Your coat is soaked in putrid, black blood, with only the light of the moon reflecting off of its slick surface. In one hand you grip your trusty cleaver, the closest thing you have to a friend in this living hell, and in the other, a flintlock pistol, with few bullets left to spare. Every step you take could be your last as you traverse this frenzied city, ignorant to the horrors that linger around each and every corner you turn. You’re on the edge of your seat. Your palms are sweating. You anticipate death. You expect despair.
And you welcome it.
If someone gave this game a perfect score for atmosphere alone I would have a hard time fighting them on it. From its superbly demented art direction to the unsettling and erratic sound design, Bloodborne reminds us that AAA games still care; that despite all the bullshit, this is still an artistic medium. Bloodborne isn’t a system seller like Halo: Combat Evolved was for the original Xbox. It’s more like Bioshock: it’s a unique experience you simply won’t find anywhere else.
And that’s the kicker, right? Is this game worth the cost of a new console? By the time this review goes up most people will have already made up their minds. However, if you still happen to be on the fence I hope this review helps sway you one way or the other.
Let’s start with the story. The setting of Yharnam itself is the heart and soul of Bloodborne. Sure, there are a few memorable characters here and there, but this isn’t a character-driven narrative. Rather, it’s a tale about how one city fell victim to its own hubris and lost everything in exchange for knowledge and power. It’s the player’s job to navigate the ruins of this once great city and discover for themselves what eldritch horrors its people awakened. Like From Software’s previous titles, Bloodborne expects the player to make what they will of the deep and disturbing lore, rather than have it spelled out for them in tired exposition. Fans have come to expect this of the Souls series, and in that sense Bloodborne delivers in spades. It’s a subtle narrative told primarily through its atmosphere, something we just don’t see very often in AAA games anymore.
Unlike its predecessors, Bloodborne’s game world is tangible and grounded. Darksouls’ s setting, Lordran, was remarkable in its own right, but it felt very alien and hard to relate to. The stakes were never really clear, even if you understood the cryptic lore. Yharnam, on the other hand, is reminiscent of 19th-century London, and serves as a home for normal human beings. Even if you can’t wrap your head around the story, it’s clear that failure on your part will lead to the doom of the city’s citizens. But then, if you do have an understanding for the lore, you’d know that death may actually be reprieve for these poor souls.
Bloodborne may appear to be your standard Van Helsing affair given the Gothic Victorian design, but underneath all of the beast slaying it’s ultimately a Lovecraftian tale. An outsider comes to a troubled town with a terrifying secret and plunges into darkness to uncover it. It’s a journey of enlightenment and of madness.
For fear of spoiling the experience further, let’s shift gears and talk about mechanics.
Bloodborne is very much a Souls game, but at the same time it’s absolutely not. Sure, the UI looks similar and it shares a myriad of concepts with its predecessors, but when you actually have the controller in your hands it feels like a different game entirely. There is one main reason for this: speed. Bloodborne is a much faster game than any of the Souls titles, requiring quicker reflexes, more offensive strategies and more risk taking. That isn’t to say the game doesn’t reward careful planning or critical thinking, however. Each death at the hands of a supposedly invincible boss will give you more insight into how they work, and if you take those failures to heart you can formulate a plan to exploit the boss’s weaknesses and finally take them down.
Due to its fast pace and emphasis on offensive strategies I think it’s safe to say that Bloodborne is a far more difficult game than Dark Souls. You will die a lot, especially during the first few hours of gameplay. Thankfully, there are various shortcuts found all throughout the interconnected city, so dying isn’t all too inconvenient. That said, dying over and over to the same boss does come with irritating consequences. For some reason From Software decided to do away with the Estus Flask health potion system–in which you regen all of your health potions upon death–in favor of a finite resource system. You can carry up to twenty Blood Vials and Silver bullets on you at any given time, which is fine, but you can only store another 99 in your reserves, so once you blow through those you will need to either buy more with blood echoes (player experience) or farm them. This can be incredibly annoying when you’re trying to beat a particularly difficult boss as you may need to stop every now and then to go farm Blood Vials.
One new mechanic I find particularly interesting is the gun riposte system. In the Souls titles you could use a shield or dagger to parry incoming attacks and open the enemy up for a riposte. Though it works similarly in Bloodborne it feels so much more satisfying. In order to stagger a foe and riposte them you must shoot them with your sidearm during the “sweet spot” of their attack animation. Once they’re on their knees you can follow up with R1 to land a Visceral Attack on them, dealing significant damage. Visceral Attacks can be performed in other ways as well, including dealing enough damage to a certain part of a boss’s body or by landing a fully charged R2 attack on an enemy whose back is turned (the new backstab mechanic). Sometimes it’s a bit finicky (or the window to stagger the enemy is sadistically brief), but it’s a fascinating system that, once mastered, makes the game that much more fun.
The main game world is brilliantly designed, offering few areas I didn’t enjoy going back to in NG+. Like Dark Souls it is interconnected via shortcuts, making it feel like one big circle. Bloodborne’s version of bonfires, lanterns, are sparse, encouraging you to find and use shortcuts to get around. Of course, you can always teleport directly to lanterns you’ve already discovered, but unfortunately you can only do so from the hub world. I hope you like load screens!
While the main game world is great, I found the hyped-up Chalice dungeons to be a repetitive slog. Seeing the same four rooms copy-pasta’d over and over again gets exhausting and 90% of the loot is just materials to make more Chalice dungeons. It offers the hardest bosses in the game, which is kinda neat I guess, but ultimately not worth it unless you’re trying to platinum the game.
While it’s barely functional in Chalice dungeons, the online co-op works decently well in the main game. It functions pretty much exactly like it does in the Souls games, but thanks to the new password system it is much easier to co-op with your friends. Interestingly, when you attempt to summon the aid of other players it spawns a sinister bell maiden who summons enemy players to invade your world. This maiden may also spawn when you are searching for a world to invade yourself, making it so players interested in PvP are more likely to get matched with other PvPers. Some of the PvP mechanics are neat, but unfortunately the PvP doesn’t seem all that fun or balanced. You’re pretty much guaranteed a lag-fest (which goes for most co-op as well) and there are a whole slew of cheesy tactics players have already adopted that can render PvP too tedious to bother with.
Speaking of lag, let’s discuss the game’s performance. Capped at 30-fps (’cause “cinematic”), the game runs well enough most of the time. There are, however, occasional dips. Sometimes it’s during co-op, but usually it seems to hit hard when in an area with several light sources a la Blighttown in Darksouls. There were several occasions (usually in Chalice dungeons) where the fps dipped into the single digits, rendering the game momentarily unplayable. The audio seems to be unstable as well, occasionally causing sharp buzzing sounds which I found to be especially frequent in Old Yharnam. The load times are also an issue, and can take anywhere from 20 to 60+ seconds when respawning after death. If I were to give letter grades for individual aspects of a game, Bloodborne’s performance would be just shy of an “F”. In this day and age there is simply no excuse for releasing such an unstable game, and it makes me question how powerful the PS4 really is. It ain’t no GTX-970, that’s for sure!
Its performance is sub-par at best, but there’s enough to love about this title to forgive such failures. Its questionable design choices are overshadowed by its brilliant ones and I haven’t a single complaint about its artistic merit. At the end of the day Bloodborne is an imperfect gem in an ocean of mediocre AAA titles. It’s an experience worth having and one of the only games that justifies the price of a PS4. If I couldn’t convince you to buy a console for this game, that’s fine, but if you do eventually get the hunk of junk be sure to check Bloodborne out.
I’ll probably still be playing it by then.