Thursday, April 23, 2015

Review - Bloodborne

It’s impossible for me to review my experience with From Software’s Bloodborne without constantly holding it up to my experiences with their Demon’s and Dark Souls games. Almost every moment of playing it, a thrill of being immersed back in that developer’s unique worlds and narratives was constantly buzzing in my head.
At almost every encounter, I couldn’t help but think how different - and in many ways how much better - Bloodborne handled combat than its predecessors. What themes remained constant? What moods? What mechanics? It’s impossible for me to separate how I played Bloodborne from how I played Souls games, so this review - I’ve got to say up front - will focus primarily on comparisons.

Having completed Bloodborne two and half times by now - and diving fairly deep into its randomly generated Chalice Dungeons as well - I have yet to find any environmental or story clues that link this world to the worlds of the games with “Souls” in their titles. It’s perfectly clear, however, that they are linked in tone (maybe not so much theme). Every world in the series so far has been built on the premise of “something bad happened here,” and part of the joy of playing these games is figuring out what went wrong and how you can become the wrench thrown into the gears that have kept some cycle of degradation going, bringing the whole thing to an end and, possibly, a rebirth.

In Bloodborne, that cycle is the hunt. You play as a nameless outsider who comes to the city of Yarnham to join in on the hunt. You’re a hunter of beasts. As you venture forth into the world (which from the very beginning you’re warned might all just be a bad dream) it quickly becomes apparent that you’re running a little late. The Yarnham citizens have already strung up and set fire to the beasts they caught roaming the streets, and as you approach, they inexplicably turn their pitchforks, hatchets, muskets and ire in your direction. What drove me onward during the early hours of the game - all the while bloodying myself as I slayed these people left and right in self defense - was simply wanting to know why. Why turn the hunt upon a hunter? What the hell is going on here? 

Little by little, as you move through new areas, find new items, and learn new things, you delve deeper and deeper into the complexities of such a simple question, and the answers you find are quite otherworldly and truly horrifying. Needless to say, by the time you reach the second half of the experience (which as a whole took me roughly 40 hours to complete), and as long as you’ve been perceptive enough, the story behind Bloodborne changes directions entirely. There’s much more at stake than just a hunt, and you can be far more than just a hunter.

Although there are plenty of areas to explore, plenty of exceptionally challenging bosses to encounter, I found that the world of Bloodborne seemed a little smaller than previous games in the Souls series. I was expecting more, sure, yet I realize I may just be bitter because there wasn’t more to play. (It’s true that I missed two optional areas entirely during my first playthrough, but even if I counted those, which I played through during New Game + , the world is still not very large.) I realize that this is by design, as Bloodborne just feels more cramped on purpose in order to achieve the game’s mechanical and aesthetic goals that set to be apart from the other Souls games. Gone are the wide-open castle courtyards and Cliffside pathways, replaced with claustrophobic alleyways and decaying Victorian-era structures. I can’t help but stop and marvel at the intricate architecture and grotesque statues that line practically every inch of Yarnham and the surrounding environments, from cathedrals to caves, forests, academies, clinics, graveyards, and nightmare landscapes (literally). And yes, there is still a castle, but not exactly how you’d expect it. One of the greatest strengths of the Souls series has been the level design. Each path, each doorway, each corner fills you with hesitation and dread. What lies at the end or on the other side could be the unexpected enemy or situation that kills you, or the narrowly won challenge that rewards you. The true genius of the game’s design emerges when you turn the former into the latter.

The redesign of the environments was needed to achieve what I believe is Bloodborne’s greatest strength over previous Souls games: the combat. The tighter spaces and treacherous spots only make running up against a monster or madman that can end your life with a single hit that much more intense. Because of the close proximity, ranged fighting is no longer a viable option. There are no bows with ranged stats and various arrows to shoot as there were in previous Souls games. There are no more magic missile type spells to cast while back-pedaling away from charging foes. In Bloodborne, you may be able fire a few quicksilver bullets at an enemy within lock on range, but the damage you’d deal is pitiful, even if you’ve buffed the stat that enhances your gunplay. You might want to keep your bullets handy anyway, because firing your gun at the exact moment an enemy is winding up a powerful attack is how you’ll deal significant damage in what’s called a visceral attack, making you feel like a truly powerful hunter.

Bloodborne is much more a game of quick adaptation to fights than anything else I’ve ever played. There has always been a formula by which I’ve (literally) lived and died by in the Souls series: Encounter a new enemy, hold up the shield, retreat for better footing, hold up the shield, absorb a few hits to learn the attack pattern, hold up the shield, and then - only when I’m satisfied I know how it all works - will I take some swipes of my own. From Software set that formula on fire with Bloodborne. Now more than ever, you’ll find yourself dodging directly into an enemy’s personal space to strike first, and then either fire a shot to catch them before they can retaliate or dodge directly out and find the next angle of approach. This beautiful dance of death is the base strategy for success, but there are a million varieties to disover depending on the weapons you find and upgrade, the items you toss out, and - as ever - your own level of personal recklessness.

Still, no matter how you handle Bloodborne, you’re going to die. Many times. Still, just like in other Souls games, there is a checkpoint system where you’ll begin again upon death. However, there’s no more teleporting between these bonfi… I mean lanterns. In the first Dark Souls, the ingenious level design of the entire world made sense because you were constantly finding paths that led back to the central hub, therefore making traversal from one corner of the huge world to another a relatively quick task. Dark Souls 2 gave its world a slightly grander scale, so teleporting between checkpoints in major areas made better sense than constantly running back to a central hub. In Bloodborne, though, there’s a hybrid of these checkpoint systems that may work well on a story level (no spoilers here!), but keeps players from getting quickly back into the action. A disembodied area called The Hunter’s Dream is the central hub in Bloodborne where you’ll do all your leveling up and upgrading, but don’t expect to do any of that very fast. The time you spend warping back and forth from the hunter’s dream can really add up.

This tedious turning of the clock is only compounded by the load time as you travel there and back. Or upon every death, which, in case you’ve never heard about the Souls series of games, is quite frequent. Each time the game loads a new area or sends you back to the last lantern checkpoint, you wait nearly a full minute while the game loads. I get that the intense graphical drain hungrily eats up the system’s memory, but I wish From Software had spent a little extra time and polish finding workarounds to improve the loading speed. (As of this writing - April 23rd - they’ve released a patch that’s done exactly that!) On one hand, the presentation of the world really goes far to immerse me there, to make me feel like I’m a real hunter, part of a real hunt, but on the other hand the long periods of time I must wait with nothing between periods of play do a lot to take me out of it all.

It sounds to me like there may be more complaining than comparing at the heart of my review of Bloodborne, or perhaps it sounds like the complaints are born out of not living up to what’s been done before. While it’s true I feel there are plenty of problems with the system that holds the game up (the most glaring issue being the load times), Bloodborne is every bit as enthralling as all the previous Souls games. Although a lot of the core themes, mechanics, and overall feel of the game remains the same as its predecessors, Bloodborne is different enough in some crucial areas to earn its own identity and stand on its own as a truly unforgettable game.