10 April 2015

Bloodborne! Bloodborne! Bloodborne!

My, it's been a while since I blogged. Guess just nothing much going on in my life, as usual. But, as people who follow video game news at all may know, there's a new game out that everybody's talking about.

First let's talk about the past for a second, though. It was about a year ago when I finally played Dark Souls, inspired by streams (by LoadingReadyRun) I was watching. I blogged about the experience extensively back then. Suffice to say, it was a very rewarding experience, and I really enjoyed the game's atmosphere and level design, the way it built a fascinating dark fantasy world that felt cohesive and connected. Now, I never got around to playing Dark Souls II. However, based on parts of it I saw streamed, and comments from people who's opinions I respect, it just... didn't look as good, particularly in the aesthetics and level design department. It was also developed by a different team at From Software, I believe, with less direct involvement by Demon's Souls and Dark Souls director Hidetaka Miyazaki.

Now, when the new game Miyazaki was working on was announced last year, I was... cautiously curious. But seeing as it was a new franchise with a new setting and new gameplay elements, I had no idea what to expect. I pretty much had no expectations up to the release a couple weeks ago, and initially planned to wait a while before possibly buying it. But, the same factors that deterred me from Dark Souls II—seeing bits of the game and opinions from people I respect—made me actually want to try it.

And when I say 'try', it quickly turned into 'devour'. Bloodborne, in a nutshell, turned out to be the perfect Dark Souls successor I never knew I wanted.

Where Dark Souls was primarily medieval fantasy, about a land infested by the undead, Bloodborne draws influence from Victorian Gothic horror aesthetics, mixing in themes of lycanthropy and hints of Lovecraftian horrors. As in Dark Souls, the narrative is subtle and unfolds through hints in snippets of dialogue, item descriptions etc. The atmosphere and feel of the world is much more important than the plot, as such. The game begins as you arrive in the city of Yharnam, ravaged by a disease turning people into beasts. It is the night of the Hunt, when the good people stay behind locked doors, and strange creatures roam the streets. To escape this nightmarish realm, you have to get to the bottom of what's happening to the city...

The game looks gorgeous. Like I said, the atmosphere and level design was one of the major pulls of Dark Souls for me, and Bloodborne managed to capture me once again in much the same way. Everything connects together nicely, yet there's a nice amount of variety as well, from the alleyways of Yharnam to its wild outskirts. From fairly early on you also have a fair bit of choice in the order you explore areas in.

The heritage of the game, from Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, is obvious. The action and interface are immediately familiar to any who've played those games. There are some significant differences, though. Where the previous games featured mostly medieval weaponry, the weapons in Bloodborne are much more exotic. Most can transform between two distinct shapes with different attacks. Also, instead of a shield in your left hand, you carry a firearm. There is no blocking as such, the gameplay is intended to be faster and more mobile. While many of the firearms aren't particularly effective on their own, a well timed shot can stagger an enemy, allowing a powerful follow-up attack, not unlike parrying in the earlier games. It seemed a little easier than parrying was, and while I didn't exactly master it, I could at least occasionally pull it off—something I never really learned to do in Dark Souls.

While the stat and levelling system are basically the same, many aspects of the game have been somewhat streamlined. For instance, there's no encumbrance to worry about. You move and dodge the same regardless of your equipment. Upgrading weapons is also more straightforward. Instead of branching into different varieties with different upgrade materials, you can now attach gems to weapons to boost or change their properties (not unlike, say, Diablo III). The total number of weapons and outfits also seems to be smaller. There's no magic as such, although you can find items that appear to function like spells and require a high 'arcane' stat to use (which I didn't have, so I can't really comment on that).

Like its predecessors, Bloodborne is a challenging game. Some of the bosses in particular gave me a hard time. The game relies on precise timing and fast reactions—things I am not particularly good at. But I usually had other areas to explore, so I could level up a little more, and eventually managed to beat every boss. Like Dark Souls, Bloodborne gives you relatively little information about many things. However, unlike my Dark Souls playthrough, in which I relied heavily on guides, I found myself playing the vast majority of Bloodborne blind. I guess my experience with Dark Souls was helpful there. There were one or two optional areas I would have missed entirely, though, had I not read up on things before I wrapped up the game, as well as some NPC encounters and quest lines I totally missed out on.

One of the more annoying features in Dark Souls were the occasional 'invasions' by other players. PvP still exists in Bloodborne, but it seems to be more limited and less random. As far as I can tell, you can only be invaded in certain areas, and even in those killing a certain enemy will disable invasions—which seems like a welcome change. Also the game actually gives you the option to play offline (though then of course you'd miss out on the notes left by other players).

A masterpiece can still have a few flaws, of course. Many people have commented on the long loading times, which can be a little annoying in a game where death can be relatively frequent, and where you fast travel to earlier locations by teleporting into a hub and then out again, resulting in multiple loading times... Graphical (and other) glitches, slowdown etc. are by no means common, but you might still run into a few. As far as gameplay is concerned, there were one or two areas I didn't like a whole lot, because they were full of very hard enemies and the best strategy seemed to be to run through them, whereas I'd prefer to take things slow, explore and enjoy the atmosphere.

It took me a little over 40 hours to beat the game. I recall it took me over 60 to beat Dark Souls. It's hard to say whether Bloodborne has less content, or whether I was just better at it after my experience with Dark Souls. The slightly streamlined mechanics might also be a factor—I feel like I spent a little less time grinding for upgrade materials etc., which is probably not a bad thing. (My Dark Souls playthrough of course included DLC content as well, which I imagine Bloodborne might get at some point...) There are also optional semi-randomized 'chalice dungeons' you can explore, that add a significant amount of content. I never really got into these, though, as they seemed a little more bland than the 'proper' levels.

I will probably play this game again, seeing as how there's still some stuff I missed out on, playing without guides, and multiple endings as well. The game obviously has plenty of replay value, although I'm not sure if there is quite as much variety for character builds as Dark Souls had, considering the more limited amount of equipment and streamlined mechanics.

So yes, it should be obvious by now that I really liked Bloodborne. I liked the atmosphere and aesthetics. The gameplay was rewarding and exhilarating. Like Dark Souls, it is obviously not a game for everybody's taste. For me, though, I think it might be the best new game I've played since, well, since I played Dark Souls... It's a shame it's only available on PS4. While it doesn't affect me personally (I obviously have a PS4), I know many PC gamers are a little upset about that. But now... I have to decide whether I want to try new game plus, or an entirely new character build, or take a breather with something else entirely... Such hard decisions!

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