I stepped down the cobblestone steps with immense trepidation, my heartbeat rising as the mob of enemies approached me. I was seasoned in the art of monster slaying, but this was unfamiliar turf, and where the hell was my shield? A shot rang out. A third of my miniscule health was gone in the blink of an eye, and the perpetrator was already reloading for a second shot while his allies continued their ominous lurching towards me. I was outnumbered, and I had the grace to know it. I ran down the street, passing Gothic arches and cathedrals as I went, spotting an alleyway that I could possibly lose them in. Rolling through the debris, I looked behind me to see that they were retreating. I breathed a sigh of relief as I recuperated and planned my next move. As I turned around to see what mysteries the alleyway held for me, I was struck swiftly and violently by a massive ax, wielded by an even more massive humanoid monster. I was angry; I was bewildered; but most of all, I was dead.
It’s moments like these that fans of the Souls series live/die for. Being a spiritual successor to Dark Souls, which itself is a spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls, I was a little skeptical going into Bloodborne. Being the huge fan of From Software’s Souls series that I am, I was worried that it wouldn’t live up to my quite lofty expectations. Each succeeding Souls game had been close contenders for my favorite game in their respective years, if not my favorite. So, receiving my copy of Bloodborne, I dove headfirst into its murky, bloody depths. I am pleased to say that I’ve emerged overwhelmed in more ways than one, and with a new contender for one of my favorite games this year.
The blood of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls is coursing through the veins of Bloodborne, and the story is no exception. Set in the terrifying, Gothic city of Yarnham, Bloodborne’s story is etched into the cobbled streets and massive, ornate cathedrals. For the astute player, there's enough lore here to keep them interested for the entire ride. Highly interpretive, it seems almost pointless to try and create a synopsis of what’s going on. Luckily, for those who venture to Yarnham for the pure thrill of the hunt, and couldn’t care less about the story, rejoice in knowing that Bloodborne doesn’t try to force its narrative on the player. Instead, the intense allegory is akin to a morphine drip that can be increased and decreased at the player’s leisure. Just know this: once one chooses to venture into Yarnham’s darkest secrets, no amount of painkillers will ease their agony.
Yarnham holds many secrets, but what is vividly obvious from the moment the player steps foot onto its streets is the sheer spectacle of it. Spires of magnificent, eerie, grotesque castles scrape the moonlit skies. Presumed citizens of Yarnham, too lost in their madness to be recognized as humans, prowl the streets with pitchforks and torches clutched in their hands. Great werewolves roam at their sides, striking with intense ferocity, spattering crimson blood on walls and bodies alike; a stark reminder of the merciless environment the player’s entered. Every location in Bloodborne is brought to life through excruciating attention to detail. The monsters, from simple, mad townsfolk, to lurching, mummified giants, are truly horrid sights to behold. Bloodborne’s art style is terrifying, ghastly, morbid, and magnificent.
Accompanying an art style that I consider to be a crowning achievement in video games, is Bloodborne’s stellar sound design and soundtrack. Visually, the madness of Yarnham is almost overpowering. Combined with the multitude of oppressing sounds, from old women shrieking in their homes with terrible laughter, to a baby wailing in the middle of a deserted street, Bloodborne simply oozes hysteria. Every non-playable character in the game is voiced wonderfully, bringing their own brand of crazy to the scene. Combat sounds just as hectic as one would expect it to sound; blood gushes, gunshots ring, dogs snarl, and so on. The crowning jewel of the entire auditory experience, however, is the superb soundtrack. Somber, creepy melodies guide the player from street to street in Yarnham, while chilling scores accompany the many boss fights. Bloodborne’s soundtrack is one of the spookiest, hair-tinglingest soundtracks I’ve ever heard.
Aesthetically, it’s hard to find a fault in Bloodborne. The same, I’m delighted to say, is true when it comes to the gameplay. Anyone who’s familiar with the Souls series gameplay will feel more at home with Bloodborne than those coming to it with fresh blood. Yet, Bloodborne is still a vastly different experience when compared to its predecessors. Being a third-person action role-playing game, Bloodborne has traditional movement and camera controls. The player has a health bar and stamina bar in the top left of the screen. Getting hit by weapons depletes the health bar, and using weapons, running, and dodging deplete the stamina bar. Unlike the Souls games, Bloodborne allows the player to regain health without having to use a Blood Vial (i.e. health potion/ Estus Flask/ Moon Grass). As the player takes damage, their health bar will decrease accordingly, but an orange bar will take its place. This orange bar will slowly go down unless the player takes action and attacks an enemy just a few seconds after being damaged. Not only does this eventually lead to the defeat of the enemy, but it also restores the health that the player lost when he was damaged. This mechanic promotes a new, aggressive type of gameplay that’s much more fast-paced than any of the previous Souls games. It’s simply a joy dodge-stepping (the much faster replacement for dodge rolling, while locked-on to a target) around and towards enemies, playing risky, and being rewarded for it.
This faster gameplay is further accentuated by the two new, primary items that are essential in any Hunter’s tool kit: the Trick Weapon and Hunter’s Firearm. At first, Trick Weapons might seem familiar to the seasoned Souls player, but at the press of a button (L1), the weapon transforms into it’s second form. The Hunter’s Axe, for example, is a one handed battle ax that deals considerable damage with a moderate speed. Transformed, it becomes a two-handed, great ax that deals massive, sweeping damage over a longer period of time. Trick Weapons allow for two unique modes of play at any given time. Having a hard time with that boss? Try the Trick Weapon’s other form. Or better yet, try using a combo of switching between the Trick Weapon’s two forms on the fly. Trick Weapons, however, are just half of the Hunter’s bag of… tricks. Firearms play a very large role in keeping the player alive in the treacherous city of Yarnham. Shields, as it turns out, are very un-chic; guns are where it’s at now, and Bloodborne’s Firearms are proof of this. There are a couple types of guns to choose from in the beginning, either a Blunderbuss or a Pistol. Quicksilver bullets are used as ammunition for all Firearms (save for a few), and can be gathered by slaying enemies or by sacrificing some health to replenish five bullets at a time. At first glance, one might think that the Firearms are utterly useless; the Blunderbuss has the range of a toddler tossing a large rock, while the Pistol has considerable range, but both are abysmal in the damage department. Though, much like the rest of Bloodborne, looks can be deceiving. Firing a well timed shot will stagger an enemy, following that up with a regular attack at close range will cause a Visceral Attack. These attacks do massive amounts of damage and are a key technique to success in Bloodborne.
Aside from the faster gameplay, not much has changed in the Souls formula, and Bloodborne strongly adheres to the tradition of, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Players will spend most of their time wandering from location to location. The level design in Bloodborne is a thing of beauty. Arriving at new areas happens so naturally that the player forgets that they’ve covered so much ground, and unlocking a shortcut back to an area that hasn’t been visited in hours is always a moment of pure gamer ecstasy. The team at From Software has built an intricate maze that can be studied for hours on end, and getting lost in it is one of the best feelings I can think of in a video game. While in this maze, the players will be slaying monsters of atrocious nature and collecting things off of their defiled corpses. Killing enemies will give the player Blood Echoes (Souls), which allow them to level up and purchase items from the hub world, Hunter’s Dream. Upon dying, the player leaves these Blood Echoes at the place of their death. They can retrieve them if they venture back and pick them up; though, if an enemy gets to them first, they’ll have to take him down to save their precious blood. Items are hidden throughout the game in secret locations, and it’s down to the player’s intuition to seek them out. These items range from special paper that can set the player’s weapon on fire, to runes that can be used to imbue certain attributes to the player’s weapon/person. Armor can also be found lying around in the crevices of Yarnham, though the options are surprisingly limited. Unlike weapons, which are completely upgradeable, armor sets are not, and they seem to take a backseat in Bloodborne. Yet, I didn’t find myself caring about this much. Most of the armor in the game looks wickedly cool, and because of the faster play style, bulky armor just wouldn’t make sense in the world of Bloodborne.
After scouring the depths of Yarnham’s blood stricken streets, the player is bound to run into a boss or two. The bosses are just as devastatingly hard, and outlandishly monstrous, as ever. Each fight is an intense dance of dodging, shooting, swinging, healing, sweating, crying, screaming, raging, and cursing. Each one is an adrenaline fueled battle to the death, and that death will often be the player’s. A Hunter shouldn’t be ashamed of asking for help, and the cooperative component of Bloodborne is the saving grace for many. Like every Souls game before it, Bloodborne allows a player to summon up to two people into their game to help them through the more difficult sections. Upon beating the boss of a specified section, the phantoms disappear back to their respective worlds with a few more Blood Echoes in tow and the thanks of a fellow Hunter. Invading another player’s world is also still available to the more dastardly Hunters. Appearing as a blood red phantom, invading someone else’s world is exhilarating and terrifying, depending on perspective. The fast paced gameplay makes PvP moments hectic and heart pounding, and, honestly, a much more welcomed experience to the backstab-centric gameplay of previous Souls game’s PvP. However, playing online isn’t for everyone, so they threw in an offline mode for all the solo players out there.
So did Bloodborne live up to my expectations? In a word: oh, hell yes. Aside from some long loading times, hardly noteworthy Chalice Dungeons (there, I noted them), and a framerate hiccup here and there, From Software have taken a tried and true formula and damn near perfected it. The world of Bloodborne is simply astonishing; boasting an art style that will go down as one of the best Gothic games ever created, a soundtrack that sends chills of terror down the spine, a new fast and intense play style that completely changes the dynamic that seasoned players have come to know, and rewarding cooperative and PvP online modes to share in the brutal fun. Will Bloodborne induce pain, rage, and agony? Most certainly, but once just a taste of it hits the bloodstream, it turns out to be a hard habit to kick; and I’m addicted.