Sunday, 3 May 2015

"Bloodborne" Review

by Alex Hill


There is something inherently wrong with Bloodborne's design philosophy. It is an inelegant, lopsided creature. It limps in the foosteps of the Dark Souls series, capturing little of their spark of genius. It throws away many of the conveniences and accomplishments of its' predecessors, in exchange for time-wasting nonsense.

You play as whoever, you go to some place or whatever, and then you're a squid. That's the entire plot of Bloodborne. There's no room for role-playing or head-canons. I never really felt like a part of the world it presented, the way Dark Souls allowed. You show up, you kill a bunch of things, you kill some more things, The End. There's no investment, there's no intrigue, there's no significant or interesting lore. Doom offered a richer narrative in its' between-stages loading screens. The people who tell you to read between the lines think that seeing something others can't will somehow make it profound. In that sense, Bloodborne is about its' own fans.


For those who don't concern yourselves with context and just want this game for the rush of violence, let me make this perfectly clear: Bloodborne is not a challenge. It is not difficult. It is easily-decipherable, but loaded with cheap, unavoidable instant death at seemingly random moments. Every boss in the game feels like it has the same moveset, so once you have figured out how to defeat one, you've practically beaten the entire game. The first boss is more difficult than the last by a pretty wide margin. Instead of re-adjusting this, the game allows monsters 1-hit kill attacks that are not telegraphed, or occasionally ignore hit detection altogether, forcing the player to die through no fault of their own.

In the depraved mission to make a game that is nerd-tough, it captures little if anything of what made the Dark Souls series so rapturous and interesting. It punishes you for losing at a game it has rigged in favour of itself, like any common bully on a schoolyard. For a "spiritual successor", I'm not sure Hidetaka Miyazaki or From Software actually understand why their previous games worked.

It is no secret that the load times are inexcusable. But what is worse is how little thought went into building a game around them. A game this reliant on checkpoints and shortcuts should not force the player through two loading screens just to go somewhere else for a change. You used to be able to warp to most, if not every checkpoint, FROM any checkpoint. The point is that this is supposed to be faster than simply walking. These problems were fixed, and required willful arrogance to break again. Convenience was not a priority here, and I suspect the developer mistook this for an accomplishment.

If this game had any mission, it was to force people to step out of their comfort zones and attack their obstacles head-on. You can no longer rely on hiding behind a shield and heavy armour, or attacking from a distance with magic or arrows. Every confrontation is now close-quarters combat.

If nothing else, it does give the player a sense of fearlessness. I can take on boss monsters now with confidence, if not ease, when I would have thought them impossible to handle without assistance when I started playing. This is a double-edged sword, a gift and a curse. I enjoy co-operating with others more than going solo. But once I was able to climb some of those walls on my own, there was no longer a need for the multiplayer aspect. And the game's attempt to generate a spooky world and circumstances falls flat when you no longer fear what's around the next corner. It has delusions of being taken seriously, to be seen as scary and to be hard, but it doesn't work for any of those things.

Truth be told, I know I can take care of myself. I can go mano-e-mano with some of the more intimidating opponents the city of Yharnam offers. I just don't think that's more fun, more interesting or more engaging than tackling problems with someone. I feel victory much more when it is shared. Helping someone, being helped, even if everyone involved is a stranger. And it goes so far out of its' way to discourage cooperation that it actually prevents the player from teaming up with others, if you take the time to train. You are always either too weak or too mighty for what Bloodborne throws at you.

Worse yet, it is deprived of the character customization that made the previous Souls games so rich and so personal. The player has access to about 1/100th of the wardrobe options available to you in Dark Souls 2, they have a reduced effect on the outcome of battle and they cannot be upgraded. And now the stubborn focus on being a light-weight melee character slashes the replay value. There are no classes, no other roles to try out, no other strategies. You can't be the Mage, you can't be the Healer, you can't be the Tank. You can't be anything but a nimble insect, something pecking and easily stomped. A series known for it's player-expression reduces everyone into the same vaguely Van-Hellsing-ish anime character mould.

I understand why this decision was made. I admire the confidence that comes from expecting people to adapt or die. In that sense, we are talking about some of the more strangely optimistic games released in a very long time. But players will always go for the optimal strategy, even if that means being slow and impervious to damage, or safely distant from danger. There is abuse of that security blanket, but the great thing about previous Souls games was that you could play them any way you want and still stand a chance. You can play Dark Souls the way you are meant to play Bloodborne and you can win. But you cannot play Bloodborne the way you might play Dark Souls. You don't even have the option. This makes repeated playthroughs, one of the joys of those games into a chore, now that there is only one available solution.

Of note is the shameless theft of the works of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulu Mythos, or at least it's most superficial elements. I imagine this was done to make the game's setting and lore more complex, more imposing. I actually felt it made the world of Bloodborne smaller, less detailed and less interesting when it decided:

That's it. That's the game.

Whatever mystery and depth the game might have had was washed away with that one word. The Dark Souls games have answers to the questions they raise, even if they’re not obvious at first. But I feel like Bloodborne tips its’ hand so early and so desperately, and doesn’t follow through with any decent, memorable characterization that it comes off feeling half-assed.

There’s no buildup to anything, and there’s no pay-off. All it has is a flimsy excuse to go over here and kill more monsters. I get that the game has a stiffy for dream-logic, but I feel like that and the Lovecraft pandering were just lazy excuses to not make a real story, with characters or an arc, or anything emotional or psychological at stake. It never looks at anything long enough to make me care, which leads me feeling like a group of talented people wasted thousands of man-hours and millions of dollars on something evanescent.

Bloodborne is not a good game. It's not even a good Dark Souls game. It's striking to look at, it has an amazing soundtrack and no real reason to stop and admire anything it offers. I believe the reason it has fooled so many into thinking it is better is because it opens with an impeccably realized first level. Central Yharnam is the game Miyazaki had in mind. I'm still daydreaming about where he could have taken it from there.

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