Wednesday, April 29, 2015

REVIEW - Bloodborne.

A large part of Bloodborne's pleasures lay in the discovery of the unknown, exploration, and meeting insane monsters for the first time.  As such, this review is as spoiler-free as I can make it, almost entirely limited to pre-release plot and world details.

For those in the know, all you need to be told is Bloodborne is the next thing from the crew and creator of Demon's Souls (2009) and Dark Souls (2011).  For the rest, be advised that From Software specialize in razor-sharp, brutal, visceral, dreamlike, hugely imaginative, soaring dark-fantasy epics that have redefined what a modern RPG can achieve by putting the emphasis entirely on meaningful action, exploration and atmosphere, and avoiding the story-driven talking heads of almost any other high-profile role playing game.

The map is not the nigh-endless sprawl of Dark Souls.  The story - while vague and difficult to ken - is not as vague and difficult to ken.  The world is not as ethereal, and the development of your grim hero isn’t nearly as open and expressive as you’d find in any game that bears the Souls moniker.

In many ways, Bloodborne is the least-Soulsy game in the series – but it’s also, somehow, the purest distillation of its formula.  From Software’s dark action fantasies are peerless – a genre unto themselves – and Bloodborne is, for my money, the best of the bunch.  The most refined.  The most playable, with the most charming personality, and the most pleasurable.

It’s like the next thing from Rockstar North.  The next thing from Klei.  The next step up from Naughty Dog.  Bloodborne is

It’s also merely the latest masterpiece in a series of masterpieces, and what it offers is... expected.  My first night with Bloodborne, my paramour asked me how it was, and I shrugged.

“It’s Dark Souls again,” I said.  “With top hats.”

At first, it’s almost disappointingly consistent.  It gives you exactly what you expect from From, but if their RPGs are a stable of chocobos, it would be the latest Thoroughbred – its qualities pruned and picked just so.   Sleek, muscular and eager to make its masters proud, it is the ultimate expression of the form.

Some enemies are frightened of fire, and will cower when you brandish a torch.  Oh, it's also gorgeous.

The Souls experience begins on the edge of your blade, and your first fumbling attempts to wield it against the game’s creatures.

As in all Souls games, your character’s combat style is largely shaped by your weapon of choice, but instead of a variety that borders on obscene, Bloodborne confines itself to a comparative handful of charismatic options.  Called trick weapons, each cruel-looking selection can transform with stylish animations from a lighter, quicker form to a heavier, slower variant and back again – every option is both two vastly different combat styles, and one massive repertoire to master.  Despite the mechanical originality, they’re beautifully believable, physical, weighty items, and the small assortment and meaningful differences encourage experimentation, while ensuring each choice makes a unique argument for itself.

When you come across one that permits you to communicate with Yharnam’s populous with enhanced profundity, it becomes quite dear to you – and as in all Souls games, you can invest precious resources into your cudgel of choice, and perhaps slap some additional modifications on it.

The Hunter's Dream takes on the role of Demon's Souls' nexus hub, offering access to each unlocked area.
You even level up by talking to the same voice actress.

Unlike previous Souls games, such modifications can be applied at your base of operations (a cottage in a lonely dreamscape that seems suspended above space and time), and freely experimented with.  Aside from core upgrades, you’re never locked in – and if you decide trading physical damage for fire isn’t serving your purposes, you’re free to swap it out at your leisure.  It’s very liberating, when compared to Souls canon, and is one of several ways Bloodborne permits itself to be a bit more easygoing, a bit more gamey than its predecessors.

When it comes to bringing your chosen instrument to bear on the tragic denizens of Yharnam and beyond, it is pure, high-concentration Souls, where stats are great, but skill is better.

These are both the same weapon.  Fancy fury.

Make a serious error, and you will pay for it with your life (and your time, as you brawl your way back to the site of your death from the last checkpoint, and your accumulated collection of blood echoes – the game’s XP and currency – which may have been picked up by an enemy in your absence). Almost every enemy in Bloodborne will obliterate you with little effort, and cruelly punish thoughtless, button-mashy attempts to overcome it.  The moment you grow overconfident and disrespect them, they will kill you for it.  Meanwhile, your chosen weapon refuses to think for itself, and each of its attacks have very specific properties.  The specific cut needed to answer an enemy in a cramped hallway, the precise horizontal arc your blade will glide through with R1, the way it will clang off a doorway instead of clipping through the world’s geometry, the exact moment you need to strike to interrupt an attack – these become hugely important – but Bloodborne doesn’t crack open for your while you’re still slurring the elegant tongue of its combat.

L1 switches your weapon's form - but if you tap L1 after a dodge or during a combo, it will unleash a powerful transforming strike - which can be chained together.  Also, I love that the game's female enemies are cackling, ferocious crones.
Not a chainmail g-string in sight.

Your weapon’s unique language is your means of expression, and you begin by croaking out halting, timid phrases – understandably terrified of what the thing in front of you might do when you least expect it, and unsure of what the thing you swing about is capable of.  With time, with experience, you become fluent.  You come to intimate grips with the differences in your moveset when locked on to an enemy, and when not. You master the invincibility frames of the combat dodge, and there comes a day when a wobbly horror from beyond the stars flings a glowing orb at your approach and you dash through it as an opening statement.  You begin to speak eloquently. Confidently.

A running horizontal slash permits an almost-instant transition to a follow-up cut that will hit the target more quickly if you don't lock on to it. and pivot to the right after the initial cut.  Then, a charged power attack makes use of  the lock-on.

You blitz right up into their hostile little faces and tear into them with brutal abandon, great gouts of blood exploding this way and that with each strike, covering your dapper dress with deep, glistening crimson.  Dangerous as things are, Bloodborne does not want you to whisper.  When facing beasts one must roar – one must snap and snarl with all the ferocity of one’s quarry, leaping this way and that as they flail wildly, impotently against your onslaught, as you once did against theirs.  They howl and leap and rake the ground with their awful claws, but once you speak Bloodborne’s cruel language, you find what your foes have to say only matters to the degree that it informs your witty response.

Guns offer both a long-distance stun and a debilitating parry when interrupting a foe's attack, setting them up for a major counter.   Note how the second strike - a transformation strike that takes the blade from closed to open - breaks the block of the shield-wielding enemy.  

Once you have that down, you’ll find Bloodborne offers the fastest, smoothest flavor of the Souls loops.

In a darkened hallway/street/room/stretch of forest, you meet some unnatural, twisted foe that can kill you with a single, brutal combo, and learn how to survive against it.  Learn it so well that, before long, you are slaughtering that thing – perfectly, precisely, almost casually – as you stroll past on your way to the next unnatural, twisted foe you don’t know quite as well.

This satisfying loop repeats, over and over as you carefully pick your way through a new, beautiful, mysterious and dangerous area.   Each environment is a tangle of pathways and rooms, thick with vital treasures, secret corners and efficiently lethal new foes, and they fold in on themselves to create a seamless, Metroidvania-esque world, where shortcuts are everywhere and striking design and memorable locations ensure you never mistake this mist-cloaked, dimly-lit alley for another.

Getting lost in the Forbidden Woods, however, is as easily said as done.
I know that shortcut is around here somewhere!

In doing so, you earn enough souls or blood echoes to level up, which earns you an almost-imperceptible boost to one stat of your choosing – a far lesser buff than the insight you’ve gained into Bloodborne and its ways, in the process – and before long, you know this zone and its monsters inside and out.  Around this time, you’ll come across a spacious field, littered with the bones of those who came before.  You’ll push open the doors to an impossibly large cathedral.  You’ll walk down some very dark stairs, a health bar thrice the size of your own will appear, and you’ll meet the area’s boss.  Then, you’ll die.

The Cleric Beast is likely the first boss you'll meet - and like most of Bloodborne's bosses, she's completely optional.
An experienced player can zip through the game, ignoring half its areas - and a careless player may accidentally overlook entire zones.

The nature of Bloodborne’s design ensures you don’t have to fight your way, tooth and nail, through this treacherous landscape (repeating all earlier loops) just to take another crack at it.  Near the boss’s room is, reliably, a shortcut you can open up – a switch, a gate, an elevator – that provides easy access to the fight from your starting point.  Then, you throw down with a nightmare creature.  You learn its animations, its tells, strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately beat the ever-loving crap out of it with your own careful-yet-aggressive, strategically-measured viciousness.

And it feels incredible.  When the thing falls and explodes into hazy light.  When your blood echo tally blasts up by a few dozen-thousand.  As your breathing steadies, and your pulse stops racing.  Incredible.  You did it.

Everything was set against you.  Any single thing you fought your way past could have slaughtered you, but you mastered them.  You mastered this place.  You mastered yourself, and your abilities.

Then, you come to a door.  Beyond, you’ll discover a new, beautiful, mysterious and dangerous area ripe for exploration, discovery and a deeper education in Bloodborne’s unforgiving nature.  Where you will rediscover, again, what you are capable of.  And so the grand loop goes.

It’s beautiful.

The enigmatic subterranean chalice dungeons represent dozens of hours of the most challenging, rewarding content Bloodborne has to offer - the very best treasures wait within - and you can easily beat the game without ever setting foot inside.

So yes, it’s Souls, again (minus the option to brandish a trustworthy shield), but there are enough fine new conceits to re-ignite your imagination, and a wealth of streamlining, canny choices to ensure it’s the slickest, sharpest iteration of the Souls formula – said lack of shields, for example, take what was already some of the most involving combat in gaming and cranks its speed and risk-reward edge up to eleven.  Gives it greater bite.  The familiarity is comforting, the refinement is appreciated and the originality is thrilling.  The originality, really, is what makes Bloodborne the crown jewel of From Software’s efforts.

The story, for one, isn't as flat as you'll find in From's previous works - where nightmare creatures stalked a zany array of dark fantasy settings just 'cause un-deadness exists and there’s something about an ancient king or whatnot – instead, it permeates every aspect of the game.  

In Bloodborne, you arrive at the city of Yharnam - a town famous for its cure-all "blood minstration" medicinal techniques (and the Plague of Beasts it occasionally suffers from) - and wake up after a procedure in a wrecked clinic.  "Seek the pale blood" is all you're told, and as you explore the doomed city, snuffling through its dark corners, the culture of Yharnam is laid bare.  Slowly, purposefully, you learn of the town's medicine, its religion, its leisure, and the uncanny source of all this horror.

In classic From style, a great deal of the story is revealed in item descriptions.  So... Yharnam is a city of vampires?
Wait a minute - I've been drinking blood through this entire game - what the hell am I?

Its narrative retains the elusive, mysterious From style - that is, nothing is explicitly explained, and at best you're given the contours of a story and left to fill in the middle on your own - but it has a far greater sense of place, a far more immersive reality than any Souls game.  Yharnam feels like a real city with real history in its cobbles - not simply because its Victorian aesthetic and gothic-steampunk technology are such departures from the anything-goes dark fantasy of From's previous efforts.

By strictly confining itself to the world its story produced - by limiting the scope of what was possible therein - From's creativity has flourished.  Detail and charisma and consistency of narrative and theme are in the dangerous design of every wrought-iron gate, the ominous suggestion of every inhuman form committed to stonework, the implied origins of every cruelly misshapen enemy. Bloodborne’s gleefully twisted narrative informs every aspect of its design – and so, its reality soaks into you.  You can’t help but breathe it in with every step. 

What manner of gods were worshipped here?

Each Souls game, for example, begins with an urban or otherwise domestic stonework environment where you test the games’ combat against easily-understandable, monstrous-but-human foes (historically, undead soldiers).  Bloodborne echoes this, but the lushly-realized urban landscape you stroll through is central to its story, and the fantasy of its world.  The human-but-monstrous foes you face are, unquestionably, the citizenry of Yharnam – out on “the night of the Hunt,” you’re told, stalking the streets in roving bands with torches and pitchforks raised on high, in the hopes of cleansing their town of the Plague of Beasts – and they see a beast in you.

There is blood everywhere.  Great, horrible creatures are crucified to be cleansed with fire.  Human-sized bodies are stacked like cordwood in ruddy gray burlap sacks with reeking red bleeding through, and everyone not locked indoors has completely lost their minds.  This place has taken them.

The Hunt has been going on for quite a while.  A final, ultimate evening has descended upon Yharnam which seems to have no end – seems to exist outside of time – and the only thing that changes within it, the only thing that can change anything within its still-death tableaux, is you.  Only you can have any lasting impact on this apocalypse, and as you pick your way through Yharnam’s ruined streets, you find yourself caring a great deal about the few homes with the glowing red incense lanterns at the windows.

The incense keeps the beasts away, they say, and while no door opens to your knock, someone may speak to you from behind the shutters.  Often just to laugh in your face or blame you, foreign as you are, for the doom that hangs over the city – but in all this silence and death, a human voice speaking human language is a comfort, no matter how awful the words.  That is how Bloodborne begins.

You cannot save her.  You cannot save any of them - but it feels right to try.
Isn't it kinder to try?

The fate of Yharnam and its citizenry is a suffocating, omnipresent tragedy, and the arc of Bloodborne a mind-stretching, Lovecraftian opus.  Lonely, gothic, magical atmosphere has long been a staple of the Souls series – where adequate graphics tech achieves supernatural success through visual artistry and sharp design – but Bloodborne pushes what was already a high water mark with the most cohesive, consistent, gorgeous, tangible reality From has ever produced.  The differences don’t begin and end with top hats and pocket watches – it makes many of the same wise, effective choices of any Souls game, but Bloodborne soaks each series trope in new meaning, to the point that one gets the sense it may have sprung, organically, from this inspired universe.

It is, in the wonderful From fashion, a razor-sharp, brutal, visceral, dreamlike, hugely imaginative, soaring dark-fantasy epic with an emphasis entirely on meaningful action, exploration and atmosphere.  Its world is an enigmatic, awe-inspiring, heartbreaking, unforgettable place, and your tragic, heroic, horrific journey through it, each step taken under the weight of its supremely involving combat, is one of the most pulse-pounding, affecting experiences you’ll have with a controller in your hand.

Bloodborne is a masterpiece.

A masterpiece with vampires in top hats.

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