Monday, 8 June 2015

Bloodborne - Review

Developer: FromSoftware
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platforms: PS4

There’s an enemy with a shield in Bloodborne. It happens to be the weakest enemy in the entire game; two hits from your weapon will break its guard and it’ll go down in another hit or so. Reading the shield’s description will yield a bit of flavour text about shields being nice, but not if they cause passivity.

Not only is that a weirdly meta joke on the ‘Souls series, it also sums up Bloodborne’s ethos. This is Dark Souls minus shields.

Ok, so that doesn’t quite do Bloodborne justice. Developed by Hidetaka Miyazaki, director of the original Dark Souls and its pseudo-predecessor, Demon’s Souls, this is a much more fast-paced, aggressive game than his previous work.

The core elements stay true to those that have played the ‘Souls series. Players explore, level up and die repeatedly as they adjust to the game’s sometimes brutal difficulty curve. To say that Bloodborne is difficult is something of an understatement. In fact, Bloodborne is perhaps more difficult for those that have spent time with the ‘Souls games, where it was possible to carefully wait and see what enemies could do behind the safety of your shield.

Some time is required in order to adjust to Bloodborne’s different pacing. The core strategies are still in effect, enemies have long wind-ups on their attacks, rewarding players who are smart enough to identify tell-tale signs and act accordingly. Likewise, the more aggressively-oriented combat forces players to push the advantage more often, rather than back off and wait for another opening.

This aggressive focus to combat is achieved in two ways. First off, after being hit by an attack, a portion of your health can be restored, provided you attack your enemy back within a short time frame. It’s a gameplay element that is almost mandatory in certain boss fights, where your meagre supply of health items won’t always last you the entire encounter. It forces you to constantly engage your opponents, stay on their tail and, in many cases, simply not back down, no matter how much you want to.

Similarly, shields are replaced with guns in the off-hand slot, and are used for parrying. Different guns have different properties, and there’s a bunch to choose from, but their main function is to interrupt enemy attacks. Shoot an enemy at just the right moment during their attack animation and they’ll be staggered and open for a critical hit. It ties in perfectly with the “offence is the best defence” approach of the game and means that many encounters continually ratchet up in tension as you fight; constantly trying to press the advantage and counter-attack your adversary.

Just as the gameplay’s focus has been significantly altered, so has the art design. The ‘Souls games were masterful at creating tremendous atmosphere and Bloodborne continues in much the same way. Bloodborne is a Lovecraftian nightmare, elder gods hang from gothic spires, tentacle-faced monsters roams the streets and the sky is stained blood red. There’s no doubt that Bloodborne is in essence a love letter to Lovecraft’s horror stories, and Bloodborne pulls this style off with aplomb.

Where the game falls short however, is in its RPG aspects. The weapons, whilst remaining fairly deep (each comes with two interchangeable forms), lack the level of build diversity that is present in ‘Souls games. Likewise, upgrading equipment has been reduced to little more than collecting a few blood stones here and there and maxing your weapon out to +10. 

There’s no longer the interesting decisions to be made about whether to have your weapon scale with faith or dexterity, or choose to play as a spell caster, or as a melee class. Bloodborne is by no means a shallow game, far from it, but when compared to its predecessors, it seems significantly lacking.

Likewise, enemy variety is something of a disappointment. The standard creatures you encounter in Yharnam are recycled repeatedly throughout the game. Sure, they’ll look a little different, but many have the exact same moves, just with more health.

It’s a shame because, as you’d expect, the bosses are a highlight. Bloodborne avoids some of Dark Souls 2’s problems, where there were too many “giant humanoid with hand weapon” bosses and too many attempts at making boss fights difficult for difficulties sake, usually by making fights two, or even three, versus one. Fighting Vicar Amelia, a huge fox monster in the middle of a cathedral, is a particular high point in a game full of imaingative encounters. It’s just disappointing that the treks leading up to bosses weren’t full of the same variety.

In many respects it’s some of the mechanics of Bloodborne that seem to be holding it back. The RPG/levelling up aspect is at its weakest here, as is the weapon upgrading system. Rather than replace it with something more interesting, the game has simply stripped it to the bare essentials, leaving it intact, but feeling shallow. Likewise, the game’s core combat revolves around having limited defensive options, yet the game can’t seem to come up with a variety of enemies that could prove interesting within that combat system.

There’s plenty I haven’t touched on in Bloodborne. The (poorly implemented and poorly explained) online elements that pale in comparison to Dark Souls, and the dungeon chalices, that are arguably the most unique element added to the game, presumably to drastically extend its already hefty lifespan.

Bloodborne has oodles of depth, there’s no doubt about it, and it’s an expertly crafted game. Yet, at the same time, it’s difficult to shake the annoying feeling though, that it’s awkwardly stuck in a growing stage; it wants to break out and do its own thing, but regularly retreats back to the safety of the ‘Souls mechanics when it doesn’t know what to put there. In this respect it’s reminiscent of the first Devil May Cry; a game that wanted to be an action game, yet hadn’t quite shrugged off the survival horror mechanics that had given birth to it.

It’ll no doubt go down as one of the most important releases of the year, and rightly so. Just keep in mind that this isn’t Miyazaki, or From Software as a whole, at their best. 


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