Game review: Bloodborne

Game review: Bloodborne

I came to the gothic city of Yharnam. I saw many hideous, twisted creatures. And I died again and again.

This game does not hold your hand or encourage you with kind words. My first hour in Bloodborne was brutal. The starting area serves as the boot camp for the rest of the game.

After a short cryptic cutscene, your character wakes up in a clinic. You have nothing but your bare hands, though at least there are notes lying on the ground that teach you the basic controls.

Barely minutes into the game, I encountered my first enemy - a giant werewolf. Within seconds, my character was ripped to shreds. And the first of many "You Died" messages appeared on the screen.

It is a familiar sight for those who have played Demon's Souls and the two Dark Souls games from Japanese developer From Software, of which Bloodborne is the spiritual successor.

Over the course of these dark fantasy games, auteur Hidetaka Miyazaki has conjured up a unique gaming experience.

Instead of learning from expository cinematics, you glean the story from fragments and hints given by the setting, items and unreliable non-player characters. You can even finish these games without understanding the backstory.

More importantly, the in-game currency used to acquire items and level up your character - blood echoes in Bloodborne, and souls in the Soul games - are lost when you are killed. To recover them, you must return to the spot where you died to pick them up.

In the case of Bloodborne, you may have to kill the foe that bested you in the first place to win back your blood echoes.

Die again on the way there and the blood echoes are lost forever. It is a punishing game mechanic that magnifies even the most trivial encounters, for in a moment of carelessness, you can be killed by even the weakest foe.

Veterans of the Souls games will be nonplussed. What may confound them, at least for a while, are the changes to the combat system.

Shields and heavy armour are very useful in the Souls games, but Bloodborne wants you to go on the offensive, instead of cowering behind a massive shield. There is but a single wooden shield in the game and it is completely useless.

A new game mechanic makes this proactive approach viable: When you are hit by an enemy, your health bar diminishes. However, you have a couple of seconds to regain your health by hitting the enemy in return.

This change in philosophy is enshrined in the game description for the wooden shield: "Shields are nice, but not if they engender passivity."

As a result, I was constantly debating whether to press on or hold back and maybe quaff a health potion. Be too aggressive and you may lose even more health and die. But you may also run out of health potions if you are too passive.

Replacing the shield is your gun, which can momentarily stun the enemy if you time your shot just when it is getting ready to attack. A successful stun can be followed up by a powerful visceral attack that hurls the enemy away, which should kill practically most enemies except for game bosses.

Besides the gun, you carry a melee weapon. The variety of weapons here loses to those in the Souls games, but all these "trick weapons" have two modes. You can transform the weapon from one mode to another in mid-swing, which leads to interesting attack combos. One of the beginner weapons, for instance, is a cane that extends to become a whip that has a longer attack range. So, if you start off with a whip, you can change it to a cane to stab the enemy as you close in.

Later in the game, you get to add gems to the weapon, customising it for additional effects such as magical damage. While some enemies use magic spells, you do not really get to cast spells, though there are a few items that enable similar functions.

Having spent over a week playing Bloodborne, I have grown calluses on my thumbs from using the controller. My ego is bruised from my countless deaths. This game takes no prisoners but, at the same time, it rewards those who learn from their mistakes.

I was stuck for hours with the first boss, a giant beast with an oversized right hand. It was so frustrating that I created a new character and proceeded to blaze through the beginner area in a fraction of the time it took me on my first attempt. This time, not only did I know how the enemies would behave, I was also more familiar with the controls and the mechanics.

It still took me a while to take down the boss. But I could feel myself getting better and it felt satisfying.

If you still have trouble with a certain boss, the game lets you call for help from other fellow players. But it also opens you to be invaded by enemy players who enter your game to hunt you down.

Even if you play alone, you do not feel lonely because of the game's multiplayer system. Other players can leave notes - often, useful hints on what to expect, though some are intended to mislead. You can also view spectres, which show you how other players died, and learn from their mistakes.

Bloodborne is not for everyone, but do not let that stop you from trying. It may take a while to adapt to its harsh approach. However, no other video game quite gives you the same adrenaline rush from taking down a boss that had you stumped for days.


Rating 9/10

Sony PlayStation 4: $69.90 (Blu-ray), $62.90 (download))

Action adventure

This article was first published on Apr 15, 2015.
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