There are lots of spoilers for Bloodborne here. Read this later if you want to avoid them.
It’s another year later and Hidetaka Miyazaki is back with Bloodborne: another sadistic action RPG/dungeon crawler with which to torture all of his long-suffering fans. The original brain behind Dark Souls (still probably the overall best game in the series) did not have a hand in Dark Souls II, working on this title instead. While Dark Souls II delivered hundreds of hours of soulsy goodness, for me it did lack a little bit of the intangible and hard to describe quality that the original had. The way I would put it, and yes, I’m about to go there, is that it lacked a bit of soul. As usual, I am here a few months after everyone else to tell you if Bloodborne gets that back.
The Big Picture
Bloodborne is the fourth game in the “Souls” series even though the word “Soul” never appears anywhere in the game. But this is just a search/replace in their database of strings files. Rather than the standard fantasy castle setting of the previous games Bloodborne puts you into some twisted version of an English castle town, where all the inhabitants are slowly being turned into bestial monsters. Or something. But, beneath all of these new surface details is a game whose structure will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played any of the three previous games:
Big twisty intertwined environments, many of which look like creepy castles. Check.
A generally unforgiving approach to dealing with player death. Check.
Lots of bosses with a variety of designs that range from disturbing to so creepy as to be sickening. Check.
A creepy female that you need to talk to to level up. Check.
Story elements that mostly stay in the background or are projected by the environments rather than long cut scenes or shitty NPC dialog. Check.
You collect souls and soul items which you then use to level up, buy consumables, and so on. Oh wait, the game might call these something else. But pay it no mind. Everyone else still calls them souls.
NPC quest lines and other secrets that are easy to miss entirely if you don’t play with a youtube walkthrough next to you. Check.
A rich and tactical combat system that encourages caution and patience over … wait, no they changed this. More about this later.
A ton of different weapons all with rich and unique movesets … wait, no they changed this too.
All of these things are fine, and we will go over the changes in due course. But I actually only need to say two things about Bloodborne to give you an idea of how I feel about it relative to Dark Souls II. I think that these two facts basically sum up the philosophical differences between the two evolutions of the original Dark Souls engine:
Bloodborne resurrects the satisfying and over the top parry mechanic from Dark Souls and if anything makes it even more ridiculously satisfying.
The rag doll corpse physics is back!. Nothing in this game made me happier than the return of being able to run around with a floppy dead giant stuck to your feet.
To revel in the joy of the rag dolls you need to be able to kill the enemies. So the next thing to talk about is the combat.
All of the Souls games have taught you a similar approach to PVE combat, which I have covered before. I will summarize these rules below:
Approach cautiously, holding a shield out in front of you for cover. If you are feeling daring, dodge attacks.
Take on enemies one at a time.
Manage your space and stamina carefully, in particular spamming R1 (fast attack) doesn’t really help.
These strategies have served us well through three games and hundreds of hours of PVE. They fall down a bit in PVP, but really only the shield one.
Bloodborne tells you to throw all of this away and learn a new way to fight. First, there are no shields in the game. Well, at least none worth using. Instead, you should bring your pistol along and learn to dodge. Luckily, in the new game learning to dodge is pretty easy. Unlocked rolls work basically like they did before. You do a little roll. Locked rolls have turned into fast lateral dashes. You end up about where you would have ended up in a roll, but your character remains on her feet at all times. This mechanic takes a little getting used to, especially because it can shift the camera in catastrophic ways. But, once you get comfortable with it you will find that fights in Bloodborne have a much faster rhythm than in the other games. In particular it is much easier to dash in, get a hit and then dash back out again. Like a badass.
Next, you can also use the gun to parry. A shot timed to coincide with the apex of an enemy’s attack stuns the enemy and lets you set up for a “visceral attack” which is just a way to say “a bitchin’ riposte” but with too many useless syllables. It is impossible to overstate how satisfying the new parry mechanic is compared to the semi-retarded slow motion sit-down animation from Dark Souls II. The joy is back.
Finally, you can heal damage by counter-attacking. In a short window after each hit you can heal back some of the damage done by that hit if you swing and hit the enemy. This system is genius because it lets you trade hits and heal at the same time, as long as you calculate the attack windows correctly. Of course, if you calculate wrong you can also completely fuck yourself if you get surrounded and ganked to death.
The combination of the quick dash-dodging and the regen system encourage you to fight much more aggressively than you might have in any of the other Souls games. R1-spam can do you a lot of good, because you get hits in and heal at the same time. But, you have to have enough stamina to spam attack for while if you want this tactic to work. Luckily the stamina bar is much more forgiving in Bloodborne. At medium levels you can get 5 or 6 fast swings in before you run out if your bar was full when you started.
The new combat system also gives you a lot more leverage over larger groups than you used to have. Where in previous games it was very dangerous to try and hit two or three enemies at once, then dodge away, and then get back in to hit them again, the Bloodborne system makes this relatively easy. In addition, most of the weapons are fast and hit in a fairly wide area, making it easy to hit multiple enemies at once. Also, the more forgiving stamina system means that you can keep swinging until everything is dead. The R1-spam is real.
Finally, although the game is more forgiving about reckless stamina use and R1-spam, in really hard fights you still have to be careful about your use of space and terrain. The game also makes this harder than it might, especially with bosses, because all the dashing you can do plays havoc with the camera. Many bosses are really just fights against the camera wildly swinging around your head and making you essentially fight blind. Here is a spoiler-filled video that provides a good example of all these points.
Overall the combat system in Bloodborne is probably my favorite of the four games. More than any of the other games it lets you play with speed and agility, just like the really good Youtube players could in Dark Souls and Dark Souls II. The difference is that Bloodborne’s system is, for lack of a better way to put it, easier to use. The controls are fast the tight, hits are satisfying and the parries and backstabs feel deadly and bad-ass again.
Weapons have also been changed up in the new game. Instead of dozens of different swords, knives, hammers, bows and shields, all of which fall into one of several equivalence classes, Bloodborne has about 20 weapons, total. Weapons are separated into two classes. Left hand weapons are the guns, torches and a flame thrower. They can only be wielded in the left hand (duh) and are usually not what you would use for your main source of damage.
The right hand weapons in the game are called “trick” weapons because each one incorporates two move sets. To switch from one move set to another you hit L1 to change the form of the weapon. The main forms of each weapon tend to be more compact and faster to attack. The alternate form tends to have more reach, but also slower attacks. You also get some special attack animations if you transform the weapon after taking a swing. I’m not good enough to ever remember to do this.
I will use my three favorite weapons as examples:
The Threaded Cane. The main form of this weapon is a “cane” that you wield like a short sword. You get fast swings and pokes. The alternate form is a metal whip that you can use to hit from further away. The whip’s heavy attacks also do pretty good damage.
The Hunter Axe. An axe that turns into a halberd. This is your weapon for Spin to Win. I always loved the halberds in Dark Souls so I have a soft spot for this weapon. Its main problem is that it is slow, which works against the dash dash R1-spam style that the game encourages.
Ludwig’s Sword. This is by far the best general purpose weapon in the game. There are other weapons that are faster. There are other weapons with more reach, more style, or more smashing goodness. But if what you want to do is unleash holy terror on your enemies, especially in PVE, then I can’t imagine anything is better than this sword. The main form is a reincarnation of the Balder Side Sword from Dark Souls. The alternate form is a reincarnation of the Claymore from Dark Souls, but with an even better move set. In a strength and skill (dex) based build you do ludicrous damage with fast swings. With an arcane build you can have it do fire damage instead. It’s just awesome.
I have found the other weapons that I’ve tried in the game to be a mixed bag. The Saw Cleaver is on the game box, and it’s ok, but I didn’t bond with it. The giant hammer weapon is OK but clunky. Some of the late game weapons have their place in PVP or other special situations, but I did not like them as much as the sword. I have not tried the spears or the rifles.
The one class of weapon that I really miss in Bloodborne is the bows. I realize that bows make no sense in the setting, but not being able to pull or snipe enemies from a distance is a bit annoying at times. The levels are generally designed so that you can get by, but there were a few times in the game where I’d have really just like to sit back and snipe things. The guns just don’t have the same range or damage profile. I would have liked a sniper rifle.
One other thing that I miss from the previous games is being able to upgrade more than one weapon to +10 in one playthrough. Dark Souls II mostly got this right, but really, why can’t we just buy weapons upgrades with souls (or whatever they are called, leave me alone)? Hopefully they will patch this the same way they patched Dark Souls.
Environment and Plot
Pretty much right on form. The maps are dark and mysterious. They wind around and around and then plop you out right back where you started. The overall world is a cross between some terrible Lovecraftian nightmare and the Tower of Latria from Demon’s Souls. I have to imagine that this is what they were after. The plot doesn’t make much sense. But this does not bother me since the YouTube people will explain it to me later. The bosses are mostly fun, except for the aforementioned camera problems and some moments of tedium in the late game. The best thing about the boss fights is that you can generally run to them without any interference. Dark Souls II seemed to go out of its way to make this hard, especially since you could get stunlocked and killed while entering the boss fog, which is bullshit.
Overall the main game might be a bit shorter than the others. But if you want to spend more time tediously killing things you can play the Chalice Dungeons which are a bit of a knod to Diablo-style farming. The maps for these dungeons are mostly fixed, but a few are randomly generated. Apparently you can make random ones over and over again to get some elite loot if you get lucky. I have not really looked into this heavily. I found the dungeons to be too repetitive and soulless (to coin a phrase). I might finish them off to get the platinum trophy, but I have my doubts.
Again, pretty much on form. By this I mean the matchmaking is janky and confusing and makes no one happy. People who want to invade (or be invaded) can’t find action and instead people who are just trying to play through the game get murdered over and over again. Once a match starts I think the new combat mechanics make them really fun. Being able to PVP without worrying about humanity-related resources is also nice. I think this might need some time to evolve before the action can get more consistent.
I have not tried the co-op too much (just one fight). Apparently the matchmaking is similarly janky. More news later as we learn more.
The new combat and weapons systems make this game worth the price of admission (unless you don’t have or don’t plan to buy a PS4, in which case from what I hear you just won’t get to play this). So, buy the game for the weapons, stay for the one-of-a-kind style and world building. Bloodborne takes its place along side Dark Souls as the best of the series.
I will now go murder some more terrible creatures in NG+ with my giant sword.
Extra notes: you can watch my relatively incompetent attempts at the various bosses on YouTube. The PS4 YouTube upload feature is really nice.