Most games these days are desperate to show you what to do, where to go, how to enjoy what they have to offer. They’re so keen to please it’s almost a turn-off.
Well, Bloodborne’s not like that. Not only does it not spoon feed, you get the impression that the game doesn’t even like you. Heck, Bloodborne probably hates you.
It's terribly hard and more obscure than a bad Russian translation of a James Joyce novel, it also takes place in one of the least inviting settings you can imagine. It’s set in a grim old world, is Bloodborne. However, if you can embrace the gloom and hold on tight through its many hard-as-nails sections, you’re rewarded with one of the most involving and rewarding games of the current generation.
It’s a big win for the PS4, which gets a console exclusive on this slab of bloodied meat.
While Bloodborne isn’t officially part of an ongoing series, it’s a close relative of From Software’s Souls games, the most recent being 2014’s Dark Souls II. Like those titles, Bloodborne is a rock-hard third-person action RPG that punishes, punishes and then punishes you again so that when you do finally succeed the victory tastes sweeter than a sundae topped with chocolate sauce and sugary sprinkles.
Let’s not conjure too many Candy Crush Saga-like images, though. Bloodborne is one of the grimmest PS4 releases yet.
Down with the monster kids
You wake up in a ruined, gothic city on the verge of collapse. It has been ravaged by a terrible disease that’s turning people into werewolf-like monsters, but even this you have to discover yourself. Bloodborne doesn’t so much tell you a story as mumble some nonsense in your ear that’ll only actually mean anything about 10 hours of play time later.
Nothing comes easy, but stick with Bloodborne and you’ll almost certainly get sucked into its deep dark abyss. Why? Well, first off it’s incredibly atmospheric. It chucks away your standard musical score and replaces it, for the most part, with menacing ambient sound effects. They’re there to remind you that you’re out here alone, and that if you die, no-one really cares.
This all slots in perfectly with the gothic scenery. Bloodborne is the horror take on Dark Souls II’s fantasy world, and it’s a grimy, eerie place to be. That’s not to say there aren’t some pretty sights: for every dungeon with dripping moss-clad walls and rat-piss stink in every pixel, there’s a grand vista that shows you not just the wider environment, but actual areas you have been, or will go to.
Pieces of the puzzle
Each part of the Bloodborne world fits together perfectly, as if game director Hidetaka Miyazaki told the level designers they’d have to make the whole thing out of Lego to get any level signed-off. The atmosphere-drenched sound and visuals, and this sense of being in a near-real (if nightmarish) place really ground you in Bloodborne.
It’s not a happy place, but it’s strangely moreish and offers the thrill of discovering new areas more than virtually any other PS4 game. Why? More often than not you’re desperately searching for a safe place. You see, whenever you kill enemies you gain Blood Echoes, the Bloodborne currency used to level-up and buy new equipment.
If you die, you lose all of them until you track back and either pick them up, or kill whatever nasty has nicked your hard-won echoes. Die again in the process and they’re gone forever.
Much of Bloodborne is spent either racking-up Blood Echoes in areas you know like the back of your hand or tip-toeing around new places, terrified with every step. Now that might not sound like much fun, but the sense of risk makes every upgrade mean more. Every new weapon is a chance to grapple that bit more control, every level-up gets you that bit more mastery of your character. It’s a delicious struggle.
These upgrades only go so far, though. The real The Matrix moment happens when you start to figure out the behaviour of your enemies, and learn the world around you, wall-by-wall. One area that might cause your death a half-dozen times soon enough becomes a zone where you can get rid of all enemies without being hit once. Suddenly you’re the chosen one, and it has nothing to do with your Strength stat (for the most part).
It’s this sort of sense of gaining power that makes Bloodborne’s repetition enjoyable rather than only bearable. And there will be a lot of treading through the same areas, because it’s very tough and there are only a few continue points, known as lamps. Bloodborne is incredibly frugal with them, more often leading you back to the one you’ve already visited, through another until-then blocked route.
Any air-punching victory is splattered with “oh, really, back here?” disappointment at that moment. But it’s just a reminder that while you may have spent about four grand on Bloodborne, it’s the game that makes the rules.
Big bad bosses
As with the Souls games, the points where your patience will really be tested are where the bosses land. These punctuate the game’s main areas, and are at times very difficult indeed. While Bloodborne doesn’t obviously limit grinding of areas you know and love/hate, allowing you to level-up as you like, just powering-up your character isn’t enough to succeed. In each case you need to learn how a boss moves and reacts to have a hope.
There is no out-powering a boss in Bloodborne. Even some of the ‘normal’ enemies are far, far stronger and more powerful than you are. It’s a rare thing: a game of real, honest skill. Not just collecting power-ups until you’re basically a demi-god. It’s different from Dark Souls II as well. Bloodborne does away with shields, forcing you to get down and dirty with hack and slashing combat.
It goes as far as to let you regain health lost from an attack by fighting back just after being thwacked. Still, you absolutely need to master the timing of combat to avoid just getting hit again. Now, you don’t need to put in Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours to master Bloodborne, but you do need patience, perseverance and at least a few dozen hours to make it all the way through.
It’s a real investment, but aside from those road-block moments when you end up well and truly stuck, there’s plenty of variation.
A world of many worlds
Bloodborne uses a hub world called Hunter’s Dream from which you can transport to different areas you’ve unlocked, and they are quite discrete entities. The benefit of having a carefully-constructed small world rather than a giant one like, for example, Skyrim is that each part can be carefully crafted to feel unique and different.
It telegraphs plenty of the things you’ll unlock later on too. You can barely use any of the crafting tables any messenger (the little monsters that sell you stuff) fountains in Hunter’s Dream to start with. So while you may not know exactly what’s coming later, you do always know there’s plenty to look forwards to in Bloodborne.
That sense of discovery is one of the game’s greatest assets. The environment, the abilities your character will at some point have and simply what Bloodborne is are all up for grabs. But nothing comes for free here.
Bloodborne is a tricky beast. It’s not for everyone. But if you’re looking for something a little different, something that’ll really challenge and involve you a bit more than your average eight-hour shoot-a-thon, you need to check it out.
You may not make it to the end. You may not even make it half-way. But this isn’t really a game you need to finish in order to come away with some great memories. The same rules just don’t apply here.
Feeling brave enough to give it a go? Just keep your gamepad-throwing arm in check - you don’t want a smashed TV.