Reviews for From Software’s Bloodborne are starting to pop up on the internet, and with them, an interesting pattern is emerging. Games journos are heaping praise on it like sand on a fire. Meanwhile, watchers from the sidelines are asking awkward questions like ‘But didn’t you say it’s excrutiatingly hard? How can it be a good game if the difficulty’s as well thought out as a chocolate welding mask?’
I haven’t played Bloodborne yet, and most likely won’t unless it makes the leap across to PC, but I still find it fascinating. The ‘souls’ games (Demon Souls, Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2) of which Bloodborne is a spiritual heir, are an intriguing phenomenon. On the one hand, they’re beautifully realised worlds, in a gaming genre all of their own. They offer a sense of achievement that goes beyond almost anything else I’ve played.
They’re also glitchy as hell, full of questionable design decisions, and don’t explain themselves at all well, making death not so much a learning experience, but more of a ‘what the bloody hell did I do wrong this time?’ Where From have succeeded, intentionally or not, is by selling these failings as part of the experience. ‘Dark Souls is hardcore’. That’s the message that you’ll find on all kinds of gaming websites. ‘It’s supposed to be difficult.’ Does it matter that some of the face-in-a-cheese-grater moments are the result of wonky code or unpolished design? I guess not, not if the overall experience is still enjoyable.
This probably sounds like I hate the Souls games, but I love them. Bloodborne is definitely on my pick up list if it makes the leap to a machine I actually own. Thing is, and this is important: I’m used to glitchy, unfair, games. To quote from the classics “Zathras does not mind, has even grown to like it.”
I had a ZX Spectrum when I was a kid. It loaded games off of a tape deck, and then only if I wedged the end of the cover down with a Space Marine Dreadnought. Even getting the thing to load a game was a challenge. Sometimes, games would inexplicably fail to work anyway, having been programmed for the 48k version of the machine, not the 128k version I had (compatibility is not a new problem – in fact, the Amiga 500/500+/600 crossover was just as bad, if I recall).
Of those games that did load reliably (which was, in fairness, most of them), some were glitchy (Werewolves of London, I’m looking at you), suffered from poor design decisions (anything that enforced QAOP SPACE controls over the much more ergonomic ZX . ; SPACE controls, or straightforward 67890 ones – if you’re under thirty-five, you probably have no idea what that means) or explained themselves poorly (City Slicker, Firelord). It the days before patching, you just worked around such things. Any method, any strategy short of using cheat codes was justified in completing the game.
Sound familiar? In fact, I’m starting to wonder if Treasure Island Dizzy, with its one-life game over system, pixel-perfect jumps, and an inventory that was the most dangerous thing in the game (Sure, Dizzy, I meant to drop my snorkel while I was underwater, thanks a lot) isn’t the true spiritual forefather to all the Souls games…
So where am I going with this? Well, another staple of the Spectrum era was that magazines like Crash and Your Sinclair would have several staffers review the game – one would provide the meat of the article, while the others would chime in (sometimes with wildly different views) in box outs, giving you two or more perspectives on the game in question.
I doubt this is possible any longer, given that modern games are just a touch longer than those from three decades ago. So instead, perhaps it’s time to stop grading games with a star rating, or an out of ten system, and instead have reviews make recommendations based on ‘if you enjoy X, then you’ll enjoy this’. Granted, some sites do this, but it’s not the focus – the score is the all important thing, and given the most weight.
The point is: glitches, odd design and opaque gameplay don’t stop a game from being good, but they might stop a game from being fun, for some (or most) of the potential audience, and a review needs to convey this.
This approach wouldn’t just be useful for unusual things like Bloodborne, but also other mainsteam AAA titles. Let’s face it, each new Modern Warfare or FIFA game isn’t really judged against all other games, but against its predecessors in the series, so let’s stop pretending otherwise.
Is Destiny better than Elite: Dangerous? Is Elite Dangerous better than Dragon Age Inquisition? In theory, these games are so wildly different, that trying to compare them at all is meaningless. Except, with a scoring system, that’s exactly what happens. They’re all solid, but flawed, games, so how are you supposed to know which one(s) will still be fun for you, despite said flaws? Ratings don’t help here – you only have to visit Metacritic (which at once displays both everything uplifting and depressing about the democratic process) to see that.
Before I go, I’ll have a crack at answering my own question. Now, all three games have solid production values, so this’ll be all about the gameplay (and, because I’m lazy, and this has already gone on too long, shockingly brief).
Elite: Buy if you love space combat, limitless freedom and solid character progression. Avoid if you want a story, or clearly defined gameplay.
Destiny: One for gamers who want to play with a set of lovingly-crafted FPS mechanics – especially if FPS deathmatch is their thing. Avoid if you hate grindy progression, or want a story.
Dragon Age Inquistion: Want to lose yourself in great storytelling and an immersive setting? Buy this. Want rich and enjoyable combat? This ain’t the droid you’re looking for.