It’s difficult not to think about Bloodborne’s lineage.
Demon’s Souls, a game released during the rise of shooters desperate to pass themselves off as “cinematic,” remains a triumph of imagination and innovation, a screeching manifesto about what games should be. And even if you don’t agree with Souls’ emphasis on providing a stark challenge to the player, it’s hard not to respect the craft behind these games. Boletaria and Lordan (the worlds of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, respectively) are two of the most fascinating settings in games and are shining examples of the right way to do dark fantasy. In contrast to the Tolkien-inspired “unite the armies” plot of Dragon Age or the grittiness of The Witcher, Souls games have always been about a traveler, the player, fighting against the palpable despair that a hopeless, extinguished world breeds. Perhaps you’ll have some help along the way from visiting players, but for the most part you are alone, fighting a legion of unfathomably powerful beasts. These games are paradoxically minimalist epics, stories rich in mythology kept mostly separate from the player’s journey; they have to be willing to seek out shreds of lore—communicated through texts and item descriptions—and piece them together in order to make sense of each game’s tragic story.
The shadow that looms over Bloodborne, a game that’s all Souls except in name, is a long one, but the game does right by its predecessors and manages to set itself apart by taking some design risks. You are a hunter who walks between a dream world and the devastated city of Yharnam, filled with a host of beasties that would love nothing more than to tear into you and eat your spleen. The small comfort zone that previous Souls games granted you, usually a shield that kept you from being pierced by swords or tentacles, is gone. Bloodborne compensates for this by making your character agile and giving them access to an impressive arsenal. Most melee weapons you can arm yourself with, “trick weapons,” are capable of transformation on the fly (for example, a small sword that you can stick in its holster to turn into a massive claymore capable of hitting enemies at a distance). Guns, which you can equip in your free hand, are invaluable tools for stunning enemies, giving you a brief window to land devastating attacks. Nail the timing of your blast just right when a minion is lifting his sword and you’ll be able to parry the attack and deal what is likely a fatal blow.
While Bloodborne does place a good bit of emphasis on making the player learn how to parry well, it’s not actually required to beat the game. After a few hours, and some boss fights, you’re given access to new weapons you can buy with blood echoes, the currency used in the game to purchase items and level up your character, that allow you to use other strategies than just parrying enemy attacks. The combination of the game’s dual-wielding system and the speed of its combat come together to create what’s probably the most enjoyable Souls game to play. Once I got used to moving around and making use of the number of mid-combat options, Bloodborne, much like Demon’s and Dark, became a game of surprising grace. There’s simply joy in moving about, in confounding your foes, dancing around them as they try to hit you. Sure, you might die ten or twenty or a hundred times getting to that point, but the sheer wonder of narrowly ducking an axe and watching it cleave air as you impale your foe makes the time investment and the frustration worthwhile.
Equally satisfying as the combat is the world of madness that From Software has created for players to explore. Yharnam is the sort of hellscape that might have emerged from the fever dream of some poor soul lying in his deathbed in Victorian London. It is a city of exquisite horror, a place of steel and concrete, of clock towers and haunted castles where giant crows have the heads of dogs and frightened lycanthropes see you as the freak, the monster shambling in the streets out for blood. Yharnam is an uncompromised vision of terror, one fueled by religious mania, unnerving and hellish from start to close. Nearly every enemy’s design, from bothersome minions to the bosses that will make you want to throw your controller against the wall, is genuinely creepy.
The series’ infamous multiplayer mechanics return in Bloodborne with you being able to use a beckoning bell to summon players to help you with boss fights. There are two other bells, one that allows you to invade other players’ realms and bully them, and another that lets you be the person helping someone fighting a boss. You can also leave notes comprised of strung together phrases (“foul beast ahead”) that other players can access, so you can leave them helpful tips or, if you’re particularly cruel, you can tell them that treasure lies at the bottom of a drop that’s fatal. The multiplayer in Bloodborne seems sparser than in previous entries. Rarely did I get help from a player when I used the beckoning bell because of what I’m guessing are early day server issues. Thus far my most memorable experience with the bell was calling forth a player while I was riding in an elevator only to hear their scream of agony as the fell down the elevator shaft. (Oops. Sorry, bud.)
The Achilles’ heel of Souls game has always been technical issues and, unfortunately, that’s still the case with Bloodborne. While the combat here is much faster than any of the previous games, the camera, which was already a pain in Dark Souls, just can’t keep up with the action a good bit of the time. Worse, there’s no guarantee you’ll remain locked on to enemy targets since turning away from them or having a pillar briefly separate your view of them means that the target lock disappears. Certain movements in tight corners might cause the camera to spin erratically, which led to my defeat at the hands of a boss on a number of occasions. There’s also the framerate, which dips beneath 30 FPS in several areas of the game causing a noticeable slowdown. The most grating annoyance is the 20-30 second load screen that happens every time you die (and let’s face it: you’re going to be dying a lot). These issues don’t break the game but those hoping that next-gen hardware would solve the technical problems of the Souls series are in for a rude awakening.
The majority of the time Bloodborne is a distillation of everything that worked in Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. The combat is fast, less clunky and more risky. Yharnam is a stunning world worthy of hours of exploration, and, perhaps most pleasant of all, Bloodborne is a game that knows when to end. Dark Souls in particular overstayed its welcome by a large margin thanks to a lackluster final act that dragged on for 20 hours. Bloodborne, by contrast, is probably the shortest game in the series. That doesn’t mean it’s short, however. My journey through Yharnam and its environs took around 40 hours and I didn’t fight the majority of side bosses. The Chalice dungeons, optional dungeons with procedural elements, will probably appease players who feel that the main game isn’t long enough.
It is rare that I finish a game, especially one that’s more than 6 hours, and immediately want to restart and play through it all again. Bloodborne is a deeply challenging game set in a fantastically realized gothic nightmare, an adventure of the highest quality for those willing to undergo the game’s trial by fire and push past the technical hiccups.
Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.