19 Apr 2015

Bloodborne Video Game Review

Bloodborne. The "gothic masterpiece". The "first next-generation title to live up to the hype". The "finest example of horror since Resident Evil 4". The "culmination of From Software's nightmarish legacy". No game has inspired such a wealth of gushing praise and cacophonic cries of joy this generation, standing tall as the spiritual successor not truly to Dark Souls, but instead to Miyazaki's tale of origin - Demons' Souls. It is equal parts action adventure, role-playing and survival horror, though is everything but a disappointment; Bloodborne stands as a testament to what the Japanese developer community is capable of even in spite of the recent American domination of the video game space. If you enjoyed any single entry in the "Souls" series or have an acquired taste of the occult, Bloodborne will captivate you like few other titles can dream of; truly, the nightmare never ends.



Bloodborne (PS4)


Gameplay

I could just say that 'Bloodborne has the best gameplay of any game you will play this year' and leave it at that but I feel like I really should explain just how darkly satisfying these games truly are and why the mainstream, hardcore gamers have been raving about them since the multi-platform Dark Souls. For starters, combat is undeniably the focus of the Souls' series and the design philosophy of perfecting the gameplay first and foremost is evident in every encounter one engages in. Despite featuring spells or arcane items, there is no "mana" typical of other role-playing games; merely health and stamina. Health is self-explanatory and degrades with each blow you take, though a common mistake of players new to the series is that it is more important to level up than stamina; this couldn't be further from the truth. Stamina degrades with each swing you make with a weapon, when you run or dodge, and even when you block with a shield. In Dark Souls specifically where caution and defensive play was the name of the game, the penalty of being unable to block or dodge out of harm's way once your stamina bar had depleted entirely was often as much of a death sentence as losing your last bit of health. This made stamina management every bit as crucial as keeping tabs on your health bar and knowing when to replenish it, meaning you had to form a strategy for each individual enemy encounter even as you were trying to adapt to their many and varied attacks. As a result, even fights with a single standard opponent - a skeleton in Dark Souls or an infected human in Bloodborne - required that you plan your actions and not just blindly rush forward expecting victory as you might do in other games.

Some anecdotal experience of mine would include being vastly over-leveled for the beginning area as I had just defeated the penultimate boss of the game some thirty or forty hours later into the adventure, yet two dozen of those zombie-like henchmen very nearly killed me when I brashly ploughed into their ranks assuming my comparatively ridiculous character could survive anything they threw at me. Moments later, I was dashing for cover with only a tiny speck of my elongated health bar left. This is the genius of Bloodborne and all the Souls' games; you must never underestimate your opposition and you must always pay attention, especially considering the purposeful inability of players to pause the game. Getting back to the topic of stamina, the fact that any attack you make drains your stamina is arguably the biggest challenge to overcome in your quest to understand and master the insanely deep combat systems these games offer. When your stamina is depleted, not only do you lose the aforementioned ability to dodge or block, but you are also incapable of swinging larger weapons whatsoever and will be horrendously slow when attempting to strike with a smaller weapon. It is in Bloodborne that I feel this system reaches its pinnacle by throwing one terrifying change aimed specifically at newcomers and the less skilled veterans of the series; not only can you not block, but the one shield available to you in the game is utter garbage and does nothing to save you. This means you must rely more on dodging and timing your attacks well than ever before; couple that with far more aggressive enemies and a wealth of ranged attackers and you have yourself one of the most strategic and challenging combat systems around.

However, Bloodborne further throws a wrench into the tried-and-true gameplay by encouraging you to be more aggressive than ever with the new regain system; each time you lose health to an enemy attack, your health bar will deplete as normal but a portion of what was lost (either some or all of it depending on how much damage was dealt) will remain as "regain health" as I have decided to name it. This special portion of your health bar is easily recognizable by the different colour hue and represents your ability to regain health by quickly counter-attacking and dealing damage to your enemies. While this coupled with much quicker healing animations offered by health potions might lead you to believe the game is easy, don't be fooled; these mechanics and improvements are in place to help you to attempt to survive the oncoming nightmare, not to squash it. Bloodborne is perhaps the easiest game in the series for really experienced players that already perfected the mix of aggression and reactions necessary to succeed in prior games, but for others it may also be the most difficult to date. I personally adapted very well to the gameplay changes offered by Bloodborne and found myself less challenged than I was in Dark Souls, but that is also very much due to the fact that I spent lots of time "farming" so that I could be vastly over-leveled for each area beyond the first. I did this so that I would be more prepared for the games' optional bosses and the new-game plus play-through and, boy, I definitely needed it; I still got my backside kicked in countless times by enemies I under-estimated exactly because I was over-leveled, a mistake that - as mentioned previously - is utterly moronic in a game such as Bloodborne.

All credit to IGN for this fantastic screenshot.
Still, what makes the gameplay of a Souls' title so good is not just its' depth and strategic layering, but more how incomparably satisfying it is. You feel entirely in control and operate with the knowledge that any death is purely your fault and down to a mistake; the game gives you all the tools to succeed, and while it might be harsh, it is definitely fair. The onus is on you as a player not to fail, though admittedly the game can be "cheap" in some cases; all of the various resistances can be hard to keep track of and learning what Frenzy does will save you a lot of confusing deaths, while enemies are capable of hitting you through objects even though you cannot enjoy that same luxury. Such frustrations are rare, even though you will likely find yourself fuming that you came so close to defeating a given boss only to fall short at the last breath; a common theme of the Souls' games. However, it is in each challenge the game throws at you that Bloodborne shares its best moments; no other video game offers quite the same elation, that exuberant joy that you will feel when you finally conquer that seemingly impossible foe. I experienced this a multitude of times, most notably when I defeated a gigantic mutant beast that was once a seemingly innocent lady with a high position in the games' primary religious cult. I died almost a dozen times to this boss and nothing gave me more joy than to finally hear its death shrieks, the exploding mess of spirits giving me a sense of joy like no other. I'm unashamed to admit that I leaped from my lounge and loudly shouted my victory to the amusement of my nearby family members, and if you ever played Dark Souls and conquered the iconic duo that is Ornstein and Smough, you will know exactly what I am talking about.

Beyond this, the gameplay is just so visceral with each impact of your blade cutting deep and visibly hurting your enemy - even the more insanely inhuman leviathan creatures that dot your path later in the game - that each blow and counter-blow just feels so good. You can feel the pain that these frightening bosses and regular foes experience, and it makes their deaths all the better as you indiscriminately kill all that block your progression. That there is a ridiculous skill threshold makes Bloodborne a joy to watch when you can instinctively distinguish a good player from a less talented one; watching the former in action is almost symphonic and uniquely serene, something that will surely make "Let's Play" videos of the game highly divisive in more ways than one. Heck, being able to adapt to new enemies and their attack patterns as quickly as humanly possible under the pressure of imminent death may as well be its own game. In fact, this brings me to another point I will quickly touch on; parrying. In Bloodborne alone, this functions as a "stun" which is performed by shooting them with your own ranged weapon just as they are about to launch a new attack. This requires a great deal of good timing and can only really be learned through experience with each given foe, though it becomes quite necessary later in the game and has arguably the largest learning curve attached to it. As uniquely punishing as Bloodborne is, nothing compares to the first mandatory boss in the game; Father Gascoigne. I could rave about Bloodborne's unique boss designs and how each is their own separate game in a sense, but "Father G" as he has come to be known by the gaming community is the finest example of what makes a Souls' game brilliant; if you do not learn, you will die. If you don't know how to parry either at all or well enough, he will destroy you and you will find him an impossible foe; the true "this is Souls" moment of Bloodborne in my opinion. I could gush on and on about why the Souls' games are master-pieces and should make all other modern video game developers feel ashamed of themselves for not raising their own standards to this level, or how the addition of trick weapons that have inter-changeable "modes" spices up Bloodborne's gameplay further than other entries in the series, but alas, that would require its' own set of hyper-detailed articles. Suffice it to say, I will close off on that sentence I promised wouldn't serve as a one-line-review; Bloodborne has the best gameplay of any game you will play this year.
10/10


Visuals

To say that Bloodborne is not a technically proficient game does a disservice to the incredible work of the art team, even if such a statement is unfortunately truthful in some ways. Player character models are embarrassing in comparison to the viscous beasts they hunt, while actual lip-syncing and even movement is entirely absent outside of cinematics. The physics system at play is as hilariously unrealistic and silly as it was in previous entries of the series, while an utter lack of day-time environments serves to hide some rather bland texture-work on certain enemies. However, judging this games' visuals on that level alone would be utterly incongruent with the simple fact that Bloodborne has amazed countless players with its numerous treats for the eye. Most enemies in the game are utterly terrifying not so much because of all the detail they possess, but more because the mixture of realism provided by next-generation hardware and the disgusting designs bring them to life in a way that no other game can truly match. A foe as impossibly alien and disturbing as the colossal Ebrietas frightens players and demands their unbroken attention, shackling them in layers of fear and terror as she begins her ferocious assault. What makes such an opponent truly haunt the minds of players long after they have been crushed by her lashing tentacles is that is merely a natural progression of the descent into madness that Bloodborne organically weaves, making her seem every bit as real and horrifying as the zombie-like madmen that populate much of the game.


Diversity is also a key feature to the game's visuals that further exemplifies this theme, ranging from a battered Victorian-era city to a living world where the skulls of countless haunted skulls form the very foundations of its earth and rock formations. This is where the game's macabre nature truly becomes evident, as each locale is usually even more deranged and ghastly than the last much like the monsters that populate them; there are exceptions to this rule which only prove ever more disturbing as the player realizes that this is a world gripped by madness and fear, just as they will be soon enough. Perhaps the most frightening area in the game is a secret cathedral where humanity and ancient, unknowable evil collide with a truly haunting subtlety, though a dilapidated university also serves to bring rampant chills to its visitors. It is at this point in the game that you begin to realize that there is more to this seemingly innocuous but no less frightening beast-plague than you thought, and that you could never truly guess the depths of depravity to which Bloodborne will take you. This game was not designed for the faint of heart, and it is in the art style and creature designs that this is most apparent; it might not be a visual stunner in the traditional sense, but it is a masterful example of how a fully realized living world populated by terrifyingly realistic and nightmarish creatures can still amaze viewers like no other. Oh, and you will see the result of women giving birth to....something else. If you have a weak stomach, take my advice and don't play this game; for everyone else, prepare to resist the urge to vomit. When a game not originally billed as a horror title is capable of provoking such reactions from its visuals alone, you know something special lies before your eyes.
10/10


Audio

I've often found myself agreeing whole-heartily with the claims that sixty percent of a movie is made by its music, and perhaps no clearer example exists in the current generation of video games than Bloodborne. The masterwork that is Dark Souls proved so effective in all of its encounters because of its' unique combination of haunting tunes and gruesome beasts, a trait that Bloodborne has unquestionably perfected. Each clash with the ever more depraved and inhuman monsters that the game serves up as boss encounters is accompanied by its own unique musical number that only serves to provide chills, nightmares and pleasure all in equal measure. The tone for the game is set not by its first optional boss the Cleric Beast, but by the epic soundtrack that follows; a latin chorus set against an increasingly desperate orchestra, a mere glimpse of the madness to follow. The game provides such moments in spades, but it is arguably the more deranged and subtly sickening tracks that inspire players to ever greater levels of self-doubt and unhinged sanity. A laughably easy encounter with a tortured humanoid is punctuated both by his inane rambling and the rapturous glut with which the choir sing, though perhaps the most mind-numbing of these is a baby lullaby played throughout arguably the game's penultimate boss fight. That such a fast-paced clash with an other-worldly beast protecting an unseen baby is played off against an otherwise deceptively innocuous lullaby was enough to make me want to quit the game; let it not be said that Bloodborne doesn't truly disturb those who get their taste of it. However, no game is complete without an epic final boss track as any of the recent Final Fantasy games - or really any title for that matter - would deceive you into believing; as if director Hidetaka Miyazaki hadn't bucked enough modern gaming trends, he throws you for another loop with easily the most heart-breaking and simply soul-crushing climax to a game you could imagine. To say anything about the encounter would spoil it completely, but perhaps the most apt comparison gamers have made is to the final fight in Metal Gear Solid 3; regardless of whether you understand it, you will be touched in a way you thought a horror game wasn't capable of.

Of course, music isn't the only category that falls under the generalized "audio" label; sound design and voice-acting all have their part to play in this section. The former is easily some of the best in recent memory as almost anyone that has personally experienced the game will tell you; the tortured screams of malformed beasts that were once human makes their necessary slaughter all the more painful, while the impact of gargantuan fists or even dozens of snakes bursting from a dead-mans' head are all as grossly realized as we feared. Playing Bloodborne with a set of high quality headphones is recommended by most not just because the ambiance is so incredible, but also because otherwise unheard audio cues may be all the warning you get before a new opponent greets you with their deathly embrace. The stark loudness of your footsteps against the silent night is unsettling, especially when you know that your doom could await around almost every corner; heck, the unseen malice that generates seemingly random dark portals is eerily reminiscent of the sounds you would expect to hear in a space simulator. As for the voice-acting, you'll generally find that - much like all of the Souls' games before it - Bloodborne is very light on actual voiced dialogue because of the barren nature of each game world, places where allies are cruelly spread thin. The few characters that do speak are surprisingly well voiced for their part and deliver generally chilling performances, if only to accentuate the grim visuals that follow. There is one true stand-out in the game that has proved an endlessly quotable figure for the gamer masses, the aforementioned madman who spouts absolutely insane gibbering. A choice quote that should tell you all you need to know about what kind of game Bloodborne is would be; "As you once did for the vacuous Rom, grant us eyes, grant us eyes. Plant eyes on our brains, to cleanse our beastly idiocy". Truly, such zany speech wouldn't be nearly as effective if it weren't for a deliciously delirious and maddening delivery; it is quite obvious that said characters' voice actor was enjoying himself just a bit too much. While I honestly believe Bloodborne to have the best art direction and character (monster) design of any game on the new consoles, it is in the audio department that it really establishes itself as a leader for other developers to aspire to.
10/10

All credit to Gamespot for this fantastic screenshot.
Functionality

While the seemingly obvious idea behind an exclusive partnership between Sony and From Software that involved partial developmental help from Sony's Japan Studios would be to solve the series' well known frame-rate issues and other technical hiccups, to say these are entirely absent would be facetious. Bloodborne generally runs quite well from my experience with very little slow-down to speak of in most cases, though I could definitely notice it in the game's more climactic battles featuring two dozen enemies or more. Multiplayer hasn't been a major part of my experience with Bloodborne and so I can't really comment on that, but from all reports I've seen there is more slow-down present there than in a pure single-player run which is something to consider when you play the game. Some boss fights against a single massive opponent with literally earth-shaking capabilities would sometimes also provide obvious lag, though generally these examples are rare and not indicative of the overall stability of the game. Of the Souls' games I have personally experienced, Bloodborne is the most stable and that is awesome; I never once experienced any crashes and what glitches are present really are few and far between. However, as I am sure almost anyone that has played Bloodborne will tell you with utter frustration readily apparent in their tone, one of the biggest issues we all have with the game are the insanely long loading screens. At an average of thirty to forty seconds, players that repeatedly attempt to conquer more challenging areas or that aren't very adept at the game in general have been reported to entirely give up due to the fact that they spend more time staring at a blank loading screen than actually playing. I've personally not felt delayed or annoyed at this as I've found the loading screens when teleporting between the same two locations seems to almost shorten the load times as one might expect, though that might just be my patience mixed with eagerness shining through. This aside, I find Bloodborne to be a very well made game with few real technical issues, just a few nagging ones that unfortunately hamper my enjoyment of the game just enough to prevent it from earning a score I feel it would otherwise deserve. Keep in mind that From Software is committed to improving the performance and stability of Bloodborne in hopefully a short release window, so you may find your own experience with the game to have none of the mostly minor issues I have raised here.
9/10


Value

As my personal experience would dictate, Bloodborne is not quite as jam-filled with content as Dark Souls was, or at least the story-mode isn't as long as previous entries in the series. Now, this may be because I am more familiar with Souls' games in general and have learned how to maximize my time effectively in each game session, but I do tend to chalk this up to the fact that it is shorter than other Souls' games - and that isn't necessarily a bad thing. I feel like Bloodborne makes a greater impact with your time than those other entries and I felt both more engaged and more joyous with the game than I have prior. However, there are some very important points to raise here with regards to each Souls game; Bloodborne has the least diversity when it comes to combat techniques, advancement, locations and possibly enemy design as well. This does make repeat play-through attempts much less enticing than it would have been in say, Dark Souls, as you can't dramatically shift your combat style by switching from melee to primarily ranged and so on. However, that isn't to say Bloodborne has a dearth of content and nothing could be further from the truth; it took me anywhere from thirty to forty hours to complete the game and defeat all of the mandatory and optional bosses while unlocking the unusual secret ending, though that didn't include all of the numerous chalice dungeons that I am itching to dive into.

The chalice dungeons serve to extend play-throughs by another dozen or more hours by providing fresh content with dives into refreshingly distinct locations that seemingly wouldn't have fit into the main game. Those that think these are merely "side quests" will be greatly surprised when the last boss encounter in the dark depths is absolutely a crucial player in the main storyline, and that each of the many boss fights the chalice dungeons offer are uniquely challenging and depraved in their own special way. There is so much more to do and experience in Bloodborne than almost any other game, though the oncoming Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt will easily put this game to shame in the value category when it releases in under a month. However, what makes Bloodborne so replayable even with regards to other lengthier and more varied Souls' games is that it is just so gripping and disturbing with the "show-don't-tell" storyline it provides; the three distinct endings are so wildly different and each require a full run of the game to experience, as you can't beat the game and load a pre-ending save-state as with most other games. No, you are immediately forced to enter into "New Game Plus"; the game begins anew, albeit your character remains unchanged and retains all of their progression and non-key items from the previous play-through. Forcing players to experience each of the three endings by playing through the game three times is a genius move in such a mysterious and haunting experience, though this may be of little comfort to "completionists". Even though I found Bloodborne to be harrowing and easily the best proper horror experience since Alien: Isolation and even stretching back many years before, I wanted to jump right back in after experiencing its' oddly bemusing secret ending; I wanted to enter the nightmare again, even if it would give me the real-life equivalent in the form of unwanted dreams. Such is the tale of a game that is so perfect in its execution, length and ability to reel you in and never let you go.
10/10

All credit to IGN for this amazing screenshot.
Final Score

The final score for Bloodborne is a 49/50, or a 98/100, or a 9.8/10. It is a fantastic game that falls just short of video game perfection based on minor technical issues alone, and easily ranks as the best game I have played since The Last of Us. While Shadow of Mordor, Alien: Isolation and Dragon: Age Inquisition have all been highlights of this generation, nothing compares to the utter mastery and talent on display by From Software. If ever a game in recent memory matched the attention to detail, effort placed into the gameplay and successful attempt to revitalize the horror genre as Bloodborne, I would like to hear of it. This is the best reason not only to own a PS4, but to own a next-generation console overall; you are doing yourself a disservice by not playing it. While Bloodborne's challenge and mind-altering horror will raise red lights for many gamers and understandably so, it is nonetheless an experience not to be missed. Even if you don't appreciate the artistry on display here with regards to revolutionizing role-playing gameplay, anyone can enjoy the visual splendour, art style, creature designs, soundtrack and other various elements of the game. Heck, a clash with a caged madman late into the adventure offers little real challenge for players but will stick with them simply because it is so memorable in every other way, even with the "less is more" plot-line. On the topic of story, though Bloodborne rarely explicitly tells you what is going on, many major video game forums are constantly debating to this day almost a month after its release as to the true meaning of what the hell happened and the extensive lore on offer to those that search for it. If that isn't the mark of a brilliant game deserving of universal acclaim, I don't know what is.

The scoring system explained earlier is divided into 10 rating based on a game's score out of 100 (or 10). This is the key used for each of these 10 ratings.

1 - Horrible, do not purchase.
2 - Pathetic, nothing to really recommend it.
3 - Awful, one or two good things.
4 - Sub-par, a few redeeming qualities.
5 - Mediocre, not terrible but not good.
6 - Average, thoroughly ok and nothing else.
7 - Good, some issues but mostly recommendable.
8 - Great, a high quality purchase.
9 - Fantastic, recommended for all.
10 - Perfect, does everything right.


I'm glad that I've finally made a return to video game reviews as they remain my greatest passion aside from writing and Games Workshop-related hobby. I'm confident in stating that Bloodborne is the best big budget next-generation game released thus far, and while I am sure there will be many other great titles in the coming years, whether any surpass what I feel to be a true masterpiece remains to be seen. I thank you all for your support - unknowing and otherwise - throughout the years that Imperator Guides has been active, and I look forward to providing more video game reviews in the future. I hope you enjoyed this one particularly; if you have any Insight (haha) into your experiences with Bloodborne, I would greatly appreciate if you were keen to share!

3 comments:

  1. Excellent write-up.

    I missed the Dark Souls games when they came out, family, 40k and Infinity fill up most of my free time, and limits the amount of gaming I can get in, eg. The Last of Us is top of my must play next list.

    Would it be worth getting the original Dark Souls, or just picking up Dark Souls II, if I wanted to experience this series on old gen machines ?

    Rathstar

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Cheers!

      Honestly, the Souls' games are all so darned good and cheap now that if you feel like replaying them, I would go ahead. They might not hold up on a technical level but they are still some of the best games of the past generation. Dark Souls 2 actually came out on next-gen consoles so you could also look at that as an option.

      Delete