Gluttons for punishment will find much to enjoy in Bloodborne, an unremittingly sadistic title that apparently has one difficulty level, and that level is brutal. Anyone familiar with From Software’s Dark Souls series will know the level of cruelty to expect here: a fearfully malicious and dark underworld where everything and everyone has the sole intent of annihilating you. None of this might sound particularly appealing but Bloodborne has the same compelling quality that infuses other equally addictive games. It proves your mettle, for sure, to be killed over and over and over again yet still want to keep coming back for more. The learning curve is as steep as the Grim Reaper’s scythe and just as sharp but the sense of reward once you get past a particularly hard-as-nails baddie is enough to draw you in even further.
But we’re jumping ahead of ourselves here. It sounds as if we are focusing on the negative when, yes, repetitive death (there’s a name for a Norwegian Metal band if ever there was one) is just as central an experience as it was in the Souls releases but there is so much else to talk about. Firstly, there is the visual presentation.Bloodborne takes place in Yharnam, a Gothic monstrosity where a plague has transformed all of the inhabitants into grotesque beasts that have been driven wild with bloodlust. The crumbling city is at once beautiful, thanks in part to the PS4 exclusivity deal, and repellent: smoggy, red skies hang menacingly over towering cathedrals, graveyards, forests… you know, the kind of places mentioned in Sisters Of Mercy lyrics. The enemies themselves are deeply repellent, and unlike those seen in other games of this type – or any type. There are werewolves that appear to be made out of trees, men made of rags and rotten flesh, spidery plant thingies, snakes, a ghostly horse goat, some other creature comprised of electricity… these descriptions are approximations of things that can’t really be satisfactorily described – they have to be seen. From regular enemies to the bosses, there is an impressive imagination at work here, and there is currently nothing on consoles quite like the experience of having a giant fleshless something thumping towards you, screaming constantly.
This oppressive atmosphere is in part created by the gameplay mechanics, which in a very real way feel like the plot of the Tom Cruise action romp Edge Of Tomorrow. The goal, as much as there is one, is to make it as far as you can through a level without getting torn apart by the aforementioned creatures, whereupon you can try it again, or zap back to a safe zone called The Hunter’s Dream. While there are guns and magic the emphasis is very much on melee combat, which is intense and vicious and quickly paced. You can claw back small iotas of lost health by catching enemies off guard, and if you die your experience points, named “Blood Echoes” (no, I am not making this up), will be deposited at the location of your demise for collection later. As in the Soulsgames, you can see the spots where fellow players died, hinting that there might well be a trap nearby, along with kindly / devious messages that may or may not be of help. The whole thing has a surreal, nightmarish feel, and the sensation of danger is never too far away. From the lack of a pause function to the way in which monsters seem to appear out of nowhere, almost like in the early Final Fantasy releases, everything here has been designed to put you on edge.
Your enjoyment of such things will very much depend on how masochistic you are. As in Super Meat Boy andHotline Miami, you should expect to die on a frequent basis. The problem, and it is currently a very big problem in dire need of a fix-it patch, is that loading times are fairly lengthy, during which you are treated to nothing more than a black screen with Bloodborne written in suitably antiquated text. It definitely disrupts the flow and, to put it frankly, is downright annoying. However, this is a small complaint and one that is partly defused by the fact that there is so much going on within Bloodborne that one should expect delays while the little people living inside your console set the stage for the next round of destruction. There are many other dungeons, secrets and perks worthy of mention here but the best way would be to discover them all for yourself. Bloodborne is punishing, yes, but never less than inventive, and like nothing else currently on the shelves. Ross Thompson