There’s a really interesting thought process that runs through my head whenever I encounter a new creature in Bloodborne. First, I ask myself if it’s hostile (and there’s a 99% chance that it is). Next, I study it quickly, making mental notes of everything about it. This monster looks pretty big and he’s holding a machete roughly the size of my torso. After that quick assessment, I decide the best course of action in a split second. Since he’s rather large, I want to make sure I keep him at a distance and send him reeling with powerful swings from my axe. I instinctively switch my axe into its oversized form with a flick of the L1 button.
Then I smile and go for blood.
Bloodborne is all about the thrill of the hunt. Each and every encounter can quickly prove to be your last. Enemies are extremely aggressive, timing is key to survival, and small mistakes leave you with sucking chest wounds that you probably don’t have time to heal. All of this should sound familiar to those who’ve enjoyed the previous Souls games, but Bloodborne has a feel and style all its own. This is a game that openly mocks the typical turtling-shield method that I used to (mostly) great success in my sojourns through Boletaria, Lordran and Drangleic. Here you’re expected to stay on the offensive, move with careful consideration, and quickly dispatch a threat before it has the chance to send you back to the beginning of the nightmare.
You arrive in Yharnam, home of a supposed cure to the plague infesting the entire land. Following a trip to the local clinic for a blood transfusion, you eventually awaken in the Hunter’s Dream, a place representing the endless cycle of death and rebirth that you can’t seem to escape from. It’s here you’ll make your most important choice in Bloodborne; which weapon you are going to use against the nightmarish fiends roaming the land. There’s something oddly Pokémon-esque about this approach, with each weapon featuring a different moveset and playstyle. I couldn’t grasp the nuances of the threaded cane (a sword doubling as a chain whip), so instead I opted for the axe and its incredible damage output and versatile attack patterns.
Your first steps into Central Yharnam are a trial. Much like the opening areas in Demon’s and Dark Souls, you’re expected to learn quickly and deal with an ever increasing number of enemies and challenges. The green stamina bar depletes with each weapon swing and agile dodge, though it allows for far more actions that the previous games. With shields no longer a viable option, Bloodborne forces you to dash in and out of trouble, find precious choke points to bottleneck enemy mobs, and find time to administer blood vials and heal any damage you might have received. Thankfully, you’re given a short period of time to regain lost health should you land an attack, and this only further entices you to take an offensive stance against your enemies.
Truth be told, I had a hard time adjusting to the opening hours in Bloodborne and probably saw more “You Died” screens than I did in my entire journey through Dark Souls II. Several key changes to the Souls formula threw me for a loop. Enemies have far more moves than I was expecting, with some proving to be purely situational. Some of the beastly townsfolk pushed me away while I was attempting to take long slow swings with my axe at close range. Sure, the damage was minimal, but it left me off balance, panic stricken, and prone to making careless mistakes instead of maintaining my composure. But the biggest surprise to enemy behavior is the way most of the hostiles patrol the world on set paths. This forces players to take their time and survey the scene before properly engaging the enemy. Maybe you should wait to let that giant brute leave before taking on his smaller brethren. I’d make it a habit of stocking up on pebbles that can be thrown to lure the weaker sheep from the herd.
Director Hidetaka Miyazaki returns to the genre after leaving Dark Souls II to another team, and his presence cannot be overstated. It feels like the master has returned to make your life miserable in the best possible way. Enemy placement is almost always designed to challenge and keep you guessing. That lone enemy looking at an item on the ground with his back turned to you? Yeah, you can bet there’s something else lurking in the shadows. Or maybe a trap. Or maybe both. Where Dark Souls II often frustrated me with its endless cast of “large dudes with large weapons” or massive mobs, Bloodborne focuses on enemies working together to kill you. You better believe there’s always a rifleman waiting to plug you at a distance while his mates rush at close range.
Bosses are another Miyazaki specialty, and Bloodborne continues his winning streak. The first couple of encounters are going to cause some thrown controllers and cries of indignation on message boards, to be sure. The Cleric Beast, as expected, proved a bit too much for the lock-on camera, so make sure to switch that off and run round him to gain the advantage. As for Father Gascoigne, well, try not to panic and remember that you can dash after getting knocked down (though you’d better time it right or you’ll end up right back on the ground again). The best part about these bosses is how careful analysis and observation will always yield the best results. I didn’t think there was any way I could beat some of the bigger monstrosities lying in wait, but I was able to overcome every obstacle in the main campaign without asking for co-op help (which is a first for me as a Souls veteran). Sure, my hands were shaking and my heart felt like it was going to explode, but I persevered and slaughtered my prey.
It must be said that Yharnam is one of the most consistent and engaging environments I’ve had the pleasure of exploring in any video game. The Victorian-era-inspired art design is flat out fantastic, with incredible vistas and gorgeous landscapes filled with an eerie sense of dread that looms over everything. With this consistency in vision comes a slight lack of variety, however. Where Dark Souls II featured lava castles, mining sites, and the pirate’s cove from The Goonies, Bloodborne keeps everything in a dark fantasy setting that can feel a little samey at times. It’s all amazingly realized and very immersive, but don’t expect to see too much cheer or whimsy in Yharnam. Thankfully, the level design combines the best aspects of Demon’s and Dark Souls. The Hunter’s Dream serves as the hub area where you can upgrade your character and gear like the Nexus in Boletaria, while the world is interconnected and set up like a maze straight from Lordran. The verticality of the environments also evokes The Tower of Latria (possibly my favorite Souls level ever), as do the dreaded chime-wielding maidens who I’ll leave you to discover on your own…
There’s been a lot of discussion and speculation about the number of weapons, given the prominence of certain implements in the various trailers and gameplay reveals. It is indeed true that the number of weapons has been significantly pared down from the Souls games. When I finally beat the game, I had unlocked roughly seven trick weapons (those are your transformable main armaments) and eight offhand gadgets. Thankfully, each weapon is entirely different from the others. Remember how each katana in Dark Souls had basically the same moveset with only slight differences in stat bonuses? Well, there’s no mistaking a saw cleaver for a stake driver. Each weapon feels entirely unique, and I can’t wait to see videos from experienced players showing off how to effectively use each one. My axe remained my primary weapon for the entire game because I loved the moveset so much. Trying to switch over to the saw spear left me yearning for the familiarity of the axe, and I’m sure each player will swear by their favorite.
Upgrading weapons should be familiar to any Souls player, but Bloodborne adds some much needed flexibility and player choice. You still upgrade a weapon using material found through the world (this time they’re called bloodstones, of course) but now you can further enhance a weapon using bloodgems. Yep, they basically put Final Fantasy 7’s materia system into the game, and it is glorious! Bloodgems can do anything from enhance your base damage, enchant to deal fire damage, decrease (or increase!) stamina costs, or even add a fast-acting poison attack. Best of all, you can easily swap out gems, so you’re never forced into making a decision and potentially regretting it later. Bloodgems derive their power from the rarity of the gem, meaning you won’t be farming for a new short sword to make a lightning version of it. Now you’ll be scouring for the gems to make your current weapon stronger.
Which brings me to the most mysterious and potentially interesting part of Bloodborne, the Chalice Dungeons. Think of these as randomly-generated death traps with various rewards sprinkled throughout. You generate a dungeon in the Hunter’s Dream using ritual components that can enhance enemies or spawn incredibly powerful bosses. Dungeon rewards currently seem a bit mixed, but I did manage to find two incredibly powerful gems that boosted my base attack by nearly 40% and a unique weapon that has me completely rethinking my playstyle. Whether these dungeons will continue to reap fantastic rewards remains to be seen, but for now they are an intensely curious component to the experience that begs for exploration and traversal.
And I still have a lot of exploring to do! I managed to beat the main quest at around 34 hours, which may seem short to some, but keep in mind that I hadn’t spent any time in the Chalice Dungeons up until that point. There are also numerous areas I’ve yet to explore, and I didn’t even manage to find a single covenant yet (though I know they exist). There are still doors to unlock and new weapons to find. Hell, I didn’t even manage to find the other two weapon choices from the start of the game. Maybe you can’t get them until you start New Game+. Who knows, but this is the super exciting time when there are still tons of mysteries to solve. The online component was available thanks to a dedicated server for reviewers, but I didn’t have a chance to engage in any jolly cooperation. I’m looking forward to helping other players with some of the greater evils in Yharnam (or maybe making their life a living hell) as more hunters join the fray.
There are, unfortunately, some issues, and I hope they will be addressed in future patches. The lock-on system seems a bit wonkier than previous From Software titles, and the camera can’t quite keep up with some of the faster enemies and bosses. The vast majority of foes are cleverly designed and fun to fight, but a few have incredibly aggravating attacks and cheesy moves (I’m looking at you, Rom). The biggest misstep comes with the new blood vial health system. You can hold twenty blood vials at a time, and any extras found in the world are stored and instantly added back to your base supply when you die. Farming doesn’t take too long, but you may be forced to find blood vials after falling to a boss when all you want to do is restart the encounter. I’m guessing this change came because you’re going to take a lot of damage in combat and the developers wanted you to find blood vials in the environment to stay stocked up, but it’s an inelegant solution that breaks the flow of the adventure. Here’s hoping the drop rate increases a bit to compensate.
But Bloodborne is more than just gameplay systems and stats. There’s a real sense of accomplishment and player growth that I haven’t even felt in the other Souls games. I started Bloodborne scared and unsure, quaking in my boots every time a new enemy showed its ugly face. I was horrified, timid and alone. But now, I have a confidence and strong sense of self. I am a hunter in Yharnam. I’m confident in my abilities, I know my weaknesses, and I trust my instincts. There’s a real bloodlust that builds up in you once things start to click. You’ll want to hunt, you’ll want to kill, and you’ll thirst for blood to make you more powerful. I find Bloodborne intoxicating, and I trust you’ll find the same should you let it get into your system.