The minute I finished Bloodborne, I said, “Yeah, that was probably the worst Souls game.” Even the potential worst Souls game, though, is the best game of the year, and even more proof that Hidetaka Miyazaki is one of the smartest people in this business. Not afraid to take risks, not afraid to screw things up, Miyazaki, his team at From Software, and Bloodborne have, once again, confirmed that the “Souls” series is my favorite thing to happen to videos games…ever.
There’s a lot to dislike about Bloodborne if you’re familiar with previous Souls games. You’ll visit a town, a forest, another town, and then, wait for it, a bigger forest. The Blood Vial system feels like a major step back from the original Dark Souls‘ incredibly elegant Estus Flask system. Instead of being challenged with surviving with a set number of easily replenish-able healing items, now you’re forced to grind weak enemies to stock back up. It’s a stripped down, un-RPG’ed version of Dark Souls, complete with so few armors that you’ll probably never have a reason to switch clothes after the first hour. Several bosses are variations on familiar themes, a lot of the “story through environmental pick-ups” is gone, there are too many disconnected dead-ends, and there are only a handful of total unique areas compared to the rest of the series’ dozens.
And still, Bloodborne is among the best games I’ve played in a decade.
From Software has the uncanny gift of making players feel like they’re always being rewarded, and that’s why the Souls series and Bloodborne work as well as they do. The core of these games is as follows: Explore, Discover, Be Punished, Learn From Mistakes, then repeat. As much as you’re finding new areas to soak in and hunting down horrible beasts to slay, you’re learning systems and getting one step closer to beating death in an inhospitable world. Every From game, starting with Demon’s Souls, is a masterwork of level and encounter design, and Bloodborne only ups the ante with its much speedier, more aggressive combat. It’s the smartest series designed around water-cooler moments I’ve ever played, and I dare you to try and play Dark Souls or Bloodborne without immediately wanting to talk to someone about it.
“Did you see that giant alien-looking thing?” “Were you kidnapped and sent to that prison, and why was that girl there?” “How the hell do you kill THREE of these guys at the same time?” Every hour of these games leaves you with more discussion questions than any five hours of most other games. “The good parts” are compacted into every instance of play, and any fat or thoughtless design is few and far between. While I think a few areas of Bloodborne may not be the best or most well-designed in the series, I can understand and appreciate what From was aiming for. These rough patches are more than remedied with the surprising genre-twist Bloodborne makes before you reach its final hours, and by just how satisfying nearly everything about the game is.
My biggest complaint with the game is that, well, I just want a lot more of it. I sped through Bloodborne faster than any past Souls game, and felt a little unsatisfied when I reached what I had assumed was the final encounter. In typical Souls fashion, though, I has missed a half-dozen bosses and areas, including with what’s now possibly my favorite area in the game. I also incorrectly thought that the optional Chalice dungeons were throwaway content (because they were marketed as “procedural,” meaning: “not hand-crafted”), but couldn’t have been further off. The Chalice areas feel like throwbacks to a more fantastical, hostile Souls world, with illusory walls and traps hidden throughout. Though I’ve “finished” the game, I’m still discovering new things I haven’t seen before, and am still experimenting with the game’s wonderfully deep combat systems. Though my end-game play clock may have read 30 hours as the credits rolled (compared to Dark Souls 2‘s 65), I see myself easily sinking more into Bloodborne’s twisted world.
With resources like Gary Butterfield and Kole Ross’ BonfireSide Chat, VaatiVidya’s YouTube Channel, and the abundance of Bloodborne / Souls forums out there, it’s easy to find a community of people going through the same trials the game forced you through. The hidden lore is a bonus for perceptive players, with each item description and NPC dialogue providing scant details about the world around you, all combining into a larger narrative that most players will never see. Bloodborne may not be the biggest Souls game, but it’s still a huge one, prompting the community to come together to discover all of the secrets it still has to hide. As other players constantly remind you via the vocabulary of the in-game messaging system, “Remember, a hunter is never alone.”
Bloodborne is a game that I’ll be processing for a long time to come, just like Dark Souls 2 and the games before it. I’m constantly thinking about it, wondering what others have to say, and seeing what secrets are still being teased from the game’s deepest clutches. In a series of the best games I’ve ever played, saying Bloodborne is able to stand alongside its predecessors is the best compliment I can give.