Thursday 29 September 2016

Bloodborne review: Attack is the new defence

Published 01/04/2015 | 22:07

Bloodborne: Superlative Gothic horror
Bloodborne: Superlative Gothic horror

ONLY masochists need apply. Surely, those were first words written into the design document for Bloodborne (and its close progenitors, the Demon/Dark Souls series).

Bloodborne (PS4); rating: 9/10; age: 16+

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Yet if you were expecting Bloodborne to be nothing more than a hardened Dark Souls 3, think again. With Demon’s Souls in 2009, Hidetaka Miyazaki set the template for maddeningly difficult yet fantastically rewarding third-person combat adventures.

Bloodborne wastes little time in convincing the player there will be no mercy – death is pretty much inevitable inside the first couple of minutes of gameplay. But what’s different here takes a little while to become clear as Miyazaki very slowly pulls back the curtain on his latest Gothic horror show.

Dropped into a murky Victorian nightmare, you’re spoon-fed few clues as to the true nature of the plague that has turned the townsfolk into an aggressive mob and unleashed beasts from hell. Just as puzzling are the very mechanics of gameplay, with no explanation of combat, healing or levelling up. So far, so Souls.

Bloodborne: He's terrifyingly huge but easier than he looks to bring down
Bloodborne: He's terrifyingly huge but easier than he looks to bring down

Then you begin to notice that brutal attack is the new defence. Bloodborne hands you a gun to dual-wield with a blade – but your bullets inflict scant damage and they’re scarcer than hen’s teeth. Instead, the gun functions somewhat like a shield – you can interrupt an enemy’s attack animation with one bullet at close range, opening a golden opportunity to counter with your blade of choice.

Next you realise that you can recoup a chunk of your health bar if you damage within seconds the enemy who just assailed you.

Together, these two crucial planks of gameplay form a new foundation on which Miyazaki builds a much faster rhythm of gory combat. Patient observation of enemy patterns remains a prerequisite for almost every encounter – especially the epic bosses. But in place of Souls-style wars of attrition, you’re encouraged to go toe to toe with many of the lesser foes – diving in with a roll or a lunge, firing off a disruptive blast and hacking merrily at your target.

It’s hardly Dynasty Warriors and it’s desperately easy to misjudge your counters in tight areas. But it means Bloodborne feels far less like a slog than Souls often did.

Bloodborne: Be afraid, be very afraid
Bloodborne: Be afraid, be very afraid

Still, though, the concessions to namby-pamby modern gaming are virtually nil. You will die, very, very frequently. Gallingly, checkpoints lie miles apart, costing you up to 20 minutes of a repeat performance if you’re cut down before reaching one of the lamps that signify a spawn point.

Cleverly, though, the geography of Bloodborne is such that you regularly unlock shortcuts that bypass great swathes of the angry mob when you’re respawning after yet another death. Having drained each area of potions and the like, it’s often easiest just to sprint past many enemies to regain your previous position after a respawn.

With fewer weapons and character-levelling permutations than before, Bloodborne may seem like a retrograde step from Souls. Yet it never lacks for flexibility, at least in the first playthrough.

Visually, the grim vistas and grotesque cast give good horror but the PS4 has seen better. The unnerving audio steps up instead to foster Bloodborne’s scariest moments, generating untold dread as an unearthly growl heralds a deadlier beast in your path.

Bloodborne: A boss, a very, very big boss
Bloodborne: A boss, a very, very big boss

You will face many moments where the difficulty appears set too high. Bloody-minded perseverance usually wins out but, if all else fails, co-op multiplayer is always an option. There’s no guarantee of help – and PvP sometimes results – but if you successfully request assistance from another player, fighting a tough enemy together has a peculiar satisfaction in a resolutely punishing solo game.

As a side dish to the main banquet, Bloodborne also serves up randomised dungeons of increasing difficulty. They might feel a bit repetitive at times but if you can’t get enough of the action, they function well as a palate-cleanser before diving back into the fray of the central storyline.

Every Bloodborne reviewer mentions the energy-sapping load times between levels, with good reason. For a game that predicates its action on heavy repetition and frequent deaths, it’s nigh-on unforgiveable. Staring at a black screen for up to 40 seconds each occasion loses its appeal after the first 100 times. Perhaps a patch will help but it’s unlikely.

Miyazaki may acquire a wider fanbase with Bloodborne but it will still be an uphill struggle. The game has no truck with leniency, no room for casual players, no tolerance for quitters. You commit to mastering its systems – or you fail. There is no easy mode.

But those who throw themselves in without looking back will find with a rich, deep world that handsomely rewards every pint of blood, sweat and tears you donate.

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