[Editor's note: This was initially a review-in-progress I updated daily while playing through Bloodborne; please note that you can find the final score on page three. And if you need help, turn to USgamer's official Bloodborne guide.]
After the astounding hat-trick of Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, and Dark Souls 2, RPG fans had one question in mind for developer FromSoftware: How could they possibly outdo themselves now?
During the last console cycle, as the increased cost of development caused the mainstream gaming experience to be brief, frictionless, and, at times, barely interactive, this Japanese developer came to the rescue with Demon's Souls, a barely-released (in the USA, at least) action-RPG that proved a healthy challenge didn't necessarily result in retail poison. In the six years since Demon's release, FromSoftware's reworked its formula twice with Dark Souls and its sequel, two critical darlings that will no doubt be remembered as the finest RPGs of their generation.
Bloodborne stands as the latest in their line of Demon's Souls' progeny, but if you're expecting more of the same—honestly, not a terrible prospect for a FromSoftware RPG—prepare to be surprised. While Bloodborne certainly plants its roots firmly within the Souls series, the many alterations director Hidetaka Miyazaki fashioned along the way—some of them drastic—make for a game that rewards the contrary mix of risk-taking and careful observation even more than his previous works. Souls fans may at first balk at how much Bloodborne streamlines the journey they've grown to love over the past half-decade, but these alterations result in a much more focused and intense experience that nonetheless captures its predecessors' adversarial spirit.
The New Blood
If you've played the Souls series, you won't be completely lost; each of the games' essential qualities manage to find their way to Bloodborne in some form or another. This time around, Souls—the currency for both buying items and leveling up—are called "Blood Echoes," the co-op-activating white soapstones now take the form of bells, and bonfires—those oh-so-welcome checkpoints/fast travel stations—have been replaced with solitary lamps. The inherent philosophy of Souls hasn't gone anywhere, either: As with director Miyazaki's previous games, progress in Bloodborne can only be gained through repeated trial and error to the point where players can blitz wildly through a gauntlet of enemies that, a dozen attempts ago, seemed insurmountable. And, as always, you can grab those dropped Blood Echoes if you reached the point where you previously died—though, in Bloodborne, they're sometimes transferred to the body of the enemy who killed you. Even though I've played hundreds of hours of FromSoftware RPGs over the years, I haven't yet been desensitized to the endorphin rush that happens when you overcome one of their deviously designed challenges—I (embarrassingly) felt compelled to high-five my girlfriend every time I finally killed another boss.
Even though Bloodborne retains those core Souls qualities, Miyazaki isn't at all afraid to streamline the experience—something that's due to cause controversy in the Souls community. Though Bloodborne can't be called anything but an action-RPG, it leans a little closer to the first half of that discriptor than I initially expected. The nine character attributes from Dark Souls 2 have been reduced to just six, and equipment burden—which determines how fast characters move based on the weight of their gear—is gone entirely. Souls specialized in ridiculous amounts of character customization, but there's not as nearly as much wiggle room to be found in Bloodborne; it's very much designed to be played with an in-your-face melee approach, simply because its world doesn't offer many other options. Ranged attacks are weak, sorcery and pyromancy aren't even options (not any that I could find), and, most importantly, Bloodborne completely strips away one of the Souls series' most vital defensive tools: the shield.
As someone who normally hides behind a hefty steel barrier in Dark Souls, I didn't know if I'd be able to withstand a game of this difficulty without my standard crutch. And, to be honest, I'd be disappointed in Bloodborne's relative lack of character customization if the way it made me play wasn't so engaging. Where combat in Souls is slow and methodical, and typically involves waiting for just the right opening, Bloodborne takes a much more direct approach by encouraging the player to take some serious risks. If an enemy manages to land an attack, you can regain this lost health by successfully striking back immediately afterwards—meaning there's many cases where you'll have no choice but to take a hit just for the sake of getting up close and personal.
The guns in Bloodborne also provide an interesting twist on enemy encounters, replacing the parry and riposte mechanic from Souls with something that feels way more natural. Fire away just before an enemy's attack hits, and they'll be stunned, leaving them open for an absolutely brutal (and unblockable) attack. Sometimes, the best way to tangle with a powerful enemy involves getting in close and hoping beyond hope you have the necessary timing down to pull off this slightly tricky maneuver. Don't think you'll be able to snipe enemies from afar, or eliminate waves of them with high-powered gunfire, though; if anything, firearms in Bloodborne are tools rather than outright weapons.
If the preceding has you thinking Bloodborne is a "dumbed down" version of the Souls experience, Miyazaki's pruning of certain aspects hasn't at all affected the satisfaction of exploring his harrowing environments. Though the lore of this world isn't quite as hidden or obtuse as that of Drangleic or Lordran's—you'll find plenty of to-the-point Resident Evil-style notes strewn about—Bloodborne still drops you off in its land of Yharnam without much explanation—even why you happen to be there. And the levels you'll crawl through prove just as complex—if not more so—than what you'd find in a Souls game; unlocking those vital shortcuts between stretches of dangerous ground proves just as rewarding as it ever did. Bloodborne even hides some fairly large areas behind not-so-obvious points of entry; I found one through a freak accident, and another through some experimentation, but I can easily see players not attuned to the ways of Souls missing these completely. (And if you're worried, there's nothing quite as buried as the original Dark Souls' Ash Lake.)
As I write this, I haven't finished Bloodborne, and won't be able to explore the various multiplayer options until its release, but I've been nothing but thoroughly impressed in my 30-odd hours with the game. Every area brings untold surprises, nasty traps, and terrible bosses that made me say "No frickin' way" upon their first appearance. And even though I've encountered some roadblocks, the open-ended nature of Bloodborne acts as a release valve if you reach a frustrating sticking point: After bashing my head against a boss for the dozenth time, I decided to explore a bit more, and found two new areas I gradually conquered before returning to kick said boss' butt. As of this writing, there's nothing I want to do other than play more Bloodborne, but honestly, what I'm most looking forward to is how much mileage the Souls community will get out of this experience. There's so many lore videos to make, speedruns to shatter minds, and discussions to be had about just what the hell's up with Bloodborne's twisted, Gothic world. And I can see myself staying up way too late for the next year wrapping my brain around all of it.
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