goty2015


I don't have an aggressive preamble this year. These are 2015's best games. 

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CIBELE

Star Maid Games

Finding yourself is difficult. Finding someone else is complicated. Cibele bears both burdens in a candid and empathetic glimpse of burgeoning love in the 21st century. So many games either waste or misunderstand their medium as a storytelling device while Cibele thrives inside of its own technology. By no coincidence, it’s one of the most human and relatable games, too. My review.

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XENOBLADE CHRONICLES X

Monolith Soft

Xenoblade Chronicles X is a boundless demonstration of the relationship between scale and structure, and its myriad of frenzied ideas are willed into cohesion only by the congruence of its supporting systems. Xenoblade Chronicles X may be obsessed with scale (and proudly so), but it doesn't leave the player feeling consumed by it. My review.

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SUNLESS SEA

Failbetter Games

Sunless Sea stresses an appreciation for resource management, vaguely turn-based combat, roguelike principles of calculated disposability, and basic role-playing. All of this builds to a confident level of intimidation – it can require an exceptional amount of time to procure the particular nature of Sunless Sea's identity and intentions – but not without a certain indelible magnetism. Making sense of Sunless Sea's complexity just seems to be one of its underlying challenges. My review.

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ROCKET LEAGUE

Psyonix

Most sports would probably be better if human participants were replaced with cars. While this thesis is typically reserved for late night conversations with close friends, Psyonix accepted it as a genuine assignment and produced Rocket League. It's soccer with cars—and the execution of this idea has no business being as good as the fantasy. My review.

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HER STORY

Sam Barlow

Her Story's novelty is based on its noteriaty as a game with full-motion video. Its strength is that its uses its gimmick as an asset, rather than a selling point. Wirehead, Night Trap, Sewer Shark, and countless other misguided efforts from the 3DO and Sega CD salted the Earth for decades, but Her Story persevered through, rather than because of its presentation. It was fun make sense of its disorganized and deliberately non-linear mystery by watching specific clips a dozen times, temporarily learning Morris Code, and filling pages and pages of a notebook with supposed clues. Her Story purged the rigid trial-and-error modus operandi of FMV games and replaced it with sequences that felt comfortable inside of their medium.

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THE WITCHER 3: WILD HUNT

CD Projekt RED

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is an exhibition of lessons learned not only from CD Projeckt RED’s past work, but also from a spectrum of open-world and role-playing contemporaries. It's expected for games of this nature to excel at taking your time away. What's most impressive about The Witcher 3 is that rarely seems to waste it. My review.

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BLOODBORNE

FromSoftware

With aggression as its invitation, Bloodborne invokes a calculated shift in Souls parlance. Its aim isn't necessarily a course correction, but rather a Y-axis slant into an alternative series of objectives. Sacrificed are a few degrees of personalization, only to be replaced by a renewed sense of distress and wonder. Bloodborne’s demanding novelty, even with its unrepentant focus, feels built to last and different enough from its Souls cousins. My review.

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WESTERADO: DOUBLE BARRELLED

Ostrich Banditos

The search for truth may be the driving force of any revenge tale, but whether Westerado's truth is fabricated, earned, implied, or rejected is left to the player. You can practically do whatever you want, and, rather than damn the consequences, Westerado makes it easier to embrace them. Furthermore, Westerado functions as an ideal medium between the overbearing narratives of modern adventure games and the sacred-content design of open-world peers. Much like your protagonist, Westerado is humbly fearless. My review.

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LIFE IS STRANGE

Dontnod

I don't know if I can accurately articulate how authentic it felt to be a teenage girl in art school in the year 2013, but all five episodes of Life is Strange sold it pretty well. When I look back on Life is Strange I actually don't think of the (actually really well done) time travel mechanic, or how said mechanic is so neatly woven into the narrative, but rather what it feels like to be that person in this specific time. Comparing Life is Strange to My So Called Life is an obvious connection, but it's no less true. It's more about mood, theme, time, and sentiment than any other definition. Read Nathan’s reviews of Episode 1 and Episode 2.

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GALAK-Z: THE DIMENSIONAL

17-BIT

Galak-Z pushes the freewheeling buoyancy of 80's anime against a hostile ecosystem of evil empires, insane pirates, and skeevy space bugs. Beneath this veneer of chaos is a shifting alliance of applied skill and honest luck, and muscling toward the former forces the player to fight every fight like it's their last. As roguelikes go, Galak-Z's tireless air of optimism makes a case for its own dimension. My review.

Past year’s top ten lists: 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014

Other games I greatly enjoyed this year:

Everybody's Gone to the Rapture - Everybody's Gone to the Rapture's take on interactive fiction is admirable, even in its struggle to manage personal discovery alongside narrative composition. I love its calamitous tranquility, I identify with the plights of its characters, and I'm enamored with its confident storytelling, but its reluctance to disclose its disposition adversely affects its capability. My review.

Until Dawn - Characters that were dumber than dirt may have been a deliberate decision, but it adversely affected my enjoyment of the game. In any case the consequences of my decisions In Until Dawn mattered slightly more than they did in most modern adventure games, and it’s a commendable step in nudging the genre forward. Nathan's review.

Grow Home - While other 3D platformer revivals trade on nostalgia, Grow Home accepts its trappings and makes something brand new out of them. It's (probably) the most accomplished pure-climbing game I've ever played, and growing buds literally wherever I wanted provided a neat sense of ownership over Grow Home's world. Incredible scale, a streamlined and great-feeling set of mechanics, a god damn jetpack, and the courtesy not leave before the party's over all helped make Grow Home 2015's finest 3D platformer.

The Magic Circle - The Magic Circle is a playable videogame about a broken videogame made by people who aren't good at making videogames. While you're busy sorting between layers of candid reality and marginal fiction, The Magic Circle swiftly installs an impressive degree of agency behind its narrative and mechanics. It's not exactly commentary or criticism, but a relatable demonstration of game development hell and, ironically, one that's fun to engage as an untethered party. My review.

Neon Struct - Neon Struct conceals a modern society engulfed in menacing surveillance programs by drenching itself in the soothing aura of 1985's neon nightlife. It's an unexpected dichotomy—tranquility isn't the sort of evocation expected of extremely topical police-state paranoia—but one that Neon Struct dispenses with plausible seeds of insurrection. Colorful symmetry is the expected outcome, but Neon Struct surprises with plenty of shades of grey, too. My review.

3D After Burner II, 3D Outrun, and basically all of M2 + Sega's 3D classics on 3DS - Have you seenOutrun on a 3DS at sixty frames-per-second with 3D at full blast? My god.

Gravity Ghost - The impartial reality of childhood promises tragedy is treated with same innocence as prosperity. We're better equipped to learn from mistakes than act on advice, a phase of humanity Gravity Ghost both indulges and exposes to its own limitations. Expressed as a product, Gravity Ghost is an inventive platformer with a precarious and affecting narrative. Absorbed as an experience, Gravity Ghost makes a better case for the union of interactivity and storytelling. My review.

Dying Light - Dying Light presents a dynamic and frustrating parallel; it's quick to dazzle its audience with heaping stacks of energetic (if not wholly borrowed) content, but equally capable of unravelling under the burgeoning stress of weaving it all together. A reticence to acknowledge its own pratfalls leaves the responsibility of proper assembly to the player. If you're up to that particular challenge, Dying Light's one of the more impressive games of this emerging generation. My review.

ScreamRide - Peers in seemingly disparate genres have assumed mastery over impulsive tests of skill, the strategic obliteration of unreliable architecture, and a judicious regard for practical engineering, but none have been arranged together as uniform and effective as ScreamRide. For a game so persistently engrossed in outlandish destruction, it accompanying structure is surprisingly sound. My review.

Final Fantasy Type-0 HD - Only Final Fantasy could get away with the paradox of a clean slate that simultaneously references countless tropes endemic to its name. Type-0 HD can feel like the tortuous result of hasty assembly, but if allowed the time and energy to piece itself together, it stands as clear and original as others bearing its exalted title. My review.

Soma - I Like Soma! I haven't finished Soma! My wife and I sit down to play this every now and then but we never get very far before our collective anxiety gives way to interactive paralysis. Steven's review.

Transformers: Devastation - It's sort of a miracle that Activision green-lit a Transformers game based on a thirty-year-old interpretation of the Transformers license. It's another miracle that PlatinumGames got to make it. It felt like a lost episode of the old TV show, and while most the mechanics (and some of the same animations!) were lifted straight from Metal Gear Rising or Bayonetta, it was enough of a novelty to last through its six hour run time.

Crypt of the Necrodancer - The will to power seems incongruous with impulsive action, but it’s through this passage of devilish irony that Crypt of the NecroDancer thrives. It's the acquired and applied knowledge of a roguelike against the demanding drive of a rhythm game, and yet Crypt of the NecroDancer escapes the gaze of a simple curiosity and leaps to an ideal hybrid of two disparate genres. My review.

Games I regrettably missed this year: Axiom Verge, Yakuza 5, Tales from the Borderlands, Undertale, The Beginner's Guide, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse, Yoshi's Woolly World, Splatoon, Fallout 4, Metal Gear Solid V, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, Downwell, Super Mario Maker

Greatly looking forward to in 2016:: Persona 5, The Last Guardian, Final Fantasy XV, Firewatch, Mirror's Edge Catalyst, Dark Souls 3, Mass Effect Andromeda, Tacoma, Far Cry Primal, Star Fox Zero, Nier Automata, Allison Road, Crackdown 3, We Happy Few, Bravely Second: End Layer, Yakuza 0, Scalebound, hopefully more of Kentucky Route Zero, and VR.

 

We did it! Just in time for E3!

We actually recorded this a month ago but time, being what it is, moved on. 

This time we're talking antisocial wedding strategies, Mad Max: Fury Road, Vin Diesel's unfortunate reprise as an action hero, Yooka-Laylee, One Night: Ultimate Werewolf, effectively lying to children, Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl, the critical nature of sanity when trying to resolve misanthropic children, Cities: Skylines, local bridge humor, Westerado: Double Barrelled, Chromo Squad, Swords and Soldiers 2, King Arthur's World, Splatoon logistics, Don't Starve:Giant Edition, Heroes of the Storm, Bloodborne, vasoconstriction, over-the-counter Flonase, old man gaming resistance, Kirby Triple Deluxe, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Marvel Puzzle Quest, that time Steve interviewed James Gunn, and unruly capitalism practicies. Only some of those were videogames.

We also power-ranked the year 1998 in videogames which, spoilers, boiled down to a twenty minute discussion/fight combating the merits of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time against Metal Gear Solid. Panzer Dragoon Saga should have been the winner. Obviously.

Duration: 2h, 47m. Recorded: Monday May 25th, 2015.

Download this episode from our RSS feed or on iTunes. Download it directly here.

Please direct comments, feedback, and hate to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or follow us on Twitter: @flapjawspace

Greetings and salutations!  We've finally delivered the latest episode of the podcast we used to record every week before shifting to biweekly, monthly, and, finally, quarterly. We actually recorded a monster three hour episode in early January, but a technical snafu ensued and the corresponding sacrifice was consumed by Steve’s laptop.

This time we're talking about Master P's peculiar appearances in local law office commercials, Steve's shrewd assessment of charity work, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, children interpreting poop shapes, the enduring legacy of the confederate flag, how Patton Oswalt dealt with a heckler that one time, Better Call Saul, Mangok Mathiang's silly-ass accent, the upsetting nature of pregnancy sex, Black Mirror, a rose-colored glasses approach to Disney animation, monster fighting, what happens to sperm after a vasectomy has been performed, Melancholia, and white people dressed like Fred Durst.

Yes, Flap Jaw Space simultaneously remains a videogame podcast. This means we also discussed Chris' Vita literally catching on fire, Codename S.T.E.A.M., Bayonetta 2, a surrogate play-through of Five Night at Freddy's 3, Captain Toad Treasure Tracker, Hearthstone, Super Smash Bros for Nintendo Wii U Entertainment Systems, Old Man Parking Lot, Marvel Puzzle Quest, Citizens of Earth, The Sherriff of Nottingham, Sunless Sea, Dying Light, Resident Evil 2, Mario vs. Donkey Kong Tipping Stars, Final Fantasy Type-0 HD, Ori and the Blind Forest, Gravity Ghost, Tekken's contribution to religious nomenclature, and The Order 1886.

We also power-ranked the year 2005 in videogames.

Duration: 2h, 55m. Recorded: Tuesday March 10th, 2015.

Download this episode from our RSS feed or on iTunes. Download it directly here.

Please direct comments, feedback, and hate to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or follow us on twitter: @flapjawspace

Bloodborne's a huge game. Digital Chumps received a copy about a week in advance, but it wasn't nearly enough time to properly play through the game. What follows are loosely connected observations, general information, and an introspective reflection around the first twenty-five hours of Bloodborne. Stylistically, it's more loose and conversational than a committed, thesis-driven review. I love the game and I want to give it a great score, but we're not quite there yet.

When I reviewed Dark Souls II last year I wrote that it operated not as the nextDark Souls, but rather moreDark Souls. The original initiated a pivotal realignment of my gaming sensibilities and transitioned to generational leap in my personal gaming history. Those milestones are too many to count at this point, but just as Super Mario Bros. got me into games and Panzer Dragoon Saga opened my eyes to role-playing games, Dark Souls, well, made me accustomed to patience in combat, rewarding exploration, and personal feelings of wondrous accomplishment – a trinity of characteristics that perfectly encapsulate From Software's Souls series. I missed the perfect entry point with Demon's Souls, but going head-first into Dark Souls and coming out the other side hundreds of hours later was a transformative experience, a once-in-a-generation feeling matched with justified hyperbole.  

Dark Souls was difficult, but it wasn't just about the difficulty. Feelings of discovery and chipping away at ignorance were equal parts of Dark Souls' plan. This analogy isn't my own, but impressed itself and operated on my then twenty nine-year-old brain in much the same way The Legend of Zelda affected me when I was seven years old. It's a giant world, there's a hell of a lot of stuff out there, and god damn it please just try and maintain some level of personal restraint when trying to parse through it all. Venturing into the unknown and finding a way to emerge victorious by practically any measure is the driving force behind the game.

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I'm rambling at this point, but you get the idea. Dark Souls. Transformative experience. Justified hype et cetera. Dark Souls II did many of the same things, and in some cases it did them better. It changed rules, it added options, and it built layers. It was a product of a lot refinement and some experimentation, but you'd never lose touch with the feeling that it was moreDark Souls. It could act and improve, but by virtue of its compulsory similarity, it couldn't run on the same ethereal plane as its predecessor. It's a sequel and there's a giant "II" in the title. Dark Souls II was more of the same, and in a world populated by only two others of its kind, it was perfectly fine – but it was not the next Dark Souls.

Naturally, like a truculent drug-user searching for those feelings of their first narcotic high, I've looked to Bloodborne to be the next Dark Souls. I have no idea if that's healthy and I'm not even sure it's realistic, but the pieces seemed to be in place. It's a new game – contextually outside of the Souls series thanks to Sony's publishing duties – and it's been billed (fairly or not) as the true successor to Dark Souls, with most of From Software's design leads opting to work Bloodborne over Dark Souls II. Twenty-five hours in and I'm thoroughly unprepared to answer the, is it the next Dark Souls? question. In fact, I'm wondering if it's even the right question to ask.

I don't have a shield. Through nearly all of Dark Souls and at least 50% of Dark Souls II, you'd find me wandering into constant danger with the security blanket of a shield. Shield's up, and whatever terrible surprise is lurking in the corner will be, at least partially, rendered ineffective. Sometimes I would be daring enough to trust my riposte skills or circle-strafe + dodge-roll into oblivion, but through exploration and the eventual futility of boss fights, my shield was always up and ready.

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I don't have a shield by choice. Bloodborne didn't see it necessary to issue me one (though I've since found a wooden piece of shit that sort of looks like a shield). Instead, I chose a shotgun and a saw-blade cleaver thing as my starting weapons. The cleaver is equal parts arresting and mechanically satisfying because, like many of Bloodborne's weapons, it transforms into a different weapon at the push of a button. Retracted, and it's fit for one versus one combat. Extended, its range grows and it's better suited for dealing with crowds. Or at least that's what Bloodborne wanted to tell me.

"Crowds" is sort of funny word because, typically in Souls games, if you found yourself in a crowd of enemies something had gone profoundly wrong. Crowds aren't necessarily the norm in Bloodborne, but they're a frequent enough occurrence to, apparently, merit a series of weapons and actions equipped to properly deal with the violent and bloody fallout. They're part of the game, not the result of some grievous mistake.

This is also where the shotgun comes in. While it can also be used to essentially riposte enemy’s attacks and render their body uniquely vulnerable, it can also act as a "pushback" against swarms of unreasonably hostile townsfolk. This completely changes Bloodborne's operating paradigm, as more direct and traditional direct forms of defense are now essentially obsolete and unavailable. With a finite amount of ammunition and the usual limiters of vitality and stamina to contend with, a seemingly miniscule change to Souls' basic operating procedures has opened up a whole new way to look at Bloodborne. I don't have a shield, but everything seems to be OK anyway.

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While Bloodborne's approach to combat is revolutionary (in its own terms), there are still plenty of hold over's from past Souls games. Bonfires, intermittent posts signaling a checkpoint and relief, and now lamp posts. Souls, now called Blood Echoes, are won from downing foes and used as currency to level up, buy items, or (when combined with gems) bolster weapons. You still lose every Blood Echo you’ve got on you when you die, and this is where Bloodborne starts to twist a little bit. Occasionally there will be a bloodstain on the spot you died, and you're free to recover your Blood Echoes if you can make it back there unscathed. More often than not, however, an enemy in the area will assume control of your Blood Echoes – indicated by their villainous glowing blue eyes – and you'll have to defeat them to see all of your lost Blood Echoes returned.

An interesting risk and reward system has also been added to Bloodborne's basic combat. If you've taken damage, immediately attacking the attacker will recover most of your lost health. A natural instinct in Souls games is to run, hide, and down a few health potions if you find yourself in a position of intense or mortal vulnerability. Bloodborne turns that idea on its heels and screams engagement in its place. Sometimes I use this by walking up to an enemy and unleashing a ton of quick swipes; I'll take some damage too, but I'm instantly getting it back in the process. Other times, particularly on bosses, I'll take a nasty hit and force myself to reengage just to try and get some of it back. It's an interesting way to play with patience because, as any Dark Souls player knows, you can be cruising along fine but the moment you start rushing your routine, bad things happen. Applying this action to an impulse-based incentive in combat is one of Bloodborne's more immediately noticeable tricks.

Health management has also seen a bit of refinement. Gone are the Estus Flasks that could refill health and replenish at every bonfire. In their place are blood vials, limited consumables that (initially) cap out at 20. What's interesting is that any blood vial collected when you have more than 20 is instantly sent back to a storage box in the Hunter's Dream hub area. Whenever you're killed in battle, the remainder of blood vials in the storage box teleport to your immediate inventory. Blood vials in the storage box cap out at 99, but it certainly didn't stop me from farming souls and buying a ton of them from the small vendor at Hunter's Dream.

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I'm not yet deep enough into Bloodborne's narrative to make any sense of its implicit or explicit lore, only to say that it's tremendously effective in creating an atmosphere of tension and chaos - and the opening area of Central Yharnam is a perfect example. From what I can tell, it's the night of some mythical hunt, where beasts roam the streets, death is everywhere, and the good citizens of Yharnam are shut away in their living quarters. Occupied homes always have a light out front, and the commotion inside is always unsettling. Some are scared out of their minds. Others are cursing up a storm. One establishment sounded like it was having a party, which is all sorts of terrifying. All had one thing in common; they assumed I was a stranger or a foreign hunter, and they told me to leave.

The people actively roaming the streets of Yharnam didn't seem to want me around either. Cries of, "it's all your fault!" run rampant while they're slashing swords, torches, and other bladed instruments in my direction. I don't know if these people are affected by whatever's happening here and are just out to get hunters like me, or if these guys are just other hunters and hate strangers. In any case several classes are abound; black-clad pitchfork guy, old-timey musket man with a top hat, spindly sword guy, and torch-wielding man with sword seem to make up most of Yharnam's active population. There's also room for giant ogres with bricks, fucking cheetahs, and some sort of ground-based crows in select areas.

What's most arresting of Yharnam is how intricately designed it feels. Everything connects to everything else, an asset not fully revealed or understood until I took the six or whatever hours to canvass everything in the level. There don't appear to be many dead ends, just gates that reveal pathways and shortcuts to new areas. One time I was down in an abandoned canal (running from muck men zombies with no legs, obviously) and found myself on the other end of an elevator right near my last-visited light post. Later that turned out to be an incredible shortcut to a boss of that area.  

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The Cathedral Ward and Old Yharnam, two more of Bloodborne's levels that I've explored thoroughly, operate in much the same way. The game exhibits Dark Soul's expertly designed series of interlocking levels as an over-world, but the sheer intricacy behind the individual levels all feel like miniaturized versions of Dark Souls' world. Gone are the one-off and mostly linear spindles of Dark Souls II, and in their place is a more engaging and organic approach to level design. Every area aches to tell a story as much as it does to challenge your ingrained Souls gameplay sensibilities.

I can't tell you how many times I've returned to an area, explored around a bit, and found either an incredible shortcut or a whole new section. In Old Yharnam, for example, I have intimate knowledge of a series of absurd roof drops that effectively shortcut me right to that level's boss. Technically it's all available and there from the outset, but I just didn't have the geographic awareness to try, see, and test it all until much later. Again, I've only canvassed five levels and have been to maybe eight total, but they're absolutely packed with little secrets and tiny, unnoticeable shortcuts. There are still areas I don't know how to reach in places I swear I've covered completely.

Bloodborne also plays with personal expectations. My usual methodology in Souls games involves slowly working my way through a level and taking the time to explore side areas along the way. In doing this I create a mental blueprint of the entire level, undoubtedly aided by repeated death and destruction. It's a bit of trial-and-error and some disciplined memorization, but I love doing it because of how quick Souls games are to reward players who try and step outside its lines. I want to know everything about every location, and I'm prepared to die however many times it takes to gain that knowledge.

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Right on schedule, Bloodborne delights in throwing a wrench into this plan. By discovering new bosses or locations in Bloodborne, the player is rewarded with Insight . It's a number right below your Blood Echo total, and it purportedly alters enemy layouts or placement in Bloodborne's levels (it can also be used as a currency in a unique shop). So far it's only been responsible for a few different variations of a guy that looks like The Undertaker in the Cathedral Ward – and maybe one other specific instance.

Sometime after I defeated the Blood-Starved Beast, I noticed a grim-reaper looking fellow cloaked in back floating around behind one of The Undertakers. I was surprised to see him move much faster than I anticipated, and even more taken aback by his ability to one-hit kill my character. Now in the third tier of unexpected surprises, I found myself respawned not in the Cathedral Ward where I had been, but rather a jail cell in the middle of nowhere; Hypogean Gaol. Over the next hour I broke out, killed a half-dozen grim reaper things, murdered some giant pigs, and thoroughly explored the prison area – and that's it. I can't find a boss, every door seems to be locked, and killing everyone does nothing. Vague text in a of couple areas makes mention of deception and sacrifice, but I have no idea how to apply that information. Eventually I found a lantern to teleport me back to Hunter's Dream, but the mystery of what exactly I'm supposed to do in Hypogean Gaol continues to drive me forward.

If there's any dissent in my time with Bloodborne, it may be related to its system of fast travel. The game starts the player off (sort of) in Hunter's Dream, a hub-area full of basic gameplay tips and, with time, areas to level up, repair and boost weapons, spend Blood Echoes, buy and sell items, and talk to an older hunter and an, uh, doll. It also has a couple gravestones that offer fast travel to different lands in Bloodborne. You can't go directly from area to area, but rather you always have to return directly to Hunter's Dream first. I get why Bloodborne is doing this – as comforting as Majula felt, the necessity of fast travel was a mark against Dark Souls II – but incredible (30-40 second) loading times between death and travel make it all an arduous process. I've also established a different hub and rounded up a few NPC's at the Cathedral Ward, leading me to question the pure necessity of Hunter's Dream.

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As for what the PlayStation 4 brings to the table, Bloodborne looks fantastic. Almost every environment I've found has suffered a tremendous amount of architectural destruction, but it's nevertheless beautiful. Yharnam's opening areas relay a ruined interpretation of Victorian London, complete with crashed stage coaches and endless coffins. The lightning is absolutely perfect, shifting to pure and terrifying darkness when context demands it. There are times when I think Bloodborne is one of the most beautifully rendered games I've played, and there I times when I question if that bias is tied to how much I adore the rest of the game. It's not sixty frames-per-second like Dark Souls II on PC, but it makes up plenty of ground with its insanely detailed texture work and effective lightning. As of this writing I appear to have even stumbled onto a night cycle for Yharnam (complete with different enemy layouts and actions), though I think, rather than a natural timed occurrence, it had more to do with where I'm at in Bloodborne's narrative.

Every aspect of Bloodborne exhibits a handmade-feel not typically present in other AAA titles. Not only are From Software the masters of disguising level design with believable scenery – seriously, Bloodborne's levels don't feel like levels, but rather lived-in or purposeful narrative entries – but enemy design and placement feels explicitly constructed. With larger, open-world games like Skyrim I always got the feeling Bethesda had just loaded generic caves with troves of enemies. Pure action games like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta have more purposeful encounters, but at the risk of condensing combat into a defined arena. Bloodborne allows its bosses the concession of a de facto arena, but enemy encampments are anything but. Nearly every area of every level has specific purpose in mind, and often a new way to challenge or develop player skill.

Yharnam's opening areas are a perfect example of Bloodborne's lesson progression. First you face one angry man with fire and a pitchfork. Then you run into enemies in stasis in the ground. Later you take on three at once, then a concealed guy with a musket, and eventually a veritable army of a dozen folks scattered around pyre. Hemwich Charnel Lane, rife with witches, also exhibits a nasty, spindly demon (which looks a lot like David Cross in that insane Mr. Show sketch). You're introduced to one, then one surrounded by witches, and then many as a compliment to that area's boss. Bloodborne is hard, but if you're paying attention, it takes plenty of time to teach all of its lessons.

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Bosses also make their presence know. Father Gascoigne opens by demonstrating Bloodborne's new and elusive approach to combat. The man has a shotgun, just like you, and he wields it in tandem with his bladed weapon – just like you. Watching the speed at which he moves and trying to account for his actions was the first time Bloodborne really clicked with me; it revealed the capabilities and requirements of combat paced differently than the Souls games. I got around Gascoigne, eventually, by strafing at the right time and finding a particularly fortuitous tree, but even that reprieve was only temporary.

I've faced six bosses so far, and of the five I've defeated all have had a running theme; they transform. After a third of Gascoigne's health was down, for example, he visibly transformed into one of the beasts implicit in the game's lore. The Blood-Starved Beast, found much later, started exuding a poison cloud that made any sort of melee assault a dangerous proposition. Vicar Amelia has a penchant for regenerating health and Darkbeast Paarl's chaotic electricity grows in range and strength. In any case this appears to be a way around the normal strategy of circle-strafing and dodge rolling every available boss, as it lets the player use a set of training wheels on normal attacks before a boss goes completely nuts with a deeper set of maneuvers.

From Software also seems to have gone a little crazy in the aesthetics of boss design. Vicar Amelia is a massive giant wolf thing overrun by wispy white strands of hair. She's constantly clutching her chest, as if in pain, and seems to favor one giant paw. The Blood-Starved Beast's preference for charging at the player is aided by a head-cape device that sort of looks like a matador's cloth. Darkbeast Paarl's immense size and pure refusal to be cornered is intimidating enough, but it's aided by impressive looking electrical effects surrounding its shards-of-rock body. If Dark Souls II had any criticisms of too many humanoid-looking enemies, Bloodborne aims to correct it almost immediately.

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All of this seems to work because I've learned to interpret Souls unique gameplay language. Old Yharnam, for example, has another hunter in a tower unloading on you with a machine gun for much of the level. This is either the worst thing in the world, or just another challenge to overcoming. By taking my time and not rushing into anything, I found a series of uniquely positioned doorways or unassuming architecture to take cover behind and make my way through the winding depths of Old Yharnam. I got caught in the crossfire a couple of times, which was bound to happen with the amount of tiny demons I was simultaneously slaughtering, but it never felt impossible. This is a microcosm of Souls and Bloodborne's design philosophy; there's always a way around, provided you look hard enough.

Knowing how to parse Bloodborne's language is entirely different skill, and unfortunately I think it's one that just has to be learned as you go. Much has been made about Souls and Bloodborne's difficulty, and rightly so. It's part of what makes it so challenging, but it doesn't factor into a general lack of direction, a cornucopia of bewildering statistical and character information, untraditional means of weapon and item acquisition, the nature of NPC's, and From Software's occasional fascination with trolling the player. If you've played a Souls game before most of Bloodborne's inherent systems will appear natural; it's part of the game. For the uninitiated, it's more likely to be a struggle. 

What's important to note is that Bloodborne's implicit challenges are (usually) not a fault of its design. A decade's worth of focus group fueled data have lead games down a path of massaging any sort of trepidation away from the player. Action games often have harder difficulties than can be applied, but few are constructed with a ground-up mentality of applying the same philosophy to an entire experience. Bloodborne isn't difficult because the enemies hit hard and their health bars are huge, but rather every aspect of its design is intended to challenge the player's sensibilities. Yharnam is only a scary place when it's unfamiliar. By exploring, accepting, and taking all of its assets into account, it's easier to analyze and respond.

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In a best case scenario, and as my running thesis with Bloodborne, it reminds of the jump between Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 4. There were steps in between, of course, but Resident Evil 2 wasn't properly ascended until Resident Evil 4 came along nearly seven years later. You were no longer facing one or two zombies at a time, but rather an entire village of Los Ganados in the very first level of the game. Bloodborne almost literally repeats the same trick. It's not about dodging, defending, and one-on-one combat. It aims to break patterns players established in the Souls series, and its chosen path is to literally toss groups of enemies at the player in quick succession. It's a different type of adversity, and one which Bloodborne is prepared to take on with its slight but important divergence in player mechanics. It's all hopeless and impossible until patience and familiarity reveal that it's not.

Right now, Bloodborne isn't the next Dark Souls. It's also not more Dark Souls. It's something else – changes that appear miniscule in nature have evolved into an altogether different approach to how I interpret its challenges. It's been a struggle to psychologically break myself away from my tendencies in Souls games, almost as if they're a weird inhibitor toward my performance in Bloodborne. I suspect that I'll get better. Somehow, Bloodborne will also (probably) get better. I think we're a great match, and I'm anxious to see how far we can go. Whether that materializes in a review or another round of impressions first, more Bloodborne coverage is on the way.

 

Read more: Lords of the Fallen on PC

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