Wednesday, April 29, 2015

My thoughts on Bloodborne [Spoilers below the jump]

Okay, so, let's just go ahead and do the ADHD version of this big, messy thing right now: Bloodborne is a very good game. You should buy it and you should play it. If you don't own a PlayStation 4 - and that's a reasonable enough notion, given that there has hitherto been absolutely no compelling reason to own a PlayStation 4 beyond "fuck, I've got all these indie titles from PS+ anyway and I've got some cash to blow" - you should buy a PlayStation 4. That will make Bloodborne a $460 video game! You could buy a lot of things for $460 dollars. You could buy 50 pounds of coffee. You could buy a very shitty car. You could buy 80 pounds of Cheetos on Amazon - with free delivery, even.

Bloodborne is worth $460 dollars.

It's really no secret that I'm a big fan of the Souls series, so let's be clear: when I say that Bloodborne is a stronger title than Dark Souls or Demon's Souls, that should mean something. As a whole, Bloodborne is simultaneously a complex, strategic RPG, a tight, polished twitch action game, and an incredibly atmospheric survival horror title with a pervasive, crushing sense of dread everywhere you go and more than a few moments where you'll genuinely jump out of your seat.

Let's break this shit down, though and cover just why this game works so well - and the things that it could do better, too.

The right kind of streamlined

 

"Streamlining" is kind of a dirty word, but it really shouldn't be. With a lot of your big retail releases today, "streamlining" is a byword for a brute-force ironing-out of mechanical complexity - but it's useful to remember what the origin of the word is. Streamlining is the process of carefully, meticulously optimizing the form of a vehicle to make it better. Streamlining a plane doesn't make it worse; it enables it to cut through the air like it's nothing. You might shudder when you hear the words "We've streamlined it to make it more accessible," but there's nothing wrong with either of those goals except in how they're understood by developers and players alike.

Streamlining is, itself, a good thing; you cut through the unnecessary complexity of mechanics that don't really matter to let players focus on what does. And accessibility? All else being equal, a game being more accessible is an unqualified good thing. Games exist to be played; there's no reason why they shouldn't be playable for as many people as possible. The only problem comes when you're sacrificing everything else on the altar of accessibility in the interest of trying to get as many sales as possible to justify your bloated triple-A budget; when you're afraid to have too much mechanical depth - or seriously ask players to explore what you do have - because of the risk that it could scare someone off.

Bloodborne does not do this. It's a streamlined, accessible take on the formula of Dark Souls, but it's not afraid to ask something of you, as the player. If you haven't played a Souls game before and you jump into Bloodborne, you're going to die a lot. If you have played a Souls game before and you jump into Bloodborne, you're still going to die a lot, because while it wears its heritage on its sleeves, make no mistake: this is not Dark Souls. But, while Bloodborne won't simply roll over and show you its belly, it'll do everything possible to help you enjoy the experience that exists here, so long as you're game for it.

Your character: Equipment advancement, character stats, and consumable items


Bloodborne is questioning the assumptions of Dark Souls basically everywhere, and it's gleefully doing away with things that aren't essential to the experience of the game. The most pronounced aspect here is the way the game handles equipment. Dark Souls has a weapon upgrade system that is, frankly, terrifying.

Dark Souls' weapon upgrade chart, from the excellent Wikidot wiki
Look at that. That's undeniably complex, but what do you, as a player, actually get from all that complexity? All this does is create the opportunity for you to make mistakes that hurt you based purely on a lack of knowledge that you can't reasonably be expected to have. Do you want to go with the Magic upgrade path, or Enchanted? Well, Magic has higher base damage, but lower scaling, so that depends on how high you expect your Intelligence to be once you're done leveling. What about Occult vs. Divine? Occult does more damage to a small handful of enemies with a weakness to that damage type, but otherwise it's inferior to Divine and doesn't have the nifty anti-necromancy effect that Divine weapons do. Fire looks plainly superior to Chaos, but Chaos actually scales with soft humanity to produce dramatically superior damage output for the exact same material investment. Raw is a dead-end that ruins the weapon and Crystal is a booby-trap that ruins the weapon and wastes resources that you might reasonably assume you should be able to purchase at some point, but you can't.

I love Dark Souls, but let's be clear here: Dark Souls' convoluted-ass branching weapon upgrade system is truly, breathtakingly awful. It's a system that actively discourages you from experimenting with the mechanics because upgrades permanently consume rare resources - in some cases, like with boss weapons, resources that you only get one of per playthrough. And Demon's Souls was even worse here; you have two separate basic upgrade paths, and then Quality, Crushing, Sharp, Dragon, Tearing, Mercury, Fatal, Moon, Crescent, Blessed, Sticky, and Dark paths on top of those. Quick, without looking at the wiki, tell me what each of these actually does. You can't, of course; nobody can, because this system is dumb.

For all the completely justified hate that Dark Souls II gets, one thing I genuinely did love was how they handled the upgrade system. Your weapons upgrade with one of three resources - basically, one does common weapons, one does rare weapons, and one does unique weapons - and there's only one upgrade path. +3 is better than +2 is better than +1, as anyone would expect. Elemental infusions are a completely separate affair. This makes it much easier to experiment and much harder to screw yourself, but it's still not perfect.

Each infusion costs one of that infusion's resource, and while you can spend these like they're nothing at endgame, early on they're rare enough that you can be in trouble if you respec or you decide that you don't like the infusion you're using. Some of the infusions are themselves odd and hard to grasp at first - if you're coming in from Dark Souls, you'll probably assume you have a handle on the difference between Magic and Enchanted at first, but as it turns out Enchanted is actually a functionally useless infusion that removes all existing scaling, adds a tiny bit of physical damage scaling with Intelligence, and doesn't give you the nifty synergy between the infusion and your temporary enchantments that Magic/Lightning/Fire/Dark all get. Mundane looks terrible, but actually has incredible hidden damage scaling with the lowest of your stats, except that the scaling is gimped on crossbows and daggers and the Mundane infusion causes the base damage of Santier's Spear to go through the floor. Poison and Bleed seem interesting, but brief experimentation will show that they're pretty useless outside of gimmicks like Poison Ricard's Rapier R2 spamming. And removing the existing infusion from a weapon so you can get the full physical damage back will require yet another rare resource. So, while this system definitely beats that used in the prior titles, it's still pretty bad. And this is a problem, because the weapon upgrade mechanics are a huge part of character advancement in the Souls games, arguably more significant than your character level as a determinant of character power.

Bloodborne almost completely drops this layer of complexity, and it's a better game for it. For each and every weapon - both trick weapons and offhand ones - you level the weapon from +0 to +10, nothing more. No infusions; no branches. What you can do is slot gems into your weapons; each weapon starts with one gem slot unlocked, and you unlock another at +3 and the last at +6. The gems you insert in these slots are randomly generated as loot for the most part - either from enemy drops or in the Chalice Dungeons - and can have a variety of effects, allowing you to access alternate damage types, apply effects like poisoning or extra damage against certain enemy types, or just pile on more physical damage. You can even find cursed gems that have negative effects alongside higher-order positive ones. This is streamlining in the best sense; you still have to consider all the things that actually matter in terms of what you want your build to do, but you're not worrying about which resources you have to grind for or consulting a huge upgrade chart to try to determine how to proceed. You just pick your weapon, upgrade it, and slot the gems you like. And if they don't work out? You can pull them out without any fuss, and you'll still be able to use them in the future.

What's more, weapon advancement as a whole is pared-down to the absolute fundamentals, and I love it. There are a total of just 15 trick weapons in the game - with optional Uncanny and Lost variations available in randomly-generated Chalice Dungeons, but these only differ in the shape of the available gem imprints, and with one notable exception (the Lost Chikage is the only trick weapon in the game with a radial gem imprint, which makes it optimal for Bloodtinge builds due to the ability to slot the best Bloodtinge gemstones) they're essentially interchangeable - and each one has a unique moveset. A couple share movesets in one form - the untransformed state of Ludwig's Holy Blade is the same as the Kirkhammer, and likewise for the Saw Cleaver and Saw Spear - but each weapon has a full and varied moveset in and out of trick mode, and the two interplay to make each weapon in the game complex, satisfying, and genuinely potent. So, if you like a weapon, you can use it. You don't need to worry about wasting upgrade materials only to discover a better greatsword, or a better katana; the trick weapons are all complete distinct and dangerous as hell. Even the starting trio.

Weapons become available at a more or less constant rate as you progress through the game, and you're free to pick up anything you have the stats for and see if you like its moveset. If you do, the early upgrade materials are easily farmed and become available for purchase quickly enough, so it's no hassle to bring your new weapon up to speed. The only upgrade materials that aren't completely commoditized are the Blood Stone Chunks and the Blood Rocks; while I have issues with the rarity of these items, which I'll elaborate on below, the truth is that, by the time you're deciding what to use your chunks on, you should have access to most of the weapons in the game. The only exceptions here are:
  • The Burial Blade, which is fast, powerful, incredibly satisfying to use, and quite clearly meant to be a NG+ reward even if you can, technically, get out of the Moon Presence battle to buy it while you're still on NG. Of course, the Moon Presence fight is only available in the true ending path, and given how obscure that is, most players won't even get to it in their first runthrough! They'll just kill Gehrman, go to NG+, and then the Burial Blade will be in the shop.
  • The Beast Claw, which is (for some reason) found in non-root Lower Loran. I don't like how hidden away the Beast Claw is, and it's the only other trick weapon that most players won't be able to acquire and experiment with before they start making important decisions with their resources, which is a shame given how unique its mechanics are; it's not something that doesn't feel like you're supposed to get it on your first runthrough like the Burial Blade is, it's just buried at the ass end of the Chalice Dungeon progression for no real reason. Even this is there for you to acquire, though.
Everything else, though? The last trick weapons you'll acquire are those from Cainhurst - which you can get before midgame if you want to - and the Blade of Mercy, which is available literally as soon as Rom is dead. Earlier, if you kill Eileen yourself or let her die against Henryk! Normally, you have 13 of the 15 available movesets to work with before the Blood Stone Chunks start appearing in earnest with Yahar'gul and Nightmare of Mensis. You're able to know exactly what your stats support and what feels good, and you don't really need to commit to a weapon until that happens.

Offhand weapons work on a simpler basis. The trick weapons' transformation means that you only have one button dedicated to your offhand, L2; you fire a gun, or wave a torch, or whatever. This provides much less room to distinguish the offhand weapons, but they're still impressively varied, and there are (wisely) fewer offhand options than there are trick weapons, with only 11.

But of those? The guns are divided smartly, with a quick parrying tool in the form of the Hunter's Pistol, the slower Hunter's Blunderbuss that's more effective at staggering foes, the very slow but impressively long-range Ludwig's Rifle, a Quicksilver Bullet-hungry option for legitimate ranged damage output in the form of the Repeating Pistol, and the Evelyn, which is a pistol that can nearly match the repeater's kick, but depends on its high Bloodtinge scaling to do that. Your other options are a cannon with monstrous damage output but the ammo consumption and firing speed to match, a flamethrower that can do some truly murderous damage with Arcane investment, the Hunter's Torch, (and the basic Torch, which is a categorically inferior option that can't actually be upgraded) which can illuminate dark spaces, frighten certain beasts, and deals pretty nasty fire damage with a good strike, the Wooden Shield which is (sorry, sword-and-board guys) a straight-up joke item, and the Rosmarinus, which is...

Yeah, okay, sorry. I'm not sure what the hell the Rosmarinus is. It's some kind of, like, magic bug sprayer thing? With an S in Arcane scaling? And it seems to either do jack shit or to take enemies down in five seconds flat? Look, man, I'll get back to you on this one.

Seriously, what is this thing?
Anyway, though: I'd say that's not a bad variety for one button.

Armor has seen a similar makeover - and one prompted by the conflict witnessed between the Fashion Souls scene in the prior games and the reality that some armor pieces were just plain better. In Bloodborne: armor doesn't really matter any more. I'd say it was a return to the model seen in Demon's Souls, with the demise of poise and armor upgrades - but it's honestly more pronounced than it was there, even. Demon's Souls still allowed a real variance in the weight classes of armor sets and the defense that your armor provided, creating at least some incentive to try and optimize your build for defense.

Bloodborne has two "bad" armor sets. The Foreign Set that you start the game with and the Doll Set have substantially lower defenses than the game's other armors; apart from those, though, every armor set in the game has defenses in the same general ballpark. Sure, some might have better resistance to specific damage types - but the total is pretty much the same across the board, and the armor you're wearing makes absolutely no difference to equipment load beyond that it's present. So you have explicit mechanical license to wear what looks good without ever feeling like, yeah, you'd probably have an easier time of it if you just put Havel's on here.

So, Bloodborne's equipment systems are pretty much an across-the-board improvement over the prior games. Character leveling, though, is more of a mixed bag. Let's start with the elephant in the room: no respecs. I can appreciate the thematic reasoning here, don't get me wrong, and I certainly wouldn't want respecs to be as trivial as they were in Dark Souls II, to the point of stripping characters of any definable role in favor of each character simply being whatever they needed to be then and there. Still, Dark Souls II deserves recognition for the realization that eliminating the permanence of poor stat investment encourages players to explore on their own instead of going outside of the game for assistance, and it'd have been nice if Bloodborne found a way to incorporate respecs without making it quite as exploitable as the Soul Vessels were. Perhaps, for example, you might allow one respec at the start of each new NG+?

Generally, though, the system is - like with equipment - streamlined and better for it. The most obvious thing here is that there's no stat where your points are going to feel genuinely wasted. Every stat does something for you, even if it's not optimal for your build. Arcane opens up new spell options and provides a nice chunk of item discovery. Bloodtinge increases the damage you can do with firearms, which prove to be useful for picking off weakened foes even if you're not doing something explicitly offensive with them by using the Evelyn or the Repeating Pistol. And, while most weapons favor either Strength or Skill, investing in the offstat (up to the first softcap at 25) can provide a decent chunk of AR for the bulk of the weapons in the game; the Blade of Mercy and Logarius' Wheel are the only trick weapons that don't derive at least some scaling from both primary offensive stats. The absence of a true dump stat along the lines of Resistance or (Blueblood Sword builds excepted) Luck, combined with the high returns on early, exploratory stat investment in terms of opening up new weapon options and providing meaningful statistical advantages in gameplay, means that players don't immediately feel the need to go outside of the game for information. And, with one minor exception, what your stats do for you is clear enough at the time that you're leveling them.

The minor exception here is something that should be noted, because given how much Bloodborne has pared down systems that were needlessly obtuse or convoluted in the past, this is pretty offensive. I mentioned equipment load earlier? It's a hidden stat. Here's the thing: hidden stats suck. Not "in general." Hidden stats always, universally suck, because they represent "depth" that's entirely manufactured by hiding information about the player's character from the player. Now, let's be clear here: Bloodborne's equipment load system really isn't a big deal. There's a hidden value that scales with Vitality, hidden weight values for each weapon, and a hidden weight value - constant across all pieces - for each different type of armor piece. If the sum of the weight of your equipment exceeds your equipment load, you're overburdened; the consequence of this is that your stamina regenerates very slightly more slowly. In practice, you won't even notice it; I'm not entirely certain that it's not a matter of the developers not noticing that a mechanic they intended to cut wasn't actually completely disabled. But it still sucks, because you have no way to know when you're nearing that overburdened status or what, exactly, is pushing you over; no, it's just that sometimes your stamina recovers slower. This is lame, cheesy, and pointlessly obtuse; there's no discovery in this, it's just kind of dumb.

The last thing we're going to talk about here is the item system. Bloodborne eliminates the traditional magic system used by the Souls games in favor of a streamlined (there's that word again!) system based on casting implements that are equipped to your hotbar and used like consumable items. The distinction here is that they're not consumable. Instead, they actually consume your Quicksilver Bullets with each use. This struck me as an unusually abstract, gamey mechanic for one of these games at first, and it is that to an extent, but there's method to the madness. Used well, your offhand weapon is an incredibly powerful tool, and tying it to the same ammo pool as your spells forces you to use these options carefully and precisely. You can't just Beast Roar everything off cliffs and hit what's left with the Flamesprayer; your trick weapon is still going to be your bread and butter, and you're building your playstyle around that. Bloodborne is a much more focused title than the Souls games; while you can approach it in a huge variety of ways, the physical tools available to you will be relatively similar regardless. You can't play as a pure caster or cheese things from a distance using a bow; you only get to carry 20 Quicksilver Bullets at a time, and while drops are frequent enough overusing them will still require you to sacrifice 30% of your health for another 5 blood bullets. It's an extension of the dynamic that Pyromancy had in Dark Souls, in many ways; your offhand weapon and your spells are versatile and useful, but their usage is restricted enough that you're forced to use them as complements to your melee instead of being able to rely entirely on those tools.

I'm a fan of this, though. I actually think Bloodborne's combat gets a lot more interesting once you hit 15 Arcane, as a matter of fact; the Empty Phantasm Shell is an enchantment, which is fine, but the Beast Roar and Old Hunter's Bone open a lot of options up in melee, and if you use them smartly you can do some really impressive freeform combos and last-second saves. There's nothing that feels quite as good as reading an attack while you're in the middle of a combo and using a well-timed Beast Roar to stagger the foe out of it, recover some stamina, and keep your combo going instead of having to back off. The ability to "cast" without having to equip any sort of catalyst as a prerequisite really is a fantastic addition to the system, and it's well worth the initial oddity of using Quicksilver Bullets as a more abstract resource.

I will say, though, that the actual offensive spells are somewhat dissatisfying to use. There are just four, and while the Augur of Ebrietas is somewhat interesting - though more as a knockback tool in the vein of the Beast Roar than actual offense - the Tiny Tonitrus and A Call Beyond both prove to be weak attacks with a decidedly lavish cost. The only one that's really effective for damage output is the Executioner's Gloves. The result here is that Arcane is an incredibly valuable stat for low levels of investment on builds with other specialties, but Arcane builds themselves feel half-baked; you're essentially limited to using Ludwig's Holy Blade for your trick weapon, and you basically wind up playing it like a quality build using that same weapon but with more options for mix-ups and a truly terrifying capacity to burn through Quicksilver Bullets. It's an odd anomaly in a game that's otherwise very good about providing options to ensure that all the different builds you can run are more or less viable.

An unexpected side effect of the new casting system is that it also increases the role that actual consumable items play in combat dramatically. Throwing knives and Molotov cocktails have scaling enough to keep them useful throughout the game, and as you get accommodated to the rhythms of Bloodborne's combat you'll find it becomes second-nature to throw these in where you can. They're safe, effective, and unpredictable, which makes them very valuable in a game this fast-paced, and it feels fantastic to implement these tools seamlessly into your playstyle, hurling a Molotov in for some free damage when your targets bunch together without a second thought. In the Souls games, these combat-use consumables were flat-damage affairs that, depending on the circumstance, either felt useless or cheesy as hell. Here, they're essential, regular parts of your arsenal. This extends to the whole of your inventory. Beast Blood Pellets, Fire Paper, and Bolt Paper can be tossed in on a moment's notice to give your attacks extra oomph when it's needed. Bone Marrow Ash can be used to set up openings for a powerful ranged coup de grace. In general, consumables matter within combat in a way that they never have in the Souls games; the real reason that healing has to be mapped to its own button is that you're expected to be using your consumable slots to do real work instead of just leaving the Estus Flask set 75 percent of the time.

And of course if we're talking about the item system we kind of have to talk about Blood Vials. I mostly like them; healing is a lot easier than in Dark Souls, but you would never get enough time to down an Estus Flask in the middle of combat in Bloodborne. Hit the triangle button, go into a very brief animation, and if you don't get staggered out of it you get 40 percent of your health back. They synergize well with blood bullets to let builds that burn through Quicksilver Bullets have some sustainability, and in general they do an excellent job enabling Bloodborne to throw challenging combat encounters at you throughout an area, without having to worry if you're low on health going in and this might be unfair. 20 Blood Vials is plenty for an area, and combined with drops from foes they basically mean that you'll be at full health between encounters, and the game is designed around that.

"Drops from foes." And the needle drops. So let's talk about the single biggest example of something that should have received some of the streamlining that Bloodborne gave a lot of its other mechanics: consumable farming.

I realized recently that I don't actually like consumable items in RPG's. Sure, I love it when a game - like Bloodborne! - incorporates consumables into the flow of gameplay in such a way that they provide interesting strategic options. But I don't actually like that they're consumable. Bloodborne is not a simulation. Bloodborne really isn't simulating shit, so realism isn't an argument - so why should items be consumable in this game?

Well, the obvious answer here is so that you can't just spam throwing knives all day, but this is a problem that Dark Souls has already solved. The Estus Flask is the perfect implementation of a "consumable" item; it has a fixed number of uses - you can't get more in the field; if you have 20 flasks, you have 20 flasks - that automatically, painlessly refill at each bonfire you rest at. You still need to plan around the limits of your resources, but you never find yourself farming healing potions; the Estus Flask behaves like a consumable in only the ways that are actually interesting from a strategic perspective.

It's been suggested before that Bloodborne would benefit from having a similar situation apply to Blood Vials and Quicksilver Bullets, and it would, but I want to take it one step further: every consumable item that you've unlocked should behave like Estus Flasks. Once you acquire Throwing Knives for your inventory, every death or return to the Hunter's Dream should result in you having a full set of Throwing Knives. Bolt Paper, same. Blue Elixir, same. Farming consumables is not interesting. You're not making meaningful decisions or experiencing new content; you're repeating what you've already done in order to acquire the resources to press on further. No one is going to go into anything serious with anything less than a full supply of Blood Vials or Quicksilver Bullets, so it's pointless to have the player farm instead of doing that automatically - but I would say the same for consumables as a class. If your strategy relies on being able to use Throwing Knives, you're going to farm for Throwing Knives. If your strategy relies on Fire Paper, you're not going out without Fire Paper. All that tying these tools to consumable resources does is discourage the formation of strategies around them, which actually reduces the depth of the mechanics that the player is likely to engage with. If a consumable would be too powerful without the opportunity cost tied to its permanent depletion, then rebalance it, either by reducing the stack size or decreasing its efficacy - but automatically replenishing these stocks makes it much easier to explore a wider variety of different approaches to the scenarios the game presents by ensuring that you'll always have the tools on hand to enact your new strategy.

And, of course, if we're talking about farming: random drops are terrible. Random drops are terrible, archaic game design that's still very much present here. And that's a shame, given that a lot of what makes Bloodborne so good is an almost eerie ability to seamlessly marry old and new. Where they still have merit, Bloodborne isn't afraid to follow in the footsteps of classic games even where other big retail titles wouldn't dare; where something is simply archaic, Bloodborne is all too happy to discard it. So, that being the case: why are random drops a thing? What do random drops do to make the game better?

Random drops are an age-old part of the genre, but the answer is still the same: they do nothing - nothing at all - to make the game better. They're a cheap, easy way to control the value of resources by inflating the amount of real time players spend acquiring them, but there's no engagement in this process. Sometimes it drops, sometimes it doesn't; that's not influenced by anything you do. Bloodborne reduces the prominence of random drops compared to the prior Souls games by virtue of eliminating a lot of the things (rare equipment, auxiliary weapon upgrade materials, etc.) that provided the toughest drops to acquire - but farming random drops is still a thing, and it's tedious and pointless. Nothing is being learned by killing the same enemy repeatedly until you get what you want; you're not building new skills or learning about the game in any respect but rote memorization of what it does and how you respond to make this process happen as smoothly and mechanically as possible.  

Bloodborne excels when it's forcing you, the player, to act and react in meaningful ways; making and executing plans of action, adjusting those on the fly to unforeseen snarls. In simple terms: presenting you with problems to solve. The only thing that random drops actually make for is tedious busywork, and they could and should be removed and replaced with actual, skill-based, player-driven mechanics for resource acquisition. I love conditional drop systems for this reason, actually. Instead of controlling drop rarity through pure random chance, the drops that should be rare are tied to genuinely difficult feats, and acquiring those provides meaningful, engaging gameplay in a way that simply leaving it to the RNG doesn't. This seems, to me, much better suited to the type of games that FROM Software makes; Bloodborne is, like the Souls games before it, intentionally designed to make level-grinding difficult and (without access to higher-end equipment and items from later in the game) limited in utility. This is because you're meant to get stronger by seeking and confronting challenges instead of simply putting time into the game until it relents and allows you to move on. So why is the entire system around resource acquisition and management still so archaic and, well, grindy?

Delving into Bloodborne's combat system

 

All this talk about the more granular, stat-based RPG elements really just serves the purpose of setting the stage for us to discuss Bloodborne's combat system, of course. The Souls games lived and died by the strength of their combat. Demon's Souls managed to be the revelation that started this whole mess in spite of a whole host of terrible mechanics around the edges - the inscrutable World Tendency system, the ridiculous hassle of inventory weight, the famously unreadable stat screens, terrifyingly low drop rates for vital resources - because its combat was just that good. A real-time, action-oriented battle system that manages to wring a fearsome amount of depth out of its incredibly simple, easy-to-learn controls - cerebral and deliberate without feeling slow; intense and rewarding without feeling reflex-driven; encouraging situational awareness and adaptability without ever feeling like you couldn't reasonably have been expected to anticipate what just happened. Demon's Souls' combat system was and is amazing, and Dark Souls only improved it. One would wonder how, exactly, FROM would further improve on Dark Souls' combat, and Dark Souls II's ill-conceived additions like the Agility stat would indicate that that game's team asked much the same question of themselves. Bloodborne's solution: don't try.

Bloodborne's combat is a beautiful, terrible thing to play and to behold - but it's important to realize that, whatever the superficial similarities here, the actual rhythms of combat are completely unlike those in the Souls games. Dark Souls and Demon's Souls before it are only action games in the most technical of senses, and the only time that combat is really about reflex is if you're trying to go for a parry. Otherwise, they're cautious, methodical games about positioning yourself and your opponent, spotting openings, and capitalizing on them without leaving yourself open in the process. Most attacks are very well-telegraphed if you want to dodge, and the shield provides a pretty much foolproof defense against most weaker blows. So you jockey for position, trying to keep your defense up while breaking through the opponent's. Bloodborne is not like this. Bloodborne is an "action game" in the way that the Souls games weren't; you're expected to respond suddenly to things and capitalize on fleeting, irregular openings in order to keep yourself alive and execute your offense. Miyazaki had claimed during the game's development that he wanted you to feel like you were fighting for your life in every battle, and he absolutely succeeded; Bloodborne is a fast, furious game where you're fully capable of mowing foes down in droves, but death can come at a moment's notice if you slip up.

Honestly, though, it's pretty great. The core of the system, for my money, is the dodge; Bloodborne's dodge is a major departure from that of the Souls games, and it's the reason that the entire system doesn't fall apart. The dodge in this game is incredibly effective in a way that the clunky roll of the Souls titles never was in order to sustain the frenzied pace of the combat; where the Souls games had a relatively brief period of invincibility and used the dodge as a more aggressive defensive maneuver for attacks that you anticipated ahead of time - a heftier stamina cost than blocking it, usually, but with the reward that you were able to attack much more quickly out of your defense, and that damage would be outright eliminated instead of simply reduced - it is, in Bloodborne, your entire defensive game. It comes out quickly, it covers an impressive amount of ground, and it has a lot of i-frames. Enemies can and will kill you with one clean combo if you let them; the dodge is your lifeline.

The newfound power of the dodge maneuver is counteracted by how much more aggressive foes are in Bloodborne. Even common, disposable enemies - those akin to the Dreglings of Demon's Souls or the common Hollows of the Dark Souls games - will close in quickly on your character once you've entered their aggro range. They'll take any opening you give them to attack, and if you let them they'll keep applying pressure until you die. You simply cannot tank hits, because your enemies are too aggressive and too hard-hitting for it. Instead, the game becomes one about reading that very aggression and using it against them. You dodge almost instantaneously, and if your read was right the foe is vulnerable, and you can transition seamlessly from the dodge into an attack, and from that attack you can start to punish them. It's very important to keep mobile in Bloodborne; while Dark Souls would let you find an opening and proceed to stand there and spam R1 until you had to pull out again, foes in this game recover as quickly as they go in for the kill. There's a constant give-and-take; weaving in and out of attacks, dealing out damage before the next strike comes. With large mobs, the motions actually become kind of beautiful; Bloodborne becomes a game about intricately dancing through the crowd, evading everything thrown your way, and finding the one place you need to be to rend all your foes to bits in one fell strike. You at once feel the genuine, terrifying danger of these confrontations and the fabulous power you have at your disposal. And let's be clear here: Bloodborne is a game that lets you feel like a serious badass. Oh, sure, you could feel like your character was pretty tough in Dark Souls - but it doesn't really compare to the way that Bloodborne allows you to absolutely manhandle creatures that you still know to be genuinely, truly dangerous.

The increased chance of your taking damage - because you will take damage in fights of any real difficulty - is mitigated by the rally system, which allows you to recover the health you've lost in the last attack for several seconds by striking back at any foe. I like this because it encourages a similar kind of aggression on the part of the player; if you simply dodge out of the way and play it safe, you're going to burn through your blood vials far too quickly. You're rewarded for getting in there, taking blood in trade for blood; risks are more acceptable because, if you're good enough, you can recover whatever the costs were. So instead of simply sidestepping and strafing until the perfect chance comes up - because that will get you killed in this game; enemies don't exactly roll over and show you their bellies, for the most part - you need to balance your defensive game against the need to continuously pressure the foe. Dark Souls is a game about caution and gradually seizing the upper hand; Bloodborne is a game about quick wits, adaptability, and forcing your way in to absolutely obliterate the target before they can do likewise.

The trick weapon system is brilliant in this light because it increases your flexibility as a player by a huge degree. One button totally changes your available options and allows you to shift strategies in an instant. If you need room to breathe, you can get it; if you feel like you're under too much pressure and you need to put more on the foe if you're going to get out alive, you can do that. What's more, using the transformation mapped to the L1 button in the middle of a combo will actually trigger a special transformation attack. Combine this with the newfound significance of attacking out of dodges, and a surprisingly sophisticated combo system starts to form; you're encouraged to keep in there instead of playing it safe as a result. You attack at an opening, dodge the incoming, attack out of that and go into your R1 chain before you need to dodge again; you need to use the transformation now, so you hit L1 out of this dodge for a brutal special attack before you continue with the transformed moveset.

Stamina is still a limiting factor on all of this, of course, but dodges are cheap enough (and shields effectively nonexistent enough) now that stamina is primarily a determining factor for your offensive ability. Conserving stamina lets you do more damage before you have to back off to recover it and repeat the process of closing in again. Using your stamina efficiently is still vitally important, but you can generally maintain a defense without using much at all; the tricky part is keeping an agile, efficient offense that allows you to avoid taking too much net damage while maximizing the actual damage output you get before you have to back off. Aggression is everything in Bloodborne; you're rewarded much more for thinking on your feet and playing opportunistically than working out a single safe strategy and just trying to execute that perfectly, and the stamina system now functions as a component of that whole.

I talked about items as a part of this above - and they are, indeed, a much bigger part of this picture than they were in the Souls games. And, really, it's all down to the same focus on sustained aggression; spellcasting implements and consumable weapons serve a vital role in providing stamina-cheap tools for sustaining your offense and keeping enemies vulnerable. The Beast Roar is probably my favorite item in the game because of how well it slots into this ballet; if you use it to stun foes at the right time, you can actually regain stamina before they're vulnerable again and keep your offense going pretty much indefinitely! But it's worth commending how well these function on a more general level, because even the more mundane tools - say, Molotov cocktails - slot into things smoothly and organically, allowing you to keep things moving along in cases where you'd otherwise have no choice but to back off for a moment. The hardest part of one of Bloodborne's battles is finding the initial opportunity to start going on the offensive, and your items serve the vital role of letting you keep applying pressure when you could otherwise be pushed out.

Agility and the ability to manage pressure are huge parts of Bloodborne's combat system, but I don't want to give the impression that they're all that matters here. It's a synergy of beautiful, intricately designed parts that work in lockstep, and I could talk for days about every last part of this if you let me. Parrying has been reworked into a phenomenal spur-of-the-moment risk/reward analysis, immensely profitable but dangerous as hell and (due to the limited quantity of Quicksilver Bullets) absolutely not spammable. And the actual feel of your attacks! Bloodborne speeds the flow of combat in the Souls games up drastically, but you still have a breathtaking impact to every blow. Stronger, heavier blows have more wind-up than lighter attacks, but they stagger their targets (whether the target here is an enemy or you) much more effectively, and the animations and the sound effects sell the weight of everything, whether it's the light, airy movements of a pair of twisted daggers or a huge, cumbersome hammer made of solid rock. Every impact feels perfect. And then there's the blood - stylized, not realistic; huge gushes of bright red that spray forth with every blow, following the trail of the attack that brought them forth; it's less about depicting injury than it is allowing you to instantly know what hit and where it came from in the middle of a messy, fast-paced fight. It's a great way to visually give the player information without sticking that in the HUD or damaging the aesthetic - instead, you make it part of the aesthetic. I probably sound like a crazy, dangerous asshole right now, but seriously - the blood-spatter in this game is unparalleled. It's gorgeous and genuinely useful at the same time.

Bloodborne's environments and storytelling

 

A world designed around the player

Combat was a major part of the Souls games, but it wasn't the only thing that won them their fanbase. Part of what made Demon's Souls so refreshing amidst a whole lot of corridor shooters and expansive, empty open worlds was that it had level design in the classical sense. Demon's Souls' worlds made sense as actual places - castles, cities, abandoned mines, enormous prisons, forgotten caverns - while still providing incredibly tight, carefully-planned structures that were designed to be interacted with. The Valley of Defilement is incredibly hostile and unfriendly, sure, but it is made for you in a very real sense; everything is planned around what the player is doing. Shortcuts were used smartly to create a real sense of progress and to relieve the tension of death as you proceeded through the level; enemies would use the environment to their advantages, staging ambushes or sniping you from above; treasures were hidden in the nooks and crannies of the environment, encouraging you to risk things that don't necessarily look that safe in hopes of finding a great reward at the end of it. Even when you weren't fighting anything terribly interesting, it was a joy just to navigate the world. Dark Souls took this a step further, weaving these intricate, complex maps together, tying them in a gnarled web of shortcuts and secret passages that showed clear influence from Super Metroid or Symphony of the Night. Naturally, expectations of Bloodborne's world design are higher than with most modern games. Part of what won Dark Souls II its criticisms was world design that was still head-and-shoulders above a lot of the triple-A retail releases of the time but simply didn't compare to the beauty of its predecessor.

Here's why I went off on that tangent about the expectations of Bloodborne's world design: because you need to understand just what it means that the game surpasses those same expectations. Bloodborne expands dramatically on the Metroidvania aspects of Dark Souls. The claustrophobic streets, alleyways, and tunnels that make up Yharnam and its surroundings twist and turn around each other in ways that are never immediately apparent but seem almost obvious in retrospect, allowing the game to integrate its regions in ways that will continuously surprise you without ever seeming like they come out of nowhere.

My favorite of these moments comes immediately after beating Rom, the Vacuous Spider; earlier in the game, you obtain access to Yahar'gul, Unseen Village without being sure exactly where you are. The only way out is to warp back to the Hunter's Dream; the only way back is to warp to the lamp in the Hypogean Gaol from the Hunter's Dream. Of course, when you're first brought there, you don't even get the lamp at first, and this is great; you're pulled out of the Cathedral Ward at a time when you think you have a handle on things, and deposited somewhere else with terrifyingly tough foes, ominous music, and no clear idea how your current position relates to the rest of Yharnam. Finding that lamp is an incredible relief because it gives you something firm, and before you reach the lamp, you have nothing at all to hold onto. You don't know where you are, how to get out, or how to cope; you didn't plan for this to happen, it just did. If you can muster the courage to try and fight these foes and explore, you'll find you're amply rewarded with valuable items and a lot of Blood Echoes - but there's something that's still profoundly unsettling about being unceremoniously plucked from safety and deposited somewhere decidedly unsafe. If you find and defeat the boss of this area - a huge mass of bone covered in blue sparks that can and will tear unsuspecting players to shreds - you can get some sense of your location as a reward by unlocking a one-way shortcut back to Old Yharnam, but even this is decidedly unsatisfactory; Old Yharnam is already an isolated, outlying area, and you're unable to see back into the Unseen Village once you've left it, so it's hard to get a good feel for how it relates to the rest of the city.

But then you beat Rom! And you're immediately deposited outside a locked door you likely came across earlier in the game - indeed, if you listened to the character that gave you the Tonsil Stone, you stood right outside this door before gaining access to the Nightmare Frontier - and it opens now, leading you to the formerly inaccessible upper reaches of the Unseen Village. And you're immediately given the impression that something has gone very wrong, and maybe you shouldn't have done what you just did - because you're going to find the next lamp, warp back to the Hunter's Dream from it, and realize that you can't warp back to the Hypogean Gaol any more. Instead, you have to fight your way back there, through hordes of tough foes that bell-ringing sorceresses will revive continuously until slain - and when you get back to ground level you find the lamp broken, the same foes that gave you so much trouble as bloodied corpses on the ground, and the streets patrolled by terrifying, malformed beasts. There's this great emotional arc - fear and trepidation, discovery, relief, and then the realization that things are actually even worse now - that's created entirely by the way the environments relate to each other. That is smart fucking game design. I'm dead serious; this is teachable shit. Learn from it.

But I don't want to give the impression that all Bloodborne does is tie its environments together in interesting ways - because these levels are themselves incredibly tight, smartly-planned things, and there's more going on in any one of them then there is in the entirety of a lot of other games that I actually like. It's incredible just how dense these environments are, and how effective they are at communicating what they need to, both from a mechanical and a narrative perspective.

Central Yharnam, the game's first major area, does a fabulous job acting as the "tutorial" without being a tutorial. Everything is carefully structured to teach you how the game works and ease you in without your realizing what's happening. You head out the front door of the clinic and you encounter a crazed hunter, who you dispatch fairly easily. You feel pretty good about yourself right now. Then you advance past a locked gate to a suspicious switch. You pull it, and while it drops a ladder that lets you move on - because this isn't instant, and that matters - you take the chance to move forward into the dead end to pick up some loot, at which point a pair of nearby "corpses" rise to their feet and attack you. You're vulnerable in the item grab animation, so while you probably manage to escape with your life and slay this pair of foes, you're gonna lose a pretty decent chunk of your life in the process, teaching you that the same foes you can manage very easily in other circumstances can become deadly when you're ambushed or when they come in numbers. Central Yharnam is pretty much built entirely from these subtle, in-universe lessons, and you don't even notice it. And they build on themselves, reinforcing the understandings that you'll need to progress; not far up that ladder you just dropped you find a long street strewn with trash and burning bodies, absolutely filled with enemies. It's an effective demonstration-and-trial structure - "this is what happens if you aren't able to manage all the enemies you're engaging, now here's a load of enemies, go" - that's completely invisible to the player. And as you move on toward the first real boss, the Cleric Beast, and the end of the "tutorial," you acquire other important pieces of information on how Bloodborne functions - the importance of shortcuts as a form of progress; the risk-reward dynamics of backstabs and parries; how to adjust your playstyle when you're dealing with enemies that have ranged attacks - in a completely organic fashion.

And Bloodborne never really stops teaching the player things, either. Because of course it doesn't! Getting good at something is a learning process; no skill-driven game is going to actually stop teaching the player things. Instead, later areas introduce new complications to mechanics you've already demonstrated mastery of and combine existing mechanics in unconventional ways. The Cathedral Ward introduces Frenzy with a handful of relatively avoidable, low-stakes "examples" that should see a player being afflicted with Frenzy, learning how Frenzy buildup works, and developing strategies to mitigate it. Secure that the player has that understanding, the Nightmare Frontier introduces the Winter Lanterns, enemies that inflict Frenzy just by looking at the player, and asks you to manage them - but the Winter Lanterns are, themselves, used sparingly here, and so it's possible to develop your strategies for handling them in a relatively low-stakes environment. You die? No big deal; you can get right back to that Winter Lantern in thirty seconds once you've opened the shortcut, and you know that shortcuts are both present and worth finding because Central Yharnam beat that into you. The Nightmare Frontier is an easy-to-find optional midgame area, and it's assumed that you'll have done this before going into the Nightmare of Mensis - so when the Nightmare of Mensis has a giant, many-eyed brain sitting atop a tower that builds Frenzy on everything in its line of sight, you already know just about how to deal with this threat: keep to the shadows as you proceed. And when you gain access to a bridge covered with patrolling Winter Lanterns? It's not impossible at all, and you know that going in; the important thing is to stay stealthy and book it to minimize the Frenzy buildup that you do take. It's a pattern of mechanical introduction and complication that actually reminds me a great deal of - of all things - Super Mario Galaxy, but without that game's insistence on proceeding to explicitly explain exactly what it's doing here for the benefit of slow learners. Nothing about this is a bad thing!

I don't want to give the impression that these are just abstract, mechanically-driven levels, mind you. Because as wonderfully planned and designed as these areas are, mechanically speaking, they're also fantastic simply as spaces. I wouldn't necessarily say that the layouts are realistic - because, like Anor Londo before it, Yharnam would actually be kind of a miserable city to navigate as a resident - but they're absolutely beautiful impressions of real places, if that makes sense? The dense, claustrophobic network of alleys and main roads that makes up Central Yharnam looks and feels like a living, breathing city. On a larger scale, the layout doesn't necessarily make sense for anything other than a gauntlet filled with trials to be overcome and treasures to be found, but constricted, claustrophobic spaces flow into more open ones in a way that feels natural, and you can almost get a sense for how this street might function at any time other than the night of the hunt. There's a great sense of melancholy as you wander about; the world feels lonelier than it should be. And the art design!

Bloodborne is much more heavily stylized than the Souls games, and it's incredibly willing to use that to create powerful spaces with outsized emotional impact. Tall spires and eerie, spindly trees cast tall, dark, ominous shadows over everything below; the broken forms of twisted grotesques dead before your arrival hang crucified in the centers of squares filled with crazed townsfolk; angular, exaggerated bloodstains tell the tale of fierce battles waged by combatants long gone. Bright, vibrant colors - neon flames, the vivid blues, purples and reds of the endgame skybox, the neon blue of the changed Celestial Emissaries - are highlighted against dusty, drab catacombs, murky forgotten forests, and dimly lit city streets, an intelligent use of color to liven up a game that could be very drab in the wrong hands.

And the sound design is simply masterful; the heavy breathing of terrible creatures carries through empty halls, keeping you continuously on edge. Frequently, Bloodborne is scariest when you're not fighting anything. A monster can be confronted, defeated; even if it's hard, it is fundamentally knowable and conquerable. But the emptiness? The knowledge that something is there, but without answers as to where, what, or how you can manage it? This aspect probably shines best in the Upper Cathedral Ward - an area that's completely made by Bloodborne's excellent use of audio. Because let's be clear: the Upper Cathedral Ward is actually easy as hell. It's a short run through the orphanage, and the only actual enemies there are a handful of werewolves and brainsuckers, both of which you should know how to manage by now. But you can't see a goddamn thing once you're inside, and you can hear all of these enemies breathing and moving somewhere out of sight. And all the while, the "music" is playing - this atonal death screech on strings. And, look, I don't mean standard "scary violin" shit. I mean it sounds like Death himself, come to collect you. So you're proceeding cautiously, swinging wildly at every little sound or minor movement, desperately trying to get through without shitting your pants. Let's be clear here: pants were shit in the Upper Cathedral Ward. Not my pants, of course - I am a steely-willed Cadillac of men - but the pants of players without my magnificent vision, resolve, and serene wisdom? Literal shit in their literal pants, it happened. Probably some in yours, too.

The Sky and the Cosmos are One

I am a big fan of Lovecraftian horror, and I appreciated those notes in Demon's Souls. I was aware of Miyazaki and his team's fondness for the material well before Bloodborne was a glimmer in their collective eye; that being said, I think it's worth noting that I was still kinda blindsided by how strong the Lovecraft influence in this game is. Up until launch, Bloodborne was presented as a much more orthodox style of gothic horror game. This is an aside to actually talking about the game itself - but I wanna give them props for actually keeping their secrets, which is pretty damned hard to do in this industry!

But it was really necessary to make the experience work as intended, because Bloodborne doesn't simply go "look, squid!" and throw totally-not-Cthulhu at you. Bloodborne is much more - for lack of a better word - plotty than the Souls games. The mandatory bosses each affect the world, and the vague destination and goal you start the game with - "something about Paleblood, head for the cathedral" - gradually shifts as you start to uncover more information about what's happening in Yharnam. You find yourself heading to Byrgenwerth, having forgotten whatever hazy goal initially spurred you onward, advancing toward that forgotten academy out of sheer curiosity. Most of the flesh still comes from the environment and the item descriptions, but there's the skeleton of a real plot here - and that plot is a descent into madness. And as you move through the game, the nature of what you're fighting starts to reveal itself. The beasts are a footnote on the real story here; increasingly more terrible, unnatural creatures reveal themselves to you, and the environments themselves grow more twisted and surreal. As the night wears on, the places you've already been start to become different. The survivors you've found begin to go mad. Bloodborne actually manages to capture the experience of seeking knowledge without understanding what that knowledge is and having it drive you insane; the only place that remains relatively safe is - fittingly - the Hunter's Dream.

I should note that, while I had misgivings about it before release, I adore the Hunter's Dream in practice because of what it's saying: This is yours. This space belongs to you; the things here exist to help you; this place is on your side. The shops, the doll, the workshop, the transportation headstones - these are your tools, and this is your home. And it is absolutely safe. You cannot be harmed by anything here; you cannot fall to your death; even attacking the doll or Gehrman doesn't cause them to aggro. And that creates a corollary: because this is your space, you understand that nowhere else is. The outside world can and will kill you, no matter where you are; you should always feel that you're in danger. Dark Souls provided you with a multitude of temporary retreats within its interconnected world, with Firelink Shrine as just the first and largest of these. But there were other places where you were allowed to feel at home; most of the bonfires were in safe rooms, and you could be reasonably sure that - in most cases, though I'm sure anyone that had to deal with Quelana's baffling choice of location knows there were exceptions - merchants, trainers and blacksmiths would be in places that allowed you to use their services with a minimum of worry. Bloodborne, though, simply adds functions to the dream; there is nowhere that game design dictates you should be safe outside of the dream, and you're aware of that fact. Even the hard-won lamps in cleared boss rooms - while generally safe enough - are still hijacked by NPC events and become the sites of challenging fights against NPC hunters more than once, and you're reminded that whatever safety you manage to win in the larger world is an illusion that can be broken, if the world should see fit to do so.

This seems like about the place where I should bring up the mechanic that most disappointed me: Insight. I love everything about Insight in theory - the notion of this stat that represents the inhuman knowledge you've acquired, and is both an inevitable, necessary tool for moving forward, something you'll actively seek out because you need it, and something incredibly dangerous to possess that will actively make your life harder with every point - and I was crushed when it became clear just how limited the implementation actually is. 15 Insight adds new attacks to enemies in the Cathedral Ward - and just the Cathedral Ward - and causes some new enemies to spawn in Hemwick Charnel Lane. 40 Insight causes the Lesser Amygdalas in the Cathedral Ward to become visible before they'd do so anyway post-Rom. And... that's pretty much it, as far as the actual impact of carried Insight on the world is. And as far as uses for it? You need your first point of Insight to get the Doll to come to life so you can level - but other than that, it's basically just another currency. You can use it to ring the Small Resonant Bell and summon allies into your world, you can use it to buy items and unique armor from one of the shops in the Hunter's Dream, and that's about it. There's little to no practical effect - beneficial or detrimental - to actually carrying Insight on you. It reminds me a lot of Dark Souls' covenants, in that it's an absolutely fascinating mechanic that's half-baked to the point of near-worthlessness; I do hope that From tries again with what Insight represents, because the notion of a resource that actually forces the player into knowingly self-destructive courses of action in exchange for the rewards on offer is fantastic.

Will Bloodborne last like Dark Souls?

 

The tail that Dark Souls has had is, frankly, incredible. There's still a thriving online community today, nearly four years after its initial release, in spite of the fact that - let's be clear - the netcode, absolute dearth of moderation, and iffy balancing on a lot of the online features do the game absolutely no favors. This is largely down to just how solid an experience Dark Souls is, at its core; it's telling that Dark Souls II looks on the path to a much quicker death than its predecessor despite the massive improvements that do exist to the actual technical underpinnings of the game. And while Soul Memory is, uh, not helping: Soul Memory would not be enough to kill Dark Souls. So let's be clear here: Dark Souls' tail is something that's really hard to emulate, and it's probably not fair to ask if Bloodborne has the ability to do that. But I'mma do it anyway, so deal, okay?


Chalice Dungeons Are Great

Chalice Dungeons are great. Like, goddamn. These were not high up on the list of things I was anticipating in Bloodborne - they seemed like they'd conflict with the very careful, crafted experience these games specialize in - but I want to take back every misgiving I had about these things. Chalice Dungeons are an amazing feature with shitloads of content to explore and a huge amount of room for novel, interesting experiences. I expect that Chalice Dungeons are going to be the bulk of what keeps people playing Bloodborne, because they're damn good. They're even (as I'll get to below) likely to be the main hotspots for endgame multiplayer for as long as the game continues in its current shape.

Let's talk about just how smart the random dungeon generation here is. I mean, yeah, you've all seen the "ladder to nowhere" video - but, for real: this is an achievement, and there are times when I'd swear somebody had to have planned this shit out in advance. Each layer is a complex, multi-story honeycomb structure with a variety of distinct chambers, each with their own gimmicks and contents - booby traps, different enemy lineups, all manner of treasure - connected by a network of narrow, winding passages. Different dungeon themes change the available room types, so that - for example - the desert land of Loran will see you entering deep crevices that reach from the open sky above down to inky blackness below. And the enemy placement is amazing. The mobs spawned in a given area can be hidden in the environment; the numbers always suit the room and its layout, such that things can occasionally feel stacked or unfair, but never like the task is legitimately unreasonable; big, noisy foes will actually be placed deeper into the structure to provide tension, allowing you to continually hear them shifting around while you try to avoid being taken by surprise. Rare resources, unique weapon variations, high-grade gems, and top-level runes are placed just frequently enough that the task doesn't feel fruitless while the reward still feels hard-won. It's just great.

And then there's the sharing functionality. You can open a good dungeon, get a password, and give that to others so that they can visit your dungeon themselves. This is a great tool for indirect community-building; people naturally start to talk about that dungeon they found their Lost Chikage in, or that they got a boss rush in, or that just had that really miserable room with all those red spiders. They share their experiences and allow each other to explore the same dungeons that provided those experiences. Bloodborne isn't a Souls game, but it's certainly the successor, and so I can say this: the way dungeon sharing works is quintessentially Souls. It's all about shared discovery, puzzling through things together and bonding over the experience, and it provides - potentially - hundreds of hours of this.


Multiplayer - Well, It Exists

Bloodborne's multiplayer is a step back from Dark Souls. I could sugar-coat it, but that's the truth: everything is much more controlled, and it kinda sucks. Beyond that, the matchmaking is still somewhat terrible, and there's a dearth of compelling incentives for engaging in multiplayer. In short: hard to get a match, no reason to bother, so nobody is going to bother long after release unless something big changes.

Let's start with co-op. Co-op fares better than invasions in Bloodborne, but there are still some pretty massive issues with the systems in place right now, such that it's often not even worth it for either the host or the cooperator to bother. As a cooperator, the proposition is as follows: you ring your bell and you wait until you get summoned. This may take some time. Once summoned, enemies receive a buff based on the presence of other players, and you progress through the world with the host and get a portion of the Blood Echoes from each kill until the boss. You kill the boss, you get a point of Insight. Your Blood Vials and Quicksilver Bullets do not refill once this is done. Oh, and you lose 30 percent of your health bar while cooperating for some reason.

This is similar to the basic flow of things in the Souls games, but the important distinction is that - where getting your human form back in the Souls series is a Big Deal that saves you otherwise-rare resources - a single point of Insight really isn't much of a reward at all. You can attempt to summon, once. You can buy one Fire Paper. Whatever - it's just not a big deal, and for the time investment here it doesn't do much to incentivize co-op. If you want to farm Insight and Blood Echoes, you can do that, and you can do it by running Chalice Dungeons. So co-op becomes something that's done purely for the sake of helping people, and that reduces the base of cooperators considerably; you don't put a sign down before the Law Firm so that you, yourself, can summon help once you've finished. Fewer cooperators means fewer people that bother trying to summon, and the entire system collapses in on itself. And, of course, that's leaving out the issues that exist as a host - beyond the long summon times, the elimination of summon signs in favor of simply ringing the bell and waiting for matchmaking to happen doesn't really work. You're not reminded that you could and perhaps should summon when you approach a boss or a tough stretch by the sudden appearance of summon signs all over the ground; you have no way to know if trying to summon here is worth your time and effort. And if it fails, you still spend a point of Insight. This whole system is just bad.

Invasions manage to work even worse, though - because they're tied to this broken summoning system. Outside of a couple of lategame areas and some public Chalice Dungeons, the only time that the bell maiden who enables opposing players to invade your game will appear is if you've rung either the Small Resonant Bell or the Sinister Resonant Bell. There's no way to be invaded when going through the game solo, and given the issues with co-op, that means most people simply will not be invaded until Nightmare Frontier. And once you reach Nightmare Frontier and the Nightmare of Mensis, you can still just bumrush the area, kill the non-respawning Bell Maiden, and never worry about invasions again. So, as an invader, you have the same incentive issues that exist for co-op, but now you also have a very small percentage of the total players who are open for invasion at all, and of those players, odds are most of them are going to be in co-op, a trio fighting you with your mighty 70 percent max HP. It's just disheartening. Funnily enough, the best PvP experience is in Chalice Dungeons; there are a number (glyph hizzngr3 being the most popular) of public Chalice Dungeons that are open for invasion, with easy access to nice, wide rooms for fighting in and a base composed entirely of players interested in PvP. These can be fun, but they are for all intents and purposes makeshift arenas; invasion PvP really isn't a ubiquitous thing in Bloodborne in the way that it was in Demon's Souls or Dark Souls, and that's a shame. There's no longer the constant tension that a foe could show up and force you to start making quick decisions - stand and fight? Try and use the environment to your advantage? Backtrack to a spot you can reach if you die? Make a rush for the boss fog? None of that is present here; you just do your thing without worrying about being invaded.

As for covenants: I'm not even sure why they bothered. There are three; of these, the Vilebloods are the only one that has any incentive structure, and it's actually faster to just kill five NPC Hunters to get your Blood Dregs for the Deep Respect gesture than it is to try and get five invasion wins. All three covenants basically have the effect of occasionally summoning a player for PVP instead when you're trying to co-op, which is a pointless hassle; basically, everyone is just a Hunter of Hunters because their covenant rune gives you passive stamina regen. The system in Dark Souls was underdeveloped, but Bloodborne's covenant system is so threadbare it's comical. There's some interesting lore around these different factions, but the mechanics simply aren't there.

Concluding Thoughts

I love Bloodborne. It does a lot of things incredibly well; its combat system is a thing of beauty, the RPG mechanics remain meaty enough to engage with while cleaning up some of the Souls series' cruft; the world design is unparalleled; the storytelling and narrative is genuinely good, which is more impressive than it sounds given, you know, video games. And I could continue talking about this game for ages. It's beautiful, terrifying, fascinating - but it does have real flaws that should be acknowledged, too. If we're going to talk about what you should learn from Bloodborne, you need to learn from the game's mistakes as much as its successes.

One thing I was already pretty sure of that playing Bloodborne has cemented for me: I will buy pretty much anything Hidetaka Miyazaki touches, going forward. I wouldn't turn down more Bloodborne, but I do not want the man to be limited, because a lot of what this title does best it does by being unafraid to establish an identity independent of Dark Souls. If he'd like to explore Bloodborne further, great; there's room to expand there. If he'd like to explore Dark Souls further, great, although I expect that B-Team is basically going to be chained to a radiator and doing sequels to that game for Namco Bandai forever now. (I'm just playing B-Team, you're alright, do more shit like Ivory King and learn from the things people criticized Dark Souls II for and you have a nice thing going while Miyazaki and co. are off doing whatever the hell they please.)  But I really just want this team to be able to explore the mechanics and motifs that seem interesting to them. The gaming industry loves to turn everything into a franchise that can have value extracted from it on a regular basis, but given the incredible quality and sheer imagination of their titles up until now, I hope that Miyazaki's crew has earned the liberty to continue experimenting as they like.