From Software’s spiritual successor to the Dark Souls series may seem unfamiliar at first to longtime fans, but the changes in Bloodborne‘s combat and pacing make for a more exciting but no less punishing experience.
I’ll start with a confession: I’ve never been a fan of the Dark Souls games. I loved the dark fantasy setting and the challenge it presented, but the actual gameplay always felt plodding and dull. It didn’t help that I never played Dark Souls until after I had spent hours with Capcom’s Dragon’s Dogma, a similar hardcore action RPG which I found to be superior in almost every way.
I still gave Dark Souls a fair turn, but after experiencing Dragon’s Dogma’s combat engine and using it to climb on top of dragons and griffons for death-defying mid-air battles, I just didn’t enjoy the interminably slow style of gameplay that Dark Souls required: turtling behind a massive shield, letting enemies bang away at it and looking for a brief window to swipe once or twice at them before retreating to safety. Dark Souls was difficult enough, but I often felt like the game’s controls were as much a liability for my survival as the enemies I was fighting.
Thankfully, Bloodborne eschews the sword-and-board combat of the Dark Souls series for faster paced dual-wielding combat using a melee weapon in the right hand and a gun in the left. The game’s guns do far less damage than your character’s melee weapon, filling more of a defensive and utility role than an offensive weapon. You can use your gun to soften up an enemy by chipping away at their health before closing to melee distance, draw enemies away from larger groups to engage them in single combat, or, most importantly, use your firearm to stun an enemy that’s attacking you.
Shooting an enemy in the middle of their combat animation will not only stun them but leave them open to a Visceral Attack, if timed correctly. This move is a follow-up melee attack that does enough damage to one-hit kill most early enemies and take out large chunks of tougher enemies’ and bosses’ health bars.
Learning how to effectively use your gun is crucial to surviving in Bloodborne. Without a shield, playing conservatively as Dark Souls veterans are conditioned to do will quickly get you killed. The game encourages you to play much more offensively, especially with the new Recovery mechanic where attacking enemies after taking damage will refill part or all of the health you just lost.
Yet just because the game requires you to play more aggressively doesn’t mean you have to be reckless. Bloodborne is punishingly difficult; playing well becomes a tactical dance of using the dodge maneuver to evade enemy attacks and flank opponents, stringing together combos, utilizing various support items, and using Visceral Attacks to quickly finish single enemies. Rest assured, Dark Souls fans: Bloodborne is still as brutally hard as its predecessors, and the faster and more fluid combat provides for a more thrilling experience without ever feeling like a mindless button-masher.
Make no mistake: you will die in Bloodborne, a lot, especially in your first few hours of the game, where a group of the game’s most basic foes can bring palm-sweating panic, while deadlier enemies like werewolves and trolls can seem like an exercise in controller-snapping futility.
I’ve died countless times in the hours I’ve spent playing Bloodborne; the game’s first boss slew me somewhere between 10-20 times before I was able to defeat it.
When you die in Bloodborne, you lose all of your Blood Echoes, which function as both the game’s currency and experience points. You’ll respawn with the chance to retrieve them, either from the spot where you were slain or by defeating an enemy who may have collected them in your absence (look for foes with glowing blue eyes). Die a second time before you retrieve your Blood Echoes, however, and they’re gone forever.
This might seem like a crippling design choice, especially since you can’t use any of your accrued Blood Echoes to level up your character’s attributes until after you encounter the game’s first boss, but Bloodborne is deceptively forgiving in death.
When you die, every enemy (except for bosses) respawns along with you. This gives you the opportunity to make up for every defeat by farming kills from freshly respawned mobs to replenish all the precious Blood Echoes you’ve lost. It also gives you a chance to learn enemy attack patterns, level layout, and master the combat mechanics. Practice makes perfect, and Bloodborne will provide you with plenty of opportunities to prove that maxim.
The aggressive play style that Bloodborne demands is what separates and elevates it so much from the Souls series. Even as I leveled up and gained new abilities in Dark Souls, I never felt like I was doing more than surviving in its world. Bloodborne, when played well, exhibits the best sense of player empowerment I’ve experienced in some time.
The sense of tension and danger isn’t diminished by your ability to thrive against the game’s enemies; even the simplest of monsters can still present a deadly threat to the careless, but as you level up and equip yourself with better and fortified equipment, you feel like the Hunter your character is supposed to embody. Dodging between mobs of enemies, countering their attacks, and devastating your foes with carefully timed counters, combos, and sweeping area attacks makes you feel like a genuine badass.
For perhaps the ten other people who have played it, Bloodborne reminds me of another favorite RPG series, Gothic, where the first 10-15 hours are a punishingly difficult experience where you’re forced to struggle to survive against enemies that don’t scale to your level and pose a deadly threat to your character, where trial-and-error and the intelligent use of your limited skills and equipment train you to thrive in the game’s unforgiving world.
Bloodborne makes you work for every inch of progress, and when it pays off, the reward is an exhilarating experience.
I won’t spoil any of the game’s story, as discovering the secrets of the weird and mysterious world of Bloodborne is just as compelling as the gameplay. You’re an outsider in the corrupted city of Yharnam who awakens on an operating table with the vague recollection of being called a “Hunter” whose designation as a “Paleblood” seems to draw the interest of various characters within the game world. With this ignoble beginning, you set off into the sprawling city to face hordes of zombified townsfolk, werewolves, ghouls, and hulking monsters, among other enemies.
Adding to the superb combat mechanics are the game’s compelling art design and musical score. The gothic horror, Victorian-era setting of the game results in beautifully dark environments and character designs, while the soundtrack weaves perfectly between sublime and intense music depending on the situation.
Bloodborne has its flaws, from minor annoyances like NPCs whose mouths don’t move at all during dialogue to frame-rate dips in more hectic situations (which will become quickly apparent once players reach Old Yarnham for the first time) to more significant issues.
The game’s camera can be a liability, sometimes obscuring the action in more narrow levels or getting stuck behind objects in the richly decorated and detailed environments. The lock-on targeting system can also be a problem, particularly since the game will keep you locked on to an enemy even after they’re dead for several seconds as they go through their death animation, a delay that can quickly lead to your death in the middle of hectic fights between multiple enemies. Still, none of these flaws outweigh the overwhelming brilliance of the rest of the game.
I’m not finished with my time in Bloodborne‘s, no pun intended, bloody world, and I haven’t explored the game’s multiplayer yet, but unless the bottom unexpectedly and drastically falls out in the process of finishing the game, consider this a ringing endorsement of From Software’s latest release. The gorgeous visuals, inscrutable game world and story, and superb gameplay make this a must play and, in this writer’s opinion, the first exclusive to justify the purchase of a next-generation console.
Bloodborne is available now for the Playstation 4. Follow Noah Dulis on Twitter @Marshal_Dov.