Republished on Wednesday 28th February 2018: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of March's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
It's been an excruciating nine months since Bloodborne was first unveiled to wide-eyed spectators, as, much like more life-damaging addictions, the mere knowledge that this twisted continuation of the Souls saga existed in some form was enough to turn its fan base into the mumbling horrors that litter Yharnam's streets. Having spent the two weeks since launch furiously dying in glorious PlayStation 4 exclusive Technicolor, we've given it plenty of thought and consideration, and have decided to agree with the general consensus: this game is really very good.
Given that it's a spiritual sequel, the outing apes many of the key mechanics featured in previous entries. Souls, for example, are still present, but are now called Blood Echoes; Blood Vials replace Estus Flasks as the healing item of choice – albeit one that doesn't regenerate – and the welcome sight of a bonfire is now the welcome glow of a lamp. The Blood Echoes – and blood in general – make up much of the foundation of the twisted world that you'll find yourself in, and are harvested from ruthlessly slaughtering your foes via the title's near-perfect combat system.
This combat system will feel familiar to series veterans, with R1 launching light attacks and R2 dealing heavier, more damaging strikes. Holding R2 allows you to cause some serious damage, but uses more stamina and opens you up to attacks from the beasts that stalk you. L1 is now used to activate the secondary mode of your primary weapon, either wielding it in two hands, or unfurling it into a longer, more dangerous version. However, it's when combined with the major decision to ditch magic and shields, and introduce firearms in their place, that the release truly claims its own identity.
Locking onto a single enemy and entering the dance of death that this revamped approach allows for is extremely satisfying. The slightly altered dodge button now focuses more on darting from side-to-side than rolling, and makes every battle a mad, frenetic affair that challenges both your reactions and the mastery of your weapons and surroundings. That is, until a second and third participant roll up and want to join in.
The new sidearms don't offer much in the way of damage without serious buffs, but serve well to finish off a foe, or, if fired at the right moment, stagger your opponent to allow for a brutal visceral attack. Another departure is the general lack of weapons and clothing found around the world. This new stripped back attitude to equipment keeps things simple while encouraging you to be efficient with your arsenal.
The spending of spilled blood is reserved for the game's central hub, the Hunters Dream – a creepy hilltop house similar to Firelink Shrine, Majula, and The Nexus. Littered with gravestones and boasting a 'Moaning Creatures feat. Nails on a Chalkboard' soundtrack, this shrine of unpleasantness is where you'll come to upgrade said equipment, purchase new items, and level up by "channelling" with a concerningly life-like doll.
Using rare items pilfered from corpses, you can use the Hunter's Dream's workbench to alter and buff your weapons and character with bonus stats. The long-standing feature of fortifying utensils returns, using the likes of Blood Stone Shards and Chunks, but you can also use Blood Gems to provide a weapon with a non-permanent stat increase. As well as Gems, up to four runes can be assigned to your avatar at one time to grant various bonuses, from a five per cent health increase to significant energy regeneration upon executing a visceral attack.
Gone are the bonfires that allow you teleport between areas at will, and instead the Hunter's Dream's gravestones act as the level select menu, similarly to the Archstones originally featured in Demon's Souls. This move away from the lethargic approach to map traversing is definitely a step in the right direction, and marks a return to the seamlessly connected world of the original Dark Souls. In its sequel, there were frequently disconnects between locations, as if the creative spark had gone out, but Bloodborne ditches all of that and manages to keep a common theme throughout.
While the narrative may be a complicated and messy beast, there's clearly a consistent premise throughout the game. Men, tainted by unholy blood, have started to turn into horrific beasts, losing their minds and humanity in the process; different locations, while all truly desolate by their own design, carry this theme and establish themselves as part of the game world. Enemies are similar looking, but somehow totally different, and as you progress, the world evolves and morphs to the point where you can return to an earlier area, but it won't quite be the same.
With the repulsive mind of director Hidetaka Miyazaki once again at the helm, there's a hideously complicated labyrinth of lore and backstory that will keep the most scholarly of players deciphering for a good few months. As for what we understood? Very little, to be honest. There are underlying themes of gods and infanticide, but this series is ultimately defined by your experiences, and with a game this challenging, defining moments are rarely few and far between.
With a learning curve that isn't so much of a curve as it is a wall that's falling directly on top of you, Bloodborne is really bloody hard. Mastery of your weapons and foes is essential if you want to proceed, and with the ditching of the standard sword and shield focus, the combat is as offensive as ever – it's either fight or flight. It took us hours to beat the first boss, not because it's too hard, but because the game was slowly, torturously moulding us into the player that we needed to be to survive, and that's how it goes for the rest of the game, too. If you're too rash with your decisions and attacks, you will be punished, you will drop all of your Blood Echoes, and you will want to hurl your controller across the room.
Certainly there are moments where you don't feel like failure is your fault, with enemies that swarm on you in droves and manage to trap you in corners, taking turns to hit you so that you can never escape; sometimes they'll hit you through walls and when you feel as though you're well out of their reach. Ultimately, turnabout is fair play, because you know, when given the opportunity, you'll have abused the same system in precisely the same way.
If everything becomes a little too challenging, you can always summon in co-op partners for assistance, and as is tradition, it's been made to be just about as convoluted as possible. Towards the beginning of the game, you're given a Beckoning Bell with which to summon allies that have rung their Small Resonant Bell. However, it's possible that many will overlook this second item, as it must be purchased from a special vendor in the Hunter's Dream that only appears after you've gathered ten Insight.
Insight is a special consumable item that's received upon entering a boss area, defeating a boss or invader, or using specific items. Whenever you desire assistance, you must consume one Insight in order to ring your bell, with no guarantee that you'll find assistance. While it's true that this is a real issue, the previous system meant that you had to scan the floor for Summon Signs that represented other players, whereas now you can connect to anyone, anywhere, within the same section that you are, meaning you don't have to stay put while searching for help – even if this results in a desperate search for your co-op partner.
You can also set a password so that you and a friend can find each other more easily, but in our experience, this process was a bit hit and miss. We often consumed two or three Insight as we re-rang the bell and waited for the game to connect us, and as there's no indication of whether it's going to work, even in non-friend-based co-operation, you can sometimes be waiting for several minutes before you find someone. It's also very rare that you'll get a full complement of two partners.
From the same vendor that provides the Small Resonant Bell, you can also purchase the Sinister Bell, but fair warning, this is only for total scoundrels. Ringing this bell allows you to invade the world of others, and as we're not total scoundrels, we've only ever been on the receiving end. While it usually devolves into who runs out of Blood Vials first loses, the satisfaction received when besting an unwanted guest is second only to beating a boss that's been grinding you into the floor for the last few hours.
New to the existing formula are the Chalice Dungeons. During the course of the game, chalices are recovered, and can be used in conjunction with special items to create challenge arenas. These areas contain extra bosses, special equipment and items, and more chalices, some of which are used to generate unique, random areas, with their own bosses and treasures. It's a great addition which will keep you engaged after you've exhausted the main game, but with no real explanation as to how it all works, there's quite a tough barrier for entry.
From start to finish, Bloodborne revels in its unique – if somewhat masochistic – approach to entertainment. There are very few games that cause you to curse their developer one minute and sing their praises the next – but this is one of them. It is, quite simply, a sensationally designed and superbly refined offering.