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Bloodborne
Score: 95%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Developer: From Software
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1; 2 - 5 (Online)
Genre: RPG/ Action/ Online

Graphics & Sound:
It took longer than we would have hoped, but here it is: the PlayStation 4ís first must-have exclusive. From Softwareís Bloodborne is a beautiful, brutal masterpiece that differentiates itself just enough from the standard Souls formula while still retaining what makes that series so extraordinary. If you love that series, youíd better already own this one. If you donít, this one wonít change your mind. If youíre on the fence about this kind of game, Bloodborne is a fine place to start.

I like to think that Bloodborneís visuals are a harbinger of the future of horror in video games. Its multitude of nightmarescapes and legions of grotesque enemies do more than simply instill that classic sense of total unease. When you take those first steps into Yharnam, you literally feel as though youíre walking into the mouth of Hell itself. Fromís depiction of the Victorian era is tinged with Gothic gloominess and that ever-present sense of foreboding keeps you on the edge of your seat, terrified of what might be waiting around the next corner to jump out and eviscerate you. There are a few noticeable blemishes, however, including an unreliable frame rate and unacceptably long load times. These can be dismissed as tiny grievances in other games, but in a From Software action role-playing game, in which every single frame counts and in which death comes often, they pose a serious risk to the gameís enjoyability factor.

There isnít much to fault in Bloodborneís sound design. Of course, all the horrible sound effects present in the Souls games are reprised in some way, shape, or form. Hissing, snarling, and wailing are par for the course for the sick minds at From Software. And when voices are actually allowed a respite from all the anguish, they sound quite convincing. You can hear how jaded these suffering souls are, and the doll youíll find yourself returning to time and again definitely comes across as an otherworldly presence.


Gameplay:
Bloodborne is less implicit in its storytelling than any of its three predecessors. Where the Souls games were rich with hidden lore waiting to be uncovered and dissected, this game is more direct in its narrative involvement. Make no mistake, however, none of this detracts from the mystery that blankets this world.

As always, you are let loose in a macabre world teeming with supernatural horrors. A clear path forward is never guaranteed, and your survival even less so. And thus begins a journey of death, discovery, death, demons, death, divinity, death, death, and death. As a Hunter of your own creation, you will take up arms against these monstrous entities. You will learn to slay them on their own and en masse. You will absorb their Blood Echoes and channel them to make yourself more powerful and resilient. You will take everything that the world has to offer you and turn it against the creatures that inhabit it. And, in one way or another, youíll probably solicit the assistance of another Hunter.

The innovative asynchronous multiplayer of the Souls series returns in Bloodborne, acting as a community-fostering tool. Messages can be dropped on the ground, which can alert you to an upcoming trap, point out hidden secrets, goad you into doing something stupid, and everything in between. And grave markers are left behind when others die, allowing you to witness the last five seconds of that particular Hunterís life. It can be very helpful.

Synchronous multiplayer has taken a baby step towards more conventional cooperative play, but for some reason, From Software seems averse to being anything resembling traditional co-op (where you simply send a friend an invite). As a result, it remains a pain in the ass. Maybe itís their way of trying to push the gesture-based communication and the novelty of bringing together two total strangers, but hiding the mere option behind a series of unnecessary hurdles is a pain. Youíve got to restrict your options and create a password; what is this, Ventrilo? Maybe From will wisen up one day and realize that some people might want to play the game the way that they want to. But again, like I said, itís a baby step.


Difficulty:
My biggest problem with most From Software action role-playing games is not that they are too difficult, but that they are unnecessarily obtuse. I donít consider myself one thatís in constant need of hand-holding. I donít need everything explained to me all the time. But if thereís one thing that the Souls series lacks, itís a decent tutorial. Sure, youíll get some signposts that divulge the most basic of combat mechanics, but if you want to plumb the depths and even begin to fathom the many secrets that haunt this world, there will be a great deal of trial and error.

Iíll put things in perspective, even though Iím putting myself out there to trolls who will probably fling a series of dumb insults at the screen. The minute you first assume control of your character, you are unarmed and locked in sickroom with a half-dead but very angry werewolf. Thereís no way out. Youíve got to kill it to proceed. If you kick the bucket, youíre sent to the Hunterís Dream, the hub world of Bloodborne that is very much akin to the Nexus from Demonís Souls. The tutorial, such that it is, is a series of grave markers that explain the basics. Scour that entire area, because otherwise you might miss the markers that actually grant you your first weapons. Really, From? Really?

So obviously, Bloodborne is a difficult game, and by design at that. Each and every enemy encounter is a life-and-death affair. All of them attack with ferocity, speed, and power. Even a single one of them is more than enough to kill you off. But between the number of blood vials (health potions) at your disposal and your own series of abilities, you have what it takes. Itís up to you to leverage these abilities wisely, however.


Game Mechanics:
In many ways, Bloodborne is "just another Souls game." Itís built on the same rock-solid foundation of combat, exploration, and slow progression. You venture forth into the hostile unknown, slaying (and being slain by) the numerous horrors that await you from within.

Combat feels almost identical, but with a few very notable tweaks. The first is that of weapons that transform. This can be likened to the option to wield a weapon with either one or two hands, but its execution makes it feel stunningly different. As in previous games, this can be triggered with a single button press, but you can now mix your attacks up, should you be feeling particularly gutsy. So you might find yourself running around the streets of Yharnam or a procedurally-generated Chalice Dungeon with a one-handed axe, swinging overhead only to follow up with a sweep attack that might be reserved for hammers and halberds. Blend this with the characteristically weighty and wonderful combat system Ė and more blood Ė and youíve got something special.

Defense in Bloodborne is a huge departure for this genre. In the Souls games, your shield was invariably your best friend. As long as you had it up, and as long as your stamina could accommodate an attack or two, the odds were more in your favor than normal. Bloodborne takes that away from you, in a move that is akin to a slap on the ass given with the intent of forcing you to move in and get your hands dirty. Your pistol and your agility (markedly greater than that in any Souls game) are your primary means of staying alive. Instead of clumsily rolling around in all that armor, you dash around in graceful swoops. Your pistol, which fires quicksilver bullets, is what opens the door for staggering enemies and following up with ripostes (here called visceral attacks). If you run out of bullets, you can channel some of your blood to make more, at the cost of your own health.

"Wait, wait, no noÖ::insert long stream of swear words::" If such is your train of thought while playing a From Software action role-playing game, you might be happy about the Regain mechanic. While it doesnít really make any sense from a practical perspective, this is definitely one of those games where every little bit helps. When you are hit, the amount of the health bar you stand to lose goes pale, and after a few moments, will drain away. If you manage to land a hit, youíll gain some of that health back. If you time it perfectly, you might not lose any health at all.

If you're the type of gamer who will be satisfied with anything Souls-flavored, you already own Bloodborne. If you've heard a few things here and there about the series and are curious, be warned that it's easy to be scared off by this particular niche in the role-playing genre. But if you immerse yourself and learn its intricacies, you'll find it to be one of the most rewarding games out there. Bloodborne has a ton of respect for you and expects your very best at all times. Rarely are such feelings so easy to reciprocate.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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