Watch a full 20+ minute video review of Bloodborne from Joaby embedded above
Bloodborne is an action RPG created by FROM Software, a Japanese company most famous for its Souls series of games. Demon's Souls, Dark Souls and Dark Souls II are all FROM games, and unsurprisingly they all share common themes -- rich worlds full of deep, mostly unstated lore, complex combat systems based on intricate stat calculations and varied animations, and, of course, crushing difficulty.
Bloodborne, by these measures (and more) is a Souls game in everything but name. You light bonfires, you collect souls, you die and lose all of those souls, you contemplate quitting forever, you question your self-worth, you kill a boss, you feel validated as a person and you move on. The cycle a player finds themselves in is constant -- soaring profits followed by significant one time losses.
Still, it's not exactly the same as the Dark or Demon's Souls games. There are differences -- and these differences are significant. Bloodborne pushes the pace of the action in a way the Souls games never did -- when you lose health in Bloodborne, the health bar stays full for a moment, and you have a brief opportunity to regain some (or all) of it by pressing the attack. If you don't attack inside 3ish seconds or if you get hit again you'll lose that health, and the best way to get it back will be via Blood Vials (there are other ways, but Blood Vials are the primary method).
This changes how you approach combat in the game. The risk/reward scenario is different -- health lost isn't gone for good, so taking damage isn't cause for concern. There are absolutely bosses where (provided you aren't staggered for too long) taking a hit to get in close to them is better than hanging back and waiting for an opportunity to strike that might not come.
This is what Bloodborne does so well, amplifying part of what drove players in the Souls games. FROM's games aren't about never falling, they're about getting back up when you do. Bloodborne takes this philosophy and makes it a part of the very combat itself -- in previous games you'd strive to never get hit by a boss, attempting to make every battle flawless (even if it was nigh impossible to do), but here getting hit can still result in that flawless victory.
As a very experienced Dark Souls player, it required some active rewiring of how I played -- I got stuck on Vicar Amelia for days because I kept trying to separate and regroup after being hit. I still fall into the habit sometimes, backing off from fights when I should be ducking in.
Superficially it seems like these changes means Bloodborne rewards a confident player more, but all the Souls games have rewarded confidence. The difficulty that appeals to some players and scares off others has far more to do with not knowing what to do than it does with the game's skill-based challenge. Sure, even regular mobs can kill you in three or four hits, but simply knowing where and what those mobs are can negate any threat they pose. Bosses can absolutely one-hit-kill you, but the one hit attacks are telegraphed so heavily that if you know what they are they'll never hit you.
Confidence is the difference between meekly fighting every enemy you meet on your way to a boss and sprinting from bonfire to boss fog because you already know the way. This is a Souls game constant, not specific to Bloodborne, so I reject the idea that Bloodborne rewards confidence more. I think, if anything, it encourages recklessness more, goading players into taking that extra swing or to stop from healing that little while more.
Another feature that forces players into a "Offence is the best defence" mindset, however, is the absence of shields. The one shield you can get in the game is a few planks sitting next to one another, which serves little use beyond lowering your stagger from gunshots (it's actually sort of useful against at least one AI hunter).
Instead of shields, in Bloodborne you get a gun and way more i-frames on your dodge. I won't go into i-frames too heavily -- you're like 5 minutes into a video about one of the most challenging games on the planet at this point, so we'll assume a little knowledge -- but to put it simply, i-frames are those moments when you're invincible to damage, even if on-screen you're getting hit. When you dodge in Bloodborne, you're impervious to damage for a brief amount of time -- much more time than you were in Dark Souls 1 or 2 -- which means a dodge heavy strategy affords you ample opportunity to not get killed.
The gun you get plays into another offensively defensive mechanic -- if you shoot an enemy as they attack you, they can be stunned and you can perform a Visceral attack on them. This is a tweaking of the parry system from Dark Souls -- instead of thrusting your shield/swordbreaker to the side with a quick push of the L2 button, you shoot an enemy in the face. Like the parry system, gun-parrying can take some getting used to -- when you first start the game, it seems like more hassle than it's worth, but by the time you reach the final boss you'll be far better off for having mastered it.
Naturally a tool this powerful comes with a catch -- in this case, your gun only has a certain amount of bullets available before you're all out. This is one of the most interesting elements of Bloodborne, creating an item deficit where the player struggles to stay afloat as they get further and further into an area. Exploration is one of the key aspects of Bloodborne -- searching and finding new places to go is integral to not just progress in the game but the overall feeling of lack of confidence I mentioned earlier. As your Blood Vials dwindle and your Quicksilver Bullets run short, you begin to pray that the next Lantern is just around the corner. The fact that you can sacrifice health for bullets augments this balance further -- if you time it right, you can press up on the d-pad to sacrifice a chunk of health in return for 5 bullets, and you might just get that health back if you're lucky/good, but if you screw it up, you're a little bit closer to death.
The other major departure is in the weapons.
Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2 playthroughs are defined by the weapon you wield. The weapon you chose dictated where you put stats, how you fought enemies, what armour you wore... the weapon was the game. Pick a spear and you need enough stamina to keep thrusting it. Pick a big bloody hammer and you need the strength to kill pretty much everything in one blow, because you probably won't get a second shot. Pick two clubs and cheese your way to victory forever.
In Bloodborne, Trick Weapons, as they're called, seem far less important. There's fewer of them, for one. Upgrade materials are few and far between, especially those to take a weapon beyond level 6, which forces you to specialise. If you've already spent eight upgrade chunks on your starter weapon, you'd be crazy to upgrade a brand new weapon from scratch while fighting much tougher enemies.
Trick Weapons themselves offer a fair amount of variety -- you can augment each weapon by pressing the L1 button, transforming it into something different. My two weapons of choice were the Threaded Cane, which turns into a Whip with great range, and the Tonitrus, an electric club which turns into an... even more electric club.
There was something particularly special in Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2 about obtaining a weird weapon by doing something odd, but that doesn't seem to be a thing in Bloodborne. As cheesy as it was, I loved getting the Drake Sword by shooting off a dragon's tail, and I'll never forget -- seriously, I'm incapable of forgetting -- about the 300ish attempts I had earning the Moonlight Greatsword in Dark Souls 2. For all their weird and whacky transformations, weapons in Bloodborne lack the character of their Souls variants.
The best effort Bloodborne can manage in this regard is via Blood Gems, which you can socket into weapons to boost their damage, augment their damage type or give your weapon a dozen or so other effects.
Through these gems, the game's Action RPG element takes control -- if Dark Souls games are From Software's take on Western RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, surely Bloodborne is their version of a Diablo. Hence the faster paced combat and the propensity for taking damage -- Q Spam is something all Diablo players understand, and getting health back by attacking mid-combat is a very similar concept.
So too is the RNG element Blood Gems bring to the fore via the game's Chalice Dungeons. In Root Chalice dungeons players can get random gear, primarily weapon variations and blood gems. The idea here is that players will run the Chalice Dungeons over and over to get the gems they need or the weapon variants they want. It's the end-game of Bloodborne, in much the same way that farm-running dungeons is the end-game in the Diablo series.
If only they'd decided instead to mimic Path of Exile's end-game.
There is very little satisfying about running Chalice Dungeons. Trap heavy and needlessly dark, they feature the same room repeatedly. There's no lore here, either -- Chalice Dungeons make the understated story of the main campaign look like Robert Jordan's wordy narratives. You'll quickly come to recognise the basics -- this room always has ladders, this room almost always has guys that drop down, there's consistently a "secret" tunnel here that you can easily miss.
The best thing Chalice Dungeons offer is a dozen or so new bosses that you won't encounter in the campaign, but even these are too often repeated, depending on your chalice dungeon depth.
What these instead primarily represent is a significant departure from how I've always played From games. In Chalice Dungeons, powering your way through to the end is actively punished -- the only way to summon a "new" dungeon is by acquiring the materials needed in earlier dungeons, forcing you to search through every nook and cranny of each dungeon before you can move on to that dungeon level's boss. Instead of being a compelling end-game adventure, chalice dungeons become a chore.
Of course, die-hards won't mind what I call a lack of end-game -- but die-hards probably won't think of New Game + as a hollow waste of time, either. With all the same items as New Game, however, it truly is a waste of time -- except for some easy to earn Blood Stone Chunks and the only damn Blood Rock (used to upgrade a weapon to +10) in the game, NG+ offers nothing beyond the New Game experience.
On the other hand, a lacking end-game is a non-problem in a game as complex and rewarding as Bloodborne -- you more than got your money's worth from the campaign when you played it through once. Whichever way you play -- be it content explorer or tourist -- Bloodborne delivers a compelling challenge, a gorgeous world and a fantastic experience all around.
But Bloodborne has a different, far more insidious problem hidden within it. One that absolutely should not exist.
The Souls games have had bugs. Hell, one of the four major bosses in Dark Souls was a complete freaking mess of collision detection issues -- the Bed of Chaos is still my biggest barrier when I think of revisiting the first Souls game. You could clip through the game world, dupe items, get stuck in the wall during the god damn Smelter Demon fight and find yourself unable to MOVE EVEN THOUGH HE'S ON 5% AND YOU CAN BEAT HIM IF THE GAME WOULD JUST LET YOU GET OUT OF THE WALL...
Anyway, these games were not brought into the world perfect. They're works in progress, games as a service and all that rubbish. The Dark Souls 2 you played on launch isn't the same as the Dark Souls 2 you will play now. I often joke with friends that my beating the Shrine of Amana is worth more than theirs because I did it before From patched it to be ever-so-slightly easier.
More than that, it's often their imperfections that allowed some of the more spectacular achievements -- the sub-hour speed runs and such only exist because players can circumvent the game's rules.
For the regular player, these things aren't usually issues. Yes, getting stuck in a wall on the Smelter Demon is frustrating, but you can learn to avoid it -- after a time it becomes just a part of the Smelter fight. And the Bed of Chaos is a nightmarish mess of flawed design and buggy physics, but you can beat it, eventually.
In fact, these bugs characterise what is brilliant about the Souls games -- through patience, skill and determination you can overcome them.
Bloodborne's problems aren't like that. In fact, Bloodborne's chief problem is counter to the very nature of the game itself.
The 12 hour bug for Bloodborne is well documented. It doesn't take 12 hours, it reduces boss movesets and makes them less aggressive and it impacts both the campaign and in the Chalice Dungeons. It can be fixed by killing the game app on your PlayStation and starting the game up again, pointing some to believe it is symptomatic of a memory leak.
And it is the worst bug that could possibly exist in a game of this nature.
It's a nightmare situation, because even the tourists don't want to beat the game on 'easy'. The appeal of Bloodborne and the other From Software games is in earning your victories. As I mentioned before, the slight nerf to the Shrine of Amana earns me no shortage of smugness around my Souls loving friends. On the other hand, they give me stick for beating the game as a mage. I cop crap for always being summoned four or five times before a boss fight because I have friends who learn the fights with their souls or echoes on the line.
Souls games aren't about achievements that you can share to your Facebook wall or some bullshit. In Bloodborne, achievements are personal successes for you to know and measure. I don't argue with my friends about the veracity of our accomplishments to dick measure -- sarcasm and insults is how we recount our shared experience. I don't genuinely think I'm better because I beat the Blood-Starved Beast on my first attempt, shit-talking is just how I communicate.
The 12 Hour Bug dashes this to pieces. All of your accomplishments are called into question through this glitch, none of them certain. I did beat the Blood-Starved Beast on my first attempt. But maybe I beat some hollow shell of this boss, because maybe I left my game on for too long beforehand. This bug wasn't revealed until around two weeks after the game came out. I'd had the game for a week before release. Thanks to the long-ass loading times of the game pre-release (and for about a week post-release), I had been leaving my console on and in-game to avoid lengthy waiting.
When the Cleric Beast bugged out and repeated the same move over and over, I thought it was a simple mistake. Now I can't recall whether my console had been on for more than 10ish hours or not when I fought it.
Even with a regimen of repeatedly resetting the game, I call into question any boss fight I found simple. Being that I could quite easily dodge her jump attacks and hit her in the tail, was it that Amygdala was a surprisingly easy boss to beat, or had I simply been playing too long since the reset?
That's not to mention that the same issue is probably what causes the game to hard crash upon killing some bosses. Nothing robs you of your achievement quite like the game literally taking away a boss kill -- although the upside is that you can be guaranteed that your kill on the Pthumerian Elder was legit if you just had to reset your console to fight him again.
Now that we know about the glitch we can avoid it -- the load times are still fairly long (though not nearly as long as they were), but it's better than being forced to question your achievements. But for too many players the damage is done. The only option is to replay through the bosses, to beat them after a fresh reset, to manage your game around its one glaring issue.
And that's genuinely not good enough.
Bloodborne is, overall, one of the best games I've ever played. There's no small amount of genius involved in taking a winning formula and skewing it into something which is similar but distinct in a way which forces players to relearn a game system they already fundamentally understand. As I play through the game I'm constantly astounded at how it gives the player of always feeling like the underdog, always needing to overcome odds -- even against enemies you've fought before. The dogs you fight in the Forbidden Woods are the same as those you fight in the Unseen Village, but they take so much more damage -- and yet you never feel like you're being out-levelled.
The combat is fantastic. The Trick Weapons feel distinctly different, even if there aren't enough of them to really personalise the experience. Gun-parrying thematically marries aggressive combat with active defense, and it successfully makes you feel like a bad-arse. The art style is that perfect blend of horrifying and horrible as enemies slick with blood and slime stare at you with too many eyes, all covered in buboes. The story, once again understated (or occasionally unstated), blends Lovecraftian mythology with Miyazaki's terrible imagination to create a true horror experience, something the Dark Souls games never managed.
But while Bloodborne is content complete, it is far from a complete experience. And it lacks in the worst area imaginable, suffering at the hands of sub-par polish and reckless ignorance. Load times turn defeat into tedium. Frame drops make some boss fights nigh on impossible. Terrible glitches provide players with methods for exploitation.
And worst of all a bug in the game can rob you of your accomplishments both meta-conceptually and in practice. It can render your achievements moot simply by virtue of existing, or it can crash the game and put you back outside a Nightmare Fog pre-fight. It is utterly unforgivable -- and almost comically the only mistake they could make short of the game not working that could make me say that.
I'm torn, because even with this error Bloodborne is a candidate for Game of the Year. That's how good I think it is, absent end-game, memory leak and all.
What we liked
FROM Software's signature challenge
The potential for real loss makes Bloodborne true Survival Horror
Intricate level design makes the game world feel even larger than it is
Gun-parrying makes you feel badass
What we didn't like
The "12 Hour" boss fight bug shouldn't ever exist
Farming for blood vials sucks
Some frame-rate loss hurts the game
Weapons don't have as much character
Loading times are long. And you load after each death. And you die a lot