Where did all the magic go?
HIGH: Cainhurst Castle
LOW: The Unseen Village
WTF: Well, Rom sure was easy. I guess I'll walk up to this wailing woman and…..OH MY GOD WHAT IS HAPPENING?
"Isn't that game supposed to be super hard?" is the first question I usually get when talking about any of the Souls games with a non-Souls player. The series has a well-earned reputation for challenge, but the difficulty has never been what defines them for me.
Unlike traditional ‘hard' games that test reaction speed and timing, Souls is more about situational awareness, preparation, and learning from one's mistakes. While quick reflexes are important, they have never been the core of the experience. I deeply enjoyed all three Souls games, and these titles have engrossed me over the past year to the tune of several hundred hours. After getting used to the systems involved, they became a gaming journey like no other.
Why am I giving this preface on Souls? I think it's important to show that I'm no slouch when it comes to FromSoft games, and I want to use that knowledge to properly convey the weight of my feelings towards Bloodborne, which might otherwise be interpreted as a lack of understanding of this developer's work.
Bloodborne…is just too hard.
As a fourth ‘spiritual' entry in FromSoft's series (although it's technically an all-new IP) Bloodborne takes us to the city of Yharnam, where the residents are rumored to use blood in magic healing rituals. Of course the city is a ruined hellscape, so the player must deal with all manner of creatures and traps while on the quest to find a cure for their disease.
Bloodborne is a very well-made game. The atmosphere in Yharnam is grisly and creepy, and perfectly sets up a strong Lovecraft theme — and I mean that in every sense of the term, not just ‘Cthlulhu shows up at some point.' Along with the aesthetics, From's mastery of level design is on full display here, with clever pathing and shortcut placement. In this sense, Bloodborne feels very much like a superb 3D Castlevania.
However, Bloodborne's combat asks much more of the player than previous FromSoft games. This shift was clearly a calculated design choice, but it was tough for me to appreciate the differences after becoming so aggravated from dying to the same cheap shots over and over.
Previous Souls games have taught the player to be cautious above all else. Learning when to defend, attack, dodge, and when to run are skills one must learn to survive. That's changed with Bloodborne, as defensive tactics are almost nonexistent. With no worthwhile shields available, protecting oneself is limited to dodging and parrying.
This change means that Souls vets will essentially have to learn the rules of play all over again, this time without training wheels. It's an interesting evolution of the Souls formula, as it rewards a much faster and more aggressive style of combat. Supporting this is a mechanic to regenerate HP, restoring lost health to the player if she returns damage immediately after receiving it. It's clear that the focus is now on offense more than it ever was before.
Unfortunately, this focus on aggression comes with a few drawbacks, the most obvious being that other playstyles viable in previous games are obsolete, or simply don't exist here. One of the best things about Souls is that the player could tailor their character build to their own personal preference – be a shield-carrying tank, a nimble dagger-user, a long-range spellcaster, and more. Any of these were options that gave the player choice. In Bloodborne, the focus on speed and reflexes means there's only one style that works. Sure, there are different weapons with different movesets that can be changed depending on the situation, but they all boil down to the same close-in melee playstyle, which is disappointing given the variety that players could previously count on.
The lack of defensive options especially hurts when it comes to bosses. Their patterns and animations can be hard to read, meaning that it's easy to be caught off-guard and quickly killed, especially with the persistent problems I had with the camera. Too often my view of the action was obscured by scenery or when the camera would get hung up on geometry in smaller areas. It would also get tangled up with some of the larger bosses as well — a common cause of many defeats.
Bizarrely, Bloodborne reverses recent series improvements by making the player rely on consumable healing items. Blood Vials dropped by enemies or purchased from the shop are the only common healing item available, and if the supply is exhausted when the player's low on cash, the only choice is to go back into a previous area and farm enemies that drop them. I'm not sure what the experience of replaying old areas multiple times was supposed to add, but it's disappointing that the auto-replenishing Estus system from Dark Souls was removed.
Another serious concern is that the online experience in Bloodborne is abysmal, and seems like yet another step backwards for the dev. I attempted summoning help several times in tough spots and never successfully connected with another player. Not only does this mean I was left unable to use the in-game assist system, I also spent the valuable resource needed without actually getting the help. On the opposite side, I was invaded only once over the course of the entire game, but the experience was incredibly laggy and not the heart-stopper such an event should be. The ‘specter' system which shows how other players died didn't work for the majority of the time, either.
Certain aspects of Bloodborne like the level design, audio design, and art direction show that in most regards, it's an exceptionally well-made game. Every change feels like a conscious effort to create something that stands apart from the developer's previous work, and such an attempt is commendable. However, Bloodborne bumps up the overall difficulty while taking away the options that made Souls approachable to all players. In its current state, it feels like it caters too much to the twitch experts, and doesn't bend for the rest of us. A challenge that feels like a learning experience is welcome, but Bloodborne too often felt like it was kicking me in the balls and leaving me helpless to do anything about it.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 70 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 times) and 1 hour of play in multiplayer modes. The entire game was played with online enabled.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood (duh!), gore, and violence. The game is called Bloodborne. There is a lot of blood and gore. Although there are no sexual situations and no questionable language, there are definitely no kids allowed.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: I find the Souls games in general to be very audio-reliant, and Bloodborne probably moreso than any of them. Sound is a crucial factor in determining when enemies are near, and I can see players with hearing issues having a lot of trouble without it. In terms of dialogue, all speech is accompanied with subtitles.
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