Admittedly, we’re never usually gluttons for punishment here at PlayStation Universe. We’ve passively dabbled in games of a demanding nature, sure, and even have the scars and not-so-fond memories to show from our time in the Turbo Tunnel from Battletoads in Battlemaniacs. But as far as games that are renowned for their steely tough exterior go, they’re not something that most of us actively seek out. Nevertheless, that long-held notion has been firmly laid to rest with the anticipated release of Bloodborne, developer From Software’s brutally stunning PlayStation 4 exclusive and spiritual successor to both Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls.
Any lingering fears that Bloodborne would dilute its spiritual series’ now-infamous difficulty have been wholly allayed, as the decrepit denizens of Yharnam prove a consistent challenge in even their most menial of forms. Unlucky for most, enemies are decidedly more dynamic this time around, aggressively pursuing your hunter – a mysterious character who awakens following a spate with a malevolent being in a clinic – with more cunning and agility than ever before. It’s immensely easy to become overwhelmed, too, with a seemingly innocuous bout against three or four antagonists, oftentimes resulting in premature death. Not only that, but upon this inevitable demise – a fate you’ll encounter more times than you’ll care to remember – you’ll lose all of your accumulated Blood Echoes, a currency you earn by felling enemies and then subsequently use to upgrade your character’s stats.
As a result, there’s an incredible sense of tension in amidst the pervasive fog of Yharnam’s winding streets; one mistimed step or headstrong moment of indiscretion could prove to be your undoing. It never manages to feel disheartening, mind, and you rarely feel cheated by the game’s mechanics. Instead, it’s a matter of honing your senses, comprehending the game’s robust structure, and tackling it with a clean and focused demeanor. Every time you succumb to the dangers abundant throughout the game, you’ll learn something, and however inconsequential that may seem, it’ll help you on your way to conquering it. Developer From Software stays well away from the hand-holding mechanics used so profusely in most action-adventure titles nowadays and instead imbues you with a sense of belief and confidence in your own intelligence and ability.
Unlike gameplay pursuits of similar ilk that may leave you waiting for that singular moment to strike, Bloodborne readily encourages a far more proactive attack-minded approach from its suitor. So much so in fact that, upon being hit by an enemy, you’ll be able to mitigate a fraction of the anticipated damage inflicted by striking back in a prompt manner. It’s easy to become complacent, however, and feel as though you can engage with more enemies than you can in reality, which is a danger inherent in a gameplay system as progressive as the one housed in Bloodborne. It’s a fine balance, certainly, and it’s something you’ll be acutely aware of before long.
As is to be expected, timing and patience are once again intrinsic components in this combat symphony-of-sorts, waiting for your enemies’ patterns to reveal themselves before you plan your attack. And now with the introduction of kickback firearms and torches to complement the new transformative weaponry, the game’s two-handed combat is more fluid and intuitive than the genre has seen previously. With a quick swipe of L1, your right-handed weapon will transform both its form and subsequently the battle at hand; exacting the change in the middle of a combo can prove devastating to foes in its vicinity, too. It’s all brilliantly seamless for the most part, with the only concern stemming from when you become overwrought with an oncoming assault and are unable to pull off attacks coherently.
The crux of Bloodborne’s upgrade system lies within a hub-type mystic plane entitled Hunter’s Dream. In this plateau, your hunter can purchase and sell items (more stock becomes available as you progress), upgrade the hunter’s basic stats with expendable Blood Echoes through a mysterious porcelain-like conduit named The Doll, or fortify the weaponry accumulated throughout the game with the use of Bloodstone Shards, a rare item forged in ‘coldblood’ that you’ll find dotted around various areas as well as in particular encounters. Access to Hunter’s Dream is made possible through the use of lantern checkpoints – think Demon’s Souls’ system – that are found in short supply within the land. Their scarcity compounds the tension found within every foothold of Yharnam’s cobbled streets and perhaps most commendably goes an immeasurable distance in preserving a consistent and cohesive game world that’s not disconnected in any way or form. It always allows for the game’s level design to soar, creating shortcuts, neat districts, and other little avenues to be found in the interconnected space between each lantern. So masterful is the design that you’ll be second-guessing yourself as to whether or not a potential excursion to some available stretch of terrain will be worth it in fear of not being able to safeguard from a potential – and indeed inevitable – death with that of a lantern. It’s that sort of organic tension, the fear of what you can’t actually see or anticipate, that makes Bloodborne peerless in many respects.
That fear, an ever-present affliction, is compounded by the game’s bosses, a band of contorted, varying, and seemingly insurmountable foes that induce just as much dread without them present as it does when they’re around. They say that the thought of death is worse than death itself, and with Bloodborne it’s comparable at the very least. That said, without spoiling any of those precious, vital instances: In the moment you share the same open expanse with one of the chief antagonists, you’ll want to savor the brief period, partly because it’s a true sight to behold but mostly due to the fact that you’ll be flat down in the ground soon afterward. As anticipated, these battles are the cornerstone of Bloodborne’s seemingly impenetrable 45-hour-plus experience; the lifeblood of these creatures permeate every nook and cranny of the realm. Despite the fact that these instances are above-and-beyond the hardest aspects of the game, it can feel a little dejecting having to recuperate and journey back to the contest grounds once you die instead of being able to just restart them instantly. Conversely, the trek back gives you ample time to mull over your battle strategy or perhaps even detour to try and upgrade by earning some more Blood Echoes.
Once you’ve gained a foothold in Bloodborne’s gameplay mechanics through various upgrades, attained weaponry and the vast array of customization options (both superficially and physically) available, the game becomes a different beast entirely. With the weaning period now over, you’ll exude a new sense of confidence, undeterred by what lies ahead and, in a sense, slightly, perhaps morbidly, looking forward to it. However, the game is prepared for that inevitability and there’s rarely a letup in the sheer tension so prevalent throughout its opening hours. It’s exhausting at times, but that sense of exhilaration as you meander through a narrow corridor or even a sprawling expanse awaiting the next challenge is an experience that’s truly second-to-none on next-generation systems so far.
With the procurement of these new upgrades and weaponry comes the ability to better survey what the best course of action is for any given situation. While Bloodborne is an unforgiving beast in its own right, From Software does leave ample room for you to use your own wit and in many ways welcome the player to carve out their own approach to the many tribulations present. The malleability of the gameplay mechanics as you progress are what makes Bloodborne such a unique and endearing proposition. It’s incredibly refreshing, and slightly odd to consider it an alien concept given just how taxing some video games were back in the early 1990s.
For a game as vast as Bloodborne, its graphical lustre is oftentimes particularly impressive, too, with cloth physics, blood accumulation/splatter and overall sheen especially commendable. Interestingly, everything has a decidedly ‘wet’ feel to it, with your hunter and the general locales having a certain aesthetic to them which is tantamount to being saturated. It’s not a criticism, though, and if anything, it nicely complements the sprawling, yet claustrophobic, level design so apparent throughout. From an animation perspective, everything holds up to a tee, which is imperative given just how vital the fluidity of the gameplay mechanics is. There are small concessions, however, with the experience interrupted only momentarily by the occasional odd pop-in hiccup. The loading times do suffer quite often, too, taking roughly twenty seconds between death and your restart point at the closest lantern. Given the fact that you’ll spend lot of time respawning, it does add up. It’s a small inconvenience that does create a slight lapse in what otherwise is a cohesive and cogent environment, but it also must be mentioned that developer From Software is actively trying to remedy that particular concern by way of a patch.
Speaking of interconnected worlds, Bloodborne’s online options are just about as varied and riveting as the main campaign itself. As in previous Souls adventures, the asynchronous multiplayer rears its head once more, with the ability to leave messages – through the use of your Notebook – for other hunters to come across on their journeys. These notes could be warnings, tips or just about whatever you can muster and fit on the page. Messengers within the game also erect graves for hunters upon their demise and if you chose to interact with them you can catch a glimpse of their precious final minutes. Not only that, but cooperative play is still very much possible and enacted with the use of your Beckoning Bell, an item you receive in Hunter’s Dream once your Insight level – a measure for your amount of inhumane knowledge – has reached 1. It creates you as the host, so if you’d rather just join a game you can alternatively use your Small Resonant Bell.
If testing your might in a competitive backdrop is more up your alley, you can apply your Sinister Resonant Bell (available at Insight level 30), which will subsequently transport you into another player’s game where you can attempt to slay them. If that wasn’t enough, another neat inclusion is the Chalice Dungeons, a set of procedurally-generated rooms that can be tackled either alone or with up to three other players. These dungeons change their form every time you play, meaning that no room will ever be the same again. That said, you can upload or even download dungeons from the game’s servers to have a completely infinite amount of challenges to overcome.
From Software’s Bloodborne defiantly marks a triumphant, loud footnote in what’s arguably been a lackluster generation thus far. It’s taken just over a year for PlayStation 4 to get its first fully fledged must-have title – an offering that unabashedly arrives on the scene and flaunts its mastery for all to fawn over. Thankfully for us, it’s finally here. Bloodborne is an undisputed revelation.