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Bloodborne: Latest Miyazaki masterwork plays like a Hunter’s Dream

How about we play a little game? Oh what fun this shall be. Let’s see if I can make it through the entirety of this review without using the word ‘hard’. Except there, natch. Yes, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s debut PS4 hack ’n’ slasher is the h-word. No, it’s not quite as good as the legendary Dark Souls. But you’d better believe this is still the best true current-gen exclusive to hit PS4 thus far. Get ready to hurt and be joyously chuffed about it.

Is Bloodborne Dark Souls III? Not quite. Then it has to be Demon’s Souls II, yeah? Uh, not really. It’s best to think of this adventure as an amalgamation of the best bits of From Software’s CV; the tightly choreographed quasi-open-world exploration of Dark Souls is welded together by the interconnected hub world system seen in Demon’s. Basically, this is a hugely successful structural mish-mash, and one that offers unparalleled player agency when it comes to dealing with From’s utterly exacting, wonderfully poised third-person combat model.


Like A Goth To A Flame
For those titanium-fingered warriors who’ve already braved the darkly dangerous delights of Boletaria, Lordran and Drangleic, it’s Bloodborne’s thoroughly revised thematic setting that will immediately smack you around the face. If Dark Souls was a love letter to classic fantasy topography, the developer’s take on a twisted Middle-earth, then the city of Yharnam is a grubbily-scrawled doodle for Sweeney Todd… minus all that Johnny Depp caterwauling.

This is the most overtly horror-flavoured game From has ever designed. Yharnam drips with dread; its cobbled, Gothic streets smother you with claustrophobic fear as cramped environments and baying mobs look to end your mysterious Hunter’s life. Indeed, said pitchfork-wielding groups, along with much of your early exploration of the Victorian London-esque burg, calls to mind Leon’s Ganado-kiboshing escapades in Resident Evil 4. As a reference point, From really couldn’t have cribbed from a better source.
“It offers unparalleled player agency when dealing with from’s wonderful third-person combat.”
Story-wise, Bloodborne follows the narrative template laid down by its spiritual forebears. Plot details are predictably thin on the ground and what little chatter remains is limited to one-sided chinwags with cowering townsfolk hidden behind locked doors, or scribbled in messages tucked away in battered nooks and crannies. All you really need to know is you’re a user-created dude/dudette who’s travelled to Yharnam on a pilgrimage, seeking a mythical medical remedy. Of course, shizzle splatters  all the fans as soon as you enter the city, whereby you quickly discover the resident population has been morphed into all manner of hideous beasties courtesy of a bloodborne (hold your applause) endemic plague.

Rewrite The Rules
Though the storytelling beats may march to the tune of Dark Souls’ monstrous drummer, the language which now informs this game’s myriad systems has been radically rewritten. While many of the item types and mechanics from the Souls series return, the naming conventions have been ripped up.

Now, instead of healing yourself through a respawning supply of Estus Flasks, your Hunter treats their grave boo-boos with Blood Vials. These HP-regenerating consumables have shifted from - square - to - Triangle - and, unlike Drangleic’s take on magic Calpol, their stocks aren’t replenished when you bite it. Instead, you’re forced to buy new vials from the Hunter’s Dream (the game’s enemy-free hub), leading to a whole lot of farming runs where you find yourself grinding for Blood Echoes to fund your medicine splurges.

Oh yeah, Blood Echoes. Appropriately, these form the life yup blood of the game, replacing the previous titles’ collectable Souls  as the currency that allows you to level up your Hunter or purchase new weapons and armour.

Hell, all your other old Souls’ faves have been renamed in some fashion, too. Bonfires are now lamps; player messages have been replaced with Messengers  grotesque wee skeleton critters who paw at your shins from pools of liquid on the ground; Madman’s Knowledge takes over from Humanity and is required to call NPC/human Hunters to your side for help with bosses; and the Beckoning Bell now shunts the White Sign Soapstone to one side, acting as the new tool for triggering co-op sessions. Anyone else feel exhausted?
“The Pitchfork-wielding mobs evoke memories of resident evil 4’s encounters.”
Now that you’re schooled in Bloodborne’s world and its naming conventions, I best talk about why you sauntered up to this particular party with a six-pack and a six-foot cleaver in the first place: combat. God, it’s fantastic. I’ll go one better: it’s just about the most thoughtfully constructed, constantly exhilarating fighting system I’ve ever played, certainly on PS4. Oh, and learning its intricacies is also friggin’ terrifying throughout your opening hours in Yharnam. Be very afraid.

Shieid Of Screams
“Shields are nice, but not if they engender passivity,” snarls the item description for the first and only shield I pick up in Bloodborne. That’s right: the game actively extracts the urine from you for even entertaining the idea of using a piece of equipment that was once beyond vital to Souls’ skirmishes.

Before release, much was made of Miyazaki and co ditching both the block button and the slabs of armour which were once your best chums when it came to trying to stave off death in a From title. Now that shields have been (mostly) dropped? I couldn’t care less. Hunter Pistols for the win!

Bloodborne erects the pillars of its combat upon scintillating, unyielding aggression. Where in Dark Souls you would rhythmically block and parry, here the whole ball game is won and lost by how effectively your Hunter can dart and dash around their enemies. Striking back after being hit is also key the Regain system means you can now win back a chunk of lost HP should you land an attack within the first second or so of being wailed on.

With the focus now firmly on circling your prey, a feat that’s far from easy in some of Bloodborne’s more tightly winding streets, spatial awareness is vitally important. As is being bolder than someone who turns up to a WWF rally in a fetching, 100% panda fur smoking jacket. That’s where the delightful new firearms come into play.

Taking over from heavy shield attacks on L2 ,  your Hunter’s starting pistol/blunderbuss is so much more engaging than hiding behind some metal armour. Fed by a finite supply of Quicksilver Bullets, these guns are crucial to your survival. Not only do they pack a mean punch once you give them a little levelling-up love, guns are also great for staggering foes.

Time your fire just right and you’ll send a monster crashing to its knees; this temporary stunned state providing the perfect window to steam in with a devastating Visceral Attack on R2, These sidearms act as the perfect evolution of Dark Souls’ already-impeccable parrying, imbuing combat with a graceful ferocity that neuters ‘passivity’ right in the danglies.

As to what’s going on in your Hunter’s other hand, things have also shifted considerably since Dark Souls. While the world now houses fewer blades, hammers and scythes for you to grab and toy with baddies no longer drop new killing tools or armour sets at all the ones that remain are a hellish hoot. Known as Trick Weapons, these morphing tools of chaos are akin to having mini Transformers in your mitts; a quick jab of  L1 ,sees your beast-slaughtering tool switch between its long and short-form state.

The gorgeous transitional animations alone are enough to keep me entertained for minutes at a time. Seriously, I can’t recall being so tickled while buggering around with a weapon as I merely play with the different retractable forms of my Threaded Cane.

Citizen Pain
Ah yes: Mr Pointy Death Stick. At the start of the game you’re given the choice from one of three Trick Weapons, with more lurking deeper in the world as you stumble upon chests. While both the Hunter Axe and Saw Cleaver have their transforming charms, the Threaded Cane a walking stick/sword that blossoms into a gloriously spiky whip has to be one of my favourite gaming weapons ever. Lethal at close-quarters in its sword state and ideal for containing crowds in its John Marston-pleasing whip mode, it’s a joyous toy that perfectly shows off the deeply strategic and versatile strengths of Bloodborne’s revised melee mechanics. Where Bloodborne offers a clear mechanical improvement over the Souls series. Lord, I really want to whip something…

Combat is clearly a bit good, then. But what of Yharnam itself? How does it stack up against the likes of Lordran and Drangleic, two of the most effortlessly enchanting environments on PlayStation? Well, the gruesome town and its surrounding districts are certainly more visually cohesive than anything From has delivered before.

Where Dark Souls II knits together hugely different environments in a thematically hodge-podge fantasy quilt, Yharnam exists as a far more believable space. Areas flow into each other with a newly convincing subtlety. The cutting steeples of the Cathedral Ward bleed into the cragged ruins of Old Yharnam with a pleasing ease, while venturing out into the woods of Hemwick Charnel Lane from the pious (and a bit murdery) steps of the Vicar Amelia’s chapel feels like being sucked into an X-rated version of Hansel And Gretel. Gretel was totally a 60ft dog-beast covered in bandages, right?
“Tussle with a giant Pig that will crush those memories of babe.”
While I’m on the good vicar, I’d be remiss if I failed to go gaga over Bloodborne’s beasts. Enemy designs are as strong and striking as you’d expect. Whether it’s battling the Blood Starved Beast (part Licker/part greasy haired Gene Simmons wannabe) or tussling with a giant pig that’ll crush all those warm childhood memories of Babe under its three-ton hooves, From’s twisted art style and deliciously deviant imagination never let up.

Fiend Or Foe
To help you lick these rotters (well, not literally have you seen the Cleric Beast’s pores?!), From has tinkered with its online infrastructure to make Bloodborne the most instantly co-op-friendly adventure the studio has ever made. This is partly thanks to new password filters embedded into matchmaking, which allow you to combine arms with specific mates, rather than having to rely on online randoms. Providing both you and your friend jot down the same code of your choosing in BB’s network settings, and ring your Beckoning Bell/Small Resonant Bell at the same time it’s a whole thing taking on bosses with a pal is pretty pain-free. Uh, aside from the stabbings.

It’s a decidedly less vague system than the one which powers the Souls series. Some will argue the move to more accessible co-op play dilutes the lonely ‘endure everything on your own’ spirit that the most dedicated From fans cherish so. For everyone else, it’s a godsend, and a move that taps into PS4’s constantly connected philosophy perfectly.

The procedurally-generated Chalice Dungeons further hammer home this sense of connectivity. We’ll cover them in an online test in more depth next month when the game has been in the PSN wilds for a few weeks. In the meantime know that these shifting battlegrounds, which you can share with friends by swapping Chalice Glyph codes, bring something genuinely fresh to the existing Souls’ template.

The last 1900 words have been gushing, yes? So why aren’t I awarding Bloodborne the Big Score? In terms of pure game design and mechanically rewarding systems, this is as enriching a PS4 experience as you’ll find. Sadly, on a tech front, some failings hobble the game’s grab for the sweet ‘Ten’.

The ‘Borne Legacy
Firstly, the camera can be a nightmare during boss fights a perhaps unavoidable outcome of slapping massive foes into cramped arenas. More problematic still is the framerate. While the touched-up PS4 version of Dark Souls II on p92 adheres to a pretty constant 60fps, frame-pacing issues mean Bloodborne doesn’t quite hit a steady 30fps.

Does it ever break combat or fundamentally dampen your enjoyment of the whole game? No. What it  does do is make panning the camera an occasional juddering annoyance. Seeing as From wasn’t saddled with porting this must-have exclusive to other platforms, it’s tough not to feel the studio should have squeezed more juice out of PS4.

I still love Bloodborne like a certain big-boned PlayStation princess loves cake, though. The combat is peerless, the world captivating and the sense of deadly exploration never more compelling. See, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Dang it.

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