Game Review

by Dave Riley,

Bloodborne

PS4

Description:
Bloodborne
From Software and Hidetaka Miyazaki's Bloodborne presents a similar flavor to their earlier Souls games, but with a Victorian look, speedier combat, and eldritch aspirations.
Review:

Some hours into Bloodborne you'll find your first shield, a rotten wooden board, whose item description comments on its poor construction and immediately insults you for considering using it. "Shields are nice, but not if they engender passivity" as if to outright say "this isn't Dark Souls."

But of course it is. This game uses the same passive storytelling, the same slim-margin victories against gigantic bosses, the same nerve-wracking explorations down darkened corridors and fetid swamps, even the same sound effects as every Souls game that's come before it. The proper names may be tweaked--bonfires are now "lamps," souls are now "blood echoes"--but, pithy jabs at turtling players aside, if Bloodborne isn't cast in the same mold as Dark Souls, it was at least made at the same factory. Set in the sprawling city of Yarnham, Bloodborne's central conceit is The Hunt, a recurring ritual purge of corrupted beasts. You are The Hunter, one of many, who roves out on cursed nights to cleanse the city of its crazed inhabitants, ravenous werewolves, and the other wretched creatures that cause honest, god-fearing folk to cower indoors and light protective incense as they pray for dawn to come.

You can accuse Bloodborne of sticking a coat of Victorian architecture, Gothic beasties, and Lovecraftian worldview on a Souls game and trying to pass it off as something new, but that would deny its major, carefully calibrated gameplay shifts. Entering the first area, you watch from a ledge as a mob of angry villagers, looking like they're off to roust Frankenstein's monster, rambles its way down the street. Compared to the lugubrious moans or rare yelps of Dark Souls' undead Hollows, these people screech, shout, sometimes even cavort. They aren't waiting around for someone to wander by, they are out and about, stalking their own prey. Engaged head-on, these groups of three or four, with their torches, pitchforks, and axes, will make mincemeat out of a veteran Souls player. At least, until that player shifts away from their dearly-held playstyle and towards what Bloodborne expects from them.

Dark Souls emphasizes working around your limitations, Bloodborne encourages you to flaunt your versatility. Ditching shields and heavy armor, combat relies on quick evasion and faster riposte. The adage that's seen us through three games already, "never fight two enemies at once if you can help it," carries no water here; you can rarely help it, and so you must face the hordes. To give you a fighting chance they've made your character speedier, added extra invincibility frames to the dodge roll, and substantially eased the parry timing. There are no longer weight limits, so feel free to equip two melee weapons and swap between them. Called "trick weapons," each converts between speedy and slow forms with hefty visual flair, your hunter throwing their arm out sideways to unfurl an innocuous cane into a whip sword or to reveal a hidden pistol in the hilt of their rapier. You can weave transformations into a combo, pressing a shoulder button to yank the haft of your handaxe mid-strike, extend it into a two-handed battle axe, and bring the whole thing crashing down to pancake the werewolf rearing to pounce. Instead of the brutish thwack of a shield bash, parrying is done with a flourish: snapping off a pistol shot the instant before an attack lands leaves your foe on their knees for the coup-de-grace. Staggering an enemy with a bullet, and the ultra-damage critical attack that follows, works on nearly everything in the game, including most bosses. Facing down a charging ogre and squeezing the trigger on your blunderbuss, the blast of black powder muted under the resonant gong of a successful parry, sends a thrill through your shoulders when you do it right, and a clench of despair through your gut each time you whiff, find yourself smashed to paste, and end up back at the loading screen.

Firearms and a better dodge animation don't mean you're playing a character action game, this isn't Bayonetta. Nor are guns anything like Dark Souls's bows, which let players pepper surprisingly patient monsters with poison arrows from afar. Most guns, with their weak damage and limited ammo, are more tools than weapons, and Bloodborne is about being creative with your toolbox. Chuck a pebble at a band of ghouls to discreetly separate one from the pack, throw molotovs or poison knives while playing keep away from harder minibosses, or lay down glittering coins to mark your path through a twisty-turny forest. Your resources are useful, but limited. Going back to the Demon's Souls model, healing items are scrounged or bought and don't regenerate on death. This puts an edge on boss battles, with the knowledge that losing will cost you more than just your time. Whether or this is good design (or fair design), it trains you to prioritize efficient use of your resources.

Much more than any of its predecessors, Bloodborne offers incentives that keep you playing on the edge of a knife. Your speedy moves encourage aggression, but without Poise, Dark Souls's "stun resistance" stat, anything that's hit you once is likely to hit you four more times before you can get another attack in. The surest way to get yourself killed is hammering on the attack button, trying to get the finishing blow in on an enemy with an empty life bar who's already got you staggered. The safest option is to break off and re-engage, but there's a wrinkle that discourages overly cautious play: walloping something after you're wounded will heal the damage you just took, provided you do it quickly enough. Temporary chip damage means you always have the opportunity to recoup your losses, but it also sets you up to overextend. Every time a villager with a pitchfork, or a thrashing dog, or a two-story tall birdbeast knocks you over, the immediate instinct is to get back in there and wail on them to fill your health right back up, saving you the use of finite healing items, despite the risks, and despite the likely odds that you'll dash face first into another pitchfork villager, dog, or birdbeast in the process. This is every inch of Bloodborne's combat, dancing on that pinpoint between aggressive and foolhardy.

Souls games are worlds in decay. Long past are the days of their flourishing, and whatever violent calamity brought them to ruin has been covered by the slow accretion of debris. Bloodborne, with effigies aflame and torch-wielding citizens posse-d up and roaming the streets, is still in the middle of its apocalyptic row, its thrashing world poised to overgrow the not-yet deserted city. Spitting lines like "Back, foul beast!" the cursed townsfolk seem unaware of their plight, enacting a sad mimicry of the vigilante ritual that is the Hunter's apparently sacred duty. Fought as bosses, another Hunter convinces himself that they he is pure and you are fouled, and a priest wraps herself in prophylactic prayer, only to explode and twist into a gigantic, slavering canid thing at your approach. Are their minds gone? Even those lowly townsfolk, as they are slain, give plaintive cry of "It's that blasted curse…" or "Save me…" Peasants, Hunters, and clergy, all of them: they know, but they do not know they know. What starts as a axe-and-pistol Van Helsing monster hunt eventually spirals upwards into cosmic horror. As the game progresses, you see the effects of the Hunt wreaked upon the mortal form. Previously human bodies have become tall but gangly, their flesh stretched thin to accommodate the growth. Beneath the old town district, long-since burned and quarantined, humans have become scrabbling things that cower from torchlight or cover their twisted bodies in tablecloths. And further down, are the werewolves that prowl the darkest layer of Yarnham something different, or are they just the final link on this evolutionary chain?

Later still, as you gaze upon the spindly, white-haired and slit-mawed beast whose only signifier of humanity is the torch it carries, you think back upon the torch and shield-bearing wretches from the beginning of the game. Does their lack of proximity to this cosmic locus spare them the full terror of this transformation or, left unchecked, will whatever did this, whatever malady necessitates the Hunt, eventually spill across the entire world? Was this alien landscape always so, or does the comfortably human architecture that dots its poison swamps and bleeding crags suggest a place that was once like Yarnham but is now forever lost? The end of the world is not over yet. "Perhaps," suggest some of its fearsome places and some of its fearful populace, "it will never, ever be."

What's always been interesting about these games are not just their refusal to cater to the player--hard games are a dime a dozen these days, many of them with a "Souls-like" label attached--but their refusal to cater to the player character, too. Souls games get much of their feel from casting the player character as a cog in the world's machine. Bloodborne's Hunter isn't even a cog, but a speck. Playing through the ongoing apocalypse, you realize you're not here to stop the cataclysm, but merely caught up in its culmination. The role of the witness is core to the Cthulhu-style storytelling; how better to render someone powerless than allowing them only to watch?

In attempting cosmic horror the creators of Bloodborne assume the impossible task of visually representing things meant to be literally indescribable. Compounding this, it's a video game, which means that, by and large, everything in it can be killed with an axe or a cannon or a fireball. They skirt the issue, leaving their Great Ones on the fringes, seen only in the corner of your eye (that is: mostly in item descriptions), and without a depletable health bar to break the illusion of their omnipotence. But their presence is felt. The city might ape Victorian London, but an eerie wrongness pervades Yarnham. Staring up at the coarsely-carved statues that line the staircase up to the Grand Cathedral of the Healing Church, you examine their emaciated bodies and the oblong shape of their heads, membranous and dimpled, resembling giant alien peanuts, and you think "this place is supposed to be the sole source of remaining good in this city?" As you first venture out into the city you hear what sound like festivities behind some closed doors, even as the streets convulse in horror. You get the sense that for some The Hunt is like an annual fete, an excuse to hole up behind barred doors and windows and drink til dawn while the Hunters do their ghastly business. But as dusk turns to night the sounds of revelry cease, replaced by screams, sobs, or silence.

For their many rotten places, Souls games have their share of beautiful ones too, and dispelling the common complaint that they were all grimy dungeons and rotten sewers was as easy as pointing towards the gilded Anor Londo, the hushed Darkroot Garden, or the mysterious Crystal Caves. Expect less variation here. You'll see the same foreboding stonework, padlock-and-chained coffins, and wrought-iron fences throughout the first fifteen or twenty hours. Even your safe haven, the Hunter's Dream, feels uncanny and off, the tranquility of its flowerbeds and somber music muted by the knowledge that the world outside still burns and there's no option but, eventually, to return to it. Unlike the peace of Majula or the Firelink Shrine, where you could converse with your collected NPCs and, more importantly, take a breath, there is nothing for you in Hunter's Dream but a doll and your tiny skeleton minions, wordlessly hawking their wares and eagerly shooing you back to The Hunt. As you continue on and continue on, the reason why there is no place like Anor Londo is apparent: this is not a game about giving you breaks. Essentially, this is not a game where you have any choice in the matter.

There are fewer items to uncover than you'd expect from a series that's always held scores of weapons, armors, and rings. Magic is essentially gone, memorized spells replaced by rare trinkets you find hidden in secret corners--the severed claw of a beast, a bloody executioner's glove. The weapons are unique from one another, but the selection is slight. The same is true of character statistics, pared down to just six. With Vitality and Endurance essential for survivability, and almost all weapons based on some combination of Strength and Skill (Dexterity), it seems like there's not a lot of space in Bloodborne for a variety of builds. The axe and the saw cleaver might have different movesets, but they're based on basically the same stats, which nullifies the beloved Dark Souls tradition of novelty characters, like a spell slinger based entirely on Faith or a shirtless barbarian dual wielding Demon's Great Hammers. With limited weapon selection, and with most outfits working on a slight tweak of the Brotherhood of the Wolf trench coat and tricorne ensemble, one wonders if we'll ever see the sort of silly cosplay builds these games always manage to descend into.

All these changes are lines moving towards the same goal. Sacrificing breadth, Bloodborne's limited item variety, uniform level design, and blood-soaked aesthetic lend it something Souls games have always lacked: a uniform tone. This almost modern-day city resonates with paradox: it is familiar, yet somehow incomprehensible. The Insight stat pool, this game's Humanity equivalent, might seem primarily a currency to spend on special vendor items and summon co-op help, but it also produces difficult-to-nail-down effects on the world state, sometimes dotting areas with new, more dangerous monsters, sometimes granting existing foes special moves or subtly twisted appearances, and sometimes simply making the unseen seen. Having too much of it will make you more vulnerable to the Frenzy effect, true to the game's eldritch aspirations. Insight is defined as the understanding of the workings of the Hunt and of the beasts themselves. Your character can't level up until they've gained one Insight, at which point the life-size doll who waits in the game's hub awakes and allows you to allocate your collected blood echoes towards Strength, Vitality, Endurance, and so on. Speak to the doll and, in the same dulcet, halting voice of Demon's Souls's Maiden in Black, she shares with you small tidbits about this foreign world and inquires about her place in it. Return to the Hunter's Dream with zero points of Insight, however, and you'll find The Doll lapsed back into torpor, inert, leaving you to wonder if she was ever actually awake at all.

Insight is Bloodborne's thematic and structural core made manifest: the suggestion that there can still be games where things seem unknowable. The world is unpredictable, and your attempts to understand and overcome it leave you teetering between madness and prowess. Picking up a shedded larval husk ("said to be a familiar of a Great One" the item description speculates), it's hard to view the Empty Phantasm Shell solely as a thematic variation on the Magic Weapon spell, even though that's its in-game function. This is not fun, Dungeons & Dragons-style magic, this is something different. If not dangerous, it is at least something unknown, to wonder about and puzzle over, and to never receive a truly concrete, satisfying answer.

These games balance anticipation against revelation, feeding you morsels of information just often enough to keep you hungry for more, doling out equipment and upgrades, new areas and new shortcuts through them, leaving you gripping the controller with shaking hands as you wend through unknown territory with eighty thousand blood echoes at risk, hoping against hope you'll find a lever you can pull, or an elevator you can step on, that brings you back home. Not always perfect, sometimes more frustrating that fear inducing, Bloodborne's branching and looping paths can leave you floundering for where to go next, and never give so much as a cryptic hint. Often, this is exactly what you want. Other times, it would've been nice to know turning left at that fork in the road would eventually let you equip those power-enhancing runes you've been toting around for the past five hours. What makes this tolerable is the scarcity of games that don't tell you everything from the outset. Bloodborne seeds itself with places and events you might not discover throughout an entire playthrough. Even being as diligent as I possibly could, I missed entire areas and there are still locked doors whose purpose, and what lies beyond, I have no inkling of. Here, you can truly feel like anything could happen when you round that next corner. That's a powerful sensation, one mostly lost in big budget games, one worth a few signposting missteps.

It's a hard case to call Bloodborne subtle. Not when every area is populated by top hatted Rob Zombie lookalikes; not when they've replaced the goofily conjugated "You Defeated" with the grim-faced "Prey Slaughtered;" not when the writing brims with blood-this and blood-that. You use blood to heal, you use blood to level up, you read item descriptions about blood, and NPCs send you off with "may the good blood guide your way." There's a whole castle that might as well have been built by blood, for how much its long-dead inhabitants love talking about it, and you can even stab yourself in the leg to summon an emergency reserve of "blood bullets," with a whole button on the controller devoted just to doing that.

But masking subtlety with overindulgence is what these games do. Beneath the Heavy Metal-level obsession with the impure is the game's use of blood as both the sacred and the profane. Blood is representative of not only the grimy, gritty, grossness of corporeal life, but also transcendence. Inside our mortal bodies is the medium required to surpass mortality and attain the knowledge of not just this world, but all possible worlds. To say that Bloodborne is "gross" or "over the top" is in many ways accurate, but leaving it at that sells short its nuance. Everything in here is weaved into the same terrible, seething whole, even the User Interface, even the multiplayer. When seeking a co-op partner, your hunter removes a small bell from their pouch and rings it once, its tinny chime rebounding out into myriad other games, searching for a companion bell to bring assistance in your hunt. But in ringing your bell, and consuming a point of Insight to do so, you've opened a gate, which may draw in things unexpected. Summoned by your chime, The Bell-Ringing Woman appears to sound her own bell, the obverse of yours, calling in those who wish to hunt you.

In a way, attaching Lovecraftian mythos to a Souls universe isn't a retrofit or even completely new. Seen most obviously in elements like Latria's squid-headed jailers and the many-tentacled, more-eyeballed creatures of the Demon Ruins, these worlds have always been colossal and accursed, overwhelming and inscrutable, perilous and awesome; pick your pet Lovecraft adjective, it probably has a place in one of these games. Cosmic horror's blend of adversity, unknowability, and insurmountability is exactly the tone this series has been putting out for the better part of a decade, it just took this long for the connection to be given explicit flesh (and blood).

Grade:
Production Info:
Overall : A+
Graphics : A
Sound/Music : A
Gameplay : A+
Presentation : A+

+ Fast-paced combat, dense and foreboding atmosphere
Sometimes feels directionless, especially this close to release, when many routes and secrets haven't been sussed out.

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