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Two things become clear from a lengthy presentation and some hands-on time with Bloodborne. Firstly, whatever the name this is still a game in the spirit of the ‘Souls’ games. Our hosts from From Software and Sony Computer Entertainment Japan continually refer to ‘previous Souls games’, and the Demon Souls/Dark Souls heritage is there in the look, the creepy atmosphere and the tough, deliberately unforgiving style of gameplay.
The second? This is a game of what they keep referring to as ‘Perilous Combat’. It’s designed to thrill you, to take you out of your comfort zone, even scare you and make you think twice about going into battle.
We still don’t know an awful lot about the plot. The action takes place in Yharnam, an old, gothic medieval city now abandoned to the ghoulish, mutant remnants of its population, apparently ravaged by some sinister plague (hence the title). Your protagonist, known only as the Hunter, must escape, but the only way to get out alive, it seems, is to make sure that everyone else is dead beforehand. And that’s where the bit we do know more about – that perilous combat – comes in.
The idea, according to SCEJ producer Masaaki Yamagiwa, is to make the player feel that every enemy and every situation is truly dangerous; to make you feel trepidation at the thought of every fight, but also the relief and sense of achievement when you come through in one piece. So far, so Souls, you might think. But where Bloodborne differs is that it’s moving away from a slightly defensive, block and counter style of combat into a more offensive style, defined by the use of firearms and aggressive weaponry, but also by a new ‘regain’ mechanic.
Get smacked around by the locals, and your red health bar dwindles rapidly, but the red doesn’t disappear immediately, but is replaced by an orange/yellow wisp. Strike back at your attackers, and you regain the lost health – provided you can tackle them fast enough. The idea is to encourage players to take the offensive, but as with the Souls games there are risks. Take on too many enemies, take on the wrong enemies at the wrong time, or fail in your strategy and you put all your health, not to mention life, at risk. You’re easily drawn in, but you need to avoid biting off more than you can chew.
Meanwhile, the weapons in Bloodborne are designed to promote this more aggressive approach. Each has two states – an extended state in which they do more damage at greater range but at the cost of a bigger swing that leaves you vulnerable for longer, and a shorter state in which they’re faster but less damaging. However, you can also extend the weapon mid-swing, with handy secondary knock-back effects that give you scope for a vicious follow-up.
We’ve seen three weapons at work, so far. The Sword-Cleaver you might have seen in trailers, a rather nasty axe that extends into a pole-arm, and a mechanical arm-mounted stake which results in a vicious knock-back when extended, but leaves you at the mercy of incoming blows. Even Yamagiwa describes this as a bit of an expert’s weapon.
Throughout the presentation, it’s stressed that this is still going to be a very challenging game. It’s designed around a more fluid, attacking style of combat then Dark Souls and Dark Souls II, but it’s still no brawler or button-masher. You’re easily overwhelmed in combat, and while the game pushes you to tackle multiple foes, there’s often an option to, say, follow a group and pick off stragglers, or try to isolate enemies and get them one by one.
Yamagiwa also stresses the role of items in your strategy. In Bloodborne health items have been deliberately given their own slot to encourage players to use other items in the other slot, so that you’re more likely, for example to throw oil at a group of enemies then torch them to thin the numbers down. Get a few flaming, and it’s easier to polish them off with your firearms and melee weapons. The firearms, by the way, are very much a support weapon. You can use them to knock back enemies, reduce their health and keep them off balance, but it’s the hacking, slashing piercing weapons that bear the brunt of the game’s gruesome work.
Bloodborne is gruesome, but it’s also spectacular – easily From’s best work to date. The streets and gothic architecture of Yharnam ooze rain-slicked, brooding menace, and other areas glimpsed, including a hag-haunted forest graveyard and a giant rat-infested area of high beams over fetid-looking chambers, keep up the creepy ambience. It’s no survival horror game, but it’s more scary, gripping and immersive than any recent Resident Evil.
Our hands-on time also confirms that it’s no hack-and-slash game, let alone a picnic. Our first attempt at the demo level sees us fighting off a few stragglers only to come a-cropper in a confrontation with a gang of Yharnam’s demonic denizens. And that’s on a version that – we’re told – has had the difficulty level scaled back for demo purposes. A second effort sees us get a little further, thanks to a little more guile, and gives us more of a chance to get used to the feel of the combat.
Basically, you still need to fight smart, but you also need to take risks. Keep moving, keep dodging, and take advantage of each foe’s weak points and you can keep your health level topped up. Cower and you’d best keep stocked up on the potions. Go in all gung-ho and you’ll be mincemeat within minutes. We suspect that playing Bloodborne will be a constant question of how you balance risk against reward. A bit like Dark Souls, really, yet different in its own way.
Beneath it all, we’re told that Bloodborne will still have the RPG elements, ambient storytelling and progression we expect from From, though in a subtly different form. There won’t be classes, but there will be ways to customise your character to match your play style, and while there won’t be armour, you’ll discover items of apparel which will boost your stats in certain ways. From Software won’t give much away quite yet, but then isn’t discovery one of the great pleasures of a Souls game?
Like Dark Souls, Bloodborne won’t be for the faint hearted, but this gothic action RPG looks great, has some fascinating mechanics, and looks set to give fans a different – and incredibly dark – spin on the style they’ve come to love. We’re more than a little bit excited, but maybe more than just a little bit scared too.
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