From Software doesn’t treat their fans as idiots. Their games, akin to many of life’s larger lessons, are learned through failure, challenge, demise, and resolve. Demon’s Souls proved that difficulty is separate from stellar game design and mechanics, and Dark Souls refined the formula down to a razor’s edge between perfection and insanity. While some argued these games were obsessed with punishing players rather than delivering an engrossing narrative, many more countered that they weren’t looking deep enough.
There is no question Bloodborne is a spiritual sequel to Demon and Dark Souls (some characters even use language and phrases that originated in Demon Souls), but it is also much more than that; Bloodborne shines brightest when it gets further away from preexisting material and blazes a new trail. This isn’t just another challenging, difficult game from a pedigree studio – what we have here is a new evolution of difficulty married with purpose, art coupled with philosophy.
Bloodborne is not short on its own mysteries, but its Christian themes are undeniable. The Souls games led you through cathedrals and graveyards, but never have they made such bold statements with such a powder keg subject. From Software has crafted a fascinating, albeit unfocused, religious tone that mirrors there reused death-and-resurrection mechanics. Some of the very first bosses are a cleric and a vicar. Beyond this kind of theming, the developing saga comes to life through the sights and sounds of the macabre world around you.
Set in the gothic city of Yarnham, a town overcome by a plague, the plot is dripped bit by bit out through conversations with other characters and a rare cut scene or voice over. Players who want to know more about the beast hunts and Yarnham’s history will have to dig into the game’s item descriptions to piece it all together. As little as what is plain enough to understand, it was still more than enough to swell my interest to creep around every single corner, regardless of what trap may lie in wait.
If you experienced any of Bloodborne’s predecessors, the gameplay is quite similar here, but with some welcome tweaks. The concept of blood, acting as both life and currency, allows you to level up, purchase or reinforce weapons, and buy new armor and support items. Cautious play is still the biggest concern, as you lose it all if you die and only have one chance to recover it. Like before, the ongoing struggle between risk and reward is incredibly palpable. Play online and you’ll see trademark recordings of other players leaving messages on the floor for the community to read with a notebook. The effect is reassurance rather than repetition.
Instead of taking up the sword and shield mechanic as in Demons and Dark Souls, you are given a gun in the left hand and a grizzly melee weapon in the right–no blocking. You are, thankfully, much quicker on your feet this time around; able to sprint, roll, and unload sweeping strikes before depleting your stamina meter. Each weapon has a powerful charge attack, as well as a transformation you can trigger on-the-fly and thread into combos.
There is a blight on this town in the form of long load times and the occasional frame rate dip, both of which are disappointing to see, given that this is a Sony exclusive and the high degree of performance and polish previous titles had. The frame rate jitters are rare on your own, but become more apparent when others join you for co-op. The loading times could have been reduced by allowing you to directly move between lamps you have activated. You cannot directly teleport from one lamp to another, however. You must always travel to the Hunter’s Dream first (your character’s hub where you can upgrade between worlds), meaning that quick travel requires you to activate multiple loading screens.
These flaws, however, are easily forgivable when placed against the myriad of wonderful achievements Bloodborne makes. Veteran Souls players may balk at the slightly more forgiving atmosphere, and newcomers may not find the grim and morose tones permeating from every dark-lit street corner or abandoned monastery. But those that pause to take everything in will find an enthralling tale wrapped in masterful gameplay design and haunting melodies of death and despair. Only the brave need apply.