From Software has developed a solid formula for making games. Starting with Demon’s Souls, they’ve nearly perfected this Western Style of RPG with their recent game Dark Souls III. But what From Software did differently than other formulaic games, they took the formula into two different series, Dark Souls and Bloodborne. These two series have become known as “Soulsborne” games because of how incredibly similarly they are designed.
For example, in both Dark Souls III and Bloodborne, the player hacks, slashes, and dodges around enemies in order to gather a currency. Souls in Dark Souls or Bloodechos in Bloodborne are not only used for purchasing items, as well as leveling up your character. When you die in these games, you drop your Blood/Souls where you died, or in the case of Bloodborne, it’s possible that an enemy may be holding them (usually the one who killed you, but sometimes it’s random).
In addition to this system of currency, the world design itself is identical for both games. Not aesthetically, Dark Souls has a more medieval take on the series while Bloodborne has a more Victorian Gothic Horror theme to it. What’s similar is how the worlds are built; every area is ingeniously designed to focus on checkpoints (Bonfires in Dark Souls, Lanterns in Bloodborne). The checkpoints function exactly the same—they heal you and reset enemies to their starting positions, as well as act as spawn points for when you die. The worlds of these games are designed to allow for shortcuts back to the central checkpoint for that area.
But that’s where the similarities end. Despite what sounds like a lot of copy and pasted gameplay aspects, Dark Souls and Bloodborne play very differently. I thought it would be interesting to look at the game design of these two similar games and see what makes them different. I won’t be examining the story, the lore or anything aesthetic about these games—this is strictly about how they play.
Starting with Dark Souls, this is a much more traditional Western RPG experience. You start the game by choosing your class, which not only dictates what starting gear your character has, but also dictates your starting stats. There are a variety of classes that each play differently, but not necessarily any better than another. The knight for example is incredibly straight forward, using a sword and shield and focuing on tanking through damage rather than rolling away to avoid attacks. In contrast, the cleric focuses on the faith stat and uses miracle magic to perform healing spells, or the thief, who has an emphasis on dexterity over strength, dodges over blocks, and does many fast attacks. Combat either way is very slow and calculated; it preaches patience by designing enemies who punish players for being too over eager.
In Bloodborne, you don’t start with a class in the same sense. You choose an origin, like a military background or tortured past to dictate your starting stats, and then after you die in the game for the first time, you are offered your first weapon. How you play in Bloodborne is really decided by your choice of weapon. You’re given a melee weapon to hold in your right hand as well as a gun that you hold in your left hand. The melee weapon has 2 forms, a short standard form which allows use of the gun, and a secondary form which is usually two handed and usually grants longer reach, and potentially more damage but for slower speed. Guns are used for counter attacks; if you can shoot an enemy right as they are about to attack, you can perform a “visceral move” and deal massive damage, essentially a counter attack.
The combat is where Bloodborne greatly differs from Dark Souls. Bloodborne‘s is incredibly fast paced, there is essentially no blocking attacks (there is a shield but it’s not recommended). Bloodborne also has a unique mechanic where when you take damage, if you hit an opponent right as you’re hit, you can recover some of the lost health. You’re incentivized to attack right after being hit, as opposed to dodging and rolling out of the way to recover. This makes for much more exciting combat, with much riskier tactics. You have to decide if it’s worth going for the health, but you risk death if you’re just swinging wildly.
What Bloodborne Does that Dark Souls Doesn’t
What really stands out to me as a difference between Dark Souls and Bloodborne is how simple leveling up your character is in Bloodborne. If you’re using a heavy weapon, raise strength, if you’re using a fast one, raise dexterity. Bloodborne has an incredibly straight forward stats screen, and it’s easy to determine how you want to raise your character. In Dark Souls there are just so many factors that you have to include, like HP, FP, Endurance, Strength, Dexterity, Intellect, Faith, and “equip load,” which determines how much weight you can have equipped at once. In this regard, Bloodborne’s simpler method works more coherently than Dark Souls.
I’ve talked about what makes the combat of these two games different, but there is also something about combat in Bloodborne that makes it better than Dark Souls. When the combat is fast, it becomes exciting. It’s no longer just waiting for an opening; it’s about constant movement, and when you’re fighting a “Hunter” (someone who fights like yourself) it’s even more exhilarating because you may never know how they’re going to act.
Dark Souls 3 added an enemy that is similar to hunters, but when the combat is centered around trying to find an opportunity to attack, it doesn’t add the same kind of thrill. There is something to be said the combat in Dark Souls isn’t inherently bad, the feeling of waiting for that opening can be satisfying, but I personally feel like being in control of the situation takes away from the experience as a whole.
What Dark Souls Does that Bloodborne Doesn’t
I would have to say that the biggest difference between Dark Souls and Bloodborne is the classes. Whenever I play Bloodborne, I feel stifled with my choice of weapons. There are so few weapon options in Bloodborne, and they don’t play that differently from each other. The DLC for Bloodborne does add a lot more weapons, and that’s great, but it now feels like the amount that should have been in the game in the first place …
Dark Souls offers class diversity. Your starting gear is intended to be replaced, you’re expected to get new equipment and upgrade that as you play. Not to mention, you’re not assigned to a single gameplay style. For example, you can be a knight with a pyromancer’s glove, so you can play like a tank but also have the ability to chuck fire when needed.
The other small but noticeable difference is the presence of magic in Dark Souls. There are 3 types of magic—sorceries, miracles and pyromancies—and any class can use these as long as you have the required stats to cast them. In Bloodborne there are some arcane abilities that are cast through spending bullets. While there are spell-like items … they can be very circumstantial. Many of them are slow casting, they can leave you vulnerable, and can have a very high arcane requirement. You basically need to have an arcane build for your character if you want to use these spells.
Dark Souls is a slower game that allows for a more traditional Western RPG experience. It allows for class customization so you can play the character how you want. The classes all play very differently from each other, and the diversity in magic allows for a truly unique experience while playing the game. While the class diversity does make for a more unique gameplay experience, the game is still paced around knowing when to attack and often encourages hanging back with a shield up until you see an opening.
Bloodborne is faster, letting players heal by attacking back and dodging as the primary form of avoiding damage. Knowing when to counterattack an enemy and knowing when to get out of the way are crucial choices, and this risk vs reward gameplay works great together, especially when many of the enemies are essentially the same as yourself. The faults in Bloodborne are in the weapons—there’s very little difference in how they play and the preference is mostly aesthetic. That’s not to say that there aren’t more unique weapons than others, but how you play is going to be relatively the same regardless.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look into the game design of Dark Souls and Bloodborne. It’s interesting that each game makes up for an aspect that the other game lacks. I suspect that’s partially how Bloodborne started, From Software wanted to make a game that was faster paced and what resulted was something with a much richer combat system but lacked in other aspects that Dark Souls was able to make better use of.