With the release of Bloodborne, I finally believe that the true "next-generation" is here. While the game may not be dramatically different from it's predecessors, the attention to detail and general streamlining of game mechanics makes it an extraordinarily engaging game.
Everything about the limited story, combat system, upgrades and level design is polished beyond what I could have expected. I've always been a big fan of the Souls games, but Bloodborne really does take it to an entirely different level.
Is it really that insanely good, though? How does Bloodborne compare to the grandfather of souls, Demon's Souls? Both were made under the direction of Hidetaka Miyazaki and they share a lot of aesthetic choices. They also both have similar structure in world design.
Now, to point out something like graphics would be asinine. Since Bloodborne is a PS4 game and Demon's Souls is a fairly early PS3 game, there is already a clear winner in terms of graphical fidelity. You can look at other aspects, like art design or graphical density.
Bloodborne has so much going on in various levels that the game cannot push more than 30 frames-per-second. While this is a bit disappointing, the game runs mostly smooth throughout. Certain actions can trigger slowdown and co-op often hinders the refresh rate, but the game works damn fine by itself.
Demon's Souls was not so lucky. While there are a bunch of areas that are flawless, when you run into any densely packed area, the game shutters. I've seen framerates as low as 15 frames-per-second a couple of times. They never seem to crop up in the middle of a boss fight, but they do occur randomly in levels.
Fluidity is what makes Bloodborne so damn addicting. The combat is kicked up to a different gear and is hard to grasp, at first. Everything goes so fast that you need lightning quick reflexes and proper knowledge of your character's limitations and advantages.
Demon's Souls was the first in this series, so it obviously doesn't have as many options. What it does have is purity. Enemies are not given crazy attacks that you will never block and all of your moves are limited enough to give you clear control. You will precisely know what to do and will rarely hit the wrong button.
Having said that, the options afforded to you are vastly different between the two games. Bloodborne is absolutely a melee game. While there are some ranged options, they will not be the linchpin of your arsenal. Your assassination of targets will require you to get up close and personal.
This is facilitated by the silver bullet system and firearms. While that sounds like it would be a tremendous boon, your firearm is only able to carry 20 bullets (disregarding upgrades). This gives you extremely limited amounts of ranged capability.
You can find other items, but they also require bullets. One item even utilizes 12 bullets, only being able to fire a single shot before going away. This change from diverse ranged options coerces players into fighting the beasts hand-to-hand.
It also eliminates any "cheese" tactics or glitches. You cannot rely on developmental oversights to see you through a rough challenge. It makes every victory solely yours. Even with co-op, you still need to pull your own weight.
Demon's Souls is not so lucky. Being the first of it's kind, obviously something was going to go unnoticed. Bow and arrows allow you to tackle enemies from a distance, but with their cost being so low, you end up being able to carry 500+ arrows very shortly into the game.
There are also some problems with level geometry that will allow you to shoot arrows through walls. This nearly eliminates the challenge associated with certain encounters. While you could make a point of saying this is similar to old-school game design, the legacy behind the Souls games looks a bit fabricated with these glitches.
There are also a host of magic attacks in Demon's Souls that nearly become dominate over other weapons. Since the AI of the enemies is fairly slow, you are able to shoot off a lot of magic attacks with ease. You can restore your MP, as well (via rings or items), so you don't ever need to stop if you've prepared correctly.
On my first playthrough years ago, I never even saw a few of the bosses. While I was a coward, I was still able to "cheese" them out with fireballs and arrows. It trivializes some levels. Practicing self-caution does make the game more enjoyable, but one of the basic tenets of game design is lacking.
Bloodborne has seemingly fixed that by not including magic or ranged weapons. It also fixes the AI by making them far more aggressive. Instead of passively waiting for attacks or walking off of cliffs, the AI will rush down the player and keep them on edge.
This allows little time for healing or flicking through inventory. Your strikes need to be quick and your recovery planned. The infamous running away tactic from the souls game is mostly fixed, too. Once you aggro an enemy, you (9 times out of 10) will have to kill them to stop their pursuit.
As for healing, Bloodborne follows in the vein of Dark Souls by making healing a dedicated button. Instead of putting it to an item and allowing different levels of healing, this ensures that you will always have a way to get some kind of health boost.
What it does away with is the unlimited refills. You need to keep killing enemies and collecting blood echoes to get more vials (or you find a bunch in the world). Dark Souls and it's sequel would always refill your supply of healing flasks upon dying.
Demon's Souls relies on consumables. This bloats the inventory by having various types of grass that do differing amounts of healing. It also arbitrarily inflates the difficulty level. If you happen to run out of grass and have no souls, you won't be healing.
That might seem like a personal opinion, but Demon's Souls is a bit difficult. Many players have vanquished the steep learning curve, but the game can often times be frustrating. Instead of dying of your own ineptitude, you end up failing because you cannot get ahead.
Bloodborne does go back to that a bit, but your foes drop a lot more blood echoes then any enemy ever dropped souls. Level ups also require more, but most items are fairly cheap while the enemies have plentiful blood echoes.
Speaking of leveling up, Demon's Souls employs 8 different stats to give to your character. Bloodborne cuts out the fat and only asks you to deal with 6 of them. It may be more fulfilling to govern magic with 2 additional attributes, but the gains start becoming obscured and the process feels more daunting then it should.
Bloodborne clearly explains it's skill points and allows you to power up faster. This doesn't inherently make the game easier, but it does allow one to have a more gradual difficulty curve instead of hitting spikes along the way. Bloodborne does seem more well-rounded in that regard.
Demon's Souls is uneven in difficulty. The first area is overwhelming and even the next level you choose will be threatening, but you tend to get the hang of it after a few times. Then the middle sections of each world become a bit easy before ramping up with the final boss.
The only problem is that the final boss of the first world is hard even at extremely high levels. You never get the feeling that your stat distribution was worth the investment. The False King can still one shot you, so it comes more down to raw skill.
Skill is what makes the Souls games work. While it would be nice to actually feel your character power up in Demon's Souls, the unbridled sense of success has never been topped. Even if Bloodborne ends up feeling fairer, Demon's Souls has a better sense of accomplishment.
Co-op can make things dramatically easier. Bloodborne suffers a little in that you can summon more players to your world, but it also allows you to directly summon friends. Demon's Souls is very specific in it's execution of multiplayer.
The invasion mechanic is frustrating, but it does also keep you on your toes. To eliminate those invasions, you have to play in soul form, but that reduces your total health. It makes for a strategic element that is absent in Bloodborne.
Bloodborne changes that by actually giving you a way to stay connected, but forego invasions. You won't actually be able to get invaded in early levels; as you progress, a bell maiden will appear that summons invading players.
Co-op also makes that maiden appear, which then gives you and your cooperator a reason to explore the world. She is often hidden quite well, so finding her is a small reward unto itself.
It still is revolutionary in that it makes single-player minded people actually want to participate in multiplayer, but the lack of an ability to get together with friends is a big fault to me.
I get that the point was anonymity, but Bloodborne becomes a lot more enjoyable when you grab a friend to suffer with. You both can directly talk and feel like you're bonding with each other over such a dark world.
Speaking of worlds, the design of both games is truly remarkable. While I personally prefer the way in which Bloodborne's paths weaver together, Demon's Souls truly feels labyrinthine at times.
That sense of being lost makes the exploration very palpable. You aren't always finding anything, but you feel compelled to look. Some of the dead ends can be frustrating, but the game remains fun despite it's shortcomings in structure.
There are far less realistic touches and more of a sense of game construction. Not every area is brimming with content to discover, but the roads all lead to a specific point. Figuring out which road will take you there is the hard part.
Bloodborne makes it's central city feel real. There are better indications of where a path ends via large gates and there is limited use of bottomless pits. There are even tons of shortcuts for the player to discover and use. Trekking down an unknown walkway will usually lead to something worthwhile.
Demon's Souls just doesn't have that. It's secrets are vague and limited in supply. Bloodborne has a secret in nearly every area. Backtracking even comes into play, but feels more organic then most games can muster.
This works in conjunction with how buildings are set up. The classrooms in the middle of the game have hallways that only lead to doors. There is no other purpose, but it is built to feel like an actual school.
The mountain peaks have caves that sometimes contain nothing. It looks enticing, but real life doesn't always have a prize at the end of the rainbow. Sometimes, just the simple act of looking brings joy, which Bloodborne captures.
As for enemy design, both games are basically equal. After a few playthroughs, the general enemies may seem boring, but their first impressions are terrifying. Both games also start off with humanoid opponents and then expand into various creatures from some nightmarish vision.
The only reason I would say that Demon's Souls falls short is because of it's controls. The enemies in each title are menacing and not easily conquered (except for a few). Demon's Souls is a slower game then Bloodborne, so it's combat doesn't pack the same punch. That doesn't mean the enemy design is lacking.
If anything, the bosses have great build-up, better than Bloodborne in a lot of cases. Demon's Souls also has a tremendous spark to introducing new enemies by clouding their appearance with environmental cues. Bloodborne doesn't rely on that tactic.
For Bloodborne, you can basically see every foe before you kill them. Their design and size are what fill you with fear or confidence. Their movesets are all distinguishable, so you never leave wondering what happened. Bloodborne doesn't rely on jump scares, either, something the Souls games have perfected.
Quite honestly, that area is a tie. The combatants fit each game world to a tee. You won't leave either experience feeling like you disliked an aspect of it's enemies. Some of them will piss you off, but you will learn to respect their attack patterns and strike with efficiency.
This all adds up to the end game. I understand that not every final boss has to be a ball buster, but Demon's Souls lacks a true closing battle. The lore surrounding the final encounter is very detailed and interesting, but the battle is basically a gimmie. You walk in, slaughter the guy and leave. Game over.
Bloodborne also brings tremendous attention to detail in it's lore, but the final encounter isn't a push-over. If anything, it's last boss is the hardest thing in the game. You square off against one of your kin and it becomes a battle of skill over style.
Facing off against a literal equal makes the last moments of Bloodborne truly memorable. After all these years, I remembered the difficulty of Demon's Souls last boss, but I could barely muster an image of him in my mind. I don't think I'll ever get over how emotional I felt after Bloodborne.
But both games do offer truly compelling narratives. Their ambiguous approach to storytelling makes their moments seem unique. Each second of the game is your own. Even if the developers have a concrete story, you've carved your own path in their work.
That allows every player to fantasize about what piece goes where or how a particular NPC fits into the role of things. That nothing is spelled out also makes discovering any detail more rewarding.
At the end of it all, both games are worthy experiences that I would tell anyone to play. Demon's Souls was more unique in it's time, but it hasn't aged poorly. Certain aspects are outdated, but the game doesn't overstep it's boundaries. Every mechanic and design choice is deliberate and counter-balanced (apart from Magic).
Bloodborne is the culmination of surprising success taken to it's max level of polish. I do truly wish that the game ran at 60 frames-per-second, but the sense of speed and precision is unfounded in any of the Souls games.
It also has intricately laid paths that have no set order. It makes for an experience that truly will be solely yours. It may have taken 6 years to happen, but I finally believe that Demon's Souls has gotten the sequel it deserved.
Also, you can make randomly generated dungeons in Bloodborne. You can literally play it forever and never see every combination. That is fantastic.
Side Note: I do love Dark Souls. I was just disappointed with it's technical failings and more grandiose map design. It was an amazing world, but Demon's Souls had unrivaled freedom of choice for it's time.
Dark Souls seemed to limit that. Regardless, I would still say that Dark Souls was a worthy successor. I just always wanted a more true sequel to Demon's Souls, something that I feel Bloodborne delivers handsomely.