to the boss room from the last checkpoint can get incredibly frustrating at that point.
However, players are able to tip the scales somewhat. Each enemy slain awards them with blood echoes, which represent both currency and experience points. The doll allows players to invest them into stat upgrades for more health, stamina, skill with certain weapon types, and improved resistances. The shops offer helpful items and weapons can be upgraded with the right resources. If players are struggling, they are free to grind blood echoes for a while, explore optional side-areas, and return with a much beefier character.
Players can also find gems that provide even more improvements to weapons, as well as runes that bestow bonuses to their character. On top of that, there are armor sets that provide protection and resistances. There is no supplement for skill, though, and even the most overpowered character will need a player that can figure out the boss’ attack patterns and find opportunities to strike and heal themselves up. It’s a David versus Goliath-like sensation that few other games can match.
I really enjoy Bloodborne and I feel it adequately trains players for its harsh level design and powerful bosses. The difficulty curve was never too steep in my experience and the enemies steadily teach you the finer points of dodging and timing your strikes. However, I did quit the game twice throughout my campaign. You see, the game has health items in the form of blood vials, of which you can hold 20 at a time. Any surplus you gather go to your storage and are given to you when you respawn or return to the HUB, but they can run out. This means your attempts to down a strong boss or conquer a difficult area may be interrupted because you run out of vials, and returning to the early game to grind out more is insufferably tedious.
Gameplay score: 9/10
Yharnam, the city of “what the heck is that?”
Bloodborne is a PS4 exclusive and really pushes the visuals in order to prove what the console is capable of. It’s a beautiful game and the designers are sure to give you plenty of locales from which you can overlook the city of Yharnam and marvel in its gothic atmosphere. The streets are dark and moody, with spiked fences, black stagecoaches, and coffins lining the pavement. However, take a few turns and leave the cobblestone streets behind, and the intricate architecture of the city and cathedral ward give way for rotten sewers and ramshackle forest settlements.
The plague is taking its toll on the city and turning its inhabitants monstrous, so some bosses and areas are disgustingly filthy. Later on, when the story pushes its horror factor more, the areas change accordingly. The cosmic horror angle is handled well; It really feels like you landed in the middle of a story you only have the faintest grasp of and now you are surrounded by all this bizarre madness.
With that said, I did feel that the graphics were needlessly shiny in places. Characters and environments covered in blood are often eerily shiny and reflective, cluttered rooms make it difficult to find actual objects you can use, and the game’s framerate takes major dips when enemies pull off moves that use particle effects.
With that said, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how complicated Yharnam is in its layout. The entire city is dense with side-paths and secrets, which will leave you anxiously wondering which way to explore in first. You might just run into a locked gate that’ll serve as a shortcut later or be taken to entire optional areas that connect back to other places. It’s a brilliant feeling when you set out to explore and end up finding your way to a shortcut that connects back to a different area entirely. The use of this is, however, minimal, as everything you need is in the HUB zone and you can teleport between checkpoints, making shortcuts somewhat underutilized.
The lack of an integrated HUB area puts it a little behind Dark Souls, because in that game the interconnected world was interesting because you knew all those shortcuts were necessary to get back to your favorite vendors, blacksmiths, and bonfires. Now, you just need to find any lantern and you can warp back to the Hunter’s Dream, which contains all of them. Still, even if not by necessity, it feels great to explore these places and plunder the upgrade items, consumables, equipment sets, and weapons hidden there.
Presentation score: 9.5/10
Worshipping the strange
Bloodborne is a game that demands to be replayed. Unless you diligently look up every detail of what you are doing, chances are you are going to miss out on sidequests, friendly characters die off, and you can even miss entire areas. In fact, I had to google where to find the entrance to the DLC area because I had no clue and wasn’t about to finish the game without playing bonus content I deliberately paid extra for.
The story is also so dense and complicated; I certainly wasn’t feeling like I got the whole picture by the end of my first campaign. Of course, there are also all the different weapons and builds you can try out. However, I did find that many of the interesting weapons were tucked away in the DLC or hidden behind long quest chains or powerful NPC’s, making it kind of hard to reach them without already playing a long stretch of the game or investing heavily into whatever weapon you have to use in the meantime. Of course, there is a New Game+ option when you have the gear you want. However, I personally don’t like this much because it leaves you without any reason to still explore and I don’t really feel like dealing with the increased enemy difficulty.
The game also offers online play of both cooperative and competitive variety. Players can be summoned to aid in bossfights or they might pop in uninvited to hunt you down. However, this is locked behind a paywall because you need to subscribe to Sony’s online service. This renders the game’s covenants, joinable factions that bestow benefits, almost useless if you don’t sign up.
The game also features the Chalice Dungeons, which are an additional dungeon-crawling segment that hides away some powerful rewards and bonus story content. These dungeons can also be randomly generated, but my problem is that even the structured ones feel too much like they are just recycling the same rooms, hazards, and tricks. Getting to the very bottom of this content and then also having the option to generate more, it’s a little too much. The rewards and blood echoes gathered here also upset the balancing of the main game.
Extras score: 8.3/10
Demon’s Souls was a cult classic on the Playstation 3 that went ignored by many, so it’s fun to see how far we have come now that Bloodborne is the star of the PS4. This prestigious position does come with some minor gripes like the overly flashy presentation and gated online content, but I have to say it’s my favorite Souls-like game to date. The fantastic setting & story is one I am eager to further explore in future runs and the interesting weapon system and push for more aggressive play are good, new additions. I am happy to see that From Software is still willing to experiment with its formula.