Bloodborne is a tough game to review and not just because it’s an insanely difficult game to play (although that has a lot to do with it). Bloodborne is a game designed to push you to your limits; it has no time to explain things to you and would surely laugh off your frequently futile attempts to parse out its secrets and mechanics. It’s a game seemingly designed for masochists that want to put themselves through unnecessary struggle and frustration. Those that persevere and begin to understand Bloodborne’s idiosyncrasies, however, will likely fall in love with the game and discover one of the most rewarding gaming experiences of 2015.
A spiritual successor to the popular Dark Souls titles, Bloodborne is the latest creation from the team at From Software, exclusively for the PlayStation 4. A third person action/horror game, Bloodborne is set in the fictional Victorian Gothic-inspired city of Yharnam, where the entire citizenry has been infected with some sort of blood sickness. The premise is vague: as a Hunter, it is your job to venture into Yharnam to figure out what has turned the city’s denizens into deranged, bestial figures (while also trying to find a cure for your own unexplained affliction). While there isn’t much plot to go on, Bloodborne more than makes up for it with its chilling atmosphere and horrifying imagery. At its core, Bloodborne may be an action game, but make no mistake: this is a frightening game to play and not just because of the disturbing creatures that lurk around every corner, ready to tear you to shreds.
From Software also creates horror through their gameplay systems. Unlike most modern gaming experiences, Bloodborne doesn’t hold your hand. Instead, it takes your hand and puts it through a meat grinder and asks if you want more while it laughs at you. You will die and die often. Nothing is ever clearly explained, from the way the combat system works to the checkpoint system. Players acquire “blood echoes” from slain enemies, a currency that can be exchanged for helpful items like health potions and Molotov cocktails, as well as leveling up character abilities. Unfortunately, when you die, you lose all of your unspent blood echoes and have one chance to get them back. If you die again before picking them up, they’re gone forever. This leads to an extreme level of caution and fear when exploring new locations, as enemies can kill your character in just a few hits in most cases.
The intense difficulty will undoubtedly turn many players off, but those who persevere and begin to figure out the game’s mysteries will find a rewarding progression system beating. Numerous deaths and failures eventually lead to victory and it’s hard to think of a more gratifying feeling in gaming than when you take down a boss that’s been absolutely demolishing you for hours. It’s a game of small victories, which flies in the face of most modern games, which generally put the emphasis on empowering the player to the point of redundancy.
Veterans of Dark Souls will find a lot of familiar elements in Bloodborne, but there are enough key differences that change the nature of combat in the series. Dark Souls was largely focused on defensive play: shields and armor were essential to success. There are no shields in Bloodborne (other than a very useless wooden one). Instead, the focus is on offensive combat. Firearms take the place of shields and are used to interrupt enemy attacks in order to deal out massive follow-up damage. An aggressive play-style is practically essential for success, which is a smart design decision because it forces you to fight against your natural playing instincts (which generally consist of running away from all the terrifying creatures vying to kill you).
While there is a lot to love in Bloodborne, there are some significant issues holding it back. The crushing difficulty absolutely ensures the game will have niche appeal. While there’s nothing wrong with creating an experience designed for a certain type of player, there are a lot of excellent designs in Bloodborne, and it’s a shame that many people won’t get to experience them because of the large barrier to entry. However, Bloodborne’s niche appeal is a minor issue in comparison to the game’s long and frequent load times. Every time you die or return to the Hunter’s Dream (a homebase of sorts where players can purchase weapons and items), a 40-60 second load time will greet you. If the loading screen offered some tips or lore, they might be bearable, but the loading screen is literally nothing more than a black background with the game’s title. FromSoftware has stated that they are working on a patch that will make the load times much shorter, but right now they are a huge issue that detracts from the overall experience. [Ed. Note: A patch was released in late April that significantly reduced load times. They still happen frequently, but are much more bearable].
The constant state of fear and dread that Bloodborne evokes is impressive because it’s a result of both the grotesque nature of the world and the restrictions put on players. A game such as this could easily be written off as “cheap” or “unfair”, but the truth is much more complicated and interesting. Bloodborne is designed to frustrate and yet most of the time, it’s not the game’s fault that you fail – it’s yours. The more you play, the better you become, and it’s this mix of constant failure and occasional success that lies at the heart of Bloodborne’s design. Haunting, frustrating, and rewarding, Bloodborne is an acquired taste that just might become an obsession, if given the chance.
-Impressive overall design. Gameplay is responsive and thrilling
-Well-realized world. Gothic aesthetic is refreshing and creepy
-Extreme difficulty will turn off a lot of players
-The enemies will crush your spirit; the loading times will crush your patience