Technology - 81%
Presentation - 91%
Design Theory - 93%
Gameplay - 94%
Story - 80%
Value - 96%
There’s a very compelling argument that as yet, the PS4 and Xbox One lack a true must-have title. Yes there are good games, even great games but these are frequently enhanced versions of titles readily available on the last generation of consoles. As such, while the Wii U enjoys a renaissance with Mario Kart, Smash Bros and the surprisingly excellent Bayonnetta 2, there still isn’t a game that is reason alone to buy the latest consoles. So can the spiritual successor to the excellent Souls games change this?
Although a brand new IP, Bloodborne is very much a Souls game. The Victorian setting and emphasis on blood rather than souls does nothing to mask this and if anything it feels closest to the original Dark Souls both in tone and structure. Interestingly though, despite the extra processing power afforded by being a PS4 exclusive, the initial impression is of less rather than more. Gone are the heavy armour options and character builds emphasising magic, miracles or ranged combat. While a handful of items do exist that mimic some of the previous spells, Bloodborne is all about fast and fluid melee combat. This is really hammered home by another absence – your shield. Long time Souls fans (or victims) will know that you always keep your shield up when entering a new area in case something nasty is lurking in the shadows waiting to pounce. In stripping you of this protection in favour of a pistol you feel more vulnerable than ever before. An already creepy experience veers ever further into the realms of survival horror yet oddly, is somehow liberating once you get to grips with gunplay. For although it can be used to deliver a finishing hit to an enemy with only a sliver of health remaining, your gun’s main function is to interrupt combos or stun opponents in order to deliver a visceral counterattack. As such, it’s all about keeping your nerve which is easier said than done when facing a monstrosity that’s trying to stave your head in with a chunk of masonry. Timed perfectly, a pistol shot will stagger an enemy for a lethal one hit counter. Get it wrong however and you’ll get a brick in the face. It’s a nervy, heart pounding experience but far superior to hiding behind a shield waiting for an opening. Coupled with the new regain system which allows you to restore health by hitting enemies back within a strict time window, this makes combat all about speed and aggression rather than falling back and healing. It’s a difficult tactic to get your head around initially – especially as it’s contrary to everything that long time Souls players have learned. Yet make no mistake – being careless and just wading in is still going to get you killed.
You have to know when to press home attacks, when to counter and when to retreat. And that’s only going to be learned (in true Souls style) through repeated deaths. There’s also a staggering reduction in the amount of weaponry and armour available. Souls veterans will recall having tons of weapons. Yet while some were useful, most were duplicates of early pickups leading to inventories clogged up with broken swords. Bloodborne pares the number of weapons right down but rather than restricting play, this actually opens things up due to their dual functions. Referred to as trick weapons, a hand axe can be used one handed with a pistol or extended on the fly into a sweeping two handed version for crowd control. Meanwhile a nimble sword can be inserted into a massive hammer and a simple spear can deliver a surprising gunshot mid-combo. As such, despite there being less of them, they’re far more useful and their dual functions allow for a lot of experimentation. This reviewer’s favourite was a one-handed sword that could become a two-handed greatsword allowing for light and heavy attack switches mid-combo.
What’s interesting though is that I had always eschewed the heavier weapons in the Souls games in favour of nimbler ones better suited to my character build. In moving the emphasis away from specific builds and restricting the number of weapons available, this has perversely made Bloodborne more open to experimentation than its predecessors, which required multiple playthroughs with differing ‘classes’ in order to see everything on offer. And even though there are less weapons, there’s a lot more freedom to customise them. Once the relevant item is found, gems can be added to your weapons to boost their stats, add status affects or even health regeneration. Brilliantly, these can be unequipped and inserted into other weapons much like Final Fantasy VII’s materia. As such, you don’t run the risk of improving a weapon only to find a superior one later on, thus wasting your gems. On this subject, the blood shards required to level up your weapons are much scarcer than the previous games’ equivalents and we were only able to locate a single one of the rocks that allow a weapon to be maxed out, meaning that you will nevertheless be sticking with favourite weapons.
Oddly, there’s no option to upgrade armour, further cementing the emphasis upon offence rather than defence. Gone too are the rings which previously granted all manner of buffs or abilities. Instead, there are three runes which can be equipped as well as a fourth covenant-specific one. Yet the tool required to equip them is only available after defeating a wholly optional boss. Coupled with the fact that you can’t even level up until you’ve fought the first boss, this makes the game curiously restrictive to begin with. It could be argued that the emphasis on survival horror insists that a player be slightly underpowered but it’s jarring nevertheless and will undoubtedly serve as an insurmountable obstacle to some newcomers. Countering this increase in difficulty, invasions are now much less frequent, only occurring in specific areas or when you ring a summoning bell. Whilst this is arguably an improvement since an overpowered human foe can no longer strike when you’re exploring an area for the first time, it cannot be denied that it leaches some of the tension compared to Dark Souls 2 where you could be invaded at any moment. Instead, invasions work in a similar manner to the previous Bell Keeper covenant in that human foes are an additional foe in prescribed areas – albeit with a new twist. Simply put, killing an invader will result in a new one being summoned unless you can locate and slay a specific bell ringing woman. This is also the case when summoning assistance as you can call for help from another player but doing so opens you up to being invaded unless you can find and kill the randomly placed woman. It’s a novel feature and works well but there will still be those who bemoan the lack of anytime invasions. Yet it’s worth pointing out that there are specific player versus player options available. And in any case, the fights against human players are far more fun than they used to be simply because the new combat mechanics make battles far less protracted affairs.
The emphasis on speed and aggression makes for fast and vicious encounters instead of players endlessly circling each other with their shields up. The inevitable deaths from invasions, traps or enemies work in the same fashion as previously. Die and your souls – sorry – blood echoes are dropped. Return to the same point without dying and you can reclaim them. Die before reaching them and they’re gone for good. Yet Bloodborne adds a further wrinkle since a nearby enemy might pick them up first. Distinguished by glowing purple eyes, they need to be slain in order to reclaim them. It doesn’t make a huge difference, since the enemy isn’t powered up, but it’s a nice touch that makes you feel like you’re killing a nemesis. Strangely, the entire Hollow status that accompanies death has been done away with meaning that you no longer require Humanity or Effigies to return from undeath. Yet there is now a mysterious consumable called Insight. Granted upon encountering as well as defeating bosses or through item use, it’s used to summon assistance from another player or to purchase otherwise unavailable items. Yet it appears to have another, story specific purpose. The higher your Insight, the more the game changes with new types of enemies or old ones gaining new abilities. There are a lot of hints that this is some form of insanity and never is this clearer than when you reach a certain threshold and the truth of the story starts to unfold. Previously unseen Lovecraftian horrors become visible and an already unnerving game starts to get seriously weird. This results in a great variety of enemies away from the standard fantasy fare and this is especially true of boss encounters. Whilst hulking monstrosities still exist, you’re just as likely to be going up against other human seeming hunters with similar equipment and abilities to your own. In keeping with the rest of the game though, huge or not, these encounters are much faster than Souls players will be used to. Brilliantly, the same counter tactics honed against normal enemies can also work against these bosses, leading to some of the most visceral, heart pounding and nerve shredding battles that this reviewer has ever encountered. These bosses also feel far more integrated into the story than ever before.
The plot is still wilfully obtuse but there’s more of a feeling that you’re actually accomplishing something and that your actions are actually driving the narrative forward. Item descriptions and letters fill in the gaps whilst momentum is maintained by the sun actually setting as the game progresses. Plus, once a certain boss has been defeated, the whole game kicks into a higher gear, pushing you towards a definitive end rather than just fighting bosses because they happen to be at the end of an area. Once complete though, New Game Plus is a bit of a disappointment. No new enemies, phantoms or remixed patterns. No new areas. Just tougher enemies with bigger health bars. Yet this is easily forgiven thanks to the Chalice Dungeons. Randomly created with their difficulty defined by the items you use to generate them, they’re home to all manner of traps, enemies and bosses that don’t appear anywhere in the main game. Exclusive armour sets, enhanced runes and different versions of your weapons make these depths well worth plumbing and there’s even the option to share them with other players either in multiplayer or as codes so that friends can give them a go. And despite their random nature, they’re excellent. A dungeon of cramped corridors can suddenly open up into a massive subterranean garden whilst a later floor can see you suspended over a poisonous lake stalked by cannon wielding giants. Secret treasure rooms are guarded by hidden guillotine blades or deadly pendulums and are an exercise in surprise and tension. Astoundingly replayable, these are an absolute highlight and it’s amazing that From are still finding new ways to innovate even whilst they raise two fingers to the gamers who sit with a wiki guide beside them constantly.
For all of the games’ strengths though, there’s little here that makes obvious use of the PS4. Whilst graphically impressive, there are already other titles doing far more with the hardware, and at times it feels a little like an enhanced PS3 title. Yet this ignores that you’re frequently dealing with vast mobs of enemies with some quite staggering numbers of foes at times – and all without a stutter. There’s no slowdown and when invaded or helping another player, everything is seamless. Even when six players are present at once amongst packs of ravening enemies. Yet the odd graphical glitch undermines this somewhat and considering just how pretty some PS4 titles are, it just doesn’t amaze. Then there are the actual problems with the game – all of which stem from the loading screen. Whilst this is hardly a new issue, in the Souls games they at least showed a weapon description or delved into the lore. Here, you stare at a black screen with the logo on it for almost a minute at a time. And since this happens every time that you die or return to or from the hub, you’ll be staring at this screen a lot. Worse still, since there are occasional dead ends upon defeating a boss, you have no option but to return to the hub. Especially since if you want to use those hard earned echoes it’s the only place to level up or improve your weapons. This mechanic also undermines the need for farming. Unlike Dark Souls 2, farming of enemies is absolutely necessary here since every time you restart, your bullets and health vials are topped up to the in-game maximum from your finite stock. As such, should you exhaust this stock in fighting a particularly tricky boss or be ground down by human encounters, you’ll need to farm enemies in an area for their blood echoes to purchase additional ones. Where merely touching a bonfire in Dark Souls 2 automatically refilled an area with enemies, there is no such mechanic here. Instead you have to travel to the hub and then back, dealing with two loading screens in order to do so. It’s a baffling choice that slows things down unnecessarily – particularly when all you want to do is get stuck into that boss again.
Yet it’s the only real misfire in what is undoubtedly the PS4’s first essential title. It’s not going to convert the Souls haters and doesn’t attempt to. This is simply a refined and endlessly playable case of more of the same and yes, absolutely a reason to own a PS4.