The Souls series is obtuse, dense and incredibly difficult to get into. None of this an insult but a compliment to their design and vision, the games are powerful, one of a kind experiences that provide a sense of accomplishment and discovery unlike any other. The problem is that Bloodborne, while a great game on its own merits, falls a little short in comparison to the other games in the Souls series. Providing an experience that may resonate more with new initiates and disappoint those who are still playing the original Dark Souls.
The city of Yharnam is rich and ominous, filled with towering church steeples and Gothic spires, the tapestry weaved by From Software is a visage of a place gone mad. Home to werewolves, witches, eldritch abominations and cosmic terrors, the world on display is much like any of that in a From game, its dark, dreary, hopeless and utterly insane. Unfortunately the city of Yharnam makes up most of the game world, gone is the variety seen in Dark Souls and especially Dark Souls 2. Bloodborne does retain some of their flavor as the environments are open and have many shortcuts that lead in on themselves like the original. While the world is a little more connected than Dark Souls 2 was, it doesn’t entirely fold in on itself and still follows a more linear design philosophy. Much of Yharnam feels the same, with little distinction between districts outside of their names and enemies, especially with the new health vial system causing players to spend entirely too much time in the opening section.
Players are going to become well acquainted with central Yharnam, the games starting area and the subject of all the previews before its release. Perhaps the most intricate and well designed area in the game, it is sadly the one that players will end up becoming most tired of. The new blood vial system replaces the Estus flasks, they are dropped by enemies along with the quicksilver bullets that are used with the new guns. The health vials and bullets are unable to be upgraded and can only be farmed off of dead enemies or bought, which will bring players back to central Yharnam to no end. It is a terrible feeling to be penalized for making boss runs by running out of vials and having to take a break just to collect more ammo and health. It also hurts players looking to explore, whereas in Dark Souls one could know that at a bonfire they would gain full flasks and be able to set out anew and explore. In Bloodborne, you fear exploration because if you die you will lose any expunged blood vials or ammo.
Bloodborne is also a more contained experience, the aesthetic is more focused, where the Souls games cast a wide net with all creatures of fantasy lore fair game, Bloodborne is all gothic, victorian horror. It does its best and provides some gruesome creatures for players to battle, which I will not spoil here, but it is also about half the size of the Souls games, with much less areas, bosses and content in general. There are far less weapons, armor and items. Magic is non-existent and the game-play focus is entirely on quickly dodging and shooting, with the removal of poise causing even the heaviest weapon users to dash and dart across the screen with ease. Many of the trick weapons feel the same, and outside of their transformations, can be fairly throw-away. Only a third or so of the weapons provide tangible benefits with their transformations, some of them are perplexing what the benefit of the transformation is. After three times through the game I have yet to find the use for the saw cleaver transformation outside of reach, the damage is usually less and the weapon swings slower, making it a nearly useless feature on some weapons. Other weapons shine, where their changes are equally as awesome and useful for different situations, sadly it takes so long to upgrade a weapon, the only intelligent decision is to stick with one for an entire playthrough and look with longing at the others.
The armor or “fashion souls” is at its weakest in the series, with the removal of poise, players don’t choose their play style. One cannot play with a spear and shield and be quick and then change their character to be a lumbering, armor covered, great-sword wielding madman. The armor is almost entirely aesthetic, with barely noticeable stat changes and despite the choice, every armor set is meant for quick and fast paced fighting. Fortunately what armor is there is aesthetically awesome, players are allowed to live out their Van Helsing fantasy as trench coat wearing, blunderbuss wielding hunters of beasts.
The combat in Bloodborne feels amazing, the combo of dodging and shooting to stun and then using a visceral attack to finish an enemy is cathartic. The quick pace adds intensity, the enemies are also more capable, making combat hectic. The learning curve can be steep for Souls vets, but once players get the stun down, they become too capable. I felt I walked all over certain bosses, whether they were the first or the last. Very few required more than one or two tries without being able to stun them constantly and just abuse the combat loop.
The issue with Bloodborne is From Software enforcing its design on players, they have to fight using the new combat system rather than find their own way to conquer bosses and proceed through the provided content. That combat is awesome, the loop is there, but it is one note. Gone is the discovery of finally getting it, you now are told how to play and gone is the player choice so important in a Souls RPG. Also gone are the complex and interesting covenants, only to be replaced by three that, only one of which, has a leader.
One of Bloodbornes most egregious sins is in its storytelling. From have always crafted dark, hopeless, interesting and downright fascinating stories in their games. The sparsely told tales through item descriptions and scarce NPC dialogue provide clues for players to discern the overarching story. Bloodborne tries to provide the same experience but lacks items to use as hints, and the NPC’s you meet are one note and provide almost nothing in terms of story. The games finale comes so quickly and without warning that even after nearly a dozen pages of notes, I was still as lost as ever. And all of this comes after one of the easiest boss fights, no matter what ending you get. On top of all of this, Bloodborne relies on one of the worst story tropes used in modern film and gaming and tells the player the twist outright within the starting cut-scene.
This has all sounded incredibly negative, but this is a review for diehard Souls fans. Bloodborne is an amazing game, the visuals and sound design are unparalleled, the world is fascinating, the combat is visceral and intense like no other action game and it is a meaty experience that has already provided me with over a hundred hours of game-play. The chalice dungeons provide extra incentive with their randomly generated templates with exclusive gear, weapons and bosses, even if some are palette swaps. Nothing will beat discovering the main games areas, but the chalice dungeons provide some of that trademark Souls challenge and appeal despite feeling a little samey.
Bloodborne is still challenging, and will give newcomers as intense an experience as ever, bosses are the best the series has seen in terms of creature design and their capability to change tactics or stages as their health gets lower. When the music is pumping and the boss is on its final legs, it will lash out like a cornered animal, providing an intense and blood-pumping experience that only a Souls game can provide. Sadly these moments are fewer and farther between compared to the rest of the series.
Bloodborne is one of a kind, even within the Souls games, its also a phenomenal individual experience, especially for those new to the series. The quick game-play, disturbing beauty and flashy violence are appealing, drawing newcomers and old veterans alike into its terrifying world. As a Souls game Bloodborne is lacking, with less options, streamlined combat, stats and general player choice, it is the weakest of the series in sheer depth. Despite all of this, it is still a powerful trip through a lovecraftian tapestry of horror and violence.
+Fluid, fast gameplay
-Lacks depth of previous entries