Did you think Dark Souls II was too easy? Perhaps you complained that, after three games in a similar vein, FromSoftware’s template had become so familiar that it had grown straightforward. Bosses fell at the first attempt and areas were cleared without need to trouble your stock of Human Effigies, blind corners holding no fear as you set about filling up the warp-selection screen with one generously placed bonfire after another. Does that sound familiar? If it does, then thanks a bunch. This is all your fault.


Bloodborne is Hidetaka Miyazaki’s brutal riposte to the section of his player base that thinks it has seen it all before. It is at once so familiar and so different, in so many ways. Some are subtle, others obvious, but all are significant. It’s why our instinctive forward roll through an enemy’s attack sees us step straight into a sharpened, bloodied claw, why our backdash to heal sees us chased down instantly by a rapid beast, and why our instinctive tap of L1 to raise our shield sees us elegantly flick out our weapon before being cut down where we stand. Early on, it feels like we are not being tested so much as trolled. Healing items have been remapped from the Square button to Triangle, so one of the first of our countless deaths in Bloodborne comes when we back away from an onrushing mob, try to heal, and instead throw a pebble at some railings. The enemy pitchfork that sends us to our doom comes as a sort of relief, given that the alternative would have been dying of embarrassment.
“Yarnham’s citizens aren’t souls-style hollows, waiting patientlY in their fixed spots”
The earliest hours in a Souls  game are always the hardest a squishy, under levelled character with a weedy weapon setting out into a harsh, unknown world but Bloodborne’s beginning is something else. The citizens of the host city of Yharnam aren’t  Souls -style Hollows, waiting patiently in their fixed spots for the next petrified passer-by. Not all of them, anyway. As FromSoftware’s house style dictates, there are still plenty of static threats the rifleman sitting on the floor behind a wagon, the axe-wielder in the shadows behind a staircase but these are, if anything, a spot of comfort. They’re something familiar and reliable. Something exploitable. Everyone else is on the move. The people of Yharnam are on a hunt, ridding the town and its environs of a plague of beasts, and they don’t have time to stand around and wait. As you round the corner to take out that hidden rifleman, you might very well take a pitchfork to the kidney. 

Near one early respawn point, a four-strong mob wanders up the hill towards the town square where a larger group is burning fallen beasts on a bonfire. The first time you approach the group from behind, you might only draw the attention of one of them. The next, you might aggro all four. Hang back and wait and you can avoid them all for now, but then you’ll have to deal with a larger mob when you get to the fire. The result is a drastically shifting pace: no longer are you simply marching through an environment reacting to threats as they appear, but looking and planning ahead, before fighting with the fastest, most dynamic combat system FromSoftware has yet devised. And all the while you’re rewiring that three-game-old muscle memory, adjusting and adapting to Miyazaki’s brutal, yet somehow playful, tweaks to the template.

Combat is the logical starting point. Much has been made of the decision to take shields out of the game, and although they aren’t fully gone, their de-emphasis isn’t felt as keenly as you might imagine. Yes, you’re going to get hit a lot more, but Blood Vials, the game’s standard healing items, are quick to use. The protagonist is nimbler than any  Souls  adventurer, with new evasive tools. While the Circle button still performs the series-standard dodge roll, lock onto an opponent and it instead triggers shorter, but much faster, steps and dashes. These make it easy to either sidestep an incoming blow, create space to heal, or close in to exploit an opening. Combat in the Souls games is deliberate, methodical and, if we’re being honest, frequently ugly. Here it is balletic, dynamic and often blisteringly fast. The old bait-and-punish technique still works, of course, but why wait when you can lock on, double-dash in and make the first move? When we do pick up a shield ten or so hours into Bloodborne, the item description makes FromSoftware’s feelings on the matter perfectly clear. “Shields are nice,” it reads, “but not if they engender passivity.” We have yet to so much as equip it.

The concept at the heart of the Souls games, and now at Bloodborne’s too, is the belief that you can place seemingly insurmountable challenges in a player’s way so long as you give them the means to overcome them. As such, it wouldn’t be appropriate to simply take something out of the player’s hand without giving them something to replace it, and for all Bloodborne’s brutality, the new tool in your off hand is much more valuable than a simple shield. Trapped against a wall with an onrushing enemy? Your pistol will interrupt their attack and stagger them. In need of some crowd control against a pitchfork-wielding mob? The broad spread of a blunderbuss will keep them at bay. And if some distant threat is casting a spell, your rifle will stop them in their tracks. It’s not a primary weapon though the fact there’s a stat, Bloodtinge, that governs bullet damage suggests that could change if you focus on it but it’s a hugely useful and multifunctional tool that will have profound implications for PVP when the servers come online.

There are changes, too, to the function of the weapon in your right hand. While damage output is a FromSoftware weapon’s most important stat, two other properties are of great import: the speed at which it can be swung, and the effect it has on an enemy’s poise. Combined, they dictate whose attack will hit first, and whether your blow has the power to interrupt an opponent’s attack animation and stagger them, or allow them to take the hit and follow up immediately with one of their own. In the Souls games, this was a binary choice; you took the greatsword or the rapier, broadly speaking, and then tailored your playstyle accordingly. In Bloodborne, you are expected to take the initiative from the first minute to the last against a wide variety of foes, many of whom have both fast and slow attacks in their arsenal. One early enemy type wields an axe in his left hand with a wind-up so slow
you’d have to take a power nap to not see it coming.  In the other is a flaming torch that he thrusts towards you in a split second. So From gives you a single tool suited to either situation in the dual-form Trick weapons that make up the game’s core weaponset.

Tap L1 the button that raised your shield in Souls games gone by and the weapon in your right hand will morph, becoming longer, slower to swing but harder hitting, and often dealing a different type of damage. You can change your weapon’s form mid-combo, too, with a flashy transform and follow-up attack that, when changing from short to long version, spells the end of the irritating way the final attack of a Souls combo could easily miss because the preceding hits had pushed an enemy out of range. You can use quick attacks to open an enemy up, then some slower, heavier ones to finish them off, or start with a long-range hit against taller enemies and then quickly put them down with the short form. It means combat is no longer a matter of creating an opening and then pressing buttons until something either falls over, you have to dodge away, or your stamina bar runs dry. It’s a new level of versatility for a videogame lineage that has historically been about doing one thing and doing it well, but it does come at a cost.

BLESSING OF LIGHT
Yharnam spends the game in the grip of a perpetual night, an endless hunt that can only be brought to an end by the player finding and finishing off the source of the scourge of beasts. As such, it’s a dark world even above ground, and even worse beneath the earth or indoors. A merchant sells a clip-on lantern for a nominal fee that helps light the way while keeping both hands free, but its range is short and certain interiors are almost impossible to navigate without using a torch. These can also be used as weapons and upgraded, too; their damage output is low, but that can be raised by first dousing the enemy in oil with a throwable item. There’ll certainly be no repeat of the widespread disappointment at the way FromSoftware failed to fulfil its prerelease promises about Dark Souls II, whose world was much brighter than early footage suggested.
“BloodBorne is filthy, grisly, and very, very scary. it’s a horror game”
Long before the end of your first playthrough of a Souls  game, you are already thinking about your second, and partway through your second you’ll be plotting a third. Along the way, you’ll have picked up weapons and gear that you can’t use, or at least use well, and you’ll have been faced with challenges that would have been a lot simpler had you focused more on a different stat, or started with a different class. On the evidence of our 40 hours in Bloodborne, some of that longevity that sense of almost infinite possibility is gone. There is no class system as such; your starting stats are dictated by your choice of Trick weapon. Even as far as we are into the game, we have just half-a-dozen weapons and the same number of guns in our inventory, and there is little for sale from the game’s sole merchant or at least the only one we’ve found so far that we either don’t already have or that seems sufficiently different to what we already own to justify another run through.

Enemies no longer drop weapons and gear, only items. There are far fewer chests out in the world, and those that do exist will more likely contain an item than a new sword, gun or piece of armour. There are benefits you’re now less likely to miss a powerful weapon from an unseen chest or random enemy drop, for instance and Bloodborne’s Trick weapons are more customisable than anything in the Souls armoury thanks to Bloodgems, which are found out in the world and add little buffs. One might boost your physical attack stat, another may increase damage against beasts, improve stat scaling or add poison to your blows. Even so, unless the endgame contains an unlikely surprise,  Bloodborne  seems to be a less replayable game than its spiritual predecessors.

In the traditional New Game Plus sense, anyway. Instead, longevity comes from the Chalice Dungeons, multi-floor challenges that are procedurally generated based on the selection of items you place in one of the titular goblets found out in the world. Sadly still in the final stages of implementation, and so unavailable in this build, they seem designed to make up any shortfall in replay value. Up to five dungeons can be saved, replayed and deleted when you’ve had your fill, and while we’re told that Miyazaki feels PS4 party chat and multiplayer lobbies run counter to the mysterious spirit of FromSoftware’s games, there will be sufficient search options to team up with friends should you wish. Replay value, then, comes not from player builds, but content. Four games on, it seems a fair swap.

Yet while Bloodborne sees FromSoftware making tweaks and additions to its systems, it has stuck to what it knows best when it comes to world design, taking the best elements of the Souls games and retaining them while casting away the less successful ones. From Demon’s Souls comes a hived-off hub area called The Hunter’s Dream, where you level up; buy weapons, armour and consumable items; access item storage; and modify weaponry. From here, you can warp to any lantern checkpoint you’ve discovered out in the world, but Dark Souls II’s overfriendly abundance of bonfires is a thing of the past. Like Demon’s Souls, the reward for powering through an area is more likely to be a shortcut back to a lantern rather than a new one, an immeasurably more satisfying approach to level design, with some here rivalling Firelink Shrine’s number of access routes. Like Dark Souls, these discrete areas also flow together to create a believable world.

And what a world it is, beautifully realised, tightly designed and so much more coherent than Dark Souls, which stretched the concept of all roads leading back  to Firelink as far as possible, but lost its way in the second half of the game. Unhooking the hub from the world makes for a more believable path than any of From’s other creations; as you push through city districts, the suburbs, and out into the wild, you feel like you are in a real place in the grip of a hellish plague, rather than a because-we-said-so fantasy creation. When From does yank you out of the world entirely, it is always logical, properly explained and ends with you in another believable location. Bloodborne’s world is a masterpiece.

It is also terrifying. Over the preceding pages we’ve laid out a host of changes that FromSoftware has made to one of the most cherished designs in all of videogames. But none is so transformative as the change in tone. Gone is the dark fantasy, the faded, crumbled majesty of the Souls series. Bloodborne is filthy, grisly, and very, very scary. It’s a horror game.

From’s games have long instilled a sense of fear, but of a very specific sort. You are afraid of dying, of losing all you have earned, and so you inch ahead and try to stay alive. Here, you are not afraid of what’s around the corner because it might kill you, but because of what it might be. You’ll enter a corridor and see a mangy god-knows-what skitter across the doorway. A creature will pounce from the shadows, attach itself to your head and slurp out the goo inside. You’ll watch as a man’s head explodes in a shower of well, we’ll let you find that one out yourself. There is a moment in Dark Souls that we will never forget: down in the Depths, picking up an item from a corpse and a slime dropping onto our head. We spent the rest of the level panning the camera endlessly for unseen threats, no longer scared of dying, but of moving. Imagine a whole game of that.

Seen in this light, taking the replay value out of Yharnam and off to the Chalice Dungeons makes more sense. Returning to earlier parts of Bloodborne is as satisfying as it is in the Souls games, the layouts and enemy placements committed to memory, but that paralysing sense of fear is long gone. Still, 40 hours in and still with no end in sight, there’s plenty of fresh terror to come. With no functioning online component, we’re unable to assess co-op or PVP, run the rule over the Chalice Dungeons, or discover the impact of one new mechanic From has forbidden us from discussing, so key is it to the game and its world. Our full review will follow next month, but in the meantime, rest assured. If you thought FromSoftware was going soft, Hidetaka Miyazaki is about to put you brutally back in your place. And if you’ve been watching this generation from the sidelines, unmoved by the remasters and rush jobs while you wait for the first true essential to arrive, now’s the time. As if there was ever any doubt, Miyazaki and his team have done it all over again.

ITEM DISCOVERY
Enemies may no longer drop weapons or armour, but there are still plenty of pickups to be had from the corpses of the fallen. Bloodstone Shards play the role of Titanite, used to upgrade weapons; Coldblood takes the place of consumable Souls, giving you a currency to spend on weapons, gear and levelling. The most frequently found items, however, are the Blood Vials used for healing, and Quicksilver Bullets for your gun. You have a maximum capacity for both, but in contrast to Demon’s Souls’ fussiness about encumbrance, any surplus pickups are automatically sent to a storage box back at Hunter’s Dream. Die, and your stocks will be topped up when you respawn. These items are reliably farmable, too: trolls drop two Blood Vials, beasts drop three, and you’ll need to work out a farming run in an earlier area Great Bridge is a good place to start when your stocks start to run low later on.