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Styling in the nightmare

Rating: B+

Playing Time: 30-50 hours per playthough, 125 hours total

Ah, Bloodborne, the PS4 exclusive follow-up to Demon's Souls/Dark Souls that's probably a big part of why many people got the console, myself included. Was it worth the hype? Mostly, yeah, but not completely.

As someone who'd played the previous three Souls games from FROM, I went into this one with both high hopes and some trepidation. After all, as good as the Souls games were, they weren't really suited to be played as action games, which seemed to be what Bloodborne was getting pushed as. In the end, though, that turned out to be plain old bullshit marketing, but fortunately, Bloodborne did end up being good, especially after the DLC was released.

Let's get one thing straight from the beginning: Bloodborne is not, nor will it ever be, an action game. Yeah, sure, you can play it without leveling up, upgrading your equipment, or whatever other things you want to classify as "RPG elements" (which is a dumb term since a lot of that shit also pops up in hardcore action games like Devil May Cry or Bayonetta or Ninja Gaiden, but I digress). I've done that in Souls games before. It's not fun, because your character simply has neither the innate damage output nor the fine degree of control necessary to support that style of playing without having it turn into a tedious exercise in killing enemies with a thousand paper cuts while having to be extremely cautious about not getting hit. So, yeah, Bloodborne is an RPG, just like the other Souls games.

Ain't no action game got damage numbers popping up like that

So, how does it actually play? Well, it's pretty much exactly like the other Souls games, mostly. R1 does light attacks and R2 does heavy attacks with your main weapon, but since you can't equip real weapons in your left hand anymore, L1 is used for weapon transformation, and L2 either does an attack with your offhand gun/torch/etc. or a special attack for your main weapon if it's being held two-handed. Well, okay, L2 can also be used to block with a shield, but if you're using shields in Bloodborne, you're doing it wrong, because they suck. Instead, the way to defend yourself without dodging is to use your guns to parry by shooting the enemies right before they hit you. This is obviously a vast improvement since it's way more stylish (and actually requires more skill than imitating a brick with your finger), but it does suffer from some problems.

First of all, unique animations for critical attacks with different weapons are gone. Bloodborne oozes enough style from everywhere else to make up for it, but it's kind of a weird design choice that makes me wonder if it wasn't done to save on development time. Secondly and more importantly, since gun damage is generally shit unless you're using a cannon (which won't be an option for all builds and only gets 3 shots before needing to restock on bullets after being nerfed), a church cannon (same problems as the regular cannon), or bone marrow ash (a consumable which only gives you decent damage for your next shot), this means that the value of your guns is pretty much entirely about how well they work as parrying tools. The problem with THAT is that nothing beats the basic starting pistol in that capacity. Seriously. Even the Evelyn, which is supposed to be a stronger pistol meant to be used by characters focusing on bloodtinge (the gun-damage stat), falls short since its unique shooting animation makes it more likely to miss. The blunderbuss and Ludwig's rifle are also inferior due to their slower firing speed, which isn't compensated by the bullet spread because you're not going to be parrying multiple enemies at once. Way to undermine the equipment variety, FROM.

Funnily enough, the main alternative to the pistol for parrying is probably the spell Augur of Ebrietas, since that gives you a way to parry while using two-handed weapons once you get used to the start-up delay.

Speaking of equipment, I'm actually torn on the change from proper armor to light attire. Making it so that the defensive stats of your armor are pretty much negligible makes it easier to dress up however you like, as does removing equipment burden mechanics, but it also makes things feel really samey, especially since there are so many different versions of the general hunter's grab with fairly minute differences. There are still a fair number of different looks, though, so it's still pretty reasonable to come up with something that looks good, even if it generally won't look quite as badass as what can be done in the other Souls games.

This game even makes cauliflower heads look cool

Despite some of those questionable decisions, though, the game is full of style. The art direction is by and large the best in the Souls series, with perhaps the Tower of Latria from Demon's Souls, Brume Tower from Dark Souls 2, and Irithyll from Dark Souls 3 being the only places that would be on par with Bloodborne's stronger areas. Even though I complained about the lack of different critical attack animations, the one that they do have is supremely badass: your character shoves their right hand into the enemy and then rips it out with a spray of blood. Enemy designs are full of wonderful detailing, with Vicar Amelia, Mergo's Wet Nurse, Lady Maria, and Orphan of Kos standing out in particular. FROM shows off their cloth physics engine at pretty much every opportunity they get, and while it can be rather silly at times (try riding down an elevator while wearing something with a cape), on the whole, it looks good. On the surface, the weapon variety is a big step back from the other Souls games, but each weapon has unique qualities beyond just statistical/graphical differences. Sure, it'd be nice if there was more than 1 dagger or rapier or fist weapon, but it's cool how the blade of mercy has most of its best damage modifiers on its post-evasion attacks, the reiterpallasch can be used to parry (though I did complain about the lack of gun damage a little bit ago, parrying into a bone ashed Evelyn shot is actually pretty nice, even if it's just a gimmick to challenge yourself with), and the stake driver's pilebunker is soooo much fun to fuck around with. If nothing else, Bloodborne is all but guaranteed to make your character feel cool in a way that the other Souls games don't always manage.

Music remains much the same as other Souls games, which is to say that it's almost never there aside from boss fights and one or two special areas. I do really like the boss music in Bloodborne, though. I'd put it just below the level of what's in Dark Souls 3 (mostly because the Twin Princes' theme is just lovely), though not by much.

The difficulty is overrated, as usual. Just like the other Souls games, Bloodborne is rarely hard in a legitimate way. Instead, it's punishing of impatience and mistakes. You don't need much skill if you take your time and pay attention to what you're doing. That having been said, there are two exceptions where Bloodborne actually does put up resistance: the depth 4-5 chalice dungeons (which I'll get to in a moment) and some of the DLC bosses.

Really, in as much as I did enjoy the base game when it was released, the DLC does so much to improve Bloodborne in just about every aspect that, after having played through it, I'd consider the base game incomplete. Aside from vastly increasing the weapon options (even dismissing the additional guns as fake variety, it adds 11 new and [mostly] unique primary weapons, compared to the base game's selection of 15), 2 of the new bosses are probably the hardest bosses in the entire Souls franchise to date, and they're really the only non-chalice bosses in Bloodborne that are hard enough to actually feel satisfying to beat. On top of that, it comes with 3 new areas (2 of which use entirely new art assets), great boss music, and while I think the lore aspect of the Souls games is also generally overrated, the additions from the DLC in that respect were among the most interesting lore in Bloodborne for me.

In fact, just about the only aspect of the game that the DLC didn't improve was the chalice dungeons. These are a set of optional dungeons with minimal design effort put into them that get harder as you go to greater depths. Depth 1 is about the same as the main game for when you get your first chalice, depth 3 is similar to NG+ difficulty, and depth 5 turns every enemy into a pile of HP that can probably kill you in 1-2 good hits. Adding to this is the gimmick of the penultimate chalice dungeon, which halves your max HP and thus puts you in nigh-constant danger of dying from any mistake. In all, the chalice dungeons remain a time sink that don't really feel rewarding aside from shitting out so many experience points that you can't help but be overleveled for anything else you do (whether this is a good reward is debatable). I get the feeling that they were used as a means of salvaging what would've otherwise been cut content, since there are a handful of unique enemies and bosses in them, but only FROM knows the truth about that. What I can say for sure is that not overhauling them was a wasted opportunity for the DLC, but alas.

Get out of my chair, old man

It's kind of an interesting design choice that you need to finish at least 1 of 2 NPC quests to fight the "real" final boss. As per Souls tradition, said final boss is a total waste of time, and none of the endings really explain anything, so you're not missing out on much if you don't get that, which neuters how interesting that design choice was. Finishing the DLC has no real consequences in the main game, either, which was to be expected, but it's another missed opportunity.

In the end, though, Bloodborne was a good game, and the DLC turns it into a very good game. The gameplay is good enough for what it is, the level design is generally up there with the best from the other Souls games (which is to say that it's among the best you'll find in any video game), the DLC adds enough content that the game can't be penalized for being too short/bare anymore, and even if it's not truly a hard game, at least the DLC does enough in that regard to feel somewhat satisfying to beat. Definitely recommended for anyone with a PS4.

Rating: B+

Total Playing Time: 125 hours

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