Bloodborne (2015)

After the enormous success of Dark Souls, director Hidetaka Miyazaki decided work on a new project rather than working on the sequel Dark Souls II. This is what many people, including myself, partially attribute the failure of Dark Souls II to. The new project that Miyazaki created was the gothic and Lovecraftian nightmare of Bloodborne. It is apparent that Bloodborne operates extremely similarly to Demon Souls and Dark Souls, and that is why many people lump them all together as the Soulsborne series. Despite their similarities, Bloodborne is by far the most unique of the bunch. Its horrific atmosphere, unsettling creatures, and eerie locations immediately make it evident that Bloodborne is a different beast than Dark Souls. Moreover, while the controls and general feel of the games are similar, Bloodborne promotes far higher aggression and speed within its gameplay systems.

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The story and lore of the Soulsborne series often ignored because of its cryptic nature. Bloodborne continues this trend, but I found it easier to interpret and understand than the rest of the series. Dark Souls cyclical nature and crumbling world make the story feel abstract. Bloodborne, while still enigmatic, is much easier to grasp on the first playthrough. The city of Yharnam has become infected by the beastly scourge, a disease which turns men into beasts. The player, a hunter, is tasked with clearing out the beasts and ending the mysterious “nightmare”. The first half of the game is gothic horror, in which science has gone wrong and men have transformed into beastly beings. But a shift occurs at the midway point which reveals the true nature of the game. Without going into much detail that would spoil the surprise, the game takes a turn into a Lovecraftian realm. While I love the variety of the godly kingdoms of Dark Souls, the consistency and tension of the atmosphere of Bloodborne is fantastic.

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The gameplay and combat of Bloodborne is a 3rd-person action RPG (role-playing game). If you have played any other of the Soulsborne games, it operates essentially exactly the same. You hack and slash your way through hordes of monsters, and if you die you get sent right back to the last checkpoint. In this case, the checkpoints are lamps rather than bonfires. Through evasion and dodging, you must avoid enemy damage as your healing is limited. Bloodborne is just as tough and brutal as any of the other Soulsborne games, renown for their difficulty. Enemies are aggressive and merciless, and the bosses especially will give even veterans such as myself trouble. There are three major changes that set Bloodborne apart from the rest of the series: the healing system, the lack of shields, and the general speed of combat.

The first major departure from the rest of the series is the healing system. One of the most important aspects of Dark Souls was the implementation of the estus flask, the healing item. Bloodborne instead uses blood vials and rally. Blood vials are the equivalent of estus flasks, but instead of five you have twenty per life. Blood vials will always heal 40% of the players health, regardless of level, unlike the estus flask which needed to constantly be upgraded as the player leveled up. I like this change, as having a consistent amount of healing allows the player to make more calculated and informed decisions.

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The change that I do not like is that blood vials are a limited resource unlike the estus flask. While you can carry twenty with you at any time, you have any leftovers in storage. If you run out of those in storage, you will need to farm or purchase more. I plan to write an entire essay on the different healing systems in the Soulsborne series, but I will try to keep it brief in this review. Farming for blood vials is never fun. Ever. It’s frustrating and tedious. It is especially offensive because you are probably only going to run out of blood vials when you are struggling on an area or boss. So, you are getting beat down by the game and then it tells you “too bad, go farm for 20 minutes to try again”. This is not challenging or interesting, it’s a waste of time. It’s a system that was needlessly changed and provides no benefit. This problem is only really apparent at the beginning of the game, and it does not take that long to farm sufficient blood vials, but I wish I did not have to farm at all. Again, I will go into far more analysis in a future essay, but essentially this system punishes players that were already struggling.

The change about the healing system that I do like is the inclusion of rally. After taking damage, there is a window of a few seconds where hitting enemies will restore some of the damage that you have taken. This system is absolutely genius. It creates a risk-reward paradigm that allows the player the recuperate after a mistake, but an additional mistake will often get you killed. If you get hit, you can try to hit the enemy back to regain your lost health, but if you panic and mess up an extra hit will often times kill you. You can either play it safe by backing off and popping a blood vial, or you can go for revenge to siphon off some health from the enemy. This rewards aggression and dangerous playstyles, and that is what makes Bloodborne so unique.

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Aside from the healing system, another large change in Bloodborne was the removal of shields. The Soulsborne series has always promoted a knightly playstyle, using a sword in one hand and a shield in the other. The shield allows the player to “turtle up” and play the game safely and with low risks. Of course, it had drawbacks, some attacks were unblockable and holding up the shield would cut down on stamina regeneration. But for the most part, playing carefully with the shield was the most consistent and risk-free method of conquering Soulsborne games. There are no shields in Bloodborne. Well there is one, but it is a joke and it basically states “don’t use this you idiot”. This forces the player to rely on careful movement and well-timed dodges rather than brute force blocking to beat enemies. This change suits Bloodborne well, as it obviously is trying to promote aggression and more risks for higher rewards. The removal of the shield just reinforces that idea.

Instead of carrying around a shield in your off-hand, the player is given a few options to swap between. The first being a gun. Guns in Bloodborne generally do very low damage (unless you are building your character specifically to use them), but instead serve a different purpose. Guns can be used to interrupt enemy attacks and stagger them, and if you time your shot well enough you can trigger a parry. Parries operate essentially the same as they did in the rest of the series, if you shoot the enemy as they are about to hit you, they will fall to the ground and give you a chance to hit them for massive damage. But it is, again, high risk and high reward. If you mistime a shot you intend to use as a parry, you will definitely get hit. Other than guns you can use a torch or activate your weapon’s two-handed mode. The two-handed forms of weapons in this game are more interesting than in other Soulsborne games. They often have wildly different movesets from their one-handed counterparts. Additionally, changing forms can activate a transform attack, which encourages the player to switch between one-handed and two-handed fluidly during combat to get the most out of a weapon.

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The final big gameplay distinction of Bloodborne from the rest of the series is just the raw speed and aggression that accompanies the game. Dodging is faster than previous games, and when locked on to an enemy you will do a quickstep rather than a roll. Dodging also has a fairly low stamina cost, so all-in-all dodging is highly encouraged and you are promoted to abuse those precious invincibility frames. Moreover, enemies, especially bosses, are far more aggressive and ruthless than previous entries. They simply do not let up, and give you very little breathing room. You are encouraged to match their aggression and attack at them as furiously as possible whenever you can. Many enemies and bosses are incredibly vulnerable to stagger and you can string together long chains of attacks safely. This is very different from Dark Souls which promoted safe play and cautious approaches to enemies. This speed, combined with the rallying system and lack of shields is what make it obvious that Bloodborne is just meant to played far more aggressively than other games in the Soulsborne series. That sort of playstyle matches the beastly and bloody atmosphere of the game, and the change is certainly welcome.

Something that I appreciate about Bloodborne is that it makes an effort to “trim the fat”. Soulsborne has always had a lot of redundant items, weapons, and equipment. Bloodborne cuts out a lot of this redundancy. Weapons are far different from one another, and you should play around with them until you find one you like. Furthermore, you get the best armor in the game fairly early on. There is far less time spent painstakingly sifting through equipment to find which has the highest stats. Additionally, Bloodborne has fewer stats to worry about when building your character. All these things I consider to be cutting out unnecessary content that did not add anything other than some confusion. The RPG aspects of the game are more straightforward now than the ever were.

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All these differences between Bloodborne, so what’s the same? The legendary looping level design makes a triumphant return for one. Bloodborne is jampacked with shortcuts once you beat a level. While this concept was strangely absent in Dark Souls II, I am extremely happy with the quality of the levels in Bloodborne. Once you make your way through a section, there is usually a door, elevator, or gate to unlock that opens a path from the beginning of the level to your current point. This cuts down on repetition and it is immensely satisfying to find that you have looped right back to where you began. Unfortunately, this is not taken one step further like it was in Dark Souls. In Dark Souls, the world design also followed this concept. Entire areas would loop into each other in intriguing ways, and finding efficient ways through the world was a necessity as you would have to revisit earlier areas. This is absent in Bloodborne for the most part, I rarely found myself going back to previous areas and the areas very rarely connect with one another. The world is more linear rather than a labyrinth. Bloodborne relies more on fast-traveling rather than clever world design.

Something that I found odd about Bloodborne was the disregard for system limitations. It was developed as a Playstation 4 exclusive, so system specs are consistent across every player. Therefore, the game should be well optimized for the system that it was made for. I have to admit, Bloodborne is gorgeous. It is probably one of the most detailed and enthralling worlds ever crafted in video games. That being said, these details sometimes strain the system. On a few bosses in particular the framerate drops to unacceptable levels. I am not a stickler for high FPS (frames per second), and I am honestly content with a steady 30 FPS. However, they were a couple of occasions where the game chugs and dips below that threshold. Moreover, load times can get pretty long, but what bugs me about the load times is that you always have to go through two load screens when one would suffice. You can only fast travel to and from the main hub. So, if you want to go from point A to point B you must sit through a load screen to get to the hub, and then sit through another to go from the hub to point B. I wish you could just go from point A to point B with no hub in between. This is especially apparent when grinding for blood vials or bullets, as you must travel back and forth to the hub every time you want to reset the level to farm more monsters. All-in-all, these are not major problems, but it seems odd that the system specifications were not taken into consideration in these instances.

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By far and away, the biggest issue of Bloodborne is the implementation of chalice dungeons. The rest of the game’s issues are at worst minor irritants, but chalice dungeons are a huge problem. Along with the game’s static progression path, there are also chalice dungeons that are not connected to the rest of the world. These are another kind of progression path, as you unlock deeper dungeons by using materials from earlier ones. The first issue is that they extremely poorly explained in game and the menu does not do it justice either. Essentially there are 10 “set” dungeons that are the same for every player, but you can also unlock randomized versions of these dungeons to explore and get loot from. On paper, it seems like an okay idea. Randomly generated content could give players some things to do once they’ve beaten the game. The issue is that getting to the endgame dungeons is a pain, and a lot of the games content is hidden away in these repetitive chalice dungeons.

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First and foremost, if they were designed to endgame dungeons to let the player return and always get new dungeons to explore, why must you first go through six low-level dungeons to even unlock the high-level ones? They utterly waste your time and provide no challenge if you attempt the earlier dungeons at the end of the game, but they are necessary for progression. The next problem is the blatant repetition from dungeon to dungeon. All the dungeons are similar and use the same rooms, just in different layouts. Once you have seen a one or two dungeons, you have basically seen them all. It’s a shame because the game has a lot of new enemy types and bosses contained within these chalice dungeons. The game has about 30 bosses in total (not counting downloadable content) and 13 of those are exclusive to chalice dungeons. So, in order to experience all the bosses the game has to offer, you must slog through the ten preset dungeons. Luckily, chalice dungeons are entirely optional. Still, just because they are optional that does not excuse their poor design. I was planning to replay Bloodborne a few times because the main game was just so tightly crafted and fun, but after playing the chalice dungeons I got burnt out.

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Even though chalice dungeons were a severe misstep, Bloodborne keeps the Soulsborne tradition of having phenomenal DLC (downloadable content). The Old Hunters DLC includes three new areas and five new bosses. Two of those bosses I consider to be some of the best in the whole series. I feel like the DLC of Soulsborne games is always created with the failures and successes of the game in mind. I just find it interesting how the DLC in these games always manages to include the best levels and bosses. Maybe it’s a marketing ploy, or maybe the designers learned from their mistakes and create more fitting content for the respective game. Either way, I highly recommend getting the DLC for any Soulsborne game.

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Many consider Bloodborne to be the pinnacle of the Soulsborne series, and while I do love this game, I think Dark Souls narrowly beats it out for that honor. The interconnected of the world in Dark Souls is something that blew my mind when I played it. Still, Bloodborne is a close second. It is a more consistent experience, and with the exception of chalice dungeons it is nearly flawless. The aggressive, unrelenting combat gets the adrenaline pumping more than any other game I have played. The terrifying and mysterious world is easy to get immersed in. And every boss and area are high quality. The need to farm for blood vials and the repetitive nature of chalice dungeons knock Bloodborne down a notch for me, but it is still an excellent and essential game. It is for these reasons I give Bloodborne a 9.5/10. If you own a Playstation 4 this is an absolute must play game. Even if you don’t own a Playstation 4, consider buying one if just for this game.

Dark Souls III (2016)

It is no surprise that while Dark Souls is heralded as one of the greatest games of all time, its successor, Dark Souls II, was a let down in numerous regards. Less focused combat, incoherent world building, and less interesting bosses were my biggest gripes with Dark Souls II. So, the big question when starting up Dark Souls III was if it would return to the series former glory, or follow in the footsteps of the disappointing sequel. Personally, I think that Dark Souls III does mostly return to the successful style of the original game, but there a few key differences between the games.

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Dark Souls III is more a direct sequel to the original than Dark Souls II was for a multitude of reasons. The first reason is that Dark Souls III is set in the same world as the original, granted that it is very far into the future. This highlights the cyclical nature of the Dark Souls lore, and watching how the world evolved and noticing the references to the past was something that I really enjoyed. That being said, I feel like there was almost too much reference to the past titles. A well placed and constructed reference is incredibly appreciated, but the game constantly saying “Hey remember this?” in essence can grow grating. In any case, Dark Souls III is the end of the series, and I felt like it did a phenomenal job ending this historic series. The final boss in the base game ties the games together brilliantly, and truly helped me understand the cycles of the Dark Souls universe. The DLC of Dark Souls III really finishes off the series by revealing what the “Dark Soul” even is and why it is important. Both of the final bosses (the base game and the DLC), are incredibly somber and profoundly sad, and are extraordinary ways to end this storied series.

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One of the most important aspects of Dark Souls was its atmosphere and world building. Dark Souls III also continues in this trend, by creating a quintessential dark fantasy world. Despite the fact that many of the areas of Dark Souls III are just future versions of areas from the original game, they are changed enough that you cannot entirely recognize them. Furthermore, there a plethora of completely new and visually interesting areas. However, there are a few complaints that I did have with the world of Dark Souls III. One minor complaint I have is that some of the areas were just kind of forgettable and uninteresting. The swamps and forests in particular are just kind of dull and we’ve seen enough of them in the series. This isn’t a huge deal because the majority of the game is made up of far more interesting areas. The major complaint I have is that the world just is not interconnected enough. The individual level design is great, as it bases itself off of the design of the original game. But there is not a sense of connection between these areas. There is no sense of verticality or a tight-woven world like the original game. Every area is just fine in and of itself, but there needs to be more connection between these areas. This may be due to the fact that teleportation between bonfires is available from the very start of the game. Similar to Dark Souls and Dark Souls II, once teleportation is available, the interconnectedness of the world is sacrificed. There is no need to carefully craft a world when a player can just teleport where ever they want.

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The final aspect of Dark Souls III is of course its gameplay. Combat Dark Souls III is decidedly faster than the original Dark Souls. It does not fall into the same traps of Dark Souls II (too many enemies and boring bosses), but it is very different than the original game. There are 3 reasons for this additional speed in combat: low poise, high stamina, and faster animations. Poise is the stat that controls when the player/enemy is hit, if they get briefly stunned. High poise means that you can eat an attack from an enemy and not have it stop you dead in your tracks. Both the enemies and the player in Dark Souls III have very low poise. When you hit an enemy, you can easily chain together hits until they are dead with no chance from recourse from the enemy because they are stunned. Of course, this means that the enemies can do the same to you, if you get hit once there is a good chance you are going to take a lot of damage. High stamina means that the player can spam rolls and attacks with little thought. In previous titles, if you rolled too much you wouldn’t have enough stamina to attack and vice versa. This is not something that the player has to worry too much about in Dark Souls III, which is a bit of shame considering that careful stamina usage was such a vital part of the combat in Dark Souls. This in essence reduces the risk and reward system that Dark Souls combat is centered around. Finally, the animations of all actions are reduced in Dark Souls III. The windups for attacks and rolls are shorter, and the delay at the end of these actions is also shorter. You are no longer locked into long animations, but on the flip side the enemies also move a lot faster.

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As a whole, these three factors combine to make combat a lot faster than its predecessors. This is not inherently a bad thing, it is just a different playstyle. However, in the context of the series I would argue that this is a downgrade in combat. Combat in the original game was more deliberate and stylistically made more sense. Dark Souls III feels more reaction time based, while the original Dark Souls required more careful decision making in combat. I will say that this faster combat does allow for some very memorable and creative boss fights. The vast majority of the bosses of Dark Souls III are incredibly engaging. The combination of the wild combat and creative visuals make for some remarkable bosses.

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Another factor of note is the change in how the healing item, the Estus Flask, works. As I mentioned in my piece on Dark Souls, the Estus Flask may be the single most important factor in why Dark Souls works so well. It keeps combat and exploration forgiving enough to give you room for some errors, but at the same time rewards the player for mastering a boss fight or entire area. The Estus Flask in Dark Souls III functions very similarly, but with two key differences. The first being that you can discover Estus Shards and Undead Bone Shards across the world through exploration. These items will increase the total amount of Estus Flask charges and how much those charges heal respectively. I like this as it rewards exploration and adds an extra layer of character power and progression. The only issue is that I feel like you almost get too many Estus Shards, so by the end of the game you can have around 10-15 charges of Estus, compared to the base 5 from the original game. This is almost too forgiving, I wish these Estus Shards were harder to come by. The second change is adding a second Estus Flask for focus points, which is essentially your “magic” bar. You must delegate your total Estus Flask charges between the original health based Estus Flask and the new magic Ashen Estus Flask. This may be why there are so many Estus Shards, so that players who want to use magic can have enough for both healing and magic usage. But players who don’t use magic will have an overabundance of healing Estus. Again, I liked exploring and upgrading my character, but I wish they toned it down a bit.

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Is Dark Souls III as magical as Dark Souls? I don’t think so. However, Dark Souls III is far more consistent in its execution than the original. Less careful world design and less deliberate combat are the biggest issues I have with Dark Souls III, but it is still an excellent game. It was a perfect way to finish off the series with its gloomy themes and atmosphere. Intense and memorable boss fights combined with visually stunning areas make Dark Souls III a game worth playing. For these reasons I give Dark Souls III 9/10. Dark Souls III is an essential title for any fan of the Soulsborne series, or just fans of role-playing-games and fantasy worlds alike.