I've played for about 15 hours, but I've been dreaming about Bloodborne.
It’s sort of a waking dream. My two-year-old son is inside my game, sabotaging my character, trying to mess with my stats. My son isn’t an enemy necessarily, more like weight dragging at my heels. He’s pulling me back. He’s screaming in my ear as I move. Clinging to my coat tails when I attack. Almost like he’s trying to drag me, kicking and screaming back to the real world.
It sounds ridiculous, but I’ve been having actual literal dreams about Bloodborne and I’m not alone.
At least two people on Kotaku’s staff have dreamt about Bloodborne. It’s just that kind of game.
The kind of game that bullies its way into your sub-consciousness; the kind of game that occupies your headspace like a brain-slug. It doesn’t ask for permission. It’s a fucked up digital vampire. Invite it into your home: that’s your first mistake. That’s all the permission it needs to infiltrate your bloodstream and become a part of you, like a virus.
In other words: Bloodborne is very much a From Software game. It’s a Hidetaka Miyazaki game.
Well it is, but it isn’t.
It is because yes, literally speaking, Bloodborne was directed by Hidetaka Miyazaki. Yes: his name is on the box. And yes, it bears the hallmarks of his design philosophy. There are parts of Bloodborne that are unmistakably ‘soulsian’. The currency of ‘souls’, for example, remains. A different noun is attached -- Bloodborne calls them ‘Blood Echoes’ -- but I’ve yet to have a conversation, online or otherwise, where anyone has referred to them as anything other than ‘souls’.
Much of Bloodborne’s nouns are interchangeable in this way. Bonfires are now called ‘lanterns’. Demon’s Souls’ ‘Nexus’ is Bloodborne’s ‘Hunter’s Dream’. Souls fans will play Bloodborne and -- for the most part -- will feel at home. The pace, the feel, the controls all feel familiar. Comforting even.
But then there are the ways in which Bloodborne is different. The many, many ways. That’s what truly makes Bloodborne special, spectacular. Bloodborne is not a Souls game. It shares much of its DNA with that legendary series, but Bloodborne is unmistakably a new game with new ideas -- brave ideas. Ideas that, if poorly executed, had the potential to derail what has become such a potent, definitive experience.
My favourite things about Bloodborne are the things that are different.
The setting. A fantastical version of Victorian London called ‘Yarnham’. Dense with grime and oil. Dotted with statues that raise their hands to the sky: a filthy sky permanently fixed in a blood-orange smog-filled sunset. Bloodborne is beautiful. It’s also pathologically ugly in a way that the Dark Souls games are not. It throbs oppressively with a dark menace. If there’s an Anor Londo to be found I’ve yet to come across it. Only the afore-mentioned Hunter’s Dream -- dotted as it is with white, unsullied flowers -- provides players with any kind of respite. I like this. Bloodborne is a different game. Its universe feels unique
Bloodborne’s world is more Demon’s than Dark Souls. It’s divided into sections, but the delicate ‘connectedness’ of Dark Souls -- those paths that intertwine brilliantly – are not sacrificed. Yarnham, the game’s first major area is huge and progressing through the world is as rewarding as exploring Lordran. Dark Souls’ honeycomb structure is perhaps even more pronounced in this game.
Shortcuts manifest themselves at every turn -- they feel more calculated, better designed. At times I literally hungered for a lantern only to find a brilliantly paced shortcut that rendered it useless. You wonder how it could possibly make sense in the context of the twists and turns you’d just made in your journey, but then it clicks. Of course it’s connected. Wow. Wow. This is Bloodborne – and From Software – at its absolute best.
Much will be made of the changes to the combat. This is arguably where Bloodborne takes the majority of its risks. A shield is available but you won’t want to use it, meaning players who clunked their way through Souls games with a raised, trembling shield must go through an adjustment period. It will be worth it.
Instead of a shield, you can wield a firearm, which is less of a long-range weapon than you might expect. It can be used at distance, but is far more effective as a ‘parrying’ weapon: if you time a shot during your enemy’s attack you have a window to completely disembowel them. It’s just about the most rewarding thing I’ve ever learned to do in a From Software game. The mechanic is essentially the same as parrying in the Souls games, but the execution… it’s pitch perfect.
The most dramatic evolution in combat is the ability to regain lost health by counter-striking. If you are hit you have a short window: if you successfully attack before that window is up, you get your health back. It’s an incredible risk-reward scenario, particularly during boss fights when the stakes feel incredibly high. Should I lunge back in and risk death, or should I take the loss and retreat? These decisions are important and context matters.
The well-documented intention of these changes is to increase the pace of Bloodborne’s combat, and it succeeds. But more importantly it provides a much welcome injection of surprise to the game. It gives you something new to learn, that shock of the new. Experienced Souls players will feel it, but won’t miss what is gone. The depth and quality of each and every encounter remains – if anything it has been enhanced. There are new options, new layers of depth. Additional intricacies, I suspect, are yet to be discovered.
Bloodborne will surprise you. Perhaps that’s the most beautiful thing about it.
It will infect you, most likely it will haunt you. You’ll think about it during work and play it obsessively throughout the night. In the weeks and months to come I wouldn’t be surprised if you, like me, begin dreaming of Bloodborne.