Bloodborne does just about everything right. The palpable sense of fear and tension that permeates the entire experience leaves sweat on the controller, there's unbelievable imagination and creativity behind the nightmares you face, and the combination of an immensely deep role-playing mechanic and a robust combat system is intoxicating. From an atmospheric standpoint, From Software’s latest is unparalleled. From a challenge perspective, it’s arguably the most rewarding game in existence. But from a technical standpoint – and we can’t ignore it – there are a few flaws that drop this game below the 9+ elite threshold.
As I said, this environment is rife with insanely hellish sights and sounds. It’s this ambiance that slithers inside your skull and raises the hairs on the back of your neck. No matter where you go or what you do, you’re always on edge. It’s kind of exhausting in that way and it’s almost entirely due to the developer’s fantastic vision. Now, while the textures aren’t as clean as what we saw in The Order: 1886, and the frame rate can drop every now and then, the artistry is just amazing. Are we really going to quibble about a slightly questionable texture when we’re facing a creature that’s so beautifully crafted it’s almost a sin to be scared?
However, let me say this: From Software claims the blood in this game isn’t gratuitous. Well, I’m sorry, but I beg to differ. While it certainly adds to the brutal nature of the game, I’m fairly certain that amount of blood, gushing and spurting from every strike, is unnecessary. Saying it’s essential for the sake of the atmosphere is a stretch and one I don’t accept. I get that Japanese culture has been steeped in outrageous violence for decades (one glance at certain anime will tell you that), so maybe their jaded level is even above ours. But despite all this, you can’t deny the remarkably horrific beauty of Bloodborne; they put a ton of work into every possible detail and that should be praised.
The sound is another high watermark for this production. The voice performances are few and far between but they’re effectively haunting and well-presented, and the soundtrack is aptly foreboding. The music does recede into the shadows a little too often but that’s a design decision. They want to make you feel alone and vulnerable and as such, they keep the soundtrack to a relative minimum. It’s the effects that grab you by the throat; it’s the sickening slash of your weapon, the crispness of flame being applied to your face, and the surrounding sounds of a dying, diseased city. Cries of despair, unknown yet terrifying growls, the unmistakable sounds of death and fear; it all creates a singularly effective environment. All of it screams, “be careful or die.”
As you might expect, there’s little to no hand-holding in such a game. You sign your contract – during which time, you create your character, which is a ridiculously in-depth process concerning both cosmetics and base statistics – and awake in a mysterious laboratory of sorts. You carefully move forward, prepared for the worst. The darkness presses in around you and then, you hear it: It’s a grisly munching of sorts and it’s just ahead. There, in a room filled with tables laden with bizarre medical equipment, is a fearsome four-legged demon, feasting on a dead body. His back is to you and you wonder what to do. Thing is, you’ve got nothing; no weapon, no shield, no armor, no spells. Can you sneak past?
No, not really, and death is inevitable. But in the land of the dead, the Hunter’s Dream, you’re gifted your first weapons. You also come across a series of notes explaining the basic controls, which is the only help you’ll get before you set off in Yharnam. The city is a sprawling maze, littered with crumbling buildings and beset by horrid beasts. You find that some of them are human but just about anything moving is out to kill you, so you tread carefully. As you do so, you take time to smell the roses. …okay, there aren’t any roses left but you do start to appreciate what Yharnam must’ve been in its healthy heyday. Gorgeous architecture blends with a stirring sense of power and progress. It’s all the creepier knowing that such a city could fall to ruin and despair.
If you’re familiar with the game’s predecessors (Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls), you know you’re in for a stiff challenge. You know that death lurks around every corner and chances are, you’re going to die quite a bit. And when you die, you don’t merely start at a checkpoint as if nothing had happened. You lose your acquired Blood Echoes (the game’s currency) and of course, if you used any items before your death, those are gone as well. The big difference here is that in previous From Software games, you simply had to reach your Bloodstain to retrieve what was lost. In Bloodborne, you actually have to kill the beast that took you down, which can be much more difficult.
It’s this knowledge that keeps you moving slowly and methodically. If you see something you’re fairly certain will kick your ass, you feel the urge to retreat to the Hunter’s Dream and spend your hard-earned Echoes, lest you lose them. Obviously, the farther you go and the more enemies you kill, the more Blood Echoes you earn. But with each step comes the distinct possibility of losing them all and herein lies the game’s hardcore appeal. Additionally, don’t forget that beneath all that blood and aside from all the real-time encounters, there’s a hugely detailed role-playing mechanic that drives it all forward. You need to pay attention to your stats if you want to survive; they dictate your overall ability.
The rest falls on your shoulders. How you deal with the enemies around you is up to you, and you’ll soon devise various strategies. You’ll start hording Molotov Cocktails for especially tough foes, for example, and the transformation of your weapon is critical. The game took a lot of flak for a lack of different weapons, and the developers explained that weapon transformations were more than enough. I’m inclined to agree with that, because these transformations can drastically alter your combat style and effectiveness. For instance, after selecting the axe to start, I found that I could change it to a longer two-handled version, which offered a wider attack arc and more power. Given all the possibilities, I don’t think we needed more base weapons. Oh, and one quick note: The load times are too long, especially in a game where you die so often.
The only part of the game that has received significant criticism is the control. Unfortunately, while I wouldn’t call the combat “slow” or “clunky” – two adjectives that don’t really fit – I would say there are definite problems. First up is the camera, which once again sits much too close to the action. It greatly hampers visibility and very often results in worsening already compromising situations. If they had simply pulled back just a little, the entire experience would’ve been better. The control isn’t quite fluid enough to support a free-wheeling approach where you don’t lock on; and when you’re locked on, you see basically nothing besides the intended enemy. I’m constantly forced to look around, which isn’t a good idea when beset by multiple opponents.
One could argue that this merely amps up the challenge. But the game is hard enough and besides, a mechanical issue is a flaw and nothing more. The camera isn’t very good and the control isn’t perfect. These are just facts. Now, how you deal with these drawbacks is another matter altogether; some players won’t mind in the least, while others will find them extremely irritating. This ongoing trend of having cameras that sit much too close is getting tiresome; obviously, it’s for the sake of a more visceral, personal virtual experience. But it’s a trade-off. You’re sacrificing control and visibility and I’m just not okay with that. If a certain percentage of my deaths can’t be directly attributed to my own ability (or lack thereof), it’s a problem.
I can’t decide if I like one particular element of the combat, which involves striking enemies immediately after getting hit. Doing so restores some of your lost health and obviously encourages you to retaliate as soon as possible. On the one hand, I think it’s another great gamble in a game full of gambles. Do you dive back into the fray immediately to get some health back, or do you retreat and use a Blood Vial to ensure survival? On the other hand, I think it’s actually encouraging something that is very much against the tone of the game. Only the cautious survive; the rash and impulsive die fast and often gruesome deaths. Going after an enemy that just struck you often seems rash; it doesn’t feel courageous and at the very least, it’s risky.
However, I can’t say it’s a universal negative because it’s a flawlessly implemented feature. Whether or not I like it is mostly irrelevant. As for the rest of the game, it really is immensely rewarding if you’re willing to buckle down and learn. The diligent and tactful will come away with relieved smiles on their faces, and I can always appreciate that. Taking down your first boss will get you hooked, while making a small mistake that results in death will infuriate you. It’s this ceaseless rollercoaster of ups and downs – and a few loops – that keeps you coming back for more. As for the narrative, it’s an endless argument: Does various lore, scattered throughout the world, and a handful of NPCs with bits of story to tell, comprise a solid narrative? Or does this lack of linearity have a negative impact?
I’m in the latter camp, as most of you are aware, but this is all about the gameplay. It really is. The atmosphere and combat is the focal point and as such, the story and characters take a back seat. I don’t see any trouble with this approach, as the game is consistent in its message. It doesn’t try to present itself as a story-driven adventure and it’s not apologetic about that. It knows precisely what it is and strives to excel in every possible way. And in fact, Bloodborne does indeed excel in almost every conceivable category. With the exception of what I consider obvious control and camera issues, it’s one of the most impressive, immersive, and well-produced games of the generation thus far. Do you dare?
The Good: Exceedingly well-presented and highly effective atmosphere. Excellent artistic design throughout. Great ambient sound effects. Involving combination of RPG depth and fast-paced action. Transforming weapons are bad-ass. A prodigious and rewarding challenge.
The Bad: Camera is just plain poor, no matter how you slice it. Basic control isn’t exactly flawless. Loading times are too long.
The Ugly: “I see nothing but fur. …and now I’m dead again. Great."
3/26/2015 Ben Dutka