To me, Dark Souls has always represented a game meant to be savored slowly. The structure of the game itself is designed to halt mindless progression. Huge, beautiful landscapes and intricate level designs encourage you to take a moment to admire the scenery while you still have the opportunity. Fatal falls with narrow walkways, clever traps, and more than a few ambushes teach you to take your time as you proceed and remain aware of your surroundings. Hidden items and pathways leave you constantly on the lookout, checking every nook and cranny for anything that can improve your chances of survival. Even the enemies, absolutely deadly but generally slow to move and willing to let you come to them force you be methodical about your approach and fight with measured aggression. Bloodborne represents a small departure in this formula, retaining all the elements of exploration that holds your advance, while demanding immediate and aggressive response to enemies. In Dark Souls you are raiding dungeons and slaying the beasts which roam their hallways, in Bloodborne you are a hunter and act as both predator and prey since, far from being passive beasts, these monsters are also hunting you.
Bloodborne rewards mobility and all-out aggression played at a breakneck pace. A surplus of stamina and lack of heavy armors to limit your movement allow for near constant dashing and rolling to avoid attacks and gain an advantageous angle of attack. Blocking simply isn’t an option and even minor enemies deal a tremendous amount of damage, but the game affords a brief period of time in which you can steal back some of the health that has just been done to you. Rather than focusing on recovery and avoidance, Bloodborne incentivizes you stay in close and continue attacking. Sometimes the best way to avoid attacks is to dash directly into the enemy and open up on them rather than trying to pick away at them during recovery animations. It’s a manic system that forces you to walk the razor's edge between frantic force and last minute evasion. Transforming your weapon mid combo gives you a huge mix up game since you can work devastating heavy attacks in with quick combos are open up at long range then immediately follow up with rapid strike. On the same note, gun countering also presents a heavy punishment for trying to use a range advantage since interrupting your attack animation will stun you and leave you open for a visceral strike finisher.
I guess you could call the setting powderpunk?
Although the new system of combat is quick and dynamic, it is far from the well-oiled machine that has been developed over the course of several titles in Dark Souls. Sometimes the margin of error is so small that it creeps into artificial difficulty. With the emphasis on speed and attacking and a lack of tank items, enemies can and will kill you nigh-instantaneously. This is all well and good except that, in some areas, it creates an environment where a single mistake, or even no mistake at all, can result in your instant death. Don’t get me wrong, balancing a game to be extremely difficult but also entirely dependant upon player skill is a tremendous feat. In Dark Souls, where enemies were generally much slower and massive attacks had some wind up animation which served as warning of impending doom, this was likely easier to balance. Bloodborne attacks with equivalent area and damage which come out much faster, which will either kill you instantly or allow the enemy to finish you off before you can get back on your feet. Depending upon your position, there are a number of times when deaths may feel less a result of personal error and instead leaving you wondering if you just got unlucky.
"I'm just gonna spam my AOE attack, ok?"
Exploration is still a huge part of the game, and Blooborne has done a tremendous of transitioning from massive castles of Dark Souls to intimidating European architecture. The game has a pervading sense of paranoia as you weave between hundreds of stonework statues of robed figures in prayer. The familiar transition from sprawling stonework cities to ramshackle huts, dark forests, and fantastical environments has been wonderfully adapted to the new setting. The “aha!” moment you get when opening other side of a locked gate you had passed before, both creating a shortcut and gaining a greater appreciation for just how interconnected the areas in the world are is amazingly satisfying. You also get a really cool “night watch” sort of feel out of knocking on doors and windows to speak with the NPCs hiding in their homes from the monsters roaming the streets. Gathering information, performing quests, and directing them to safe havens lends a really interesting element of interaction which the previous titles had little of without causing the world to seem any less barren. Unfortunately the Bloodborne is slightly more linear, only presenting diverging paths well into the game, but the sense of scale and discovery are still there.
Sometimes you just need to stop and smell the... what are those?
One of the most important elements of the game is how everything fits together so now--and I can’t believe this either--but I am about to write an entire paragraph just about bonfires, or lanterns as they have been themed in this release. From Software titles have had some bizarrely persistent issues through several of their titles which have all reached resolution at one point among their past releases before reemerging again later on. Bonfires (lanterns) have traditionally served three purposes: quick travel, leveling up, and restoring your potions--along with all the level mobs. Leveling up was, quite simply, perfect in Dark Souls--reach a bonfire and commit your souls to leveling up. In Dark Souls II this was changed, allowing a single (killable) NPC to commit your souls and requiring you to travel to your home base every item you wanted to progress. Quick travel improved in Dark Souls with waypoint bonfires and really hit a peak in Dark Souls II when every bonfire became available for travel. Finally your bonfire refilled all your Estus flasks, which could be increased in quantity and potency with upgrades, as a tradeoff for returning all of the enemies to an area, which is a perfectly legitimate system for a series emphasizing controller-throwing difficulty.
"He's getting potions. Back to your positions, everyone!"
The purpose of the recap is to discuss just why some of the design choices in Bloodborne just don’t make sense to me, given the amount of time--and likely a ton of player feedback--From Software has put into these titles. While Bloodborne has retained all the functionality of bonfires with lanterns, it has added the Hunter’s Dream as a sort of checkpoint before you can accomplish any of those things. No refilling your Blood Vials and Quicksilver Bullets without a trip to home base and back, which is particularly ludicrous given that you retain the loss of any consumables you use when assisting other players in their world. Leveling up is only accomplishable at one NPC in, you guessed it, the Hunter’s Dream. You can quick travel anywhere like Dark Souls II, but not without first stopping by the Hunter’s Dream like some sort of interdimensional train station. Essentially this means sitting through not one, but two of the longest loading screens you have ever experienced just to refill your Blood Vials. After a while, I started to debate the merits of running across the world to get to another area since there aren’t enough bathroom or snack breaks to justify that much downtime. Also, I have concerns that the Bloodborne logo will soon be permanently burned onto the surface of my television.
I swing my chain back and forth
Despite my issues with some of the poor design choices, at its core Bloodborne is just like any other From Software title, a mechanically tight action game set in a compelling and mysterious world hellbent on ruining your shit. Like physical pain representing weakness leaving your body, From Software employs the psychic pain of constant deaths to reveal to you your own inadequacy and complacency as a gamer. You will swear, you will throw your controller, you will take breaks, you will try to burn holes through the logo on that damn loading screen with your hateful glare. But when you ultimately emerge from the encounter victorious, you will realize that only you were preventing yourself from succeeding, and you overcame a real challenge. While other aspects of the game may have experienced some dramatic changes, some of questionable quality to the gameplay, that core element of the game persists. From Software's sense of dark majesty hasn't diminished with the new setting. You still all too keenly experience your characters cycle of suffering, death, and rebirth and no amount of loading can change that.
+ New aggressive style
+ Faster and more aggressive enemies
+ Complete new world with plenty of lore
- Limited item choices and progression
- Hours of time lost to loading screens
- Some pointlessly artificial difficulty