Game Review: Bloodborne for PS4

I took every last old game I could pry from behind the entertainment center to the game shop and traded them in for a copy of Bloodborne. It wasn’t enough, so I had to pay half the price in cash to get it. But I figured the game had to be worth it. I mean, I liked Dark Souls III, so From software could do no wrong, right? Wrong. They could do just about everything wrong.

When I first put in the disc I found the patch required 3.9 gigabytes and would take five hours to download. So I said, “Screw it, I’ll play without the patch to see what the difference is.” Without the patch, there is no offline mode. Without the patch, the loading screen will remind you every single time what game you’re playing. Aside from that, I can’t really think of anything the patch did. Either way, my character’s run animation can randomly drop to a treacle slow shuffle for no apparent reason. (I thought this was some kind of loading trick like in Max Payne 3, except I could hit the sprint button and move normally without the shuffle stepping.) My character can still catch the finger of a dead enemy and drag their stupid floppy bodies around like a giant piece of toilet paper. All the wonk I encountered in the first run is present in the patched game. I’m thinking the bulk of the patch was probably the DLC being added in case I felt like buying it, but I don’t. In fact after I beat the game, I ejected the disc and promptly put Dark Souls III back in.

“Aw, Zoe, you didn’t give it a fair chance,” say the From Software lovers. Yes, yes I did. I played every maze-like area with its collections of copy pasta enemies, beat every single boss, and played the chalice dungeons, even. I decided that if I’m going to play this only once, I might as well fight the last two bosses and get the “supa-secret” ending. (It’s not much of a secret for me because I’ve watched the whole game played on YouTube ages ago.) In total I’d spent close to 150 hours playing this, and you can’t give a game more of a chance than to try everything it has to offer.

The real problem is, most of what it has to offer is hours upon hours of boredom. I’m going to be comparing this game to Dark Souls III a lot because I find it incredible how much more enjoyable and accessible it is compared to Bloodborne. Take the first areas as a prime example. In Dark Souls III, there’s a few enemies between you and the first boss, but as you’re not allowed to level up yet, none of them are all that hard, and the boss is relatively slow compared to later boss fights. (In fact you can find a vastly improved version of the same boss fight later in the game that will make you appreciate how slow and simple the first fight was.) In Bloodborne, the first two bosses REQUIRE you to grind for almost a day before you stand a chance of taking them on. The grinding process is a pain in the ass because you can’t just sit down at the bonfire like DSIII to reset the area. No, you have to travel back to the hub world, then go back to the tombstone for the area you’re in, and then sit through another loading screen. As it is, you can’t even start to level up until after you’ve gained one insight, another form of currency used to buy special items or hire summoned NPCs. (You can summon NPCs in DSIII for free provided you are in an “embered” state, and farming embers is ludicrously easy early on in the game.)

Eventually, you start getting an item called Bold Hunter’s Marks that allow you to return to the current lamp without giving up your “blood echoes” (they’re souls, but everything in this game is blood. I swear, I don’t know why they didn’t name the Molotov cocktail a Bloodotov, because everything in this stupid game is bloodied for the sake of the blood-oh God, mother the blood!), but it still takes a while longer before they unlock in the shop, and they’re 1200 echoes a pop. (Compare that to 500 souls per Homeward Bone, and these bullshit prices are on every single item. There is literally nothing in the inventory that isn’t a pain in the ass to restock. Okay, wait, there’s blood vials, the health potion of the game. Everything has a chance to drop those, and the process of grinding means it’s even possible to hit the max amount of your storage space. But other than that, keeping anything else stocked up is a pain.)

In DSIII, when you rest at a bonfire, your degraded weapons repair themselves. In Bloodborne, you have to go back to the Hunter’s Dream hub and repair them yourself. The weapons have the durability of kitten farts, so you have to repair them quite often. Perhaps recognizing that all those loading screens were boring, From added in the same lore index cards that DSIII has and got rid of the logo loading screen. But what they didn’t do was address the length of the loading time. So all that forced grinding time includes a metric fuckton of loading screens. Every new area you enter requires the same tedious process. Grind, load screens, grind, load screens, grind, go check the boss. Yay, five minutes of actual fun with a unique and challenging creature! Aaaaaaaaaaaand it’s over too soon and now it’s back to 10 hours of boring grindy bullshit. In telling a friend about this game, I likened it to a roller coaster that has one really good hill followed by five miles of flat straight track. Each boss represents the hill, and the rest of the game drags down that experience by being so dull.

It doesn’t help that the game has so few enemies to populate its mazes with. In the opening area, there’s a bunch of dudes who all have the exact same mid-transformation physical deformity of one arm being stupidly distorted. They all shout the same slurred lines that sound like From hired the voice talent at a pub and dragged them in drunk to deliver a few random lines. I got so sick of listening to “S’ALL YOUR FAULT!” for the thousandth time that I turned my TV volume to 1. Oh, you say the game has great music? I wouldn’t know because “I’M GONNA DIG UP YOUR GRAVE!” and “BEAST! FOUL BEAST!” and “AWAY AWAY!” You can’t turn this off by turning down the dialog volume. That shuts up the NPCs, but not the incessantly whiny drunks. When I cleared the first area, I even tried turning the volume back up, and I made it twenty yards before another drunk staggered around a corner to shout three gibberish lines all at the same time. Sure, I can’t understand half of what theses guys are saying when one line is uttered, so why not layer up on the incomprehension? And for every new area I entered, I just left the volume down until I could determine if the hairy drunks were present. Late in the game, I even found the same guys, but instead of black clothing, they had beige. Same enemy, same attacks, different clothing color.

The new enemies I encountered failed to impress me most of the time because they were either paired up with the hairy drunks, or they were littered over an area like marks from a hyperactive child’s stamp kit. That’s a shame because there are some really interesting monsters that need time to process. Like for instance, in Old Yharnam, you start seeing these shorter beasts that look a lot like the half transformed beast men in the previous area. I watched videos of guys playing this area and saying stuff like, “I guess these are ghouls or something?” No, mang, they’re children who have fallen victim to the beast blood curse. Yeah, let that sink in and process it. To beat the boss of the area, you have to murder a few hundred children. Unfortunately, because of the grind, that kind of horror loses its impact very quickly.

This is not to say that the enemies can’t be scary. My first encounters with the werewolves and gargoyles were quite nerve wracking because I didn’t know what to expect. But once you’ve seen the same guy a thousand times, you can’t wring any scares out of him even if you set him up for an ambush in a new area. And honestly, From goes to that well so often that I was more genuinely surprised whenever I walked through a doorway and wasn’t ambushed. It’s like the director thought the jump scares from PG-13 horror movies were so awesome, he wanted to put it into his game fifty thousand times.

I should mention that the way health works in this game is interesting and puts a different spin on the method of handling bosses and their cloned minions. When you get hit, the “missing” health is initially highlighted in orange. It’s possible to recover all of that health by attacking that enemy or someone else, and you can even recover it from a dead enemy as they’re going through their death animation. In this regard, it encourages players to be more aggressive. The enemies sometimes hit you again before you have a chance to counter, and that erases some of the amount you can recover. This can make fights an interesting dance cycle. You have to try to sidestep the follow up attack and then wail on the enemy’s flank or back to recover your health without relying on the blood vials.

On that note, you have twenty vials, with a later option to carry a few more with runes. I think twenty is really generous, and I can only think of one boss fight where I needed my entire stock to beat them. (That fight was Gerhman, and that asshole is way too cheap with his tactics.)

I haven’t even covered the story, which for me is unbearably stupid and nonsensical. One could argue that the whole thing is a fever dream, and as such, it doesn’t need to make sense. The dream angle does explain why every level is a random vomit of paths and obstacles, and I can honestly say I’ve had dreams like this, where I’m wandering a house with hallways that keep changing and preventing me from reaching my destination. So I can forgive that.

What I can’t forgive is the staggering amount of backstory packed into this fever dream. The story goes something like this…a “Great One” has created this nightmare to house and protect the lesser great ones. Your character enters the dream to hunt beasts, although you were initially lured into it because you were looking for “pale blood.” (A MacGuffin concept that’s never once explained or expanded upon.) Every time you die, you’re not really dying. You’re coming out of REM sleep and entering a blank spot in your brain’s sleep/dream cycle. This also makes some of the methods of gaining access to levels less unbelievable. (Two areas require finding a specific kind of monster to kill you.)

And that would be a-okay if the world wasn’t also trying to push a bunch of history lessons at me insisting that this dream has been going on for a few hundred years. I mean, if this Cthulhu wannabe was looking to protect his young’uns, what is the point of constantly slipping hunters into the dream world?

A better question that really bugs me is, why is it that this whole world is so empty save for the clone monsters? If it’s all a dream, why doesn’t the dreamer keep repopulating the towns and villages with new victims? There’s a huge amount of backstory about the Healing Church and its lines of hunters, but aside from a nun and a hunter who goes beastly, there’s no sign of the Church having a presence in the world. The churches are as empty as the villages.

And here’s another thing. You randomly encounter other hunters, but they aren’t actually hunting anything. Nothing is attacking them either. They exist solely because NPC invasions are thing in all From Software games, and so even if it doesn’t make sense to have the hunters be hostile to a fellow hunter, well screw it and just go with the flow.

There’s also a huge backstory for Cainhust Castle and its royal “Vilebloods,” but once you get in the castle, it’s almost exclusively populated by one copy pasta ghost. There are statues and paintings suggesting the Vilebloods have a huge family line, and the story implies that they pulled away from Yharnam over a dispute with the Healing Church. So what happened to them? What happened to all the people in this dream world that so many of them became monsters? If it’s all a dream, why did the dreamer never course correct and reset the world?

You know what I mean, right? You’re dreaming, and suddenly something happens that makes your conscious brain take notice and comment “that doesn’t make sense.” So the subconscious brain resets the dream and starts over with that mistake edited out. The dream still doesn’t make much sense if examined when awake, but that one flaw was just too much.

That’s the thing really puzzling me. You, the player, show up and are pushed into the dream “on the night of the hunt.” You seem to be the sole hunter actually doing your job, but you cannot really change anything in the dream. You may kill the others in the world and return after “awakening” to find they have all revived and gone back to their same routines. This is the eternal state of the world, forever unchanging. AND YET, the story implies that this world is constantly changing. It’s a dream with hundreds of years of history and a huge cast that you never get to meet or engage. So what’s the point of all this back story if it’s all just a dream? When I dream up a nightmare, I don’t add in four hundred years’ worth of notes to explain my tentacle monster’s presence. All I really need to explain that is “I watched way too much tentacle porn as a teen.” (I’ve only seen four of them, but you know what? That’s still way too much in my opinion.)

Even more confusing are the endings. As I said, I took the supa-secret ending, which involves fighting Gerhman, the host of the Hunter’s Dream hub, and upon defeating him fighting the Moon Presence who apparently set all of this up. When it dies, you become a little squirmy Cthulhu baby, implying that the whole world has now became your dream. BUT, if this is a dream you’re inheriting, again, why no reboot? Why would the world remain in a constant state of decay if you get to take over and dream something better?

At least with the middle ending, there’s some sense in the world staying the same because after fighting Gehrman, the Moon Presence eats your character and forces them to become the new host of the Hunter’s Dream. BUT, if this hunting is cyclical, and clearly it is, why does the presence not add more people?

The “good” ending involves dying and waking up, removing the hunter from the dream world after killing the bosses. But it’s implied that they’ll respawn and a new hunt will begin the next night. So, while I hate to sound like a broken record, I have to ask why the reset always seems to come after everything has gone to shit? And if this supposed to be the permanent state of the dream, why even bother having a billion pages of backstory? Just run with the dream premise and forget all the history and world building.

And of course there is an easy answer to why there aren’t more people or more diverse monsters. This was a first year PS4 game, so the team blew all the system’s resources on the vast levels and didn’t have anything left over for the population. They just stamped the same copy pasta baddies all over the place and wrote up a history that implies there was some diversity here, long ago, in a game world where everyone has become a clone.

Okay, I’ve flogged that horse to death so let’s talk upgrades. Want to install some Blood Gems you found? Too bad. You can’t do that until after recovering a lost Blood Gem Tool. Found some runes and want to try them out? You can’t do that until halfway through the game. The same goes for applying anything larger than Blood Stone Shards to upgrade your weapon. (Scabs, by the way. You upgrade your weapons with increasingly larger scabs.) You can’t get the highest level Blood Stone (scab), the rock, until the last area, and there’s exactly one in the whole game. (Compare that to the 5 titanite slabs you can find in DSIII’s normal game play, only one of which requires fighting a boss to unlock.)

The game gives you your choice of three starting “trick weapons” and two guns. The saw cleaver, threaded cane, and hunter’s axe all have a sense of heft and impact within a few upgrades, but the guns are pathetic no matter what you do. Go on and upgrade your gun. Then level up to crazy stupid levels of “bloodtinge.” (No, I have to pause to rant. You’re apparently dipping each bullet in your own blood before firing them because quicksilver itself isn’t strong enough to kill werewolves? And the bullets are made more effective the more your own blood contains the disease infecting the beasts? Buhwhathefuh? That’s a level of stupid that even in a dream, my brain would go, “Nope, too stupid, start over.”) Then take that gun and shoot an enemy from ten yards away. Okay, not so bad, right? Take two steps back and repeat. Throwing a pebble would cause more damage. The decay of momentum is the same regardless of what weapon you choose. There’s even a rifle that the description claims has a better range, and it really does not. Like at all.

In your hands. In an enemy’s hands, every gun has a two mile range and hits with the impact of a freight train. Even after leveling up my health, a rifle packing hunter could kill me in two hits if I didn’t dodge roll all over the place while making my way to his location. (Bringing to mind that scene from Galaxy Quest. “Does the rolling help?” “Uh-huh, it helps.”) Then there’s the special brand of NPC hunter I mentioned before, and each one that has a gun will spam it with nigh-ridiculous amounts of damage. It all ends up being a waste of time because you can just go to a tree, or a fence, or a tombstone, and then stab them through the object. Bullets and all projectile attacks can’t pass through any of these obstacles, but weapons and melee attacks can. Stupid? Oh, absolutely.

So what is the gun there for? For the equivalent of a parry. You have to let an enemy get in close enough to kiss you, wait for them to start an attack, and then shoot them in the gut. Do this just right, and you can then do a “visceral attack.” In this instance you will drop your weapon and just use your bare hand to do five times the damage of your actual sword, cleaver, or axe. Stupid? Oh, absolutely.

There’s a back stab that works in a similar manner. You hold down the heavy attack to charge it up, and after the weapon makes contact, you press the light attack to drop your weapon and shove your hand up their ass for some bloody fisting action. There’s a larger window of time to accomplish this, making it easier to pull off than the parry and visceral attack, and I admit, there’s something amusing about shoving my hand up the butts of werewolves and giant pigs. But it’s still kind of dumb how much more effective your hand becomes than actually using your weapon. Critical attacks and back stabs in Dark Souls III make so much more sense than this.

Later on, you have the chance to upgrade weapons with Blood Gems, and the ones that up the physical attack damage or affect the skill ratings of the weapon are damned handy. (Changing a weapon skill rank means it does more bonus damage based on your skill level. There’s possibly some algebra involved in sorting out how the bonus is calculated.) However, many of these gems have elemental damage boosts for fire, bolt (electricity), or arcane. (Fucked it I know what that’s supposed to be.) But here’s the thing: adding an attack for any element instantly negates the physical attack bonuses of the other gems. In effect, adding just one elemental gem effectively cripples the weapon.

And it just goes on and on, the list of bad design choices that all work so much better in Dark Souls III, and with far more variety. Even the method of fast travel is worse. In DSIII, if you have to return to the Firelink Shrine hub to level up or do a weapon upgrade, you can sit at the shrine bonfire and find the last area you were in highlighted, making the return trip much easier. In Bloodborne, there’s four tombstones, and you have to scroll through the list to get back to your grinding spot.

About the only improvement is the separation of the healing potions and all the other items that can be added to the quick slots. This makes it much easier to heal up and keep lobbing Molotov cocktails or poison knives or whatever at the enemies. But that’s about the only design choice that feels like an improvement.

So, is there anything in this game to save it from being a total snoozefest? YES. There’s chalice dungeons. After a boss fight with Vicar Amelia, you pick up your first chalice, and thereafter, you can buy or farm ritual blood to generate a dungeon. Somewhere in the first dungeon is another chalice, a root chalice, as well as some ritual materials to generate another dungeon, and this is where things get interesting. Each time you fill up a root chalice at the ritual altar it generates a different dungeon with a variety of possible bosses. I was thinking this would suck because why would I want to fight the same bosses I’ve already seen? But it turns out there’s actually a number of bosses in the dungeons who aren’t in the story part of the game.

The chalice dungeons are short, with only a few rooms to wander before finding a lever to unlock the door to the boss room, and only a few enemies to harass you. (Well, I say a few, but I generated one dungeon that had like thirty rats clustered up in two rooms. Clearing those rooms out was…slightly difficult.) You kill the boss, take an elevator down a floor and light a lamp before moving into the next area. Each dungeon has three or four bosses, and the deeper you go into a chalice dungeon, the harder the bosses get. It’s huge amounts of fun. You’re never bogged down in the copy pasta enemies for long before you’re into a boss fight, and that’s really the best part of the game. This is true of the story part, too, but the story forces you to slog though vast mazes of tedium before letting you have fun. The chalice dungeons seem to be an admission by From Software that they get what part of their game is the most fun, and they’re offering a way to get to the fun parts with far less of the boring bits.

Which begs the question, if they know their game was dull as dirt, why did they make every single area with the same tedious process?

The chalice dungeons really raised my opinion of the game, and during my first few runs I was blown away by how much better it felt to play once all the crap was stripped out. But is it enough to encourage me to experiment with different builds or to unlock the two easier endings? No. As I said, right after I finished, I ejected the disc and put Dark Souls III back in. I’ve beaten that game three times, and I’ve stopped several runs near the middle simply because I’d had a revelation about a weapon or armor set and wanted to start over to experiment with different stats. I don’t like the grinding in that game much either, but there’s a lot more variety to the enemies so the grinding isn’t as dull, and it’s possible to reset an area without two loading screens or spending a small fortune on “reset marks.” I don’t have to keep going back to the hub to repair my weapon. I just get in and play. This is what I mean by accessible, and I am so, so glad I played Dark Souls III before I played Bloodborne. Had I played it first, I would have assumed Dark Souls III was more of the same shit, and I would have missed out on a game I truly love.

I’m giving Bloodborne 3 stars. I want to give it 2 for all the ridiculous wonk and tedium that bogs down the boss fights. But most of those boss fights were really fun. (Oh, and I beat two thirds of them on my first try. Cause I’m hardcore, y’all.) The chalice dungeons also help bring up the score because they give me what I want without all the extra crap. Maybe sometime down the road, I’ll load the disc back in and do some chalice dungeon runs with my current character. But if I feel like grinding up a new character, I’d much rather do it in a game that doesn’t feel nearly as clunky or meandering.