It's strange how a game that revolves around horror, mystery and some of the most dark stories seen in gaming can somehow feel comforting. That is not to say that there is anything here to give you a warm fuzzy feeling intentionally or even in a conscious way but the return of Hidetaka Miyazaki's genius brings a sense joy to the Souls series faithful. While Dark Souls 2 was a great addition to From Software's cult series, it was missing a certain something. This only became clearer with a set of badly thought out balance decisions and a story that felt somewhat flat. Now with the father of the franchise back at the helm for a spiritual successor on new hardware, it feels like it's time to get excited again. A happiness of the darkest order, if you will.
Things start out as they mean to go on, with confusion, darkness and blood. While new players are unlikely to get past the starting area, getting to a selection of starting equipment can be done in record time. There's a much smaller selection of weapons in the game than might be expected considering Bloodborne's heritage but this is made up by each weapon appearing to have been given much more love. Every one of the hunters' trick devices of death has two modes ranging from a heavy mode and light mode all the way up to a hidden gun and claw that inflicts a particular status mode. On top of this many have secret bonuses to certain enemies that can make all the difference on repeat plays.
To complement the hack and slash side of things your avatar has access to a ranged weapon, although this isn't as great as it might sound. The range is lacking for the most part and the damage even more so. Their true strength lies in their ability to stagger enemies if they're hit a just right moment, opening then up to a powerful counter attack. Back stabs work in the same fashion when a charge heavy attack is performed upon an oblivious foe. These mechanics can be considered a tuned version of those seen in Souls games meaning counters are limited to your ammo reserve and most situations making backstabs all but impossible.
While in normal play this can seem a bit unfair, it all comes together once other players start to jump into your game. these are much more straight up fights than veterans would expect although there is flaws within the new system. You can carry up to twenty blood vials, Bloodborne's take on estus and grass, and these are deployed almost instantaneously make invasions a rather drawn out affair. On the plus side this mechanic works a lot better in player versus environment situations increasing potential survivability by a large amount. The changes are hardly perfect but they're still an improvement for those who prefer sticking with the single player experience.
Magic takes a backseat for the most part, at least in regards to a first playthrough. The stat that governs these mysterious powers is best used for elemental damage builds. This adds further variety to the two traditional damage points of fast but weak skill and slow but strong strength.
Outside of specific situations, armour is now of little consequence. Sure, getting your first set after the starting gear will help initially, but it soon becomes clear that it's there more for looks than practicality. This is offset by the regain system, the ability to get health back for a short time after taking a hit. Going in head first into a fight is still rarely the best strategy but at least landing a counter blow means you have that little more of a chance of making it out of a battle alive. Just don't go relying on it to get you through the game.
In terms of difficulty, your chances are just as bleak as the aesthetic. you'll spend a fair amount of time going back to retrieve your experience, or blood eches as they're called in this instance. You'll have to master the dodge ability quickly to make any progress and fights with groups of enemies are frequent. There's always the option to summon help but unfortunately this is one of the area the game turns out to be something of a disappointment. There's only a few instances where non player characters can be summoned and strangely only on some of the easier bosses. Outside of this you'll have to rely on other players and the way this functions is somewhat flawed. To either summon or be summoned a bell much be rang that starts a background search. Unlike the previous summon sign system, you can't be sure where you partner will spawn making some sessions a real pain. This also triggers a bell ringer to spawn who will try and bring an invader into your world. This makes for a rather inconsistent experience the weakest part of the games experience in my opinion.
As far as the single player portion goes though, this is something special. While the enemy artificial intelligence is hardly stellar, almost all put up a good fight, constantly going in for the kill. Playing will a good level of caution is the way to go here and picking of single enemies will get you far. There's even an item for doing this. Once an area has been traversed an area boss usually has to be fought. This is by far Bloodborne's strongest aspect. There is a huge variety of horrors to be fought each requiring a different approach. On top of this they all have three phases, some being the same fight but with added hazards with other putting the encounter on it's head by it's final third. While some of these epic battles are better than others the quality on show here is staggering. There's also the return of rag doll physics, something that adds to the weight of every battle.
Despite how it is presented, in a typically cryptic Miyazaki fashion, the story is surprisingly easy to follow. What starts as a gothic victorian tale of beasts soon descends into Lovecraftian eldritch horror. Some digging still needs to be done to understand what's really going on but most players should be able to follow what is going on throughout the adventure. This is supported by some great (if somewhat short) short side quests. While some of these stories are dark to the point of being disturbing, those looking for a grim story will be satiated.
Performance wise, the game is smooth and stunning, with only the occasional issue in very specific places. Slick dark blood will start to cover you character as you descend into the mad city of Yharnam and beyond. As the environment gets smashed up, debris will fly everywhere adding to the chaos. Topping this off is a beautiful lighting model that really comes to life thanks the necessity of a torch down many of the darker parts of the world. The only issue visually is some poor textures here and there but this is hard to notice for the most part simply because most areas of so visually packed out.
One of the selling points for Bloodborne has been the randomly generated chalice dungeons, technically a way to keep the game fresh indefinitely. This has unfortunately turned out to be something of a disappointment. There's ten or so fixed ones that are required if you wish to see all the game has to offer (as well as hugely story significant boss) and feels like something of a misfire. This content should really have been incorporated into the main game in my opinion as by the sixth fixed dungeon, I'd had my fill of repetitive areas geared towards a post game coop scene that appears to be barren only a few months on from release. It's a real shame but thankfully it's completely optional so can be safely ignored by most players.
To counter the dungeons the main part of the game has some of the best level design out there. Every area loops back on itself revealing shortcuts so you always feel like you're making progress. On top of this every area has it's own distinct feel meaning exploration is never dull. In a game where everything is there for a reason, checking every corner of the game world is a vital part of gameplay and being in constant awe of both the layout and the minor details is a huge plus point.
In almost every regard Bloodborne has turned out to be a roaring success despite some missteps with some of the more experimental content. What we have here is the first truly essential PS4 exclusive and something every owner of the console owes to themselves to pick up.