Review: Bloodborne

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Bloodborne cover art.

When From Software announced Bloodborne, fans of the Souls games were excited for another entry in the now-infamous franchise. Set in a gothic victorian town, the environment of Bloodborne is both dark and beautiful, with plenty of open places to explore that allow players to go wherever they may wander, so long as they have the skill or level to make it there. However, it is not a typical fantasy role playing game – the absence of armor and plenty of guns means that the game that was delivered was something very different from Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, and not quite what fans were expecting. Despite these changes, From Software still managed to create a game worthy of the Souls legacy.

Story? Kind of…

The story of Bloodborne begins in an operating room, with the player receiving a blood transfusion from a blindfolded man in a wheelchair. The only direction given is to seek the mysterious paleblood, and the player is set out into the city of Yharnam, where the game takes place. Yharnam has mostly succumbed to the overuse of blood. The blood was from the Old Ones and led to power, the power led to overuse and the overuse led to normal people turning into beasts. With the beasts running rampant, hunters began to show up to fight them off but they weren’t strong or numerous enough, so normal people began to be recruited to join the fight. This led to the formation of the Hunter’s Workshop, where hunters could make weapons and become stronger. The Hunter’s Workshop is the central hub of the game where the player will level up, allocate stats and upgrade weapons.

Bloodborne is a From Software game so in typical fashion the story is hidden in item descriptions and dialogue with non-playable characters. Most of the story can be discerned from these item descriptions, but there are still aspects that can only be speculated at. Director Hidetaka Miyazaki explains his storytelling technique by relating it to when, as a child, he would read English fantasy novels. Miyazaki couldn’t understand all of the English words so he would fill in the story with his imagination. In a world where the majority of developers over-explain even the most basic of stories, From Software’s approach is a nice change of pace. If the player wants to know the story, they must go out and find it. Conversely, if the player is not at all interested in the story and just wants to go fight enemies, they can do that, too. However, this method of storytelling is not without its faults. Some of the items that help tell the story are very well hidden, meaning that many players will never get the chance to put all the pieces together, if the pieces can even be put together. That said, letting the player decide if they want to know the story is a great way to empower them.

Fight! Fight! Fight!

The combat system in Bloodborne is similar enough to the Souls series that veteran players will find it easy to get into, yet it is different enough to feel like a new experience. The controls and how the character moves all feel similar, but slow, defensive combat is no where to be found in Bloodborne; instead, the player must rely on instinct, timing and weapon choice to defeat foes. While fighting, the player has a number of options to employ. The primary weapons are not as numerous as other From Software games, but each has a transformation that changes the weapon from one handed to two, thereby allowing the player to change up the moveset mid-combo. For instance, the hand axe becomes a pole axe and the beast claw splits into two for a quick dual wield. Swapping back and forth between weapon forms mid-fight is seamless, as the character will continue to attack while performing the transformation.

Parrying attacks with your gun or dodging are the only viable ways to avoid damage in a fight. Similar to the parry mechanic in Souls games, guns work great once the player learns the timing windows. They won’t win you the fight on their own, but they are the most effective way to get in a visceral attack, which is the new critical attack that replaces both riposte and backstab.There are a nice variety of guns to choose from, allowing players to use both long range and short range strategies depending on how they prefer to play the game. While effective at scoring a visceral attack, most guns do not do enough damage on their own to effectively win a fight, but they can be used to end one once your opponent is at a low enough health.

Backstabs (visceral attacks from behind) can still be performed, but are much harder to pull off as the only way to get one is to do a charged R2 button attack and catch a foe in the back. The enemy will then go down and a backstab can be initiated. The easier way to get a critical attack is to parry an attack with a gun. The parry can be performed only when you shoot an enemy while they are in the middle of an attack animation. Visceral attacks do much more damage than regular attacks and are a splendid way to finish off enemies, especially other players in player versus player (PvP) fights. These changes have a marked effect on PvP fights as they have eliminated “backstab fishing,” where the main strategy is to get around to the opponent’s back. This leads to more fast paced fights rather than the slow defensive fights often found in prior Souls games.

Armor is much more limited in scope – weight is never a factor as no matter what the character wears they will always fast dodge. Ergo, there isn’t a large difference between sets like there is between the heavy and light armor sets in Dark Souls. With fast and offensive-based combat at the center of the gameplay, this change makes sense as it keeps everyone vulnerable and unable to hide behind a set of armor. Also, there are not any rings to wear in Bloodborne as runes have taken up that role. Runes can be found throughout the game but can only be unlocked once the player finds the rune workshop item. The runes have abilities such as increasing health, stamina or affecting the strength of magic.

Join Us

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Multiplayer works differently than in previous Souls games, but it isn’t necessarily better.

Multiplayer is handled very differently than in past Souls games. Before Bloodborne, multiplayer gameplay was generally only available while the player was in human form (players started the game in a state of death known as hollow). Once in that form, players had to use a humanity or human effigy item to summon other players, but now since there is no humanity-like system, all player interaction is done through ringing bells: the beckoning bell to summon co-op help, the resonant bell to match the beckoning bell to go assist with co-op and the sinister bell to invade someone. Aside from the bell mechanic, co-op is akin to prior Souls games with the person who is summoned into a game being sent home upon death or the area boss being defeated. Getting together with friends is relatively easy as you can set a password for your game in the network settings and only those who have the same password on their game can enter yours. Unfortunately, the password system doesn’t always work quickly, thereby leaving both players sitting around in their game waiting to connect. The password system works well enough (most of the time) but the name engraved ring system in Dark Souls II, where you put on the ring and chose a certain god, thereby only showing signs of people with that same god who the player can match with, works better with quicker results. Bloodborne has no rings but From Software could have easily added in a rune with a similar function.

Invading other players is much more limited than before since a player can only be invaded when a character called “the bell-ringing woman” appears in their game. She only appears when a player is engaged in co-op or in the later stages of the game. Furthermore, once the bell-ringing woman is killed that player can not be invaded anymore. While this system is great to protect beginner players during their first time through the game, the player should be given the option to remove these safeguards for all subsequent playthroughs. This would allow the more skilled players to easily find each other through the new game plus mode and beyond.

A healthy dilemma

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While some may argue the changes to combat make Bloodborne too easy, it fits with the new gameplay mechanics.

One of the most divisive mechanics introduced in Bloodborne is the ability to regain health by inflicting damage on enemies after being damaged. When hit, the player’s health bar is lowered but the damage isn’t permanent yet. If the player is quick enough and can get in a few attacks, they can get back a large chunk of that lost health. While veteran fans of the Souls series were worried that this ability would make the game too easy, being able to recoup health is a brilliant idea because it fits right into the gameplay style that From Software wanted. In the Souls series the player can turtle behind a shield or use magic, thereby playing defensively or at range and win fairly easily. In Bloodborne the player has no shield and since guns will not inflict a large amount of damage until much later in the game, the player must dodge and pick an opportune moment to attack. If the player is damaged, they can see how much health they will lose if they don’t act quickly. This applies pressure onto the player and can easily lead into making a costly mistake. On the other hand, if the player manages to get in a good combo and recoup a sizeable chunk of health, the satisfaction felt is palpable.

What’s Old Is New

When talking about video games sooner or later someone will bring up the “I” word: innovation. Bloodborne is a splendid example of innovation done correctly. The basic formula from the Souls games is there but it has been stripped, added to and remolded into something entirely new. The game feels both similar and fresh at the same time, therefore assuaging veterans while luring in new players. With fast paced entertaining combat, deep lore that still requires players to seek out and the ability to play with friends, Bloodborne is a game that people will keep playing for years. From Software has succeeded at creating a new IP that optimizes old concepts while using new ideas to create fresh content.