I walk through the hallways of a Victorian hamlet, cautiously advancing, mindful of even the slightest shift of a shadow in the dull moonlight. It is the night of the hunt, where beasts roam the streets and civilians hide inside, in fear of the lycans and crazed, plague-infested madmen. There’s a church with a dark secret, a valley of witches, Lovecraftian beings from the cosmos…
And yet my concern is what stands in my way: a growling, hulking man toting a cinder block and a scowl that says he plans on doing some feng-shui rearranging of my limbs. Both my avatar and I brace ourselves; whether we rise victorious or return to the Dream again, our fight is neverending, so long as the plague persists…
Miyazaki and the team at From Software have had years to distill the concept they began with Demon’s Souls, and though Bloodborne may not be a direct follow-up to the infamous Souls franchise, it is certainly the next step for the recipe. The graphics, atmosphere, and combat all scream Souls, but like the title’s wolven beasts, Bloodborne surprises you at how fast it will turn the tables on those who feel complacent in their old ways.
Throw out most of your preconceived notions of how to play Bloodborne, as many of the safety nets that made undead living easy in Miyazaki’s previous titles are now gone. The learning curve is steep as ever, but new players will find that it’s a more natural curve. The faster combat means that you’re training reactions, and certain movements will start to trigger muscle-memory-like responses. I was often surprising myself, as my inputs and eyes were responding before my brain could fully assess the situation.
This is a welcome change from the “cower behind a shield” gameplay that I was accustomed to in the Souls series, a notion that From Software has taken great strides to remedy. Shields and armor are stripped away, replaced by trick weapons and firearms. Each main-hand, or trick, weapon has two modes, allowing for significant versatility in each weapon’s design. While the pool of armaments is smaller, it is much more robust and varied.
A personal favorite of mine is a claymore-esque sword with a hammer-sheath on your back, which could be combined to create the devastating Kirkhammer. While standard R1 and R2 options for each mode exist, L1 not only switches which “trick” you’re on, but you can activate it mid-combo, allowing for interesting change-ups. Swinging the Kirkhammer down, taking an upward arcing swing while re-mounting the hammer-sheath on my back, and then slashing with my claymore was all done with a well-timed R2-L1-R1 input, simple and satisfying to execute.
Your other resource for beast disposal is firearms. While there are multiple options for offhand weaponry, like the torch and flamethrower, I found the pistol to be one of the most invaluable tools at my disposal. Your parry options are gone; instead, you can stagger enemies with a well-timed pistol shot, opening them up to a devastating visceral attack. These can be difficult to time, but are the bread and butter of early fights against bosses like Father Gascoigne and rival hunters.
Of course, you will die. This is a Souls-style game, after all, and death plays its due part in gameplay. The first segment of the game is set up to enforce that idea, placing you in the world with only your fists and a hulking werewolf in your path. After the creature is done gnawing on your bones, you’ll awaken in the Hunter’s Dream, the afterlife-esque hub of your journey. One of the few negatives of Bloodborne is the load times between deaths, which can range from a relatively short wait to a seemingly eternal one. They will only drag on a few times, usually when you’re entering a new area or on your first boot, but they can be a little annoying in extended play sessions.
In the Hunter’s Dream, you’ll find the Doll, this game’s Maiden, who raises your stats in exchange for Blood Echoes (Bloodborne’s version of souls) and provides a constant NPC to talk with between visits. Little messengers, the ghoulish creatures who worship you, have several shops with an ever-increasing stock of items available. There’s also a workbench for upgrading weapons and installing bloodstones, which improve aspects of your weapons like general attack damage and thrust damage.
Also housed in this otherworld are chalices, which are the catalyst for Bloodborne’s Chalice Dungeons. Some are randomized, while others are pre-constructed, but Chalice Dungeons provide a side-escape for those looking for extra challenge. And boy, do they deliver on that. Chalice Dungeons contain new bosses and enemies, as well as improved versions of nasties you’ve previously bested. They’re hard, even more difficult than the proper campaign, but the reward is equal to the challenge: special weapons, equipment, and items await victorious hunters in the depths of the Chalice’s many tiers.
Bosses are, of course, a main draw of anything Souls-esque. The big bads of Bloodborne deliver, and there is little in the way of training wheels this time around. Pushovers from previous games, like the Taurus Demon and Last Giant, are not present here. While some may have clever ways for you to get a leg-up, like the Cleric Beast’s bullet-susceptible skull and Gascoigne’s daughter’s music box, there are few easy, catch-all strategies. They will force you to adapt, react, and be much more aggressive than feels safe.
Rather than cower behind your shield and observe, however, you can feel free to approach fights with calculated recklessness thanks to the Regain system. If you get hit, you have a short window of time to counterattack and recover lost health. It’s often better to start swinging when you get slammed, rather than cowering in a corner, especially since healing is sparse. It does get annoying, however, when you take that risky low-health swing and miss because of a framerate drop. Yes, there are still framerate issues in Souls games – while combat in some areas runs perfectly and I never had issues in boss fights, larger areas with lots of effects and enemies can really make the frames chug.
Lore is also a huge pull for Bloodborne, and the engrossing atmosphere of the city of Yharnam and the outlying areas are some of the best Miyazaki has crafted. The burning beasts, strung up along the street, framed by haunting architecture and sorrowful angel statues, all burying their face as if they knew what horrors would occur before chisel even struck stone. If I wax a little poetic, it’s only because Bloodborne inspires that level of infatuation – everything in the environment, the dialogue and interaction with NPCs, even the behavior and appearance of enemies builds the story around you. While in previous Souls you were traveling through a land already ravaged by a tragedy, in Bloodborne you are watching that unfold before your eyes, and often taking part in shaping it.
I could gush on and on, but the truth of the matter is that at the time of writing this I’ve only brushed the surface. I have yet to face the endgame horrors that await me, and I’ve only experienced multiplayer through seeing others play it during the review window I received. I’ve spent a little over 20 hours in-game, and have yet to unlock three of the four main headstones that signify major areas in the game, or to explore any of the high-level Chalice Dungeons.
But this is not a game that will occupy a single weekend, or a passing day. Bloodborne puts challenges in your path and rewards you for surmounting its many obstacles. I spent almost five hours attempting to defeat a single boss, one that took other players only a handful of tries to defeat, but that’s part of the pull: difficulty is not arbitrary, and overcoming obstacles feels like personal growth, a euphoric experience that is unlike any other.
Filled with depth, rewarding in combat, bleeding atmosphere like the lycan blood that coats the bricks of Yharnam’s old roads, there are few experiences that can compare to Bloodborne. Those who seek a truly comprehensive gaming experience need only play Miyazaki’s masterpiece and let themselves become enthralled in the hunt.