Bloodborne may walk and talk like a Souls game, but it also included several key changes to the class system that divided our editors. Like true paragons of society, Colin, Miodrag and myself sat down to explain our perspectives without any bloodshed! (At least for now…) -Ben
Before I go toe-to-toe with two veterans of the Souls series, I should lay my cards on the table: I am the least experienced of the three, by a wide margin. Sure, I’ve played Dark Souls I and II, but I’ve never come close to the end. I’ve never witnessed the golden gates of Anor Londo beyond a YouTube video, and when I discovered every death in Dark Souls II would chip away at my maximum health, I quit on the spot.
So why have I kept at this blasted series, despite failure after failure? Few worlds are as pleasant to traverse. Lordan is immaculately stacked into a foreboding vertical nightmare, with entire cities hidden beneath your feet. Paths intricately wind throughout, and every time a shortcut is found, it’s hard not to feel amazed by its utter ingenuity. If I could, I would turn off all the monsters and cover every square inch of these lands, acting as a lonesome cartographer in an impeccable world.
And yet, with Bloodborne, I might finally have the opportunity to explore each nook and cranny of Yharnam! They’ve done away with shields, magicians and the like, honing each system into something simpler yet just as challenging. I no longer feel burdened by choice, or the need to find the one playstyle that might save me in this hell-hole. I’m still expected to survive brutal enemies and devious tricks, but at least I have a discernable path forward.
Of course, none of this guarantees that I’ll actually finish Bloodborne. It’s been more than a week yet I’m still stuck in the earliest sections of Central Yharnam. But if I’m going to beat any Souls game, I’m almost positive that this will be the one. It’s given me enough of a fighting chance to focus on the bare essentials and hone my oversized, rusty razor. And if nothing else, I’m having one hell of a time exploring the blood-soaked, Victorian streets of this accursed city.
“The burden of choice.” These are the words that just left my friend’s mouth. I’ve always been aware that on a very basic level, we enjoy different things in games- I perceive Ben as enjoying exploration and going along for the ride, and I don’t dislike those parts but I am there for either the experience of learning the system, or for the writing. The Souls games have alright writing, partially because they are scant and withholding. I am not certain the literary craftsmanship would hold up were there much more of it.
That being the case, I am here to learn the gameplay systems, and to improve in my ability to utilize them. Choice is not a burden to me- choice is what keeps me engaged. If I feel like I have figured out how to play a game as best as I will be able to (though there is likely another level of ability I am simply not capable of), then the game better have some good story, or I’m done. I love the chance to build a character as my play style dictates- it’s absolutely essential in an RPG. Going from four general builds that were viable down to just one in Bloodborne is a huge disappointment.
It’s also, though, a bit of a relief? I do like the ability to specialize. I do like the ability to forge my own path. But if left to my own devices, I’d probably forge the same path I did through Demon’s, Dark 1, and Dark 2- sword and board, against the horde. I never try the dexterity build for long, and I quickly bored of my magic user in Dark Souls 2, but my heavy armor shield and blade style never lets me down. I’m used to its pace and rhythm, I’ve got the requisite mix of bravery and patience, I can make it work. Because of this, I always do… and if I’d had the option, I would have done it again in Bloodborne.
I would have never picked to wield a melee weapon in one hand, and a short range gun in the other. It’s not a pairing I would have wanted or even considered, unless I was forced. It is this limiting of my options that I kind of appreciate- it has forced me out of my comfort zone, and I’m having a great time. Doubtless I would have enjoyed sword and shield once more, but it’s a great pleasure to be made to learn something new. To have nothing familiar in this strange new land.
I suppose I’m a little torn. It really bums me out that this is the only way you can play the game- where is the magic? Where are the ranged weapons, or the double melee weapon builds? At the same time, though, I appreciate its end effect- giving me no option but to learn to play with more tenacity and aggression. No more waiting behind my shield for the right moment- I have to make opportunities, not expect them to make themselves. I don’t know. What do you think, Mio?
I wouldn’t say I’m a veteran. I got near the end of Dark Souls and just quit, while I didn’t get too much time with Demon’s Souls. However, I went into Bloodborne knowing to expect the series’ cruelty, so my experience with it has been more positive. The lack of a “burden of choice” when it comes to weapons and stats lets players focus more on the execution, and it seems like Bloodborne is extremely keen to teach you. Bosses, enemies and item drops are all set so that you have an idea of how the game’s mechanics work and you’re prepared for the more difficult challenges later on. Not needing to worry whether you are over-encumbered, whether you should go for magic, pyromancy, ranged or melee, whether investing in a stat will stop your progress all contribute to this.
I’ve seen many comparisons to Devil May Cry, and I somewhat agree that Bloodborne took a few pages from there. Not in the sense of style, but just a much larger emphasis on execution over preparation. The drawback with that is that Bloodborne doesn’t have that sense of awe when you find a new weapon or piece of equipment like you do in Dark Souls (its “awe” factor manifests elsewhere). There aren’t that many weapons, the stat requirements aren’t too bad and even if you don’t have the primary stat for it, it usually scales with both Strength and Skill and often Arcana as well. You’ll never play Bloodborne and say “I need to re-roll my character because I built him wrong,” like you can in Dark Souls. That takes away a lot of the frustration, but also much of the satisfaction of getting a character right. I don’t think either approach is better than the other, to be honest.
But being more straightforward is what Bloodborne feels like it’s all about. Parrying is easier, the combat is much faster, the levelling up is less risky and even the narrative feels like it’s more approachable. While Dark Souls had you looking for the story if you wanted to know more about it, Bloodborne has setpieces on the main path, so even if you ignore item descriptions and secret paths, you’ll still get a decent idea of what’s going on. I think that’s also why Ben said he thinks he’ll finish it; the game is overall more focused. I feel like it’s the hardest Souls game yet, but that focus alone, the numerous opportunities to polish your skills and not worry about the side stuff is what makes it easier to get through even though the actual challenges are brutal. It’s a lovely compromise because it is more accessible, while still retaining the Souls difficulty. Well, as accessible as any Souls game can get…
I guess that’s a hangup I’m having trouble getting over: is it a Souls game? It has Souls-like death mechanics, a Souls-like world with Souls-like levelling and controls, items, and so much more… but there’s no “Souls” in the title. Is that simply because of copyright issues? Is it fair to burden this Souls-esque game that shares much of the Dark Souls staff with the expectations of that series? If the answer is no, I’m a little bummed there aren’t more builds, but it certainly accomplishes its goals. There isn’t much merit to my disappointment.
However, if it IS a Souls game and not simply a Souls-esque creation taken in a different direction then I have cause to be a little pissed. The furthest I got in Dark Souls 2 before losing interest was playing as a sorceror, and after a frustrating run as a dual-wielding dexterity-type, I loved playing a glass cannon. I had little recourse if I let enemies get close, and indeed I needed to avoid many of them to save my spells for worthier foes. I had a sword to switch to just in case… but if the sword came out, I was probably already screwed. I enjoyed the dynamic, though it ended up making Dark Souls 2’s overwhelming flaws all the more stark. Using a bow to get an enemy’s attention in DS1, using pyromancy for foes just out of reach… the various solutions players came up with were indicative of who they were and how they played.
What does my Bloodborne build say about me? That I value offense over defense, I suppose… and not more than that. I’m using a 1hander with a gun like everyone else. I don’t tend to switch away from it for different situations- the weapon transformations usually cover that. I have my loadout and I basically just stick with it. And the more I think about that, the more it disappoints me.
I think your expectation of what a Souls game should or shouldn’t be is precisely why From Software ditched the name in the first place. The moniker is doubtlessly lucrative from a sales perspective, but ever since Dark Souls, the image of a “proper” entry has been canonized. Suddenly, approaching a new entry feels less like a journey of discovery and more like running down an itemized checklist, grading it on consistency with previous titles. It’s the creative equivalent of chaining yourself to a well-worn post.
Though plenty of people are still treating this as “the next Souls game,” Bloodborne feels significantly different. From Software wanted to build something new and exciting on its own terms, something that would stand on its own without using past successes as a crutch. The differences won’t work for everyone, but this riskier approach has paid off in spades.
Of course, none of this will stop the rest of the world from directly comparing Dark Souls and Bloodborne: I’ve even done it myself several times in this piece! Regardless, Bloodborne is a whole new ballgame, and its mechanics should be weighed by how well they work within the streets of Yharnham instead of viewing them through a Souls-shaped lens.
If it’s supposed to be its own thing, then it has failed.
Whether it’s licensing, wanting a fresh start or branching out that made them drop the “Souls” name, I personally consider Bloodborne a Souls title because it bases so much of its design on that of its predecessors. All the changes From Software have made feel like they looked at that aspect of predecessors and said “players used this feature in this way, so we’ll changed it up to get a new desired effect”. The consumable heals feel like a step back to me compared to the Estus flask, but an Estus flask wouldn’t work with their scarce checkpoint system. I don’t like the change but I understand the implications of using the previous system as well.
What would more build options have done for this game? Would their current “spell” system where you use artifacts by spending quicksilver bullets work, or would you need something else? Would you need to make spells unparryable? Bloodborne feels very tight and any drastic changes to the current game would affect the majority of other systems it has. Of course, they could have just made “Dark Souls 3”, but I don’t believe sequels need to retain the mechanics if they can retain the spirit of the title. Bloodborne does this and I don’t think it does something particularly better or worse. It feels like they just went for “something different” because they wanted to see how it works. And from what I gather, there was a similar issue with Dark Souls when it was out and people compared it to Demon’s Souls.
When I compare it to other disappointing sequels I’ve dealt with recently (coughHotlineMiami2cough), Bloodborne does a much better job as a new entry and as time passes, I feel we’ll be less concerned over comparing it to Dark Souls and more to considering it its own beautiful thing in From Software’s library of third-person RPGs.