In 30 years of gaming I thought I’d seen every idea, every plot element, every boss fight, every twist on every genre. With game publishers now multi-million pound corporations, churning out their umpteenth blockbuster catering to the lowest common denominator, and all the while monetising everything … yeah, I thought I’d seen the very best gaming had to offer. I simply wasn’t prepared for Bloodborne.
Let’s get one thing straight. If you’re after a linear game with a lot of plot, characters, and exposition, you should look elsewhere. If you’re after a game that you can breeze through in a couple of evenings before moving on, you should look elsewhere. Bloodborne will not hold your hand, it will not give you a handy checkpoint to continue your progress, and it will punish you for every mistake without mercy; it is the harshest of mistresses. So why play it? It’s simple: Bloodborne is arguably the best modern-day example of design and ingenuity to come out of the games industry.
Bloodborne casts you in the role of a hunter, searching for a cure for your ailments in the gothic town of Yharnam. The game’s introductory sequence pulls no punches as it sets its stall out. Yharnam is a constant nightmare. Imagine a town comprised completely of every creepy building and old church you’ve ever seen, and you’re not even close. So what’s remarkable is just how beautiful in its horror Yharnam can be.
Bloodborne’s graphical style is unique. If you analyse things up close, you’ll notice a distinct lack of texture detail. But what Bloodborne lacks in texture effects and detail it makes up for in actual architectural detail. Every brick in every building, and every paving stone you walk on, are all rendered with great care. Carved reliefs are actually carved, not flat surfaces, and it’s all hauntingly lit by Yharnam’s gorgeous, blood-red sky. Bloodborne is a masterclass in architectural design, and the further you venture into Yharnam, the more twisted it becomes, as do its inhabitants.
Yharnam’s denizens are almost all hostile, and extremely dangerous, so it’s just as well that Bloodborne offers some great options for taking them on. You may have noticed I haven’t yet mentioned From Software’s previous titles, Demon’s Souls, and Dark Souls. Well, while Bloodborne does retain the essential DNA of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s previous games, there is one fundamental difference: you no longer have a shield. I loved my shield in Dark Souls, I felt safe with it. But it was like a crutch at times, a crutch that Miyazaki-san has judiciously removed.
Now you have to be on the front foot in all your battles. You will still have to exercise patience, but more often you will be rewarded for courage and bravery, thanks to the game affording you the ability to regain some of the health you lose, provided you retaliate in a timely manner. It’s an interesting technique that works really well, and can really save your skin in knife-edge battles with tougher foes.
With the absence of the shield, the counter system that will be familiar to any Souls fan suddenly becomes a lot more important. With the options of a pistol or a shotgun-style blunderbuss in one hand, and your main weapon of choice in the other, countering with your firearm and then following up with a visceral attack never gets old. While the combat is indeed difficult – you absolutely will die, and often – it is almost never unfair. With the exception of one particular boss fight, I can count on the one hand the times I felt my death was not my own fault.
Of course, this is a From Software game, so you can expect some great boss encounters. There is an argument that Bloodborne’s bosses lack the variety of those in From’s previous titles, but that doesn’t make them any less satisfying when you take them down, and some of them are very memorable indeed. The levelling options for your character have been pared back a little from those of the Souls games, but it’s by no means a dumbing down. The system has some great options for experimentation, and is clearly geared towards repeat playthroughs.
The true star of the show, though, is Yharnam itself. Early on you’ll unlock a shortcut back to near where you initially start the game. That’s just a taste of the wondrous, ingenious design on offer here. The way Yharnam’s varied regions all link together in one coherent, nightmarish whole, is astonishing. Not since Super Metroid on the SNES, some 20 years ago now, have I been so in awe of a game’s design. Discovering the game’s myriad shortcuts is almost a mini-game in itself.
An extension of this genius is the game’s sound design. As you inch your way through newly discovered areas with dread, you will find yourself listening for the first signs of any enemy. A distant groan, a sudden bark, or the crack of a rifle shot can suddenly fill you with panic. It’s a cliché to call a musical score haunting, but it really is the appropriate term here. The score is fantastic, and I can’t wait for its release later this month. The track during the final battle in particular is one I’m looking forward to adding to my regular playlists.
What’s refreshing about Bloodborne is that it’s feature complete. There are no signs of anything that may have been cut for future paid-for content, which in this day and age is really quite something. Bloodborne is a meaty experience that is a constant delight and terror in equal measure. You will have to forgive me for the lack of specificity in this review, but to go into more detail about certain levels, bosses and enemy designs would spoil the experience for anyone playing for the first time.
Bloodborne is a sterling example of what can be achieved with the latest technology while also recalling an older, simpler time, where a game’s actual structure, gameplay, and content took precedence over its potential profitability. Hidetaki Miyazaki and his team at From Software are on top of their game, and deserve all the plaudits they absolutely will get this year. It’s somewhat lamentable that Bloodborne is only available on the Playstation 4; this is a game that everyone should play.