Bloodborne is being heralded as the first true console-selling game for the PS4. I can see why, too — it’s challenging (read: hard as hell), beautiful, and dark. I’m about 18 hours into Bloodborne and I can definitely see why people are clamoring over the latest entry in the Souls franchise. Unfortunately, I’m not having fun playing it.
Bloodborne is an action game set in the dark, mysterious city of Yharnam. The game opens with you being given a blood transfusion from a mysterious old man and waking up a “hunter”. You must hunt the beasts that roam the city for reasons unknown in order to “wake up from the nightmare”, as a small note early in the game tells you. I’m not being intentionally vague, here. That’s about all the direction you get in Bloodborne — you are a hunter, so you must go out and hunt things. The majority of the story is told through cryptic one or two line notes scattered around Yharnam or through item descriptions. There are a few NPCs that you’ll talk to, but they don’t exactly spell things out for you. In my 18 hours, I’ve come to learn a few things about different characters and areas, but I still have no idea what exactly it is I’m hunting or why I’m doing it.
I can say that I at least know how to hunt. Nameless Hunter has two weapons equipped at one time. In the right hand we have trick weapons which can be transformed between two modes, typically a short-range/fast style and a long-range/powerful style. I still use the Saw Blade that I started out with, but I also like the Hunter Axe. Left-handed weapons range from guns and shields to accessories like torches. One thing I really like about the combat is that when you get hit, you don’t immediately lose life. Your HP bar will have a little line appear partway down, indicating how much life you’re about to lose. If you attack quickly, though, you’ll start regaining chunks of that to-be-lost life. This helps keep combat quick and fresh, instead of taking each hit and retreating back to rethink your plans. Do you risk taking more damage to potentially heal? Nine times out of ten my answer was yes. There are a lot of resources to manage in Bloodborne while the horrifying beasts are trying to rip you apart. Dodging is the primary form of defense in Bloodborne, but both attacking and dodge drain your stamina. You may want to use your gun to stun an enemy, but quicksilver bullets are few and far between. Blood vials heal you but take precious seconds to use, which may leave an opening big enough for an enemy to strike again. Learning the ins and outs of Bloodborne’s combat system can be rewarding.
Bloodborne is an overtly solitary experience. Most of the interaction you get with other players is via notes you can leave on the ground. Notes are written using pre-built phrases and can be voted up or down. Something like “take a step forward” may lead you to a hidden item or to your untimely death. You can also spend one of the game’s resources, insight, to call for help. Other players must be in a “looking to help others” mode to be able to come in and help you. You’ve probably heard that Bloodborne and the Souls games before it are extremely challenging. I can’t speak for the previous games, but Bloodborne is hard as all hell. It’s easily the least hand-holding game I’ve played in years. There is no overworld, no map, and barely any NPCs to talk to. Enemies only have HP bars, no actual numbers or even names above their heads. Most of the doors you find will be “locked by device” or require a “certain badge” to open, but don’t tell you what that is. You can’t even pause the game. The first image in this article shows the main character dying, which will happen. Frequently. Dying means losing all unspent blood echoes (experience). You can get your lost echoes back if you find either the spot you dropped them or the enemy that picked them up, which is a pretty cool revenge system.
I can absolutely see the appeal of a game with punishing difficulty. I used to love playing a game to learn it’s ins and outs, trying to maximize my character and my skill. Maybe it’s due to me not having five or six hours a day to play games anymore, but I like my games to reward me with progression. When I’m playing Bloodborne, I feel like I’m just slogging through until I find the right way to go or the next boss fight. Twice I found the “wrong” boss, i.e. a boss that I shouldn’t be fighting until way later on. The difficulty is rewarding when you finally do finish off a boss, but the hours of constantly dying and backtracking followed by hours of learning how the boss fights just flat out isn’t fun. That’s what I realized last night, as I was three hours into my play session. “I’m not having fun,” I thought to myself. Sure, I was progressing through the world, lighting up more checkpoint lanterns and leveling up, but I wasn’t having any fun. I know barely any of the story, I’m increasing my stats but I’m not getting any skills or cool abilities, and everything is supremely dark and grey. Don’t get me wrong — Bloodborne is very pretty, although it has it’s fair share of items warping in out of nowhere and textures being invisible when viewed at the right angle. The huge amount of backtracking is a downer, too. Each death means you have to retrace your steps if you want to get your blood echoes back. Enemies always spawn in the same exact spots, so you’ll be fighting the same enemies in the same locations in the same order. After the third or fourth time, it’s pretty boring.
Bloodborne may be the first must-have game for PS4 owners. It may be everything you’re looking for in a game. But not for me. It’s too cryptic, too secretive, too lifeless. The difficulty is refreshing, as most games these days tend to hold your hand in an extreme manner, but the time spent to rewards gained ratio isn’t high enough for me. I may come back and try my hand in Yharnam later, but I think I’ll move on for now.