Belfast Telegraph

Bloodborne on PS4 is the best game of this generation so far

Bloodborne’s opaque, breadcrumb storytelling and meticulously crafted Stokeresque aesthetic appropriately lends itself to philosophical interpretation.

The enigmatic, often prosaic statements from the game’s visionary director Hidetaka Miyazaki from during Bloodborne’s development have focused on the link between human and beast and the brutality of existence.

If this sounds like familiar territory for those who have braved and survived the onslaught of his previous works, Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls (to which Bloodborne is a spiritual sequel), you would be correct, almost.

 If the Souls games were a journey into Hell, then Bloodborne is the equivalent of being trapped in purgatory, a state of limbo for the forgotten, the diseased and the interstitial. Prepare to die? Not this time, prepare to suffer.

Assuming the role of a Hunter in the ravaged, Gothic city of Yharnam, the custom-made player character, like many other travellers within the game’s lore, is seeking a cure for an unspecified illness. Yharnam’s ruined streets, wraught-iron towers and holy structures, however, are suffering from their own affliction that turns its waning population into blade-wielding savages and, after true madness takes hold, transforms them into a cavalcade of hideous Lovecraftian-horrors.

In terms of pure design, Bloodborne is a magisterial display of visual and architectural construction. Mirroring the structure of Dark Souls’ Lordran, Yharnam is a woven tapestry of interlocking paths where progress is gradual, organic and geographically coherent.

Lanterns replace the Souls games’ Bonfires as the safe haven from the grisly battlefield, while also acting as a passageway into the ethereal hub-world, the Hunter’s Dream.

Among the relative shelter of the Dream’s crumbling gravestones, a living doll and a mysterious paraplegic named Gherman, you can level up your character, buy equipment and upgrade your weapons with an array of interchangeable Blood Gems that ensure that the game’s minimal selection of offensive tools remains infinitely more customizable than those found in the Souls series.

And for those used to the Souls combat mantra of block-dodge-circle-stab-repeat, be warned, you’re not a heavily armoured hollow this time around. While feeling instantly familiar, Bloodborne’s reactive combat system is designed around clever offense where the comforting relief of a hefty shield has been replaced by the need to balance agility and aggression in equal measure.

Each aspect of combat lends itself to this new ethos, player vitality, for example, is maintained through a combination of the plentiful and quick-to-consume Blood Vials and a health regain system that gives you an opportunity to ‘win back’ a portion of your health bar after suffering a harsh blow, as long as you retaliate in a timely manner.

The weapons themselves are equally honed for rapid hostility, with the game’s signature ‘trick’ weapons offering split-second tactical changes that mixes long range, arching heavy strikes with swift slashes. While the varied firearms used in your off-hand are needed for crowd control and knocking back a charging enemy from its attack pattern, opening them up for a deadly assault.

It’s this new combat system that makes Bloodborne feel fresh and unique despite being so similar in basic appearance to Miyazaki’s other works. Combat is hard, punishing even, but also fair and rewarding. In particular, the boss battles within Bloodborne offer a challenge by asking you to master the techniques of combat and timing, and don’t rely on being monstrous in size or having gargantuan health bars in order to test your mettle and patience.

The individual beast design too is an eclectic range of anatomically recognizable, but warped grotesqueries. Whether it’s a poison spewing, sewer dwelling pig, a hollow-eyed gravewalker or a howling lupine quadruped, each creature offers a different perspective on Yharnam’s decaying state while also forcing you to adapt your combat style at a moment’s notice.

In terms of pure content Bloodborne is brimming with cohesive ways in which to interact with other players and the world itself. The online features of summoning other players into your game, leaving messages for other wandering explorers and tackling other hunters in a PvP format should flourish following the game’s launch, considering how delicately interwoven they are with your own personal journey.

It’s the Chalice Dungeons, however, that may well offer the level of longevity and interactivity with the online sphere that the current generation of consoles has been effectively built for.

In essence a set of procedurally generated challenge maps, comprised of multiple floors with boss fights and environmental pitfalls in between, these dungeons are Bloodborne’s perpetual endgame. Each creation is accompanied by a unique code so that the trial that you’ve bested (or that has broken you) can be shared so others can follow in your footsteps or join you co-operatively in your own hunt.

If there is one negative that can be leveled at Bloodborne, it is a banal one: the painfully long loading times. While it’s not an uncommon issue for video games that are this ambitious, those precious seconds that keep you away from the terror at Bloodborne’s malformed heart can frequently break the atmosphere of horror and despair that the game so effectively creates.

Yet, this is a minor issue in an otherwise masterful experience. It’s unquestionably the best game of the generation thus far, but it is also more than any of the accolades it deserves.

It’s a gorgeously gruesome envisioning of a world that offers no rational level of negotiation or pity, where the only natural reaction to its abject bleakness and psychological oppression is vicious and primal. Re-born out of blood, what will you become?

Belfast Telegraph Digital