live die and you learn.
If Dark Souls were a man transforming into a beast, its name would be Bloodborne. All rational, spiritual, methodical thought begins to bleed out, as an insatiable hunger gnaws its away at the walls of the mind. Bloodborne may look and sound and seem as brutal as any "normal" Souls game, but it possesses a feral instinct that courses through its veins and spreads from the back of its eyes. And though this leads to an intensely aggressive style and an almost sinister level of difficulty, some parts unfortunately feel more restrictive and untamed than they should be.
A hair more straightforward but still as unnervingly eerie, the story behind Bloodborne concerns the price of lycanthropy. Set in the fictional gothic dystopia of Yharnam, your character seeks a transfusion of beast blood to reinforce the abilities of being a hunter. Ironically, though, the hunters and clerics of the Healing Church have seemingly become the very scourge they were meant to vanquish, and the mobs of cityfolk blame you and your kin for the descent of Yharnam into madness, savagery, and moon-stricken lunacy. Study the descriptions for key items, listen to the delirious survivors after knocking on their doors, and read notes scattered throughout Yharnam, and you'll piece together whatever scraps of details remain into a cohesive world.
That said, this could be a dream in a literal fashion, as your character straddles between the tranquil respite of The Hunter's Dream and the ruinous nightmare of Yharnam. Perhaps this journey is merely a test of your character's spirit as it attempts to reconcile humanity with the call of the wild that beckons the beast within. More than several comparisons can be made with the Daedric Prince Hircine in The Elder Scrolls or the hunter's paradise of Purgatory in Supernatural, though Bloodborne's interpretation is certainly more unearthly, visceral, and sanguinary.
Befitting the grim, foreboding tone of the Souls universe, the game's atmosphere pervades the environment—unsettling fog, washed-out colors, mangled trees, displaced growls, and resonating chimes. The radiant setting sun streaming through the skyline of gothic architecture, combining the best of Anor Londo and Majula, is disquietingly glorious. Enemies have a grotesque nature that reminds me of the otherworldly monsters in Berserk. Crows caw with this hellishly rabid, houndlike snarl I'm sure will creep up in my darkest moments when I least suspect it.
Where Bloodborne separates itself from the Dark Souls mold is in its emphasis on aggressive action instead of defensive strategy, perhaps in an attempt to win over the broader audience of PlayStation 4 console owners. The new regain system will leave recoverable health whenever your character is hit that's restored if you successfully damage an opponent within a limited time. Metal shields and plated armor are no longer an option, which makes sense contextually since gunfire made them historically ineffective. Your character can easily dual-wield a one-handed blade and a gun, while standard weapons can transform between two modes for a lengthier combo; in particular, the threaded cane can turn into a whip for longer range and crowd-control.
Taken altogether, along with consumable blood vials and items not having any weight, the combat system encourages proper dodging and run-and-hit tactics. It doubles down on what makes the Souls franchise so brutally demanding, the part that forces you to pay attention to an enemy's attack patterns and movement, rolling away at the right time and in the right direction while not getting too greedy with attacks. Survival means pulling enemies one at a time, exercising patience, trusting nothing, and learning with every death until you finally reach another lantern as a checkpoint or open a shortcut (because you know that doors will never open on your side the first time through). And don't worry, Bloodborne will pound these lessons into your very soul in just the first level.
Bloodborne may not be particularly fun in the usual sense, but it's entertaining in a masochistically courageous way, daring you to conquer each dreadful area of Yharnam one hard-earned inch at a time. Sure, no one likes having to defeat every respawning enemy over and over again to reach a boss whose been wrecking you for hours, or having all of your stocked blood echoes (souls, really) be dropped in a dangerous area over a silly mistake. But there's little as satisfying as finally vanquishing a boss and leveling up a character with higher stats, fortified weapons, and special runes to the point where earlier levels become a cakewalk. Beating the game with high Insight points, which can make the game even tougher by changing enemy attack patterns, is even more of a challenge for those who want it.
However, the primary downside to this slant toward an offensive approach is it leaves very little room for error in the other systems, and occasionally, the camera and lock-on can't keep up with the action. When the camera is caught against a wall, pillar, or corner, it can suddenly zoom in close on your character, disorient your view, and promptly lead to another death. This happens more frequently when you lock on a tough enemy, like another hunter or a boss in a tight area. Also, the lock-on frequently drops if the enemy is out of sight, so finding a spot to re-engage the lock can instead make the camera suddenly look in the direction of your character. This doesn't occur often while in more wide-open areas, like some later boss arenas and the wilderness, but there are enough narrow hallways and tight corridors in the city to make this a noticeable problem.
Many of Bloodborne's enemies already hit extremely hard, so dying due to a mistake made by the wonky camera or lock-on is a tough pill to swallow. Thankfully, the vast majority of deaths will be your fault—as it should be. Indeed, the strength of the Souls series has always been about conquering a level given enough dedication, situational awareness, and trial-and-error. But the problematic camera and lock-on system cause enough unnecessary deaths to chip away at that veneer.
At the same time, gunfire isn't reliable enough of a counter for consistent use. The idea is to fire a blunderbuss or other high-stun firearm right before an enemy lands an attack to open a chance for a critical hit. While this is mechanically similar to the shield-based riposte from earlier Souls games, this stun effect is mainly a crapshoot and you don't have a shield to mitigate damage from a mistake. Especially if you're facing a new enemy for the first time, you're forced to consider whether a certain attack has invincibility frames or whether it can be countered in the first place. It's just not worth risking a hit given how punitive death can be. You're better off getting a critical attack by walking slowly behind an enemy and using a charge attack.
Unfortunately, this all means that Bloodborne pushes its hand more than its Souls brethren when it comes to your character's starting build. Unless you've already mastered the game and want to take an extremely high-risk approach, you're guided by design toward a strength build or a dodge build. Firearms deal limited damage, enemies can wipe you in a matter of two or three hits, and magic doesn't even appear until about a quarter-way through and most spells are support-based anyway.
Oddly, you also won't be able to jump from lamp to lamp like bonfires. Even if this is a compromise with Demon's Souls fans who like the level-based design instead of the open world, it's not worth the extra loading screen (though there are plans for this to be patched). It takes about thirty to forty seconds teleporting from one area to another, so being forced to return to The Hunter's Dream can mean unnecessary waiting time. The reliance on blood vials, in lieu of rechargeable Estus Flasks, can lead to a lot of gruntwork in earlier levels to restock them too (and means more loading time). The cost of items increases over time, so spending blood echoes on vials after likely losing many of them in a boss can be wasteful.
The co-operative system luckily alleviates some of these issues by adding up to two players to your party at the cost of a single Insight point each time. While the method of joining a co-operative match using two separate bells is somewhat convoluted, having someone who can flank opponents, help you explore an area for the first time, or remove threat away from a boss are worth the trouble. This applies for both regular game content as well as randomly-generated Chalice Dungeons, which are primed for three-player parties and effectively extend the game for dungeon raiders.
The caveat to co-operative play is that if someone answers your Beckoning Bell, it opens the door for more sinister players to join your game and hunt your team down (those pricks!). Since PvP players need 30 Insight points to invade another player's realm, you can bet that they're leveled enough to destroy your progress. There's also another specific nightmarish area where PvP players will likely be found in abundance, so be wary of that and find a friend fast.
Bloodborne is the first PS4 exclusive and new IP, even if it might as well be called "Dark Blood Echoes," to be taken seriously. Though not as refined and freeform as some of its predecessors, it continues in the longstanding Souls tradition of lending credence to challenging games and making the seemingly Sisphyean task of conquering ruthless, malformed monstrosities possible and downright commendable. Bloodborne may feel like a shapeshifted offshoot of the Souls series, but it remains a beast which carries that elite badge of honor for those who can slay it.