Review: ‘Bloodborne’ is brutal and exhilirating

25 Mar 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Bloodborne’ Review, Day One: A Hideous Nightmare.

‘He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.’ Bloodborne’s opaque, breadcrumb storytelling and meticulously crafted Stokeresque aesthetic appropriately lends itself to philosophical interpretation.The designers have taken lessons from their previous games, and created new takes on existing mechanics – focusing on movement and aggression, rather than passivity.There’s a real emotional arc to your first few hours with Bloodborne, less so for story reasons and more because of the strange way this game worms its way into your head.

This was before the internet, before online FAQs and walkthroughs, before the industry transmogrified into an imitation of Hollywood, signposting every release with masses of pre-release hype, pigeon-holing experiences into genres and conventions. The enigmatic, often prosaic statements from the game’s visionary director Hidetaka Miyazaki from during Bloodborne’s development have focused on the link between human and beast and the brutality of existence. While minor technical issues, some unfocused design elements, and generally poor pacing detract from the overall experience, Bloodborne is still a solid entry in the From Software pantheon. So for review purposes, I’ll be doing a day by day diary with this new exclusive for Sony’s PS4, even though I’ve already had it for a few days.

As many predicted, most are glowing, and the game looks to be a much needed victory for Sony which so far has struggled to produce many memorable exclusive games on their new-gen console. If this sounds like familiar territory for those who have braved and survived the onslaught of his previous works, Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls (to which Bloodborne is a spiritual sequel), you would be correct, almost.

Set in the city of Yharnam, you play as a Hunter – a select group who kill the beasts and ghouls running rampant throughout the town’s tight, claustrophobic streets. Bodies pile in sodden sacks, flies buzz around horse carcasses, while a pram, that beloved prop of the Hollywood set designer, lays on its side at the doors to a forsaken church. If the Souls games were a journey into Hell, then Bloodborne is the equivalent of being trapped in purgatory, a state of limbo for the forgotten, the diseased and the interstitial. With gravestones haphazardly shoved into flagstone pavements, grim cast-iron fences lining the sidewalks, and the cackling of residents inside nearby houses, Yharnam feels otherworldly. You’re thrown into a dark world with nothing but a pair of suspenders, and then some hideous monster kills you and you awaken, after a lengthy loading screen, in a safe netherworld.

There are few places of sanctuary any more for the remaining healthy locals, who tremble and pace inside their homes, under an everlasting curfew, away from the terrors that roam outside their doors. This is one of the reasons why From Software’s triumvirate of masterpieces – Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls and now Bloodborne – are so revered by veteran gamers. It’s just a momentary illusion: the game gives you some weapons and throws you back into the world, and you find your way through that first monster, providing the first of a few small accomplishments.

Though certainly a great game for those familiar with its playstyle and difficultly curve, is it possible to enjoy it without being a diehard fan of From Software and Hidetaka Miyazaki? Swamps and forests with fireflies flittering in the air, seaside mansions, and cities with Lovecraftian/Giger-esque edifices and statues all populate the game. Yharnam’s ruined streets, wraught-iron towers and holy structures, however, are suffering from their own affliction that turns its waning population into blade-wielding savages and, after true madness takes hold, transforms them into a cavalcade of hideous Lovecraftian-horrors. But Bloodborne has all the trappings of an important game, it’s neat looking, and it’s a PS4 exclusive, so I’m diving it, noob tendencies and all.

The games I’ve spent the most times with have been Elder Scrolls, Diablo and Destiny, which can pose a challenge, but often let your character feel completely and utterly overpowered with enough time invested. Jack the Ripper would certainly be at home here in the nooks and crannies of Yharnam’s Gothic sprawl; its cobblestones are ever slicked with Saw-like gushes of blood. Mirroring the structure of Dark Souls’ Lordran, Yharnam is a woven tapestry of interlocking paths where progress is gradual, organic and geographically coherent. Lanterns replace the Souls games’ Bonfires as the safe haven from the grisly battlefield, while also acting as a passageway into the ethereal hub-world, the Hunter’s Dream. While its set up is similar to the Souls titles (you’re still a nameless journeyman warrior, this time entering a plague-ridden town on a sort of hazy quest, and you still gather organic resources from downed enemies in order to level up), the visual style is different – and the combat is upturned.

Among the relative shelter of the Dream’s crumbling gravestones, a living doll and a mysterious paraplegic named Gherman, you can level up your character, buy equipment and upgrade your weapons with an array of interchangeable Blood Gems that ensure that the game’s minimal selection of offensive tools remains infinitely more customizable than those found in the Souls series. The character now has a gun instead of a shield, which would be a minor point in most titles, but it is pivotal here. “The whole ethos of combat in Bloodborne is different from Souls,” says Rich Stanton in his exhaustive Eurogamer review . “The latter games excel at interplay – balancing defence and offence, requiring you to switch between the two at the right moment or break the cycle with parries. Instead of skeletons and zombies, there are deranged townsfolk that curse under their breath, humanoids with pulsating maggots on their heads, and centipedes with glowing, fibrous appendages sticking out of their skin. While feeling instantly familiar, Bloodborne’s reactive combat system is designed around clever offense where the comforting relief of a hefty shield has been replaced by the need to balance agility and aggression in equal measure. A large group of enemies towards the beginning stymies me until I figure out how to isolate them, dodge around, draw them out and winnow their numbers down one by one.

You don’t have a shield because frankly it wouldn’t fit – this protagonist is all about pressure and staying on the attack regardless of what the enemies are doing.” As Jim Sterling writes in his review : “No challenge in Bloodborne ever feels truly insurmountable, always giving you just enough hope to realize [sic] that you’ve ‘got’ this, even if it takes all day. The weapons themselves are equally honed for rapid hostility, with the game’s signature ‘trick’ weapons offering split-second tactical changes that mixes long range, arching heavy strikes with swift slashes. I still die, but the first few moments with this combat system are a kind of magic: as you gain your legs, your hunter transforms from a pathetic nothing into a capable, nimble warrior that can, at least occasionally, cut through hordes of nightmarish enemies with something that approaches ease.

By that logic I should be avoiding Bloodborne too, but I decided that enough was enough and I was going to face my demons after years of avoiding them. What first induces panic and irrational mistakes eventually reveals openings through which to strike, as well as poorly defended areas of the body. “Where a lesser game might cause me to throw away the controller in frustration, Bloodborne keeps me glued, because it always gives me some clue that I’m improving, that I can handle this, and that I’m going to, in the words of the internet, Git Gud.” Reviewers are also talking about the architecture of the game; not it’s building design, but the way the environments link together into a coherent whole, complete with shortcuts and hidden pathways linking new areas on multiple levels. “Bloodborne tells a story with its environments as you press onward, echoing its plot within its architecture and its enemies,” writes Kevin VanOrd for Gamespot. “You return to earlier areas to find they aren’t as they once were, and the boundary between reality and nightmare becomes fuzzier with each slain boss. “The way these areas join together enhance the joys of exploration. While the varied firearms used in your off-hand are needed for crowd control and knocking back a charging enemy from its attack pattern, opening them up for a deadly assault. The longer you go without hitting a checkpoint, the more drenched in blood and gore your character becomes, slowly turning them into an unrecognisable crimson mess. The atmospherics in this game are very impressive: the villagers have this sad quality to them as they shamble through the streets, lashing out against the player not because they want to but because they have to, for some reason. “It’s all your fault,” they moan.

Your rangy character’s defence is tied to their speed: evasive rolls and quickstep retreats provide a buffer to the enemy’s onslaught (and make no mistake: these monsters are nothing if not single-minded; they chase you down with inexorable hostility). At the top of the final ladder, you realize where this path has taken you, and can only marvel at the brilliant way these two places, so seemingly distant from each other, are united.” The game’s varied and horrifying bestiary has also promoted some rich descriptive prose. “Perhaps worse than the menace of the unknown are the very visible threats, the misshapen monstrosities and eldritch entities standing defiantly in plain site,” writes Sterling. “An oversized porcine behemoth waits distinctly at the end of a long tunnel, a mound of decayed flesh and skulls drags itself along an open road, all in plain view of an adventurer who knows there is no way to progress except through the hideous things ahead … and there’s just no telling what those things are capable of until they’re tearing their victims apart.” There have been some downers. Several reviews, including Polygon’s , mention the game’s long loading times, which are rendered more frustrating given the amount of times you’re likely to die. Whether it’s a poison spewing, sewer dwelling pig, a hollow-eyed gravewalker or a howling lupine quadruped, each creature offers a different perspective on Yharnam’s decaying state while also forcing you to adapt your combat style at a moment’s notice. I had caved and resorted to molotov cocktails to kill the werewolves, hoping desperately that there would be some sort of checkpoint on the other side of what had been the toughest fight in the game so far.

In the case of Destiny’s Raid, its hardest mode simply overleveled enemies, giving them more health and more damage make it harder to complete the stage. There is also little so far on the game’s multiplayer components (including co-op play in the new “Chalice Dungeons”) – most sites are holding off on providing scores until these have been tested. The online features of summoning other players into your game, leaving messages for other wandering explorers and tackling other hunters in a PvP format should flourish following the game’s launch, considering how delicately interwoven they are with your own personal journey.

Bloodborne has managed to retain what its predecessors brought to modern gaming – their sense of oblique mystery, their uncompromising difficulty – but it has changed enough to become its own entity. It’s the Chalice Dungeons, however, that may well offer the level of longevity and interactivity with the online sphere that the current generation of consoles has been effectively built for. In essence a set of procedurally generated challenge maps, comprised of multiple floors with boss fights and environmental pitfalls in between, these dungeons are Bloodborne’s perpetual endgame. In your other hand, you carry either a burning torch, to light up the murk, or a ranged weapon (initially a pistol or shotgun – but soon enough you gain access to a range of other vintage firearms, each of which maintains a dilapidated steam-punk feel). Each creation is accompanied by a unique code so that the trial that you’ve bested (or that has broken you) can be shared so others can follow in your footsteps or join you co-operatively in your own hunt.

It’s not all high tech: when faced with a huddle of enemies, you can hurl stones to lure individuals away, thinning their numbers into more manageable encounters. Given how new I am to this kind of game, I’ll apologize if anything I say is representative of the entire Souls franchise, but this is the first time I’m really trying to give the series a genuine chance. After a brief tutorial where the game forces you to get into a karate-chop fight with a werewolf (spoiler alert: you lose), you resurrect and start to make your way into a local town riddled with enemies.

Gone is the flask of life-giving drink quaffed in Miyazaki’s previous games; instead foes liberally drop health-restoring items, which can be guzzled momentarily during a fight. By simply pressing a button, weapons now swap between different modes – quite often a faster swinging mode, and one with slower swings in wider arcs. It’s a gorgeously gruesome envisioning of a world that offers no rational level of negotiation or pity, where the only natural reaction to its abject bleakness and psychological oppression is vicious and primal. Instead, you can stagger enemies through either a charged up heavy attack to their back, or shooting them close-up with guns during certain attack animations. After a panicked flurry of retaliatory swings, Frank lay dead at my feet, but then I ran into a posse of four of his buddies who promptly tore me to shreds.

It’s a simple change with fundamental repercussions: attack is now the best form of defence, and even when you’re close to death, you can pull yourself back from the brink with a few well-aimed hits. Much later you may equip runes to your character, which work rather like Dark Souls’ rings, infusing your character with specific advantages to further tip the odds in your favour. It strikes me that a professor once told me that good theater “makes the stones stoney again:” that it can make the world seem more real and more immediate upon return.

As I ventured further and further out into the level, inevitably dying when I overextended myself in unfamiliar territory, I kept respawning and having to kill Frank. Bloodborne’s currency is Blood Echoes, an item harvested from foes that can be spent on increasing your character’s abilities or purchasing clothing, weapons or items from a gaggle of ghostly imps that live in a cauldron in Bloodborne’s overgrown copse of a hub area, known as Hunter’s Dream.

As such, the greater the number of Blood Echoes in your possession, the more anxious you become as the greater the potential loss that’s attached to defeat. Gone, however, is equipment load – meaning no more hours wasted, fretting over whether-or-not your character is under some nebulous percentage number after every equipment change. Making the combat more group focused leads to incredible moment-to-moment action, but those changes don’t seem to reflect well in one-on-one encounters. His storytelling is always fragmented (the game is so relentlessly hostile that, when you happen upon a friendly character, who offers you encouragement, information or some kind of useful item, the sense of relief may bring you close to tears), but there’s a sense that the iceberg of the fiction sits deep and heavy.

In my time with the game, I defeated most bosses on my first attempt – creating this strange inversion of difficulty, where the gauntlets leading up to them tended to be more difficult. Indeed, the hardest part of the game for me was a regular room where I had to fight three player-styled enemies, each with their own set of gear and tricks.

While different sections of Yharnam’s surrounding area are accessed via different portals in the hub world, most of these areas can be trekked between on foot. After killing my way through the rightward path, chopping my way through endless streets, alleys, sewers and decaying houses, I finally, finally found a stairway that led me to that gate.

The path stayed open for good, and a huge shortcut was created so I could avoid killing the same 50 enemies for the dozenth time as I tried to reach new areas. Instead of pulling up a menu at checkpoints to go to the places you’ve unlocked, you have to go to the game’s hub-world first, and then to your destination – which means sitting through two loading screens. These warn of traps or ambushes, or simply share a moment of encouragement or relief. “Beware of hound,” reads one; “You’ve come to the right place,” reads another.

My nerves are frayed, but I have killed some of the scariest creatures I’ve ever seen, and memorized their maze of a lair like it’s the back of my hand. Bloodborne is, by any measure, an extraordinary game, one that runs forcefully against the commercial tide, subverting perceived wisdom that contemporary games have to hold their players’ hands, or make their shape and rules explicit from the get-go.

People are enamoured with From Software’s games because they’re like solving a mystery – that around every corner there could be a new character, a shred of story, or environmental titbit hinting at something larger. I don’t like how when you finally locate a boss, you often have to fight/sprint through 3-4 other clusters of enemies before you can even get back to the boss to retry the battle, given how quickly and often you will die during those encounters. In general, the scarcity of checkpoints actually discourages exploration in my opinion because you will often find yourself running back to home base to spend a collection of souls rather than risk them by continuing to venture into the wild. By the time the credits rolled, I felt like I stumbled into the end sequence, rather than building up to it with appropriate boss battles and locations. Though again, all things considered, I’m enjoying the experience, despite being completely new to this sort of punishing gaming experience that, despite what fans claim, actually surpasses the difficulty of old school games in many ways.

Endurance is more important than you think, as the ability to swing a few more times before exhaustion is often the difference between life and death. Above all else – have fun!” I’m guessing only a few people who got Bloodborne review copies have never played the series, and the PR rep outright laughed when I told him this is what I was planning on writing about the game, rather than a full review. I can’t “review” Bloodborne, not just because I can’t make the requisite “this is better/worse than the Souls games” comparisons, but also because it’s taken me twelve hours to beat the first level and here we are on launch day.

I’ve always pictured myself as the polar opposite of a Souls player, but here I am, now wandering around some creepy cathedral getting lost and periodically having my brains bashed in by enemies I can’t even comprehend how to fight. Follow me on Twitter, like my page on Facebook, and pick up a copy of my sci-fi novel, The Last Exodus, and its sequel, The Exiled Earthborn, along with my new Forbes book, Fanboy Wars.

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