Let’s make one thing clear: Bloodborne has no interest in being your ‘friend’.
This hardcore action-RPG is the spiritual successor to From Software’s brutally difficult Dark Souls series and there is little change in the developer’s attitude to hand-holding, which is that there shouldn’t be any. Ever.
This unwillingness to make concessions for today’s ‘casual’ gamer can be seen as either a hindrance or a defiant stand for the traditional values of video gaming, depending on your perspective. Whatever way you spin it, once you’ve plunged into Bloodborne’s world of hellbound Gothicism, it may take you a little while to resurface.
Bloodborne is set in the seemingly doomed city of Yarnham, a Gothic version of Victorian-era London with a supernatural tone that would make Hades himself shudder (or at the very least, marvel in awe at the elaborate architecture).
Your character is a Hunter tasked with ridding the world of a demon plague that has driven its residents indoors on what is referred to as “the night of the hunt”. You can expect to encounter all kinds of monstrosities, many of whom seem to have ties to a religious organisation claiming control over the streets.
Fortunately, Bloodborne doesn’t rub its story in your face. Instead, it leaves you to your own devices from the get-go. There is a rich backstory and a sense of purpose in everything that happens. Everything is revealed in titbits, but only if the player pays attention. Town residents talk to you through the barred-up windows of their decrepit homes and add crucial pieces to the compelling universe.
The atmospheric hunt
Bloodborne is a rare gaming experience that demands everything before you can succeed. Every demon, werewolf or violently religious zealot you slay is nothing but preparation for the blood-curdling beasts of utterly epic proportions that you must face off against in order to uncover the next awaiting terror.
On a moment-to-moment level, this essentially boils down to exploring an area to find any useful equipment and saving up points from the enemies you kill until you’ve banked enough to level up and prepare yourself for the next boss battle. This bare bones structure will be familiar to anyone who’s ever played any old school dungeon-trawler, but Bloodborne is so much more than the sum of its parts!
One of the criticisms of the Souls games was that combat was too sluggish and movement restrictive. Bloodborne increases both the tempo and tension considerably, soon having the player wielding a gun in one hand and a melee weapon in the other. A vital dodge/roll button is therefore your main line of defence and is equally functional as a means of gaining positional advantage over the enemy; something compounded by weapons that can transform from short to long variations, even in mid-combo.
Combat is tough, satisfying and highly dependent on proper tactic and strategy, lest your demon hunting avatar be ripped ungraciously to shreds – again and again – until you learn.
As much as fighting smart is important, Bloodborne doesn’t want you to fritter along the edges, waiting for perfect fighting conditions. The game includes a ‘regain’ dynamic, which lets you retrieve a portion of the health lost in the moments immediately following an attack. This cleverly introduces an extra layer of ‘fight or flight’ thinking as you must instantly weigh up the pros and cons of seeking retribution versus fleeing for cover.
A game of patience
The design choices may put off some players, making this review as much a disclaimer as a hearty recommendation. Mainly, be prepared to trawl through the same areas over and over. Checkpoints are really sparse and if you die, you must traverse all the way back to where you died to retrieve the points you had saved up, or face losing them forever. At its best, this is a good tension-building device, making you value your life. At its worst, it means replaying certain sections repeatedly with little to nothing to show for your efforts.
However, this frustration doesn’t diminish the many strengths. The soundtrack perfectly captures the build-up and release of tension as you square off against some of the most deviously original boss battles ever conceived in a video game. The graphics are among the best of this generation thus far – enemy and world design are both surreal yet recognisable, nightmarish yet beautiful.
Most importantly, the thrill of overcoming near-impossible odds with your life intact makes every moment of heart-breaking loss feel worthwhile. Bloodborne may not want to be your friend, but it does want to be your mentor and, once your training is complete, you will thank it for every time it killed you or made you want to throw your controller.
Bloodborne has an RRP of £49.99 and is out now exclusively on PS4.