After the success of Hidetaka Miyazaki's 2011 opus Dark Souls, Japanese developer From Software split the development team in two. One team focused on Dark Souls 2, the direct sequel to the infamously unforgiving action RPG. Miyazaki himself, meanwhile, began work on the secretive Project Beast in a first-party development partnership to bring the visceral gameplay of the Souls series to the PS4. The result is Bloodborne, a game every bit as difficult, challenging and rewarding as Demon's or Dark Souls .
Bloodborne takes place in the decaying city of Yarnham, a foreboding architectural amalgam of medieval Prague and Edinburgh, pierced by towering gothic church spires. The protagonist, referred to only as The Hunter throughout, travels to Yarnham seeking the cure to his or her mysterious illness but soon finds that the city's inhabitants have themselves been afflicted with an unknown ailment, turning them to beasts and mindless savages.
The game takes the core gameplay systems of the Souls series and then promptly turns them on their head. Combat is primarily melee-based and while the stamina-management system of Miyazaki's previous games remains intact, the action takes place at a much higher tempo. Shields are absent from the game – apart from one joke item – and so players are encouraged to be constantly on the offensive, a stark contrast from the Souls games' defensive combat. Enemies hit hard and often but players have the opportunity to regain lost health if they land a hit within a short window after being attacked, further piling on the incentive to play aggressively.
The selection of weapons from previous games has been trimmed down to focus on a new, smaller range of 'trick' weapons. These weapons have a standard form that can be used for close-up attacks but with a touch of the L1 button, transform into a longer or heavier version of themselves offering more power or crowd control. The Threaded Cane, for example, turns from a short but fast sword cane to a vicious whip while the Kirkhammer transforms from a light blade to an enormous mace resembling an anvil on a stick. The Hunter's arsenal is rounded out by a selection of guns – a first for a Miyazaki game – that are fairly useless for dealing ranged damage but open up the invaluable parry and riposte tactic.
The game's bloody combat takes place against some of the most sublime level design in gaming history. The streets and squares of Yarnham funnel the player through traps, chokepoints and battle arenas and are simply dripping with detail. Progressing through an area – which frequently involves dying multiple times and having to re-clear it of enemies – unlocks shortcuts that allow you to bypass areas of the game and push on to new challenges. The way these shortcuts connect the map, and the manner in which the games area's connect to each other is a triumph of design and makes Bloodborne's world feel like the one contiguous space that it, in fact, is.
Monster design is just as impressive, with all manner of hideous creatures stalking the lanes and halls of Yarnham realised in glorious, grisly detail. Crazed peasants, menacing trolls and terrifying werewolves aren't the half of it and some of the monsters that appear later on in the game are genuinely frightening and disturbing. As the in-game timeline progresses, the tone shifts from one of Hammer Horror schlock to Lovecraftian madness and this is reflected in both area and monster art.
The Souls series is notoriously difficult and so it'll be no surprise to learn that Bloodborne is just as unforgiving. As a new player, you can expect to die a great deal early on while you learn the ropes. Compared to most AAA titles on the market today where the player is rarely pushed out of their comfort zone or seriously challenged, it's a rude awakening and extremely frustrating at times. Stick with it though; have the patience to come to understand Bloodborne's tough love, and you'll be richly rewarded.
Veterans of the Souls games shouldn't expect any easier a ride. While Bloodborne shares their control schemes, stamina management and other core gameplay principles, it's also a very different beast due to the rapid flow of combat. If you preferred to play Souls hiding behind a shield or as a magic or bow user, you'll have a particularly hard time and will spend many hours unlearning years of ingrained habits. Even this reviewer, who has easily put 400 hours into the various Souls games over the last six years, found himself routinely trounced by run-of-the-mill enemies for the game's first three-and-a-half hours.
It takes a while, but you do eventually adjust to the rhythm of Bloodborne's combat and once this happens, you'll grow in confidence and start using your trick weapons to the full. Hulking monsters become considerably easier to take down once you've worked out the right moment to charge a devastating power attack, while crowds of enemies you once used to methodically pick off one by one are hewn down en masse by long axes and spears. Death no longer comes so frequently while exploring new areas but instead manifests most often when tackling the game's boss monsters.
Bloodborne's cast of bosses offers considerably more variety than Dark Souls 2's roster, which too often fell back on giant humanoid creatures that could be taken down with relative ease. Bloodborne's showpiece monsters require quicker thinking and, with spells, shields and arrows no longer an option, getting up close and personal. Inevitably, early attempts are spent learning a boss's attack patterns and understanding when and how to dodge while identifying opportunities to attack.
Many boss fights also contain a number of phases, with the enemy gaining new powers or going into frenzy mode when its health gets low. This adds a real sense of urgency to encounters and forces players to get in close and finish the monster off before succumbing to tooth, sword or claw. These relentlessly tense battles are among some of the most exhilarating fights in gaming and encounters with Father Gascoigne, Shadow of Yarnham and others offer almost unparalleled satisfaction when they are finally defeated.
For those struggling to kill bosses, the game's multiplayer component can offer some respite. As in the Souls series, players can summon helpers into their world to fight cooperatively, although the items required to unlock co-operative play aren't available immediately. For the first time, From Software have also included a way to summon online friends rather than the exclusively anonymous co-operative systems in previous titles.
Then there's the optional Chalice Dungeons. These multi-tiered Gygaxian labyrinths are unlocked by looting chalices from certain bosses and by collecting special ritual items from the game world. At first, each chalice grants access to a single preset dungeon but clearing its floors allows the player to tackle alternative layouts, including procedurally generated random levels. As you'd expect, the levels of craftsmanship of these randomised layouts doesn't quite match up to the meticulously designed Yarnham but the Chalice Dungeons are worth playing through.
The more advanced Chalice Dungeons are likely to form the bulk of Bloodborne's endgame content, a niche previously filled by Player vs Player combat for a sizeable chunk of the Souls series' player base. While it's still very early in Bloodborne's lifespan, the game seems to lend itself less well to combative PvP compared to the enormous scope for character customisation and different play styles in Dark Souls 2. There just aren't as many ways to play Bloodborne, and it's hard to see the same vibrant meta-game emerge in the community due to the reduced number of options.
However, this doesn't detract from the game's overall quality. Bloodborne is an enthralling, engrossing title that stands out as the best first-party title on PS4 by a considerable margin. Few games have the power to get inside your head in quite the way Bloodborne does; it stays on your mind even when you've long put your joypad to one side. It's not a game for everyone by any means but for those with the will to push through its stern facade, Bloodborne is an unforgettable experience.