The Blood-Starved Beast has poisoned me. I've run out of antidote and health potions, but I'm not willing to die. I'm close… I'm so close… As my health fades, I swing my blade and hold my breath. "Prey Slaughtered" flashes across the screen, and my hero keels over dead. I leap off my couch with a victorious scream.
I have many thoughts to share about Bloodborne, the new PS4 action-RPG from the acclaimed creators of Dark Souls and Demon's Souls. Up front: I haven't finished the game. I'm probably not even all that close. I've played 20 hours, seen a handful of areas, taken down five bosses, and hit level 46.
Let me start by addressing the two types of people who might be reading this article: hardcore Souls fans and interested newcomers.
Hardcore Souls fans: Bloodborne is both familiar and fresh, a reimagining of the Souls formula as creative and boldly designed as Dark Souls. If you were disappointed by Dark Souls II, there's a good chance that this is the game you wanted.
Interested newcomers: If you thought the introduction of guns meant the Souls series was preparing to lower its guard, think again. Bloodborne is hard as hell. But while it pulls no punches, it's still the most accessible take on a Souls game yet, sporting a slick and modern interface that makes settling into the game easier than ever. The game's not about to hold your hand, but if you've found previous entries too obtuse, Bloodborne's early hours are an easier climb.
My first week with Bloodborne has been fun, brutal, and hellish. Even now, typing these words, I want to go play more.
Bloodborne shares much in common with Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, but also works hard to establish its own identity. By now, the Souls games have become their own subgenre, and Bloodborne provides all-new additions to a framework that's getting sturdier over time.
We are no longer in a world of wizards and dragons. Bloodborne adopts a Victorian Gothic aesthetic that feels uncomfortably familiar. The central city of Yharnam is dark, dank, and decrepit. The streets teem with half-crazed men wielding pitchforks and guns, lurking bestial horrors, and quiet whispers of unseen monsters.
Your character, a man or woman you can customize at the outset, isn't a citizen of Yharnam, but a stranger who has come seeking the city's legendary healing powers. Bad news: the once-glorious city has fallen into madness. Whole districts have been locked off, and the few people left sane and alive try to protect themselves from a plague that's transformed most of the populous.
The opening area of Yharnam quickly establishes the many ways Bloodborne plays differently from its spiritual predecessors. If Dark Souls was passive, Bloodborne is active.
Previous Souls games felt like players were the lone actor in a play designed just for them. Enemies didn't move until you were close. Upon entering a room, everything was deadly still until you disturbed it. The world felt static, largely by design. Bloodborne turns this notion on its head. When you die in Bloodborne, as with previous Souls games, all of the enemies repopulate. But while the world is mostly the same every time you spawn back in, enemies are mobile, roaming around the environment and forcing you to change strategies in real-time.
Though it's always been easy to die in a Souls game, it was possible to feel safe by taking it slow, being overly cautious, and keeping your distance. Bloodborne does not reward timidity, and the game actively punishes players who are afraid to get into the thick of it.
From top to bottom, combat in Bloodborne feels designed to break the habits of old Souls players.The pace of combat has dramatically, and depending on how you've played these games in the past, you might be in for a rude awakening.
For example, I've always played Souls games with a sword or axe in my right hand, a big shield in my left, and as much hulking armor as the game would let me get away with. (No fat rolls, though!) This is me fighting a boss in Dark Souls:
And this is what I'm like while playing Bloodborne:
It's so fast.
While there are "shields" in Bloodborne, during my 20 hours in Yharnam, I've only found one:
"Shields are nice, but not if they engender passivity." Ha ha. In other words: if you want to use shields, too bad! They're basically useless.
Your character's health is treated differently than in past Souls games. When an enemy strikes and your health meter goes down, it's possible to get some of it back without resorting to chugging one of the potions you're carrying around. There's a brief window where it's possible to attack an enemy and recover your health—a huge change, if you've gotten used to past Souls games. This dismantles the heart of old school defensive Souls strategies that relied on backing off from whatever's attacking, healing, and moving back in. Now, it makes more sense to dodge the attack, get in close, and dish out a few strikes. You'll not only damage your enemy, but possibly refill (most of) your health meter in the process.
With shields obsolete, guns occupy your left hand, and while they're not as powerful as the knives, swords, and other monstrosities in your right hand, they're well-suited for many things.
One, crowd control. You're dealing with way more enemies than ever before in Bloodborne, and they have a nasty of being quite agile and running around. Guns let you temporarily stun one or more enemies while you focus on taking out the others.
Two, stunning enemies. Those long animations that get you into trouble when attacking in the wrong direction? Enemies do the same thing, which leaves them open to a gun-parry. A shotgun—sorry, blunderbuss—to the face is enough to stagger even the biggest of creatures and allow you to unleash a powerful super-attack.
The weapons in your right hand are called "trick weapons," which basically means they're capable of transforming into two different forms. My preference, the Saw Cleaver, is capable of going from a quick 'n dirty series of slashes to a lengthy but slow scythe-like attack. Other weapons are stranger, but allow for a variety of playstyles. There's a spear that becomes a rifle, a sword that combines with a hammer, and, well, there's this thing:
Though Bloodborne goes out of its way to differentiate itself mechanically and stylistically from the other Souls games, at its core, it's got the same philosophy: this game is all about rewarding skillful play. You can level up, get more hitpoints and do more damage with your weapons, but it's never enough. Doing well in Bloodborne means learning its tricks, studying your deaths, and keeping frustration in check. You can't button-mash to victory here, and while the emotional lows of fighting a boss for the 20th time can feel downright toxic, they're matched only by the ecstasy of victory. I've said it before and I'll say it again: There's nothing like taking down a boss in a Souls game. If you haven't done it, now's a great time to join the club.
The victories have been satisfying in Bloodborne, too, precisely because the game has pushed me to play differently. While Dark Souls II was flawed for many reasons, my main gripe was mostly that I was able to play it the same way I'd played the first game. I waltzed through Dark Souls II using the same bulky armor + sword 'n shield strategies I employed in the last game, and had a less exciting experience as a result. Bloodborne is totally different. Besides accepting death as a part of my gaming life, I've been forced to reinvent my strategies from the ground up. I'm a ruthless killer that will crawl up in your face, feed you full of bullets, and think nothing of gutting you like a fish. I've changed.
The game has crept into my everyday life, too. I've spent every waking moment thinking about Bloodborne for the past week, and it's even infected my dreams. I can't remember the last time a game has so fully taken over my life.
What's been special about the past days has been experiencing the waking fever with my Kotaku colleague Kirk Hamilton and my former Giant Bomb colleague, Brad Shoemaker. My text messages involve hundreds of exchanges mumbling about where we're are at in the game, despairing over losing thousands of experience points, sharing proud victories, and loudly wondering "what the fuck?" when the game presents us with a weird thing none of us understands.
The Souls games are chock full of mysteries meant to be solved by a community, as hundreds of thousands of players work together on the Internet. In a few weeks, the game will be torn up from the inside out, and the answers will be a Google search away. I've been legitimately nervous about reviewing Bloodborne for Kotaku because I'm so used to having the Internet as a crutch while playing a Souls game. In my darkest hours, there was always a YouTube video to help me out.
But at the same time, I wanted that mystery. To preserve it, I didn't crack open the "reviewer's guide" that Sony sent me along with my copy of the game. I didn't want anyone pointing me in one direction or another. In my first day with the game, multiplayer wasn't turned on, so the friendly "notes" scattered by fellow players weren't available. It was just me and Yharnam. The feeling of isolation was profound, but whenever my phone would light up, signaling a new message from Kirk or Brad, I'd scramble to unlock my device.
You might have noticed I'm being vague about the specifics in Bloodborne. That's on purpose. The game's surprises have been central to my experience, and I don't want to spoil them for you. And while I don't consider this a "final verdict" on the game, I also don't want to dance around how much I like it. It's a good game. I think you should play it.
All that said, there are some big questions I can't answer for you yet.
- Is it possible everything goes to shit in the second half of the game? Sure.
- How are the load times right now? Too long, but the developers are working on a patch.
- Are the randomly generated Chalice Dungeons interesting? I don't know yet.
- How long is the game? Good question! Previous Souls games have been 40-to-50 hours.
- Does the distinct lack of loot mean Bloodborne lacks customization? Hard to say.
- How will PvP stack up? I haven't done any, so I don't know.
- Are there sections like Dark Souls' Blighttown, where the frame rate drops to single digits? I've seen some noticeable frame-rate dips, but nothing terrible yet.
- Do I want to stop writing about Bloodborne and get back to playing? Damn straight.
We'll have a lot more coverage of the game in the weeks ahead, and I'll have a review of the whole game whenever I'm able to bring the final boss down. That'll take time. Until then, see you in Yharnam.