A Souls game by any other name is just as bone-crunchingly hard!
The souls games have, since 2010, garnered a very deserved reputation of being hard as nails. Punishing and unwilling to play into modern games’ eager-to-please attitudes toward level progression and difficulty, these are ‘Nintendo hard’ games that don’t care how much you want to get to the next area, you’re going to earn your progression through blood, sweat and tears. All of which will be your own. The games expectation of you to die extends into its promotional material, telling you to die and embrace death. And that is the key to beating them. However, with the somewhat mixed reviews of the sequel from fans, the future of the series was cast into some concern. How exactly can they top the brutality of the prior games? With a return to what made the original games great and an overhaul of the combat.
ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WISHING TO AVOID SPOILERS AS I’LL DO MY BEST BUT MAY HAVE TO DESCRIBE SOME IMPORTANT FEATURES.
It seems inevitable to not compare this game to a Souls game so I’ll get all the comparisons out of the way right now: You have Insight instead of Humanity. You collect Blood Echoes instead of Souls. You use blood themed items to gain more souls and also to level up weapons much like titanite of the previous games. You get mid-level check points – now lamps as oppose to bonfires – saving at these will re-spawn all enemies in the area. It shares its YOU DIED screens along with its triumphant messages. You can summon aid, offer aid and invade other players via the use of three items and leave notes for other players for better or worse.
By now you may or may not have read a piece or two on Bloodborne. It may have been decried for its brutally fast combat, the lack of any defence besides well-timed dodges and parries (there is only one shield in the game: a plank of wood) but beneath these initially daunting challenges lies a different beast to its soul brothers. Using a mechanic wherein, if you are struck by an enemy, you have a small window wherein you can strike the enemy right back and regain life, attacking viciously to the point that in many cases you have undone the damage done. Parrying has been replaced by timing a counter attack with your fire arm, leaving your enemies vulnerable to a brutal Visceral attack which quarters the enemies health, much like the back-stabs of its soul predecessors. This means a dramatically different play-style is needed to more conservative souls wherein guarding and ‘turtling’ can be a valid option.
Bloodborne offers a somewhat streamlined experience; there is a smaller selection of armour to choose from, with changing your gear more towards dealing with an areas status effect than playing through in one set. You also have no option to upgrade armour, the only way to increase defence is finding armour in the field that has better stats or purchasing new gear, with new inventory opening by collecting “badges” that expand the stores inventory. In contrast, there is a lot of weapon customisation. You upgraded them using various blood related items, assigning them with gems that offer a wide variety of effects, from more currency from enemies, to resistances to statuses and general damage output. The game brings a few interesting new status effects, the most devastating being frenzy. If you allow the meter to build to maximum, you are dropped to 1 HP and left with a huge de-buff to both damage dealt and taken. However you are of course vulnerable to literally any attack at that point so it tends to be a bad time.
Bosses and even regular enemies are as brilliantly designed as before, however the creators have decided to branch into areas not really covered by the franchise to this point. Tired of “take X, make it enormous and diseased”, they bring a whole variety of grotesque monsters and humanoid enemies to the table. A notable difference is a majority of enemies are humans capable of speech, who hurl insults at you and curse you with their inevitable dying breaths. The theme of the night of the hunt can at times make it ambiguous as to just how much of a hero you are, despite your enemies lycanthropic tendencies. With the majority of the monsters in the grip of a plague, thier attacks are far more frenzied and less calculated than in some of its spiritual predecessors. Townsfolk and wild beasts are gripped by the mystery plague and driven to insanity, with many of them blaming YOU
Weaponry takes an interesting turn where you are given a “trick weapon” and a side arm. The fire arms do not tend to deal immense damage, rather they are used to initiate the games alternative to parry, the Visceral attacks which involve plunging your hunters fist directly into your enemies chest and tearing out a handful of blood. This isn’t true for every fire arm (one is an arm mounted cannon which certainly does more than tickle) but it is generally used for parrying or interrupting spell casting. The trick to the weapons is they are able to transform, drastically changing the move-set and abilities. Upon starting the game you can choose from the Saw Cleaver, a cleaver which extends out, an axe which becomes a two handed weapon and the more unique threaded cane, a walking stick that becomes a Soul Calibur style whip sword. This offers a variety of play-styles from the start, with stats dictating how much damage your bullets do and how much arcane weapons deal. One example is the Tonitrus which starts a ball mace but hitting the transform button electrifies it. You are also able to incorporate transformation attacks into your combo midway, allowing you to swap up range or get in close.
Exploration of the Gothic city of Yarnham is a joy, with entire areas off to one side for you to either explore or miss totally if you bum-rush the stage. A lot of the game takes place in Yarnham and yet the area does not become stagnant, rather the areas where you branch off makes you glad to return to Yarnham with another kill under your belt. You’ll return to the Hunters dream to level up, purchase items (as the only in-game vendors reside there) and made alterations to weapons then, when you’re ready to return to the game proper, choose a warp point on one of several headstones and, in a nod to Demons souls, warp to one of the checkpoints in the area you chose.
One new aspect is the introduction of Chalice dungeons, which is randomly generated to your game and which allows you to bring in friends to challenge them with unique bosses, weapons, items and gear up for grabs for those that can conquer the multiple floors. If you’d prefer you can lock it off and take on the challenges all by yourself.
To a fan of the souls franchise, Bloodborne can be a breath of fresh air after the somewhat disappointing Dark Souls 2. It has (to the point I’ve reached) considerably less “cheap” death tactics, if you die in Bloodborne it will more likely or not be due to your reactions not matching the games pace. To someone coming into these guys new, it offers a great crash course, provided you know the manner of unforgiving game that it is. Its a somewhat stripped down and optimised souls experience which can sell the great aspects of the series while improving upon the downsides in prior games. It has returned to the roots of what made the original games great with an absolutely STUNNING backdrop. If you can handle the lineage and unforgiving style of gameplay, or if you have a history with the souls games, you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t check out its spiritual successor.
Images courtesy of forbes.com and stuff.tv