It was with some trepidation that I began my adventure in Bloodborne. From Software’s titles are hero-worshipped by a large community of hardcore gamers for their brutal difficulty and utter lack of handholding (something that has become too prevalent in gaming circles I firmly believe). I consider myself a hardcore gamer, I’ve been at it for over twenty five years now, but for some reason From Software’s titles consistently managed to slip my list and I never got around to playing them. As a current-gen PS4 exclusive, I figured this was a perfect time to take the plunge and submit myself to the punishment that these games have been reported to dish out in large quantities. But I had to do it right; I did a media blackout prior to the game’s release and did not use a guide at any point. Asides from a few morsels of advice from DYEGB’s Souls series veteran Scott “Skeet” McNeill, my only teacher was the game itself.
Bloodborne starts out innocuously enough, firstly you create a “contract,” essentially your playable character. You choose the gender and look of your contract in a rather extensive character customisation menu. Oddly, a lot of the minutiae you have control over will never actually be seen as the game has you swaddled in thick vestements which obscure your character’s physique and much of their face. It was at this point that I realised Bloodborne was not exactly a graphical masterpiece. It is clear that From Software had to compromise on some of their textures as well as anti-aliasing to get the game to run smoothly as the game has some rather glaring jaggies. However, although she’s not the prettiest girl in school, you’d probably still give her a sneaky smooch behind the weather shed in the playground. What the game lacks in graphical quality it more than makes up for in atmosphere and presentation. There is a great level of detail in the many varied environments; colour, light and the gothic art-style combine to form an impressive and cohesive world. There is a dreary and oppressive tone and every object and every enemy seems to just, belong. There is also a superb amount of visual detail in the vast variety of enemies both big and small. From a werewolve’s matted fur to a wet and squirming mass of venomous snakes, the enemies all have a distinct menacing vibe and a ruthless cunning that is born out through their design. Ultimately these aspects are far more important than top shelf graphics and as I found myself being sucked further and further down the rabbit hole that is Bloodborne’s world, I no longer noticed some of the game’s graphical shortcomings.
Gameplay-wise Bloodborne is a hack and slash game that demands awareness of your enemy, your environment
and a good sense of timing and reflex to survive. This is the very antithesis of a button-masher. You have no shield, however your contract is quite quick on their feet and therefore you must rely on Patches O’Houlihan’s 5 Ds to succeed: Dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge. The sixth D in this equation is die. Make no mistake, you will die a lot, especially at the beginning if you are not familiar with these sorts of games. Death however is your greatest teacher. If you died, you made a mistake. As you get set on fire after trying to quickly finish a seemingly weak enemy and the words “You Died” appear on the screen and everything fades to black, you will know it is your fault. At no stage did I think the game was unfair, it gives you all the tools needed to beat it, you just have to know how and when to use them to emerge victorious. These lessons are harsh, if you die you lose all your Blood Echoes (these serve as the games currency for items as well as levelling up) and you are transported back to the last lantern safe haven you spawned from. All the enemies will also respawn and unless you can make it back to where you were and reclaim the Echoes they are gone forever. At one moment I became hopelessly lost in a foggy forest surrounded by giant poisonous boars and demented glowing blue things that resembled sea anenomes. I was carrying a swag of Blood Echoes and was terrified of losing them and I became caught in a desperate adrenaline-inducing flight as I tried to make it back to the safe glow of the lantern. These tense moments arrive often throughout the game and you will come to relish the fear.
The combat mechanics are solid which is essential for a game of this difficulty. The controls are responsive and clean, the attack animations of you and your enemies are clear and smooth. You will never wonder if you actually managed to get a hit on an enemy as every strike will resonate through your controller and be represented by a gush of blood on screen and the sickening squelching sound of steel on bone. The combat is extremely visceral, violent and gratifying. Despite the relative simplicity of your attacks there are some finer details and intricacies that are necessary to master in order to progress. These are learnt in due course through experimentation and are particular to each weapon. The weapons deserve their own special mention here. Each of the many tools of destruction you will find or buy and upgrade has an awesome look and feel that gives them a distinct flavour with unique strengths and weaknesses coupled with brutal attack animations. The same can’t be said for the guns which
personally did not suit my playstyle. Each weapon can be wielded single-handedly with a gun in the other, or transformed on the fly into a more powerful two-handed variant. I found myself using the latter far more often, although this probably boils down to personal preference.
Bloodborne is not without some issues that slightly marred my experience. The armour sets you will discover have averaged stats. They do not get incrementally more powerful but rather are suited to different types of protection. Getting poisoned a lot? Put on the White Church set. Frenzy getting you down? Chuck on the Ashen Hunter garb. I realise this was a deliberate design choice but I think it would have been good to have armour be upgradeable like the weapons and have this feed into the sense of progression that Bloodborne generally does quite well. As it was, I was never really excited to discover a new armour set and rarely even changed unless I was forced to. Another gripe is with the traversal where areas that appear easily accessible are in fact not. Even though I was capable of taking down a hulking skeletal beast wielding an axe the size of a skyscraper, a thigh-high wall was enough to stop me in my tracks. This is little better than an invisible wall and becomes all the more frustrating when you can clearly see a collectible that a four-year old child could probably reach but your mighty hunter cannot. However, by far my greatest issue with Bloodborne were the loading screens. Every time you die, or travel to or from the Hunter’s Dream (which is your hub), you are treated to minutes’ worth of staring at a screen that simply has the game’s title against a black screen. These periods of idleness are insufferably long and artificially amplify the pain of dying and makes world traversal take far longer than it should. It is an incredibly poor design choice that should have been rectified before the game shipped.
Even though I have so far praised the game’s difficult but fair design, the difficulty does tend to be a little uneven. While at the beginning the pace and learning curve is excellent, soon you will find that it is quite easy to stay ahead of this curve by levelling your character and Bloodborne’s challenge begins to dissipate. I’m not talking about grinding by killing boars in the forest either, the game just starts handing out Blood Echoes like they’re candy at a certain point and levelling up becomes trivial. New enemies that may have once struck fear into your cowardly heart are now confronted with reckless abandon. Some of the fear is lost and this hurts the game’s momentum. Even bosses that looked terrifying at first frequently turned out to be as threatening as a sleepy kitten and I killed many on my first try towards the end of the game with ease. This being said, there is a section with a crazy difficulty spike (you’ll know when you get to it), however the bosses in this section are laughably easy and the difficulty then dies right down again. All in all I completed the game in an estimated 30 or so hours and by the end of it the pace was all over the place, but erred on the side of a little too easy. I am hoping that New Game Plus will offer a meatier and more even challenge. I appreciate that the game does NG+ properly by letting you retain your level, weapons, armour sets and items but simultaneously ramping up the difficulty of the enemies significantly. As I didn’t use a guide, there were secrets and other things that I missed (although I did explore the world liberally), and I’m keen to find these in my next play through.
You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the story and the reason is that I have only the smallest semblance of a clue as to what was going on. The snippets of cutscenes to me were baffling in their obscurity, as were the notes I found lying around. Really, it is the feel of the world and the tight combat that is centre stage here. There is a story in there somewhere and I didn’t mind that I didn’t understand, and I believe I’ll pick up more on my next play through.
For anyone who has played the Soul series I think you know what you’re in for with Bloodborne (Skeet will be giving his thoughts on this in an article soon). For anyone not familiar with this series I thoroughly recommend Bloodborne. Do not be afraid of its reputation. If you pay it the respect it deserves, are able to learn from your mistakes and remain patient and focused, you will beat it. You will discover an immersive challenge where every triumph is well-deserved and well-rewarded.