There aren’t too many games that gather or deserve the level of hype that Bloodborne has accrued since its announcement at E3 last year. It’s hard to say it’s undeserved either: this is a Souls game in all but name, directed by that series’ creator Hidetaka Miyazaki – a man whose reduced role on Dark Souls II is widely thought to have been to that game’s detriment.
My hour or so in Bloodborne begins with character creation. Classes have been ditched in favour of origin stories, which affect stats like Vitality, Endurance, Strength, and Arcane. There are amusing options in ‘Troubled Childhood’, ‘Waste of Skin’, and ‘Cruel Fate’, but I opt to play an extremely elderly woman of noble blood and rush through what looks like a fairly robust appearance editor (a total of three skin layer colours can be chosen) in order to get to the dying constantly part.
I awake in Isoefka’s Clinic, where a guy in a puffy pirate shirt and top hat is speaking in cryptic phrases. He talks of a blood transfusion which doesn’t fill me with confidence as his eyes appear to be covered by a leather mask that is sown over the top half of his face, but there’s no choice here. Some cryptic mutterings about how it may all be a bad dream later, I lose consciousness.
When I awaken, a large skeletal dog is emerging from a puddle of blood. It reaches a boney claw in my direction then bursts into flame. Then a group of small demented-looking human-ish babies clamber over me. Back to black I go.
When I next wake, I can get up and run about. I head downstairs through the dimly lit building, its wooden floors amplifying my footsteps, until I happen across a huge dog like the one earlier. It’s eating a corpse but I decide to punch it anyway and it promptly eats me instead. It’s the first of approximately fifty times that I will see the words ‘You Died’ fade into view today.
I now awake in Dream Refuge, a garden outside a large mansion that acts as a central hub the way Nexus does in Demon’s Souls. The creepy babies are present and actually friendly, offering me weapons which would have been handy earlier - the jerks.
I pass on a Hunter Axe and Threaded Cane in favour of the game’s immediately iconic Saw Cleaver, a nasty hacksaw-shaped thing that can be flicked open switchblade style to double its length. Each melee weapon has a similar transforming ability, so all are referred to as trick weapons.
Each weapon also has five attack stats (physical, blood, arcane, fire, and bolt I believe), along with ratings for durability, among others. With my left hand I pass on a blunderbuss and gratefully accept a pistol.
I also grab a notebook which ordinarily would allow me to leave messages for other players, then head into the mansion, kill the dog, and exit out the other side into Central Yharnam.
A dark Gothic place that’s been overrun by a strange illness and shrouded by perpetual night and mist, Yharnam is anything but welcoming. It’s beautiful though, and I admire its ornate horse carriages, spires, and wrought iron constructions as an NPC tells me that like the town I am cursed, but that I will find no solace or cure here.
He’s right. Both infected humans and the groups that hunt them are immediately hostile towards me, and it takes between one and three hits from a pitchfork or axe to send me back to a lamp at the start of the level – the Bloodborne equivalent of bonfires in the Souls games.
Some enemies have torches and use them defensively to set me alight when I attack, quickly sapping my health meter. Others wield crude wooden shields, or drag axes along the cobbled streets, betraying their position. One huge sub-boss lurks behind a row of barrels, daring me to smash through them to take him on. I do, and the outcome is quick as it is predictable.
Combat is a touch faster than it is in the Souls games, but the basics are the same: lock on to the enemy of your choosing, avoid damage by jumping backwards or rolling to the side, and attack when you see an opening. Stamina management is all-important, and there are overhead smash and charge-up moves alongside the usual medium and heavy swings. Transforming your weapon does allow for extra range, and I imagine skilled players will thread transformations through long combos to keep enemies in reach.
There are two other new mechanics: regain and staggering. The regain system allows you to claim back a portion of health taken by an enemy blow if you successfully attack them immediately after being wounded. It’s a great motivator that rewards you for remaining in the pocket rather than dive rolling away at the first sign of trouble. Failing a regain, blood vials found around the city also restore health.
The stagger mechanic is even simpler: you stagger enemies simply by blasting them with your firearm just as they are attacking, and then can follow that up with a devastating blow from your melee weapon. Bullets are in short supply though, especially once you shoot all those dogs.
What I see of Yharnam is encouraging in its complexity. As with Souls, there are many shortcuts and secret routes, stairs and ladders. It rewards a cautious approach too – the more of its denizens you can take by surprise or avoid altogether, the better.
Foes whose blood darkens the streets yield Blood Echoes, which are used to buy or repair items, and possibly to upskill as well. When you die they are left on the ground or absorbed by a nearby enemy, Souls-style.
The ways that Bloodborne is similar to any of the Souls titles appear to far outweigh the ways it differs. The setting has changed, but the mechanics and mystique of those towering predecessors loom large. It’s hard to image this being much of a problem. Yet the game feels less mysterious and more accessible, although my death count says otherwise.
Perhaps its the absence of odd, dreamlike atmosphere of the Souls games, which at times felt like the game equivalents of the most extreme funhouse mirrors, but make no mistake – there is foreboding for days here. We just never saw outside the city's walls and gazed in wonder at some bizarre clifftop construction or god-sized enemy.
Even so, and in spite my short time with the game, there's no doubt in my mind that Bloodborne will be the first truly great PlayStation 4 exclusive. The question is whether it will be Dark Souls II great or Dark Souls/Demon's Souls really great. We'll know that, as well as the exact level of punishment we are in for, when the game finally releases next week.