Bloodborne – First Impressions

Even an innovative game like this still has the default box art design of “one badass standing in the middle”.

Bloodborne is a third-person adventure/horror(?) game made by From Software and exclusively on the PS4. It is the fourth game in what is known as the Souls series (Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, Dark Souls 2, and Bloodborne). Bloodborne has been out for a few months now, so hopefully most of the people who want to try it have gotten a chance by now. I’ve certainly gotten plenty of time with it this past week, and I’m not completely the worst player anymore. I have a lot of opinions about it because that’s what I’m good at.

The Setting

Bloodborne seems to be taking place in a sort of Victorian-Era London-y town named Yharnam. The architecture on display is mind-blowing, and the city would be beautiful, if not for the rampant werewolves, bonfires, and blood-red sky. The inhabitants apparently solve all their problems with magical blood, and now that I’ve arrived in town and been given a transfusion, so do I. The downside is that this blood usage seems to be people turning into monstrous beasts, but even so, blood is still basically the religion of the whole town, used to treat all illnesses, and is even a substitute for alcohol. So far I haven’t learned a whole lot about the situation other than I should hunt beasts, because I’m a hunter and that’s what hunters do.

The level design in Souls games is always spot on, there’s many different paths to take right from the beginning, and they all end up connecting to each other and other parts of the world in ways that make sense. Every corner has secrets and items, and often the zones are designed so that you’re forced to fight monsters in close quarters. Exploring a Souls game is always a good experience, and the designers have an especially keen grasp of vertical design. I don’t know if I’m ready to say that Bloodborne’s world is better than the world of Dark Souls 1, but it’s making a strong case for itself.

As for the plot, well, the game isn’t very forthcoming with details, and in general, most of the storytelling in a Souls game is done though the flavor text on items and spells. I like this, it rewards you with a little story knowledge every time you find a new item. It’s a neat system, but so far I haven’t been able to piece much together. Even so, I can tell this game is just dripping with backstory and drama.

When does a town have too many cathedrals? I’ve been in at least three so far.

Difficulty

Most people will tell you the Souls series in general is characterized by its games’ high difficulty and low tolerance of error. I haven’t played Demon’s Souls, but I have played Darks Souls 1 and 2 extensively, and I can say that they are only really hard if you make them hard. Dark Souls 1, and even moreso Dark Souls 2, allow for lots of “cowardly” or cheesy strategies like magic or terrain glitching that make bosses much easier than intended. This doesn’t mean the game isn’t incredibly unmerciful though, even normal enemies can usually three-shot you if you’re careless. Dying is so common that it’s almost a joke that a normal player will die hundreds of times on their first playthough. I personally really enjoy magic in the Souls games because I don’t like to be stonewalled at bosses for long periods of time; I want to explore more!

Bloodborne doesn’t really present strategies like these, at least not so far. For reference, I just killed Vicar Amelia and the Blood-Starved Beast. I have no access to magic or ranged weapons that do much damage, so boss fights are entirely about correctly timing dodges and parries, and I’ll always have to get in close to deal damage. This is fine; the game has a philosophy of quick, deadly close-range fights. Even boss fights don’t really last long, but anything can kill you in just a couple good hits. Hunters don’t wear heavy armor or use shields, so they have to be light on their feet. I love the aesthetic, but in practice it’s hard to pull off. I miss my shields! Really, the difficulty of Bloodborne boils down to these elements: reflexes on dodges/parries and quick deaths if you get distracted or fail to react. Do it right or die.

This wooden shield is the only shield in the game. It is almost entirely useless, and in fact mocks the concept of shields for this setting. This is a jab at players who relied on them too heavily in earlier Souls games, and I love it.

Time-wasting mechanics

I accept the true difficulty elements, and I’m sure they are a big part of why I play games in the Souls Series. When you finally outplay the boss and kill them with your skill alone, it feels really good. However, getting to the bosses is often a massive headache. Something I really dislike about Bloodborne is that the closest lantern/spawn point to a boss is often still miles away. If you fail at a boss, and of course you will, you must then make the trek back to them just to try again. Dark Souls 1 did this a lot too, and it drives me mad. I’ve always appreciated games that don’t waste my time, and just get me back into the action instantly after I’ve failed. Most roguelikes, rhythm games, and challenge platformers (like Super Meat Boy) do this extremely well, and there is no reason at all that the Souls series can’t do it too. All I’m asking for is a respawn point near the boss, so that I don’t have to make the slog through the enemies again. I’m having fun, so don’t waste my time trying to ruin that.

The boss runback time is present in all Souls games, however, so I’m guessing it will never change. I don’t know if it’s general carelessness, or if From Software thinks that punishing the player by wasting their time adds to the reputation of difficulty, but it does not, and I would think any logical person could see that. To add to this, Bloodborne brings back a bad mechanic from Demon’s Souls: limited healing items. In Dark Souls 1 and 2, each character is given an Estus flask, which is your primary healing item with. It has charges that refill every time you visit a save/spawn point. It’s an elegant system that ensures you can jump right back into the action, so of course I love it. Demon’s Souls had grass that you ate to heal, but you must buy or find more of it to replenish your stores. I used to think of this as just an early series blunder by a company that had better ideas in the future, except that Bloodborne now does the same thing with Blood Vials.

Bosses are difficult and hit hard, which ensures that you will use your Blood Vials. If you then lose to the boss, those Blood Vials represent a sunk cost. If you used all of your Blood Vials, respawning with a big 0 next to them is enough to cause a ragequit. I don’t need homework farming for healing items just because I lost to a boss. Who in their right mind would want that? And I know, I know, “it’s the Souls series, learn to play better”. This is not an issue of difficulty though, this is an issue of wasting the player’s time, which is a game design sin. Limited resources that require farming plus annoying runbacks make me dread boss fights, and not because they are hard. I’m always nervous when entering a scenario where I will have fun on a boss for a few minutes and then waste time getting more vials or running back. If From Software listens to anything I ever say (they won’t, they are Japanese), please bring back the Estus Flask or a similar system.

Conclusion

Bloodborne might have the best combat of all the Souls series, and I enjoy every minute of it, even when I screw up and die. I love the environment, and while I don’t really know much about the story yet, I’m invested in learning about this world. Exploration is great, as is standard for the series, and I want to like this game. As I said above, I have a couple issues with the game, and I don’t know if they will really ever improve. I lose a lot of trust in the game designers when I think about the decisions they made regarding spawn point placement and healing resources, but I haven’t quit the game yet. I’m also not really that far in, so I’ll probably have to post more later when I have a stronger opinion. Thanks for reading.

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Posted on July 24, 2015, in Games and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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