Review: Bloodborne (PS4)

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Title: Bloodborne
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PlayStation Network Download (25.3 GB)
Release Date: March 24, 2015
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Developer: From Software
Original MSRP: $59.99
ESRB Rating: M
Bloodborne is exclusive to PlayStation 4.
The PlayStation 4 disc version was used for this review.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Golden Minecart Award Winner 2015
– Best Newcomer (PS4)

DLC Review(s) For This Game:
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Gameplay:
“YOU DIED.”

Not more than fifteen minutes into Bloodborne I came across a larger-than-normal enemy with a giant cleaver. I thought I could take him. I couldn’t. Now the game seemed to be shoving it in my face with the gigantic red letters spelling “YOU DIED” as the rest of the scene faded to black. A minute later I was back in the action and I made sure to avoid cleaver-man. In my head though, I made a note and an hour later when I was a little stronger I’d end up coming back and getting my vengeance. And man was it sweet, sweet vengeance.

That’s how Bloodborne, an action-RPG considered by many to be the spiritual sequel to Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls by FROM Software, operates. Much like the Souls games, Bloodborne is a game that is challenging and unforgiving. The slightest misstep or misjudgement can have disastrous consequences. However as much as the game is about punishing the player it also lets you revel in the victories.

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Bloodborne starts like many RPGs – with a cutscene. But rather than a half hour introduction to the world and the characters, this game has just a short little intro that doesn’t even explain everything about the setting. Eventually I was able to glean the premise from the manual and some in-game notes. You play as someone who has traveled to Yharnam from afar. Your character has some unspecified sickness and Yharnam is known for their medical procedures involving blood transfusions. After receiving a transfusion, you are let into Yharnam where the plague of beasts is transforming some villagers. To survive the night, the player must become a hunter and take part in the hunt for these otherworldly beasts.

While Bloodborne does have a story, it’s very non-traditionally told. Rather than tell the player everything directly most of the story is indirect, coming from bits of lore scattered throughout the game. It’s a very unique approach to storytelling and while it may not lend itself to a very cohesive narrative that some players want, I rather like the approach. Anything in the game can be a source of the world’s lore: NPCs, item descriptions, even the locales themselves help tell the story of Yharnam and the player’s hunter. Still, it’s safe to say that most players, myself included, are more interested in the gameplay than the story.

Bloodborne, as stated before, is an action RPG. So while there are the trappings of an RPG behind the scenes with character stats controlling growth, and damage numbers popping up above enemies you hit, the main gameplay is more action oriented. Even with the ability to get more powerful through leveling up, Bloodborne demands the player also fully understand the action aspects of the combat. Learning the range of your weapon’s various attacks, the range of your dodge, the attack patterns of boss enemies, are keys to surviving the game. However, despite how demanding the game is, Bloodborne rarely feels unfair. Usually when I died it was “how did I screw up and how do I fix it?” rather than “this game sucks.”

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It all comes back to the combat. Bloodborne’s combat feels very fluid and approachable while still giving the player some freedom to play the game how they want. I mentioned the “weapon’s various attacks” because most of the right-hand weapons in the game have the ability to transform. Some are pretty basic: an ax that becomes a longer ax, for example. Others offer wider variety such as going from a short sword to a giant hammer. Both forms of weapons have different attack animations and ranges and even the transformation itself can be used as an attack if done mid-combo.

… Bloodborne doesn’t hold the player’s hand …
And that’s only right-hand weapons. Since all weapons start off as one-handed, Bloodborne gives players a tool for the left hand: a gun. My first thought when I saw the gun was that it would make the game too easy by being able to attack from long range. That’s not really the case as the gun doesn’t do much damage. Instead, gun attacks are mostly used to interrupt enemies. Time the gun attack during an enemy’s attack and it will even crumple them, leaving them open for an extremely damaging “visceral attack” from the main weapon. Like with the main weapons though, Bloodborne allows for some freedom as the player can unlock some more damaging but perhaps more niche off-hand weapons later in the game such as a flamethrower or cannon.

If those two sets of weapons aren’t enough there are also a bunch of hunter tools. These use up the gun’s bullets but offer new attacks or buffs to the player. They’re kind of like the game’s version of magic. They’re generally not available until later in the game though, so I don’t think Bloodborne is trying to encourage players to build their character for them specifically like they could with magic in Souls games.

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Combat encourages the player to be offensive. While the Souls series games engendered playing passively and hiding behind a shield the whole game, Bloodborne tries a different approach. Almost as if to make fun of the Souls series, the one shield in the game has a description that pokes fun at anyone who would use it. Lack of a shield was not the only tip off to Bloodborne’s play style though, the regain system also encourages offense. After taking a hit a portion of the player’s health bar will remain red. For a short period of time, a second or two, attacking an enemy will regain some portion of that health. So where a Souls player might back off and heal after being attacked, a Bloodborne player is encouraged to get back into the action immediately.

The player is given plenty of tools because the game can be quite challenging. Even normal enemies can do a decent amount of damage if given the chance and Bloodborne doesn’t hold the player’s hand. That said, the game holds lots of secrets. NPC quest lines are murky at best and there are items hidden everywhere. Even the bosses have secrets. Although it’s possible to brute force through fights, some bosses have weaknesses that can be exploited. An early boss for example can be momentarily stunned if the player uses a specific quest item.

Speaking of the bosses, the game really shines in the boss fight department. By my count there are seventeen bosses in the game (not counting the chalice dungeons) and most of them are very different from one another. The variety really helps keep the fights fresh and interesting even if one or two are a bit of a stinker (looking at you Micolash). Just as the game seems to taunt the player when they die, it also celebrates the player’s victories and there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing “PREY SLAUGHTERED” after defeating an especially tough boss.

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To help accentuate the combat, Bloodborne offers a great setting to fight in. Yharnam is a rich and interesting locale and the world has been lovingly crafted. Every nook and cranny seems filled for the player to explore, reminding me of a “Metroidvania” game. Like those games, it’s easy to get lost while exploring only to open up a gate and realize that the lamp (checkpoint) in front of it is the same lamp from an hour ago. Yharnam is also rich with shortcuts to open and like a Metroidvania game. A locked gate will usually not remain locked long. While the exploration is fun the expansive nature of the world was one of my minor complaints with the game. Several times I defeated a boss only to be left scratching my head wondering where I needed to go next or where the key I received could be used. Fortunately defeating bosses can make the game world change so it’s not necessarily the same going through old areas while looking for a new area to explore.

… the game does still offer some challenge to veterans …
Once the story is over and the sun has risen in Yharnam, Bloodborne still offers some gameplay. The aforementioned chalice dungeons are a set of side dungeons to the game complete with their own bosses and enemies. Some are completely randomly generated while others seem to be only semi-random. They’re not as fun or interesting to explore as Yharnam but it’s still a welcome addition for anyone seeking to get more bang for their buck after the main game’s forty to fifty hour runtime. New Game Plus is another way to keep playing, spawning the player back at the beginning of the game when they finish but giving all the enemies in the game a substantial power/health boost.

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A final few comparisons to the Souls games: Bloodborne does feel a little easier than Dark Souls. The regain system and the fact that the game throws healing items at the player (and lets them carry a decent number of them) means that it’s easier overall to regain health. I’m not sure if my experience with the series was helping or if the game was overall easier but I felt like I did better during boss fights as well. I even managed to take down several bosses on my first attempt.

Bloodborne seems overall more welcoming to new players. In addition to feeling easier, the number of stats has been reduced from eight in Dark Souls to just six here. Poise and encumbrance are no longer an issue so players no longer need to worry about raising their carry limit just to be able to roll/dodge in their new armor. The more welcoming nature should be nice for bringing in new blood but the game does still offer some challenge to veterans plus the gameplay is just different enough to make it feel fresh and new. The bigger sticking point might be that Bloodborne doesn’t have as many unique ways to build a character thanks to a smaller stat pool, lack of magic, and fewer weapons to mess around with in the game.

The biggest issue at the moment, and they’re looking into patching it, concerns the load times. Loading into a map can take forty seconds or more on the default PS4 hard drive. Fortunately there are no load times when walking between areas but the game does reload whenever the player dies, essentially adding a forty second respawn timer to each death. Using warp points requires a load time as well, and worse the player has to return to the Hunter’s Dream (and load that) before they can warp somewhere else, making it take even longer to warp around the map.

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Visuals:
Bloodborne is a stunning game to look at. The graphics are beautiful and the art direction is fantastic. Yharnam is very much inspired by Victorian era London but with a horror tint. The plague of beasts has done a number on the town and the art style certainly shows that. Even better is the way the town changes as the game progresses. The sun is setting as the player begins their journey but as they kill bosses, the sun goes down and the moon comes up. Without spoiling too much, the world takes a huge turn in the middle of the game and the horror tint goes full Lovecraft. Of course I can’t get through the visuals without a shoutout to the way the hunter ends up covered in blood after killing a lot of enemies.

After Blightown in Dark Souls, performance has often been a concern for FROM’s Souls series. My experience with Bloodborne fortunately was very solid. Enough enemies on the screen would occasionally cause a hiccup but never to the level of Blightown. That said, I have heard of other players getting occasional drops in certain areas of the game so there may be some differences with digital copies of the game or for players who hadn’t downloaded the Day One patch. I did however see some pop-in issues in a few places. It was generally just background details and usually only happened if I was sprinting through areas quickly but it was noticeable.

… the music combined with the battle certainly left me feeling frazzled …
Audio:
Much like the story, Bloodborne takes a rather minimalist approach to the audio, making sure every piece fits together to help accent the world they’ve created. There’s no soundtrack playing in most areas of the game so the sound effects fill the void. This really adds to the tension while exploring as every new corner becomes a place to stop and listen for enemy activity. There’s still ambient noise such as wind during these times but the lack of music really adds to the tense nature of the game.

Interestingly the exact opposite is true during boss battles. Music kicks in during these fights and has been well crafted to get the player’s blood pumping. Maybe it was just my imagination but it seemed to get even more impactful as I got the bosses close to death. The intensity of the music helps push the battles through the lulls in the actual fighting to the point where the music combined with the battle certainly left me feeling frazzled after some close boss fights.

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Online/Multiplayer:
Bloodborne offers a full suite of online functionality from asynchronous to cooperative and competitive multiplayer. Throughout the mostly single-player experience, players can leave notes for other players or read notes left by previous players. Notes are limited by an in-game library of phrases but can still be used in a variety of ways from helpfully pointing out a secret item to trolling by trying to coax others to fall to their deaths. Specters offer another form of asynchronous online features, showing players the ghosts of other players. Red specters can be touched to watch the last few seconds of someone’s life (and hopefully a glimpse into what killed them) while white specters are ghosts of fellow players who are in the same area at the same time. All of these interactions are great for reminding the player that they’re not alone in the world of Bloodborne.

The more direct forms of online come in the multiplayer. Early on, players get a Beckoning Bell. Ringing the bell (at the cost of a currency called Insight) will prompt the game to search out other online players who are ringing their Resonant Bell. If a connection is made, the second player will be summoned into the beckoner’s world and can help them out with a tough area or boss fight. In a good example of a symbiotic relationship, the beckoner gets help and the beckonee gains blood echoes (a game currency) without the fear of losing any should they die.

There’s also a third bell called the Sinister Bell. Any player ringing a Sinister Bell can get matched up with another player ringing that bell. When they get summoned, the players will be hostile to one another. The two players will have to fight it out with the winning player getting blood echoes and insight. Not all Sinister Bells are rung by players though. A Sinister-Bell-ringing maiden will spawn into the game in certain areas automatically as well as during co-op online play. Still, player vs. player is very toned down from the invasion system in Dark Souls which may be a highlight or not depending on who you ask.

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The multiplayer in Bloodborne is pretty good overall. It did seem to negatively affect the framerate a little bit and some enemies would occasionally move in funny ways thanks to lag but overall playing cooperatively works well. The larger issue I ran into was finding other players. At one point I rang my Beckoning Bell and waited half an hour with no response. Other times I had similar experiences, sometimes having to wait a few minutes to get a hit. There’s no way to tell if there are other players in your level range in the area which would have helped. My experiences generally did get better as the game was out longer and I found that starting the game from scratch (not from the new resume feature on PS4) seemed to help.

One nice addition to this multiplayer formula is the ability to set a password for co-op. This means the game won’t summon anyone for co-op unless they have this password. Still, the same occasional connection problems cropped up when I tried to play with friends. One night we might sit there trying to find each other for five minutes and the next night the connection would be nearly instantaneous. Playing the game with a buddy is great when it works though, as PS4’s Party Chat (there’s no in game chat at all) really makes it easy to coordinate.

Conclusion:
At the end of the Yharnam night, Bloodborne is a fantastic game. The signature FROM Software challenge is there but in a way that still feels fair and rewarding to overcome rather than a chore. The boss battles are a surefire way to get one’s blood pumping. The world feels well fleshed out and full of life with lore scattered everywhere throughout it. The art style is great, giving a glimpse into the madness of Yharnam.

My only real complaints are the load times, the occasional multiplayer connection issue, and sometimes not knowing how to progress. They’re relatively minor things though, in my opinion, and the last one actually leads me to some advice for anyone picking up the game: use a guide as little as possible at first. Exploration and experiencing the bosses are both high points in the game and I would fear that using a guide would ruin some of that.

Oh wait, two pieces of advice. Not all notes left on the ground are trustworthy. Especially ones that say “treasure ahead” in front of a very dark pit.

“YOU DIED.”

Score:
9.5

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

Full disclosure: Sony also sent some small swag items with the review copy such as a notebook and the game’s artbook

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