The church looms in front of the hunter and he knows that whatever god used to reside here has long since departed. This isn’t the first time the hunter has been here, with memories of pain and darkness coming back after the beast within in tore him apart. This time the hunter is stronger and more confident so he steps through the fog that obscures the entrance to meet fate once more. He runs towards the beast with axe in hand, throwing molotovs to burn the creature and gain even a slim advantage, but the fight is brutal but quick and all too soon, the hunter awakes anew.
Welcome to Bloodborne.
To describe Bloodborne as tough would be an understatement. From Software’s latest demands your full attention and punishes those who don’t take the challenge seriously. Every monster and beast, from the slow and lumbering trolls to the incredibly fast werewolves have their own tactics to kill you, and they can do so in just a few hits if you’re not careful. If you read my impressions from last week then you’ll remember I mentioned that blood vials – the game’s health packs – are generally easy to come by, but playing through the game you realise different areas reward more of a certain type of item than others.
It seems like the early areas and enemies of the game do drop more blood vials for you, but these soon give way to more crafting equipment and stat boosting items, and this design decision appears to tie in with what From Software expect of you. Early on you’re going to need health, but by the time you’re further in you’re expected to be able to deal with the challenges with fewer vials consumables. Of course if you’re finding an area too tough then you can always retreat back to another part of the cursed city, Yharnam.
Yharnam is a bit like a maze with winding paths and dead ends, but it is one where every one of these should be explored. There are so many secrets and interesting little areas that await you, which could either reward your curiosity or introduce you to a type of foe you’ve not fought yet. Some areas will become more familiar than others as good places to grind blood echoes so that you can level up your character or buy new equipment. Going back to these areas also shows how improved as a player you’ve become, as monsters that were a hassle before can suddenly be dispatched with but a single blow.
But you can always lose the blood echoes you have gathered from underestimating an opponent. When you die, your echoes are left on the ground or picked up by a nearby creature, and returning to that point and defeating this foe can return your previous progress to you. But you only have one chance to do so, and a second death will see that previous milestone and goal replaced by a new pool of echoes as you fall. When you have thousands or even tens of thousands of echoes, you’re constantly weighing up the risks of carrying on to find a new lamplight so you can travel to the Hunter’s Dream, or returning to an old one and having to face the nearby enemies again.
The Hunter’s Dream is your hub of safety – though many players contrive to kill themselves within the area – in which you can improve your character. The levelling is done by talking to a life size doll who channels your echoes into upgrading your various attributes. My personal focus is on strength and endurance, boosting poison resistance and having strong attacks to dish out damage, but a focus on arcane would boost the elemental arc and fire weaponry that you might have at your disposal.
Exploration of the world is at the heart of Bloodborne, but it is always accompanied with a feeling of anxiety. Each new path that you find isn’t met with joyous sprinting, but the almost overbearing sense of dread that Yharnam exudes makes you take every step with care, as you never know which foul creatures will decide to ambush you next.
The design of the areas is one such factor that causes worry within you. Yharnam’s Gothic architecture is foreboding with the tight streets and buildings all appearing to be have been constructed from the darkest brick available, and often affording you only just enough space in which to dodge. It eventually gives way for the gnarled trees and murky mist of the surrounding wilderness, as nighttime falls over the course of the game, but every area is designed with plenty of places from which something could strike. The only time a fleeting feeling of safety descends is when the corpses of monsters lie strewn across the floor.
Sound also plays a huge part in the way Bloodborne’s atmosphere manages to add to the dread. Much of the audio is environmental, from the mumblings of madmen to the cackling of people behind locked doors. You’ll walk along and hear a creak, unsure whether it is a building settling or if something is approaching. Then you have areas where you just hear a low humming followed by a piercing shriek and then complete silence. Music also plays a part, but it only really makes itself known during boss fights, with the musical scores accompanying the roars and snarls of the beasts in your deadly dance.
The combat itself is methodical. Charging into a group of enemies trying to kill quickly will more likely result in your hunter’s death. One thing that has to be taken into account is stamina with every swing and dodge eating up a little of it, and if you try to swing before stamina has regenerated, you won’t be able to attack or dodge, leaving you utterly defenceless. It’s all too easy to overcommit and find yourself on the end of a string of brutal blows.
It’s also tempting to try too hard to make use of the Regain system, where players can get some health back by landing blows on the enemy that hurt them, though the window of opportunity for this is quite short. A decision must be made quickly to either attack and get some health back that way, or to sacrifice some time to take a blood vial for health. Doing the latter does leave you open to attack while consuming health, but the former has its own risks too, particularly if your stamina is low.
Choosing your weapons to suit your style is important, with fast swipes of a sword using less stamina but also dealing less damage than an axe, while the spear has a much longer reach. Every melee weapon can be transformed from a single handed accompanied by a gun that can stun an onrushing enemy if shots are timed right, to a dual handed weapon. Compared to the Souls games, there are fewer weapons to choose from, but they all feel unique and distinct, and feature an extensive upgrade path via forging and adding stat boosting gems.
While the main game has a lot to discover alone, going online adds a different perspective to the experience. Messages from other players dot the ground giving hints as to what to expect nearby. These messages are crafted using set templates so things can’t be properly spoiled, but you will be advised on what to watch out for and which tactics to employ.
Alongside these messages are red spectres showing where another player died, depicting their final moments though you can’t see the creature that struck them down, and you’ll occasionally see the white outlines of other players who are in the same area as you in their own world. Glimpses that are brief, but can make you jump when you’re not expecting something to run across your path.
Additionally, you also have the option to join forces with other players or invade another hunter’s world, turning them into your unsuspecting prey. To do so you need certain equipment – specifically three bell types and the silencing blank that allow players to call out and others to respond. You also need Insight which can be found in the world and through defeating bosses both solo and in the multiplayer itself. Accumulating more Insight also subtly alters the world around you.
Once you’re teamed with another player, you can work through an area up to a boss fight, but should either of you die or you manage to defeat the boss, you are sent back to your own worlds. There is no reviving, should you fall, meaning that you have only one shot at success per point of Insight, while invading hunters must reach and kill you before you arrive at the boss fight.
But it’s a system full of quirks: your Insight is spent as soon as you ring the Beckoning Bell, and though it’s returned if you defeat a boss, will be lost for good if you tire of waiting for a match to be made, which can be a few minutes or seemingly never happen if your character level is too high or too low for potential partners – and though we tried on a number of occasions, we had little luck in finding a hunter to invade. If invasion is something you fear, you can create a private lobby by adding a password in the settings, but even then, the same rules of bell ringing, Insight and level restrictions still apply.
During the main game, you also gain the ability to create Chalice Dungeons – randomly generated areas that are once again accessed through the Hunter’s Dream. Once generated you can return to it as you see fit, with each dungeon featuring several layers with a world to explore, and a lever to find as you hunt down each level’s successively more difficult boss. The draw comes from the randomisation and unpredictability, with the ability to share a specific dungeon and generate new ones with more and more variations as you find more chalices and ingredients.
Really the biggest complaint about Bloodborne is with the long loading times between deaths as areas are reset. From Software is working on a patch to reduce the waiting time, as well as trying to improve the frame pacing for a more uniform and regular 30fps, but it really takes you out of the world as you sit twiddling your thumbs to the Bloodborne logo.
Overall Bloodborne is a fantastic game and could be considered one of the best exclusives available on the PS4 so far. The gameplay will not be for everyone, with the difficulty and repetition a potential turn off, but if you are looking for a new challenge, Bloodborne is a fantastic choice. The twisted atmosphere of Yharnam, the great design of the monsters, and the fear it can instil within you is something that won’t be forgotten in a hurry. There’s a time when you realise a game will be revered and spoken of fondly years from now, and Bloodborne will be one of them.