Bloodborne has a lot going for it. It's one of the best, most engrossing games I've played in a while. But man, I sure do wish it were easier to play with my friends.
Bloodborne is an online game. While you can technically play offline, the game's truest incarnation requires an internet connection. It's constantly checking in with servers, keeping tabs on you while reaching out and connecting you with other players, often in mysterious ways.
Sometimes, you find cryptic notes left by players in other worlds. Other times, you'll see the white outlines of people flitting through their version of your world, successfully navigating dangers you've yet to face. Still other times, you'll find bloodstains that let you watch a distant player fail, fall, and die.
You can also interact with other Bloodborne players in a more traditional way, at least in theory. You can team up with other players like you would in any other co-op online game like Destiny, Diablo III, or World of Warcraft. Up to two additional players can hop into a third player's world, helping the host player overcome enemies and bosses and sharing in the experience points and glory. This is where things start to get iffy.
Cooperative Bloodborne can be really, really fun. You're strategising and cheering over your headsets in party chat, coordinating your attacks… one of you draws a boss's attention while the other sneaks in for a backstab… it feels like a different game, but it's a cool one. Patrick Klepek and I cleared a co-op dungeon together, and it was wild. It was fun enough to imagine getting a third friend in there and taking on the hardest stuff in the game together. As neat as it is, it's just too damned difficult to get it working.
Bloodborne's developers at From Software are fond of being cryptic and mysterious, and the game's multiplayer works in an appropriately strange way. There are no multiplayer lobbies and there's no traditional matchmaking. Rather, to join other players, you must ring one of a series of bells, which are actual in-game objects that your character carries around. You never break the fiction to go and navigate a menu or choose a multiplayer lobby. You select the bell in your inventory, and you ring it. It keeps things coherent and immersive.
There are several kinds of bells, and each one has a different function. You can ring a Small Resonant Bell to warp into someone else's game to help them out. (I've been doing this lately, and it's great fun.) You can ring a Beckoning Bell and summon someone else into your game. Or, you can ring a Sinister Resonant Bell and enter the game of anyone ringing a Beckoning Bell and… surprise! You're hostile, and you try to kill them.
Now, this stuff is all pretty cool. It's confusing and obtuse, yes, but that's kind of the point. If you were just going to play Bloodborne as a solitary experience, occasionally summoning silent strangers into your game, occasionally going and helping other players out, occasionally going and testing your mettle against unknown foes, it'd work fine.
Thing is… that all sort of falls apart when you try to play Bloodborne with your actual friends. It's a problem that's brought into sharp focus by the game's big new addition: Chalice Dungeons. In addition to the forests and cities and sewers of the main game, there are these side-activities called Chalice Dungeons. The dungeons are really cool, a mixture of designed and procedurally-generated labyrinths that get progressively harder and harder as you go. By exploring them, you can get some really good loot.
The Chalice Dungeons are off to the side, largely disconnected from the city of Yharnam and the main story of Bloodborne. They feel like their own self-contained game, more of a straight-up dungeon crawler like Diablo or Torchlight. They also feel more specifically designed for cooperative play, far more so than the "main" story areas of the game.
Chalice Dungeons would be really fun to cruise through with one or two buddies, and when I saw "Cooperative play for up to 3 players" on the back of the Bloodborne box, I figured that would be more or less how it worked.
Except that isn't the case. It's currently far too difficult to actually play a Chalice Dungeon with a friend. Getting the game to match you with one of your PS4 friends requires some weird mixture of luck, careful communication, and digital dark arts. We've written an article about how to do it, and one of the game's producers has written his own comically convoluted version over at the PlayStation blog. (Anytime a game's producer is including a "hints" section in what would otherwise be a straightforward how-to guide, something's amiss.)
For starters, you're supposed to be within 10 levels of anyone you want to play alongside. That's a deal-breaker right there. I'm crazy high-level in this game, and most of my friends aren't, so I guess that just means we don't get to play together? OK.
Even if you're within 10 levels of one another, connecting is still a headache. First, you have to go into the game's network menu and set the same multiplayer password, to ensure that you'll get matched together. Then, you have to stand in roughly the same area as one another, meaning that you have to all go and make your way to the same place in the game-world.
If one of your group wants to host a Chalice Dungeon raiding session, first they have to write down the unique code for that dungeon, set their dungeon to public, then relay the code over PS4 chat to their friends. Their friends must activate the code in their own worlds, perform the ritual to summon the dungeon, enter it, then begin ringing their bell.
At that point, everyone's standing in their own version of an identical dungeon, ringing their bells. Sometimes you'll just stand there for minutes on end, waiting for the game to decide to match you up. Players have come up with convoluted approaches to make this work better, like counterintuitively having the people ringing Resonant Bells start ringing first, ahead of the host with the Beckoning Bell. Other people recommend restarting your game if you've been playing for a while, and apparently, if you put your PS4 into sleep mode with the game running, it deactivates matchmaking entirely. (Sony says that a patch is coming to fix that.) Maybe those tricks will help, maybe they won't. No one's quite sure.
If you can get a co-op session going, good job! You're teamed up through the next boss. After you defeat a boss together, everyone evaporates back to their own game, and any further co-op play will require doing the whole bell rigamarole all over again. There are bosses on every floor of a Chalice Dungeon, and the floors aren't even all that big, meaning that you have to redo matchmaking on every floor just to play through an entire chalice dungeon together.
The whole thing leaves me with the impression that Bloodborne's multiplayer was designed for a particular sort of experience, then reverse-engineered to allow for deliberate co-op. The bells, the locational restrictions, the within-10-levels requirement, the one-boss limit... all of those things suggest tools that were created for one purpose — sporadic, anonymous cooperation — and are being clumsily applied to another.
Look: I really like From Software's approach to doing things. I love the way the bells work in the rest of Bloodborne, and I like how mysterious and holistic it all is. I don't mean to say that the game can't have its share of mysteries, and I'd hate to see the bells removed and replaced with some bland matchmaking lobby.
All the same, I can't help but feel like an opportunity is being missed here. I'm hopeful that Bloodborne will receive some substantial patches in the months to come, and that with time, Chalice Dungeon co-op will improve. To whoever might be working on those patches: Keep the story areas the same. Let us play in focused isolation, beckoning, aiding, and challenging strangers as we choose. But let the Chalice Dungeons be something different, where we can more easily work together with our friends for longer stretches of time. There is a brilliant cooperative dungeon-crawler built right into Bloodborne, but too often it feels maddeningly out of reach.