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Review: Diabolically Difficult 'Bloodborne' is Among the PS4's Best


Bloodborne is a game about hope.

It’s also a game about death. It’s about vile monsters smashing, slicing, clawing, and chewing you to bits. It’s about horror, frustration, salty language, and broken controllers.

What keeps you playing Bloodborne, the incredibly challenging PS4-only role-playing game crafted by demented developer From Software, is a spark. It’s hard to see, a flicker in the darkness often obscured by the rage of yet another failed attempt to kill a thing you are clearly in no shape to kill. But it’s there, a glimmering beacon, a calm voice telling you that despite a learning curve shaped like a wall and hours spent futilely jabbing at creatures so hellish that you vaguely worry about the mental health of the people who created them, you are going to be OK.

You are going to win. And it’s going to feel great.

Fans of From Software’s infamous Souls series, which has rightfully earned a reputation as being among the most difficult of its generation, know the value of hope in the face of despair all too well. It’s the secret sauce that’s powered an impenetrably obtuse video game franchise to the heights of critical and commercial acclaim. It’s also what makes Bloodborne one of the best PS4 games yet.

Anyone expecting that Bloodborne would be something of a departure from Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, perhaps a bit more inviting and less grinding in its difficulty, should prepare for the first of many disappointments. From its stressful gameplay loop to its online mechanics to the bright red “YOU DIED” message that mocks you roughly every 10 minutes, Bloodborne is Dark Souls 3 in all but name.

This time, you play a hunter wandering the once-pleasant city of Yharnam, now a gothic nightmare in the grip of an epidemic that’s transformed its citizens into horrific creatures. Your task: kill the beasts and restore order. Crammed with confounding religious overtones and steeped in gore, the story isn’t the star here. But a cohesive narrative isn’t the point of these games, and it’s all just absurd enough to keep you marching straight into Bloodborne’s fiery video-game baptism.

At its core, Bloodborne plays like any of the past Souls games. You fight your way through monsters in an effort to locate an elusive progress-saving bonfire, though now it’s a progress-saving lamp. Instead of acquiring “souls” by killing creatures, you acquire “blood echoes,” and when you die, you still have to race back to your corpse to retrieve them. Get killed on the way there and you lose your earnings forever. The Groundhog Day, love-it-or-hate-it Souls gameplay flow — fight, die, run back to your cash, forge ahead, die again, start the process anew — is alive and well in Bloodborne.

But Bloodborne carves out its own identity. For example, monsters can now pick up your lost loot, requiring the additional step of killing whatever last killed you to get your cash back. Activating a lamp takes you back to a hub called the Hunter’s Dream, a safe haven where you can buy and sell gear, repair and retrofit weapons, and boost your stats.

The biggest change, however, is found out in the field. Bloodborne is a faster, more aggressive game than Dark Souls II. Hiding behind a shield as a 20-foot-tall ogre tries to turn you into mush with a club the size of a Buick isn’t an option because you really don’t have any shields (I found one; it was useless). Magic is largely nonexistent, so you can’t stand back and lob fireballs.

No, Bloodborne requires you to get up close and personal, dodging, back-stepping, staying just out of range of that Buick club as you dart in and out with your sword/axe/cleaver/hammer. It’s a stiff challenge, requiring tight focus and a steady eye on your stamina meter, but it’s also speedier and intrinsically more pleasing than standing back and firing arrows.

From Software also made a few concessions to keep you in the fight. You regain some health by immediately attacking the enemy who last injured you. You can also equip a gun as a secondary weapon, but don’t expect to rip through Bloodborne with a bazooka. The guns serve mainly to stun tougher foes, opening them up for a big “Visceral Attack” that doles out huge damage. Good luck pulling it off regularly, though, because the only way to nail the timing is to figure it out on your own.

Part of the problem — and this is obviously by design, so maybe it’s not a problem so much as a fact — is that Bloodborne doesn’t believe in handholding tutorials. It walks you very quickly through its mechanics and doesn’t care to re-explain itself. How does the “Frenzy” work? Where do I go to I equip these runes? What’s the secret to stunning foes with guns? It’s up to you to sort it all out.

While it’s unclear in its systems, Bloodborne is sharply focused in its macabre sensibilities. The werewolves, zombies, giants, and giant werewolf zombies are meticulously built and thoroughly creepy, to a one. The game keeps upping the awful ante; after a few dozen hours, you’ll duel snake-headed monstrosities, acid-spitting octo-things, and a numbers of creatures so gross and insane that despite decades spent ogling Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manuals, I couldn’t describe them on a bet.

Invariably, Bloodborne’s many roads lead to epic boss fights. You’ll need to beat the bosses to open up new paths and acquire new abilities — and true to form, the towering white wolf demon and electrically charged bear-skeleton thing are as wildly difficult as they look. But this is where Bloodborne really sinks its teeth into you.

If the multitude of regular monsters are weekly tests, Bloodborne’s bosses are its final exams, and you need to study if you want to pass. The first time you fight a boss, you’re going to die. But you’ll learn a thing or two, and eventually you’ll learn enough to know that despite the limited window to hit the beast in the foot, you can hit it in the foot. You just have to go do it.

That’s the hope talking, and when it all comes together, it’s intoxicating. After a couple of hours spent banging my head against the game’s first tree-limbed behemoth of a boss, I dodged, leaped, parried, and stabbed it just enough times to kill it before it killed me. I took a victory lap around the house, arms raised. True, beyond Bloodborne’s hills lie only bigger hills, but when you’ve climbed one hill, you know you can climb more. You want to climb more.

Most of Bloodborne is spent this way: scouring its vast environments for hidden treasures and secret paths, stumbling upon something terrible, getting killed by it, and jogging back for a little revenge. It’s repetitive, to be sure, and often the best way forward is to spend time farming the weaker bad guys for cash. You’ll doubtlessly fling a controller across the room when you do something stupid and lose 45,000 blood echoes. But you’re not mad at the game so much as at yourself. You should have been patient. You should have spent that cash when you had the chance. You should have been smarter. Fools rush into Bloodborne, and death rushes back out.

Fools also forget that Bloodborne has a multiplayer component. You can leave messages for fellow hunters (another holdover from the Souls games), and you can also invite players into your game to help take down bosses. It’s still a little wonky — you need to ring a bell, which costs yet another poorly explained currency called “Insight,” and then wait for someone to (maybe) come join you – but it does work, and it can be immensely useful when you’re out of ideas. If you also run out of things to kill (you), Bloodborne offers cool procedurally generated dungeons, which can also be played cooperatively. And for gamers looking to show off their skills, the game lets players invade each other’s worlds and go mano a mano.

It’s a big package, and Bloodborne occasionally buckles under its weight. The game looks great, all dark and gloomy and bloody and nasty, but the severe load times when you’re respawning only serve to drive your failure home a few inches more. Occasional frame-rate issues can hamper fights against larger groups, a tall-enough order even when it’s running smoothly.

Suffice it to say, Bloodborne isn’t for everyone. It’s unforgiving, repetitive, and bad for your blood pressure. But it’s also mysterious, powerful, and good for your soul — the best PS4 exclusive yet. What more could you have hoped for?

What’s hot: Huge, creepy world; fast, satisfying combat; impressive monsters; smart changes to Souls formula; amazing feeling of accomplishment.

What’s not: Debilitating feeling of despair; unclear systems and mechanics; PTSD treatment costs extra.

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