Forget Fallout and Metal Gear, ‘Bloodborne’ Is My Open-World Game of 2015
FromSoftware's PS4 doozie is that rare open-world release that puts all of its space to cunning use.
"But Bloodborne isn't a 'real' open world game," you may be thinking. "You're comparing apples to oranges." Or "radscorpions to mole rats", if you've been playing Fallout 4 a lot. Either way, you have a point. FromSoftware's PlayStation 4 debut isn't like those other open-world games, the balmy oceans of trials and rewards poured out by companies like Bethesda or Ubisoft. It isn't some groaning cauldron of secondary objectives and collectible scrap.
In contrast to a Fallout or an Assassin's Creed's willingness to cater to the player's whim, the choices that make up this diseased masterwork are strictly, even punitively defined. You can't head in absolutely any direction that suits your fancy, trailing the frayed ends of partly-completed quests. You can't track down your archenemy in the world and slay the bastard before the overture has faded, nipping reams of plot development in the bud. There is no horse, wingsuit, VTOL or conveniently pliable dragon to spirit you across the skybox, and you can't bumble down to the endgame dungeon by following the edge of the map.
Bloodborne is a different breed. But at the end of the day, apples and oranges are both types of fruit – and if From's offering seems peculiarly harsh and arid when compared to, say, the recent Just Cause 3, it's still a continuous, non-linear environment that's yours to rove at more or less your own pace. It's just an open-world game that asks you to pay much more attention than most to what's right under your feet, lest what's right under your feet bite a chunk out of your neck.
Lesser open-worlders trade in distance for its own sake – rousing stretches of canyon, forest or mountainside, much of it destined to be heedlessly trampled as the player hurtles towards a waypoint marker. Bloodborne offers a considerable expanse, but it uses the space much more malevolently. The game's moon-crazed Yharnam is a mass of branching paths – smoggy streets, dripping tunnels and crumbling cliffside walks that roll under and over and back into each other with serpentine abandon. Every path crescendos in a boss that serves as a gatekeeper for entire stretches of map, and toppling these horrors – to say nothing of the torch-waving villagers, slavering wolfmen and walking brains that populate the nooks and crannies – typically involves hours of pattern analysis, loadout-twiddling and hair-tearing frustration.
It's a structure that refuses to be gainsaid or circumvented the way you can a tank convoy in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, or a story encounter in Fallout 4, and it can, very often, feel like you're head-butting a wall. But this isn't a Call of Duty campaign. There are hardly any cutscenes, and zilch in the way of QTEs or scripted sequences. You're never outright forced to continue down a path or fight something, save for when you stumble into a boss creature's lair.
Shortcuts and secret chambers are myriad, some hidden then – once you start to think along the same fiendish lines as the level designers – given away by piles of breakable crates and coffins, others betrayed by the flickering pools of gore that indicate the activities of online players. However vindictive Bloodborne can feel, there's always a choice to be made – weighing up the merits of this or that route, or whether it's worth making an XP run through a pacified region before heading into uncharted territory – and the care with which the game asks you to mull over your options means that you marvel at the environment's diabolical intricacies all the more.
This also, of course, applies to Bloodborne's spiritual ancestor, Dark Souls, and it's still an important contribution to the corpus of game design. Virtual geography has never been grander than it is today, and one unfortunate by-product, I think, is a slight undervaluing of the local and specific. That's even true of the games that lavish the most attention on the fine details. I love Fallout 4's knack for an evocatively tumbled heap of bones, for example, or the way scattered props knit themselves together at the back of your mind into narratives as you poke through some long-forgotten bunker. But the sheer abundance of stuff, the relative ease with which I'm able to traverse the game's supposedly unforgiving wilderness, and the continual tugging of a dozen objectives (which passively accrue as you speak to people, or overhear conversations) stops me from giving these flourishes the attention they deserve.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain fares a lot better. Each of its bases and outposts is a spiderweb of dynamic guard behaviours that must be gingerly unpicked, and the world map has a whiff of Bloodborne's deranged hydra-headed design to it, with valleys forcing you to approach bases from certain broad directions. It's a framework that puts a strong emphasis on the here-and-now, and the emotional payoff when you apply just the right combination of tools and tactics to a situation can be immense. But it's also a game of sweeping plains and dusty roads, in which you'll spend lots of the time holding down the sprint button, your mind galloping ahead to your next objective.
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An Infinity Ward developer once told me that his favourite part of Modern Warfare 2 was an alleyway with some prettily arranged rubbish in it – a thought that unsettled me, as this is exactly the kind of tiny brushstroke Call of Duty's avalanche of a campaign formula teaches you to ignore. I get the same feeling – infrequently, but often enough to be telling – while wandering the Zanzibar of The Phantom Pain. There are so many nuances to savour (or strap to a Fulton balloon), but the structure doesn't always persuade you to care, particularly when it comes to the missions that are just bog-standard resource hunts, or glorified remixes of previous missions.
Not so Bloodborne, in which it's possible to spend 40 minutes inching through a castle library for fear of what might rise shrieking out of the floor. There's plenty of grinding to be done – well, assuming you aren't among the prancing hotshots who've beaten the game without levelling up – but every second of the game demands complete focus, thanks to unpleasantly underhand AI and the ease with which threats escape detection in amongst the ornate Gothic trappings. You'll take a step through a door, pause, glance behind you, peer mistrustfully at a figure slumped behind a table, take another step, suck in your breath, strain your ears for ominous rustles of movement. A hint born of long Souls experience: never trust an empty room, especially if there's a glowing object on the floor at the other end of it.
As you'd expect, the game's handling of space is never more exacting than when you're locked in a death-struggle with something befanged and/or tentacular. Souls mastermind Hidetaka Miyazaki's decision to dispense with shields, much to the horror of greener players, has wide-reaching effects. The immediate result is that you're forced to be aggressive, sliding between attacks rather than letting them bounce off – an upping of the stakes that's reinforced by the "Rally" system, whereby you can regain a smidgeon of lost health by counter-attacking straight away. The longer-term payoff, though, is that you have to mind-map the terrain around you much more intently even than in the original Dark Souls, with its devilish origami architecture.
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In a game that sets such store by darting and dodging, you need a pin-sharp mental picture of the layout at your back – where the furnishings are that might box you in or interrupt an opponent's charge, whether there's an incline that might allow you to slip cheekily under a horizontal swing. You'll also become closely attuned to the play of AI trigger lines in a level – an earlier area could offer a tactical advantage if you can lure an opponent away from its post, but shrinking from contact might cost you dearly if you retreat straight into another foe's aggro zone. In this way, you come to know and appreciate Bloodborne's theatres of bloodshed in a way you never quite do the most convoluted of Fallout 4's dungeons, and even MGSV's fortified bases seem a bit superficial by comparison. It's too often a question of waiting for a guard to turn his back, or where to take cover.
I don't want to sound too down on the likes of Metal Gear or Fallout. They do what they do enormously well, and which you enjoy the most is obviously a question of taste – for many, the spaciousness, playfulness and the ability to plot your own course will be worth the occasional lack of rigour and suspense. But as video game worlds grow ever more gargantuan, their capacity to rouse fear and wonder smeared ever more thinly across the geometry, I relish more and more the games in which every square foot could be my undoing. Bloodborne commonly deals in passageways a metre or two wide, but it always feels terrifyingly vast. How do you like them apples?
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