Thirty-plus years. More than three decades. That is how long I have been playing video games. During that time I have considered myself someone who likes to be challenged, someone who wants to be tested. I like being pushed to the limits of my skills and abilities. I always laughed when I saw videos of raging gamers online, throwing their controllers and falling into all-out temper tantrums like a toddler. How could things ever get that bad? I never understood how a game could take someone to that level.
After all of this time, I have recently discovered a new side of myself. In the past week I have thrown my controller numerous times. Literally. I have screamed. I have cussed. I have pounded my fists on my desk. I even picked up and flung an office chair at one point. And after doing all of these things, I would take a few seconds to compose myself and then proceed to put myself through it all over again. That is the world of Bloodborne. It is a world where you will be tested and pushed to your limits, to the point where they will bend and occasionally break. Then you will rest for a second and then ask the game to do it to you all over again.
If you have any sort of familiarity with Demon's Souls or Dark Souls, then you have a rough idea of what Bloodborne is all about. This is a game that will test and punish you every step of the way. Just as the game evolves as you advance, so will you as a player. The purpose is to test you and break you. And it will. The manner in which it will do so, however, is one that will make you a better player over time and teach you to learn from your mistakes; to adapt and change.
Things open up with you agreeing to partake in a strange blood transfusion. During the procedure, you will witness a series of horrid sights before you awaken to find yourself alone in the city of Yharnam. Within moments you will face off with a beast that you have no means of overcoming, and he will send you to your grave. Get used to this as you will be making this trip frequently.
Death is not the end, however. It is only the beginning. Shortly after death, one finds themselves in the Hunter’s Dream, a bit of purgatory in a sense. Your actions here won’t determine if you are headed to Heaven or Hell; your actions here prepare you for your trip back into battle. There isn’t a lot of explanation that comes with this adventure. Most of the interactions that you have with the small number of NPCs are filled with riddles and incessant rants of the days of old. You have to piece this world together, in the sense of understanding your purpose and what is happening around you. All that you know is that something is happening to the inhabitants of this mysterious city called Yharnam. Something is changing people and awakening in them an incessant need to hunt.
Combat and exploration are at the core of the gameplay experience as you make your way through this winding labyrinth of a city. That has always been a staple of the Souls franchise: intense and strategic combat. Things are a bit different here though. Returning players from earlier games are going to learn that old habits die hard. They say that the best defense is a good offense; in Bloodborne, a good offense is your only defense. There are no shields here; there isn’t even a guard or block button. You can attack and move, and you must master the combination of both. This concept does take a little getting used to, but you will soon find yourself conditioned to spill the blood of your enemies every chance that you get. In lieu of blocking, striking back against your opponent is the only way to rectify a strike landed against you. When you take a hit, you have a very short period of time in which landing an attack on that enemy will replenish nearly all of the health that he took from you. This mechanic will drive you in the way you engage your opponent; it almost makes you bloodthirsty as you literally need to spill it in order to survive.
Since there is no shield or blocking option, both of your characters hands are open to be equipped with offensive weapons. Your right hand is for melee and your left is for a firearm; actually you can equip two weapons into each hand (of each class) and switch between them on the fly. The system works really well as it just takes a simple press of either right or left on the directional pad to switch to your other weapon. There are occasions, when you transform your weapon(s) mainly, that the melee item becomes your sole, primary weapon as its larger form requires two hands to hold. However, even in these situations, it is easy to switch out to your other equipped weapon on the fly and utilize your firearm. The system takes a little getting used to, especially to be able to do it efficiently in the heat of battle, but once the methodology clicks, you won’t ever want to play a game like this without the same mechanic.
Locking onto your opponent is almost a necessity, but it can also feel clumsy and leave you open for attacks from other lurking enemies. A lot of people hear “target lock” and think that it is a simple way to move between opponents; that definitely isn’t the case in Bloodborne. You need to actually have eyes on the enemy in order to lock on them, which makes combat in the darker dungeons and areas extremely difficult. The lock-on feature is the best way to ensure that your strongest and most punishing blows land where they are intended; if they don’t, you will find yourself out of stamina and forced to recover momentarily, leaving you wide open for an attack. The problem is that doing so gives you a sense of tunnel vision. The world of Bloodborne already feels narrow and closed in; focusing your attention on a smaller enemy only makes it smaller. While combat feels best when you are engaged directly with a single opponent, particularly the bosses, most of the lesser creatures will attack you in groups when they get the chance—and you lose the ability to focus on the world around you when you lock your vision on a central point of the world.
I found myself constantly trying to lure one or two away from groups before they all engaged me and dispatching them systematically. It worked a lot of the time, but it wasn’t a sure-fire means of survival. A lot of times, the other enemies will hear you or the commotion that you are creating and head your way. If you aren’t careful, you can find yourself easily overwhelmed by multiple bad guys and perhaps even trapped in the environment. Whether you are backed into a closed alley or pushed up to the edge of a building, you can easily find yourself with no place to turn. This is the constant struggle you will face: making a choice between what is best for that single moment in time, or for your quest as a whole. The answer may be different depending on the situation that you find yourself facing.
You will take this trek primarily by yourself, but the existence of other hunters is always there. The hallmark, asynchronous multiplayer found in the Souls franchise is present from the very start of Bloodborne. There are signs of those hunters that have come before you and fallen. Markers lie everywhere that show you where they fell in battle, and you can even replay the last moments of their life with a simple button press. It is sort of harrowing to enter and area and see hints at what your future holds; a sense of dread often overcomes you when you enter a new area and see nothing but a sea of grave markers laying in your path. In addition to the markings of their demise, players can also leave notes for other players, hinting at what is to come on the journey through Yharnam. The note system is simple to use and relies on a tree of preset phrases and words, allowing you to piece together short words of wisdom for those who follow in your footsteps.
You don’t always have to walk alone, though, as up to three other players can be summoned to join you for parts of your tale. Eventually, you will come to earn an item known as the Beckoning Bell, which will call other hunters in the same area of their own games to join you in battle. This comes at a cost, though, as you will sacrifice a single Insight Point of your characters stats; if you and your partner(s) are successful in beating the boss of the area you are playing in, then that point will be returned along with additional ones. But failure will cause you to lose it forever. These points are key to opening up the world before you, and the higher your Insight Level, the more you can see beyond the physical world in front of you. It will bring inanimate objects and creatures to life and allow you to discover what is really happening in Yharnam.
If you haven’t noticed, there is an overwhelming sense of death that encompasses the Bloodborne experience. It is a part of the game and key to progressing through your adventure. As you make way through Yharnam and dispatch these dreadful creatures, you will earn literal "echoes" of the blood that you have spilled. This is the currency of this world and what you will need to advance your character and your journey. Blood Echoes can be spent in the Hunter’s Dream on many things such as obtaining useful items for your journey, upgrading your weapons, and even increasing your character’s stats. Blood echoes are tied to your own essence, though, so falling in combat will cause you to lose all that you have gained. Thankfully, you can recover them upon your return to the world of the living, although they may be in the possession of an enemy near the marker of your death.
An experience as punishing as Bloodborne would be eased with an efficient checkpoint system, but you won’t find much of one here. There are no such things as checkpoints in the city of Yharnam. There are entry points to the world from the Hunter’s Dream, where you can spawn after death, but you will usually only open up additional ones by finding and defeating a boss. Otherwise you will constantly find yourself back at the very beginning of the area that you are currently exploring, or perhaps further back in your journey following a death. This was extremely frustrating at first, but I eventually came to understand and appreciate the design. The world opens up more and more as you explore it, giving you different paths and routes to familiar places. Perhaps you will find a means of activating an elevator that allows you to bypass a particularly hard section of enemies; it will happen, but not before you have been tested numerous times by that area of the game. There won’t be any skipping sections or portions until you have proven yourself in those areas. It is a rewarding mechanic that drives you to explore every nook and cranny of the city that you can, regardless of how many times you die while doing so.
Beyond the solo adventure, I grew to really enjoy the multiplayer options, particularly the Chalice Dungeons. Although these procedurally generated labyrinths can be explored alone, it is definitely better to enter them with a group, once you gain access to them in the game. These dungeons can get very tough, and you will want someone you can trust along with you in order to get all of the spoils that you can find hidden throughout their tunnels. These will be the life blood of the game in the long run and what keeps players coming back after they have completed the story. As tough as the story portion of the game is, this is where you will be pushed to your limit and tested to the best of your abilities. The other option for multiplayer allows players to enter each other’s games and hunt them down. Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of chances to do this pre-launch, but assuming that it flows the same way that the other combat sections of the game do, it will likely be a ton of fun to open yourself up to, once you establish yourself as an adequate hunter.
There is, of course, the obvious thing to be said about the game: it is incredibly gorgeous. Bloodborne is absolutely astonishing to see and explore, both visually and audibly. It is haunting to explore this decrepit, ancient city, both literally and figuratively. You can see how lifeless things have become, even though there are still living beings roaming the streets. You can hear the silence as nothing but the wind tearing through the corridors and streets. There is so much detail in the world and in those that inhabit it that you can often find yourself awestruck, frozen in place while you take it all in. Of course, when this happens, it is very likely that something is about to take advantage of that moment and snatch the life right out of your character, sending you back to the dream world. I strongly encourage you to find chances to do this though; creep up to a mob surrounding a bonfire, or a pack of beasts roaming in a secluded area, hide in the shadows and just watch and listen. Listen to their unsettling moans and chants. Listen to the sound of their weapons scraping as they drag them behind on the ground. It is truly intoxicating.
The most beautiful thing to me, though, as morbid as it sounds, is the blood. This game is about spilling blood, and you will do so endlessly. Right from the start you will learn, in an unsettling manner, just how much you have to spill. As it spills, it soaks your character through, from head to toe. You don’t realize it as it is happening, but when a fierce battle subsides and you have a moment to catch your breath and reflect, you will notice that your character is completely drenched in the blood of the fallen. It is literally dripping from your clothes and across your face. You have been bathed in the evil that you have cleansed, and it is a solemn reminder of your duty in Yharnam.
Although I have played all of the Souls games, even reviewing the PC version of Dark Souls, they have never hooked me in the manner that Bloodborne has. It feels more accessible and better paced than all of the rest, which is how it sucks you into its world. The experience is engrossing, in an extremely sadistic sort of way. It isn’t nice to you—it is actually downright cruel at times—but you will find yourself coming back to it again and again, unable to turn your back, even though you know your next death is only moments away. Exploring the world starts off as something that you will do out of duty to complete the game, but eventually it will feel like your purpose as you cleanse the city of the filthy creatures that fill its streets. We can safely add this to the list of must-have games for the PlayStation 4. Now excuse me while I go sacrifice myself to the world of Bloodborne once more.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
If you have been here before, you know the basics: lifelong gamer, father, and of course, certified news monkey. I have been blogging on the industry for close to a decade now, in some form or another. It wasn't until I landed here at Gaming Nexus that I really dove in head first. Now, writing about games has become what I do for fun (and sometimes work) and something I intend on doing until the day I die.
I'm a huge fan of just about everything you can interact with using a controller, no matter how old or new, good or bad. If you put it in front of me, I will play it... end of story.