March 5, 2019 at 6:39 AM #1013
Rating: 5.0 – Flawless
Blood. Blood. Blood? Blood! Blood. Blood… And bits of sick
Holy Crudborne? Bloodyhellborne? Gudborne? Bloodboner? Bloodglorn…ious? Not-a-Thud-borne? I’m sure there’s something to play with here but I’ve got nothing so screw it, irrelevant Darkplace reference. Anyhoo, Bloodborne is goddamn magnificent. I wasn’t too excited to play this; I loved Dark Souls but this looked ridiculously fast and mobby and generally like a huge pain in the ass not unlike DSII but more frustratingly difficult, so it’s as surprising as it is satisfying that I love this like I do. From’s PS4 debut does everything I loved about the breakout hit better and that game had novelty in its corner; I’m used to this stuff now and it still blew me away from start to finish.
Bloodborne is both a phenomenal refinement and execution of everything I love about the series and undeniably a fresh IP which twists the formula enough to be more than just Victorian Dark Souls. It’s both enjoyably comfortable and familiar yet fresh and exciting in its own right. While I’d never say anything is perfect and I can find things I like less than others in the game, there’s nothing big enough to make me not love it with the purity and devotion I never felt for the son I dumped out the back of an abandoned Blockbuster. This is one of the best games I’ve ever played and it wouldn’t have that impact if it merely retreaded old ground.
With that said, let’s go over the stuff that has me gushing like a fisted pig in detail. I’m going to try and avoid bringing up other From titles since this is such a grand standalone effort, but failure is unavoidable so I’ll set myself a limit of three comparisons.
Indiana Blood and the Blood of Blood
For all the violence, blood, action, epic encounters and enjoyable developments that I’ll get into soon, the thing I love most about Bloodborne is adventuring. Everything about the world is outright astonishing; the layout design, art style, world structure, attention to detail and the relentless atmosphere are all constantly breathtaking.
Bloodborne takes place in the city of Yharnam and its surrounding locales along with a few horrendous nightmare dimensions. The city takes up the majority, and while it certainly has identifiable suburbs it could be said that visually there’s not a huge amount of variation; there’s a lot of coffins, statues, spires, tombstones and gothic looking clutter and that never really changes, but the variety in enemy types, the night progression, the downright maniacal level of care put into the little details, and the subtle shifts in architecture between the various sectors is more than enough to keep it visually appealing.
The visuals are a wonderful blend of morbid depressive oppression and a strange, macabre beauty hidden in the twisted and grisly details. The world always feels authentically threatening and miserable, a fitting backdrop for the cosmic horror which slowly reveals itself throughout the world, yet somehow it’s never an unpleasant place to be. The level of detail that goes into the demented statues, people fused into buildings, squirming fused corpses and so forth give all this objectively morbid stuff a sense of grotesque elegance. There’s always something intriguing hidden within the most vile of details and taking the time to examine things is uniformly interesting.
And that’s just looking at it! Bloodborne rewards those curious about the demented environment by having the most incredible level design this side of itself because it looped back into being its only competition. Shortcuts and loops are the order of the day and the game is just lousy with them. There are huge shortcuts which completely link massive levels back within themselves, shortcuts whenever two areas get close together even if they’re useless just because they can, shortcuts that just cut out on little obstacles for speeding up short term progress, shortcuts that occur during other shortcuts, shortcuts that create new paths through areas which are just as long and complex as the basic path. There’s just so many you guys. I’m pretty sure they need to rebuild the From Software office every six months because no one who works there knows how to get to the break room without knocking out a wall and making a shortcut.
The level design is reliant on checkpoints in the form of lanterns you find along your travels, unlocking new spawn points upon death or quick travel. The game is incredibly miserly with their placement to the point where there are only four named areas in the whole game that use a second checkpoint, and one of those is a mercy respite before a nasty 3-on-1 miniboss battle to unlock the shortcut back to the original one. The others are rare cases of flat, linear terrain on the way to the proper big looping part, two of which are in the DLC. Other than that every single level has one single checkpoint. Total. And these levels are huge.
It never stops being astonishing how much content they were able to link to a single lantern. The burning ruins of Old Yharnam feature a sprawling puzzle/chase sequence where you sneak around a machine gun turret, a hidden alternate stealth path, two high difficulty hunter fights, a huge church set piece with multiple paths for approaching the horde within, and finally there’s another smaller town beneath the burning surface, filled with wolves, another church set piece with an impressive noob-destroying boss. That’s three large areas with at least five unique and fully designed “objectives” to conquer all connected to a single checkpoint. Every place in the whole game is treated with the same level of care and it never stops being absolutely jaw dropping. What was blowing me away in Central Yharnam was still blowing my mind by the Research Hall.
The only tiny, tiny disappointment is that where loops join up is shown too readily. Some will have a drop down aspect or other surprising element and it’s great, but 90% of the time you’re going to walk into an area and instantly find a locked gate that "Does not open from this side" or an out of order elevator to give away the surprise. It doesn’t detract from brilliance of the actual connections at all, but that "holy crap" surprise is generally lacking outside of a few specific moments. Simply using some less obvious elevators, rubble blockages, or things like the ladder kick down from Dar- Oh crap, there’s reference one!
Dark Souls Comparison One: World construction
Dammit, that’s one gone in the first topic. The game has copped some flak for lacking an interconnected world, some saying it’s nearly as bad as Dark Souls II! While untrue quick travel means you’re not manually crossing about as much and the effect is similar. Bloodborne actually has a small world with only 8 locations physically located in the game world and the rest all being extra Nightmare realms, but most of them link to multiple places with Byrgenwerth being the only place which is on a one level after another "path" like how DS2 extended away from Majula. Cathedral Ward itself links to every physical location except Byrgenwerth and almost every other location has a link to somewhere beside the initial entry point. Now it’s true that none of these loops are really useful as far as travelling goes due to teleportation, but the world is still nicely interconnected and anyone who didn’t have a seizure at the Forbidden Woods cave shortcut is a dirty liar.
The real difference is the lack of sequence breaking.
Not only was DS1 crazy about internal world links and not only were they actually used since there wasn’t early quick travel, the links were often accessible from both directions in varied orders. It was satisfying to break away from the expected path to gain access to special items and events far before you were meant to. Bloodborne‘s links don’t work like that and there are few chances to do things outside of the expected order. In all cases the bonus routes are only opened after you’ve reached the more advanced section. From actually patched out an unintended sequence break for getting to the mid game soon as you start it, something they never did with stuff like the Lower Burg jump.
It’s not bad as such. While I truly cherish the memories of my maxed weapon and Pyroflame pre-Lordvessel run, unlike those of that crying, grasping child, the change has a purpose and player agency hasn’t been completely sacrificed. The game has a more direct "plot" to events and the beats of the story itself and associated world changes have to be passed out in a more specific fashion. It’s not quite as good admittedly, but it has a purpose. This time player choice isn’t about the order you go everywhere, instead a huge chunk of the game is optional so you’ll usually have multiple paths to choose from, but only one that is necessary. There’s less loot to find as there are less weapons in the game and upgrade paths have been simplified dramatically, so generally the choice is based around how much you like certain areas rather than rewards to your immediate growth. For this to work the levels have to be so amazing you actually want to do them just because they’re cool, and incredibly it pulls it off, there isn’t one place in the whole game I’d skip on repeat playthroughs.
I’m here to chew blood and kick blood, and I’m all out of blood
But it can’t all be pulling levers and admiring mangled vistas, so along your scenic journey through Gothic hell you’ll get to meet a few hundred malformed beasts, hideous monsters and deranged pitchfork wielding villagers for you to kill. Most creatures hit hard and generally seem quite irate about your whole "existing" thing, so it’s a good thing that Bloodborne has you covered when it comes to mechanics.
They’ve managed to balance the combat in a way that feels simultaneously graceful yet horrifically brutal, tactically stimulating yet fast and instinctive, and relentlessly challenging yet encouragingly empowering. The game sets a breakneck pace as enemies charge you down en masse with a varied range of lunges, grabs, bullets, and spells; but you’re just as vicious as any of the foul monstrosities patrolling the streets. There’s a real savagery to your actions to the point you’ll be hilariously covered head to toe in blood after just a few encounters, and the art style, lighting and amazing animations leave the maelstrom of carnage an absolute feast for the eyes.
Movement speed seems to have been the real focus here and it pays off in every aspect of the game. You’re expected and encouraged to be on the attack, forcing the action forward at every opportunity with a satisfying fervor. With no realistic shielding available you’re less likely to be hanging back waiting for the enemies to leave themselves open as much as using your fast dashing patterns to create openings yourself. This even works for the multitude of nasty packs and mobs, you’re so fast that you can cut through a swarming mass and actively separate foes from each other with well-timed dodges and quick thinking abuses of stunlocks and sweeps. Once ranged weapons get involved it can really feel like a dance managing multiple threats while keeping on the move and timing your quicksteps in time with the pattern of the guns. The game isn’t all that hard for the most part and for many situations you’ll likely be abusing stunlock spam on things, but the graceful manner of getting to that position makes the simple carnage of wailing on an opponent immensely gratifying.
Mowing your way through the hordes of beasts is made all the more delightful thanks to the incredible quality of the enemy design. Basic humanoids become increasingly inhuman as you venture in, becoming more wolf-like and some even possessing heads which burst into snakes. Giants roam the cities and valleys looking as regal as they do brutish. There’s monstrosities built out of fused corpses and adorable aliens and truly horrific werewolves. The variety is brilliant and not a single design lacks visual appeal making them fun to shred into little ragdolled sacks of meat and flesh.
While it’s a part of level design, the enemy placement is absolutely phenomenal throughout, despite actually giving you the zip and firepower to actually deal with "here’s 8 guys suddenly, enjoy", Bloodborne doesn’t ever stoop that low. There are a lot of mobs, but their layout, patrol routes and positions in the maps are carefully considered. Despite the high octane arcadey level of thrill there’s always a tactical element allowing you to separate groups or deal with more dangerous threats faster, rather than a just being lazy heaping of dudes in a room to bash up.
The healing system plays into this pretty well too. You can regain some health by damaging enemies immediately after you take damage which suits the full haterage mode approach to combat. You also have a supply of 20 healing vials to manually heal while enemies drop more as you continue, so for a large chunk of the game you’ll be picking up more than you need. The real threat is being comboed into paste immediately rather than a slowly building grind, it helps you explore areas quickly and feel comfortable diving into the unknown. It’s common to completely clear out areas fully in one thorough trek and it’s nice to get these uninterrupted chances to really soak in the labyrinthine worlds.
The downside is that you can run out, resulting in spending exp buying more, or farming easier places to build up a big enough stockpile to wear repeated journeys into tougher areas or to retry a boss which is making you more bloodburied than borne. I do wish there was either a spot in the dream where you could go pick up 20 for free or if it always gifted you 20 when awakening at a lamp completely but keep the drops, removing the stockpiling aspect. I was good enough to avoid having to farm early on, but I can imagine new players having an absolute nightmare with the early bosses and furiously punting their console into the moon. The only time I needed to farm was right near the end and it was definitely a break in the momentum moving into the dramatic finale.
The vial system has a final upside which outweighs the farm aspect for me; the game has one of the most satisfying difficulty spikes I’ve seen. The game starts off pretty rough and most players won’t be able to level up before they even fight a boss, and the first few are heavy for their placement. However, the second phase of the game is disarmingly manageable as your progress in levels and upgrades far outpaces enemy growth; you really get lulled into a sense of dominance… then Yahar’Gul hits and enemies stop dropping vials. Suddenly the game throws in long term health management while you’re dealing with the hardest short term threats so far. It’s a natural, rewarding way of adding challenge and pressure and I love it. Even if it wasn’t for the way it promotes the fun chaotic play style, the vial system completely justifies itself for this difficulty spike.
Bloodborne also features one of the most satisfying arrays of weaponry I’ve seen. It’s like a showcase of Gravity Guns. The big selling point is that weapons come with two "modes" which are switched quickly and the vast majority of these are far beyond just a change of stance or two handing. There’s a regular sword which can be placed in a stone to turn in to a big F-off hammer, a pimp cane that unthreads itself into a flesh tearing whip, and a mace that turns into a freaking buzzsaw just to name a few . The weapon pool is moderately sized but varied, and even when half a moveset covers a similar base to another weapon they’ll always be distinct in alternate forms. Thanks to each weapon having many unique strengths selecting a balanced pairing between fast, long range, beast tearing, and stunning moves is rewarding, and settling on just a few weapons is actually hard to do.
The comboing systems live up to the quality of the weapons with the mode transformations being incorporated into an already great system of light and heavy attacks, charged heavy swings, and context sensitive moves such as rolling or dashing moves. It’s ludicrously fun to use the fast form of a weapon to get a foe staggered, then switch to your heavy mode to punish once they’re immobile. The animations are good enough that a simple gun parry or R1 mash combo still feels great, but the range of options adds badass moments and depth.
Stats are simple with only six clearly defined ones to choose from. There are no scaling based buffs or permanent weapon element changing so most weapons will be at least somewhat viable at all times, lending itself to even further experimentation. In addition to straight upgrades weapons have the ability to be infused with blood (of course) gems which can boost attack or add an element. These can be swapped for free at any time so there’s really no harm in radically shifting your weapons around at will… which makes it odd how hard it is to find upgrade materials. The second best tier of materials are rare, and until an amazing patch the top tier was flat limited to two per game with the DLC. This is a game with 4 active weapon slots. For a game with such an exciting and near universally viable weapon list it’s definitely strange how many hoops they make you jump through to enjoy them all.
Bloo-sses. It’s Bosses… I’ve got nothing
The last thing that I really look for in these games are the bosses and I am not disappointed. Like the weapons they’ve gone for quality over quantity with only 22 in the main game and DLC combined, but they’re almost all wonderful experiences. Visuals are absolutely on point with every one of them looking utterly fantastic without exception right down to the eyebrow robed Witches. There’s a bit of an imbalance with large, flailing hunched/quadruped beasts talking up a lot of the early game, but the designs are so drastically varied that the mechanical similarities are easily overlooked.
To make use of the low boss count there as HP based phases which activate as you whittle them down, changing the fight in their favor. This gives the fights a sense of amplification and intensity the longer they last and can change the battles quite drastically. There are two main ways this is done; 1) they learn new moves and/or become more aggressive, or 2) They’ll have a complete physical change and the fight basically becomes a new boss entirely.
The game introduces this early on and shows the effects of both clearly. Gascoigne turns from a hunter vs hunter human fight into a frantic struggle against a maniacal beast in seconds. The Blood Starved Beast gains aggression, poison elements, and finally a poison area of effect attack to utterly rock new players while they learn how to keep their cool through the constant barrage of changes and threats. These sorts of growths are ongoing and it’s always fun to see what a boss is going to throw at you next, with the DLC’s in particular really upping their game on this front.
Almost every boss boasts a deep move pool, so you never get bosses becoming jokes once you’ve learned their two or three moves like Drago- Screw it. I’m not gonna be able to do this without comparing so why bother.
Dark Souls Comparison 2: Like a Boss
The very first boss for most, the Cleric Beast, features multiple arm slams, combos, a grab, a leap, and turning sweeps; it honestly makes something like the Taurus Demon seem positively quaint with his few club swings. The animations on all these flurries are beyond what we’ve seen before and overall the intensity, visual awe and glory of these things are unequalled. They’re memorable, fantastic experiences.
I even love the stupid mob & puzzle bosses because of how the game looks and feels. The pathetic little alien dude mob is genuinely no smarter than the Royal Rat Vanguard but they’re so freaking adorable I always have a big stupid grin on my face while they waddle around getting minced, particularly following the unending nastiness of their location. The spider boss spits out more spiderlings than Freja had in her entire level repeatedly, but it’s more enjoyable than tedious as you zip about at lightning speed, watching a huge caster while ninja backstabbing a horde of leaping maniacs. Bloodborne looks and plays so brilliantly that many things that would have sucked in the other games slip through quite pleasantly.
And that’s where I need to specify that I’m talking about the experience. One thing I haven’t brought up yet is difficulty and challenge. I’ve never played these games for bragging rights or challenge, I’ve just loved the design and the mechanics always made me feel badass, but I know a lot of people do put getting your ass kicked as a priority and Bloodborne is behind the curve on that front.
There’s a lack of tactical nuance as pretty much everything is susceptible to just crawling up their buttholes and clinging on like a lamprey. They’re all about aggression and how full on you can bring the fight. It also feels like they weren’t really sure how far they could push the envelope with the new combat speed and style so bosses tend hit softer than a lot of basic mobs in the game and often lack a relentless killer instinct to kill before you can heal. The Chalice Dungeon and DLC bosses change this so my gut feel is that for the main game they had no idea what was reasonable to expect the average player to handle. Going along with this impression are the low HP pools of every boss after the opening volley. Things like Shadows could have used a buff of 1000HP each to stick you in each phase a little longer.
The visuals, movesets, animations, phases and the aggression of every movement were more than enough win me over fully, but I didn’t learn many of these bosses. I charged, I dodged left, I wailed, and while it was awesome there were genuinely only two fights in the base game I truly "learned" inside and out. While not a huge deal to me I totally understand how some players who put the mastery and sense of achievement on a pedestal could be largely disappointed by these fights as they’re definitely more flash and emotion above all else. I only got that “I’ve got you now you bastard" moment of sublime arrogance and power that comes from knowing you’ve figured out a tough boss from the amazing Logarius, and it is a tangible quality the game mostly lacks in comparison to Souls.
Luckily for those people the DLC and Chalice Dungeons absolutely deliver on the boss front in a deeper fashion. Ludwig and Lawrence mix up the beast routine with a range of attacks that either wreck you for sitting in the normal safe spots or are too mobile and aggressive for sitting to even be an option. Maria and the Orphan give the humanoids an aggression and brutality that has to be seen to be believed and have movesets so fast, explosive and varied that safe places are impossible to find. Perhaps most importantly of all they all have enough HP to be able to outlast you if you just trade hits. As it stands Maria goes past even Artorias as my favourite boss fight in the series. It’s intense and visually brilliant, but also challenging and asks you to learn the 20 odd moves that may be thrown at you at any time. It’s perfect.
Seek a Holy Chalice (Of Blood, obviously)
This is the first point of the review where I may start to look a little bit negative, definitely in comparison to the endless gushing so far. The three things I’ve covered are really the core elements I was hoping would excel in Bloodborne, and it succeeds on all counts. That alone justifies the 10/10 but From are generous enough that there’s also a vastly sprawling side content dungeon crawl generator called Chalice Dungeons and they’re… divisive.
They’re a series of randomly placed rooms of varying difficulty, each filled with content. The best items in the game are found in these, their difficulty exceeds the main game for at least a couple of NG+ cycles, there are entirely new bosses and enemies, and extra lore to be discovered. There are even ten "locked" dungeons which provide something of a structured run through the system while providing the loosest of progression narratives imaginable. To say the least these are absolutely not a half assed tack on, these were an intentional design choice to give something extra to do besides just running NG+ over and over or trying to arrange PVP, in fact given the general lack of build diversity available due to the simplified stat pool, moderate weapon count and lack of carry weight function it could be argued that the game needs something expansive in the PvE side to keep the audience around longer.
And it does the job well, the combat is still great so even if you don’t hit the random ones the locked dungeons are a simple way to experience more without the developers needing to put in as much effort making an actual Pthumeru level. The extra bosses are amazing, often better than the already amazing main game ones, and are varied between many battle types. They’re worth hitting just to experience the Pthumerian’s, Watchdog, and Bloodletting Beast fights at least once, and getting to revisit some old pals in different arenas and with beefed up stats is great too.
But it’s that thought of "actual Pthumeru level" that’s the little sticking point in the back of my brain. Chalice Dungeons are not a hack job at all, they’re rewarding, they’re mostly fun, they have enough new stuff in there and unique sights to be worth exploring, and they’re a fun naturally expanding challenge for those who aren’t bumping up NG cycles; but the main game is so goddamn brilliant. There’s a bunch of cool rooms in here like the massive poison pit with the horrific rickety bridge, but the way the system works leads to loss of wonder.
The tilesets aren’t varied enough and there are nowhere near enough rooms, you’ll see the two tier room with the bridge and ladder down and the big staircase on either side of a platform room on basically every level. The overall layout changes but you’ll be seeing the same dozen things repeatedly. Their algorithm is clever, the game spawns functional shortcuts, bonus rooms and all sorts of things you’ve come to expect from the main experience but overall it lacks the magic. The dungeons are long, and while there’s loot everywhere there’s little in the way of general gameplay items to find until later boss drops. Instead chests and tough enemies tend to hold new chalice items which help you access the next level of difficulty, so you’ll be acquiring nothing but keys to go and find more keys for hours. While there’s generally enough items in each dungeon to open the next one, they’re still sparse enough that you can’t rush through skipping many parts.
Enemies sometimes appear just plonked into rooms, the enemy respawning Bell Maiden idea from Yahar’gul is used ad nauseam with them appearing on almost every single floor, often more than once, and the shortcuts lack the amazement since everything is linked with boring old doorways. Again, the combat is outstanding so even without the human touch it can be really fun getting swamped by a mob while spiders endlessly pour in from next door, but it lacks that special "holy crap" factor. It’s Bloodborne without the soul and it definitely didn’t take me long to start wanting to skip bonus rooms and head straight to the boss since the content was so samey and drawn out. The mechanics are all there, but the actual joy and excitement of exploration fades badly.
And that’s where my imaginary Pthumeru level just sounds so much cooler than this. You could have a compacted, more tightly woven cavern with all the cool set pieces spread out and thoroughly explored, with the unique bosses spread about as you progress. Maybe you could find some cool new weapons and armour like the Elder’s staff too, basically having all the lore and boss battles in a real, proper BB standard context. I’m certain it’d be better as an actual level, then you could have the Hintertombs, Loran and Isz as the randomized ones on the side. What we got isn’t unfinished area they rushed because they ran out of time or money, it’s an intentional high quality thing, but I’m greedy.
The other problem is just how semi-necessary they are for someone wanting to either be maxed out or do PVP. The rewards for killing many of the bottom depth bosses are absurd; you can get your attack up almost 30% higher than anyone who just plays the main game and since the CD’s open early this ratio can be much bigger. Now, I’m not complaining about twinks, I’m complaining that doing this is really essential for anyone wanting anything like maximum damage for any reason, particularly magic builds, and you need to do this long optional thing every time you make a new build. I didn’t care about much more than seeing all the bosses, but I can see how this could be a bummer for more dedicated build focused min-maxers.
Still, I like the chalice dungeons, I’m hoping going forward they’ll add in different level specific threats and more room variety, but it’s well executed for what it is and Bloodborne has combat more than worthy of just giving us a mindless murder pit. They’re absolutely non-essential for a casual NG playthrough, so while they could be better they are well enough defined as additional side content that they don’t detract anywhere near as much as their presence adds. It’s like getting a great girlfriend after you’ve been dumped by an absolute Goddess with not just looks but enough strength of character to break all contact with you for abandoning her child behind an abandoned Blockbuster; you’re glad it’s there and you know it’s good, but part of you has already seen that better exists.
Dark Souls Comparison 3: The epic tale you’ll probably miss
We’re at the end now so I may as well blow the spare comparison I had up my sleeve on an inconsequential but still interesting part of the games: story and lore. As I said when discussing the sequence breaking of Dark Souls vs the mass of optional content here, the way this game structures itself narratively is a lot different to what we’ve seen. In DS there wasn’t a whole lot of plot or story to what unfolded, the game opened with a big tell about the history and you basically get told the plot thirty seconds in. There are heaps of details to uncover but it’s all lore, the plot of what you’re doing is explained clearly in a few cutscenes and everything else is a history lesson.
The actual tale of our protagonist here is actually filled with narrative beats. There’s a night progression system that moves forward as you solve mysteries and uncover secret truths gradually, moving further down the rabbit hole until you’re dealing
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