Written by Eric Layman
Category: News and Other Musings
Published: 23 March 2015
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Written by Eric Layman
Category: News and Other Musings
Published: 31 January 2015
Dying Light is a surprisingly long game! In lieu of a timely review amidst a hectic week, I've decided to write a mess of words in response to the first half of the game. Ordinarily I'd quality check my writing to make sure it all flows together and makes sense, but I did none of that for this. That being said, check back for our review later this week - which surely will benefit from both better organization, some semblance of fact-checking, and actually having finished the game.
Dying Light exhibits a dynamic relationship between its systems and the player. Whether or not it swings your way is (sometimes quite literally) the difference between a swift execution and an intolerable mess.
If Dying Light were a language, it would undoubtable be some form of English - but vaguely unfamiliar and slightly uncomfortable. Operating under the guise of realism typically disposes of certain "videogame-y" caveats, which Dying Light doesn't seem to acknowledge. Or, to put it differently, accepting Dying Light means coming to terms with some of its more insane contradictions. Parkour is a major part of the game, and falling too far down is a very real consequence - but it's a penalty that can be mitigated entirely by landing in a blue trash pile or on top any available car. Similar to the (automated) Assassin's Creed hay-dive, the world is basically yours as long as you land in the right place. Dying Light’s visual fidelity may imply that it takes place in a very real world, but it’s thoroughly a goal-oriented and heavily abstracted videogame.
Similarly, Dying Light's cache of zombies are some of the most physically realistic specimens I’ve seen. Most of their time is spent idling in the middle of the street, but they absorb and deal with impact with remarkable fidelity. They'll misstep and tumble over a railing, get tangled up together and collapse into a huge pile, and cascade off buildings with remarkable clumsiness. There's a real sense of weight to everything about Dying Light. When you drop-kick a zombie in the chest they'll fly into groups like a bowling ball. When a limb is severed it hits the ground with a satisfy thing thud. Part of the fun of combat is testing the fidelity of an in-game physics system and watching the results work in your favor. In this regard Dying Light feels like a comfortable medium between the floaty mash of an Unreal Engine 3 ragdoll demonstration and the plodding Euphoria physics that drove Grand Theft Auto IV and V.
Another positive, Dying Light has the darkest, blackest night of any game in recent memory. Games with day and night cycles typically reduce the latter to a blue-light Hollywood special, where visibility is barely hampered in the interest of actually seeing what’s ahead of you. Dying Light goes the other way, adapting principles of a stealth game and forcing the player to use their map safely and effectively. Use of the flashlight or noisy parkour antics will encourage pursuit by nighttime-exclusive Volatiles, who will typically rip the player to shreds if alerted.
Interestingly, there's an entire metagame built around more risky night time player. The experience system that drives the combat and agility skill trees is doubled during night, and the length of time in which one evades an alerted Volatile earns points for the third and final Survival skill tree. It's a tremendous risk/reward, and one that's at its peak when a learned-player is instinctively running on rooftops and playing cat-and-mouse with Volatiles.
Unfortunately it doesn't seem like the depth of Dying Light's challenge is qualified to match the player's progression. When I first started playing Dying Light there were mostly "normal" zombies, Biters, shuffling about the streets. With time came Runners (run fast and pursue relentlessly), Spitters (acid projectiles), Exploders (suicide bombers), and several varieties of thugs (monstrous but slow and powerful). As I keep playing it now seems like Runners are everywhere and its ruining any sensation of travel or exploration. I'm constantly harassed everywhere I go, and the once enjoyable parkour mechanics aren’t enough to successfully evade anything with reasonable accuracy.
The apparent solution seems to be crafting better (or at least more efficient) weapons, but I don't find group-combat all that engaging. Sure, swinging around flaming knife-staff with poison capability or an electrified baseball bat is great for racking up experience points and sort of funny the first time around, but it's boring to find and craft that stuff over and over. One-on-one battles with conscious humans make better use of Dying Light's jump/dodge mechanic, and are much more satisfying. Ideally, with my Level 12 fitness skill tree being far more fleshed out than my Level 8 combat skill tree, running should (usually) be a viable option. Instead it feels like an aimless concession. It's cool to do, but ultimately ineffective.
This was ultimately the problem that crippled Dying Light's spiritual prequel, Dead Island. Toward the end of that game the balance between player and systems strongly started favoring the latter. I was no longer playing the game for enjoyment, but rather to push my way through it solely in the interest of writing a qualified review. I stopped doing sidesquests, I stopped looking around, and I ceased having fun. Abrupt difficulty spikes seemed groomed exclusively for cooperative play, and at one point in Dead Island it was impossible for me to progress without enlisting randoms online. It wasn't a great time.
One particular aspect of Dead Island, significantly penalizing the player upon death, actually makes an appearance in Dying Light. When you die, you actually lose experience points for the Survival skill tree. The survival tree fuels abilities that are all but essential when moving through its systems. Any sort of death, whether it be an unplanned fall or accidental undead homicide, negs points to the tune of 2000 a pop. At Survival Level 10 I need 60000 or so for my next level, but and repeating deaths puts a huge dent in that progress. On one hand I love it when a game says fuck it and plays for keeps, but on the other, well, the focus-group-fueled, overly-controlled content of 2015 has made me soft.
Item durability, a statistic/attribute I typically loathe in games, actually comes out fairly well in Dying Light. Items you craft, either with consumable powerups or forged from loot-fueled blueprints, have a limited lifespan. While I hold my flame sickle precious, for example, I have to understand its use is finite. This sort of bums me out, but it also forces experimentation with new and different types of weapons. If I stuck to the same one or two weapon types I'd probably never learn about the joy slicing off appendages, or how effectively poison can control crowds.
It's also important to recognize the glut of content Dying Light is prepared to offer. At 23 hours I'm only 46% of the way through the story, and I have more sidequests available than I know what to do with. Existing sidequests have felt every bit as fleshed out as the main game, with the concession that they often make use of existing geography (campaign quests, by comparison, tend to break out into their own one-off levels). I've stolen batteries from busses, discovered the horror of a mass suicide, helped a pyromaniac light gas lines, converse with men who think I'm a brainless sycophant, and aided in an imminent pregnancy that was really a company of drunks. There's an incredible amount of content there, and while some of it is your usual open-world collectable filler, most appears to be hand crafted affairs.
To be continued!