I didn't quit the notoriously difficult Demon's Souls and its tougher sequel because they were too hard. Rather, From Software's renowned action-RPGs, with their nebulous stories and mysterious worlds, never hooked me on the most fundamental aspect of such an experience: the gameplay. Slow, methodical, and rigorously measured, the plodding pace of both games left me quite bored well before I reached the first challenging encounters. Getting tossed around by insignificant creatures and traps isn't frustrating for its futility--it's for the ten or fifteen minutes of unexciting gameplay I have to repeat, without clear narrative goals to inspire the gauntlet.
Souls veterans might balk at my apprehension--and how dare I preview Bloodborne? In truth, I didn’t expect Bloodborne to address so many of the reasons I haven’t enjoyed From Software’s previous efforts. There’s still the issue of plot and the nature of its delayed, player-dependent unravel, but at the very least, combat has been sped up and intensified. The defensive stance, wait-and-see apprehension, and reactive pace inherent to battle in the Souls universe has given way to combat marked by its daring speed. The enigmatic Helsing you guide through the game’s dense, Gothic environments moves with great purpose. He strikes quickly, with little time spent winding up for attacks and even less guarding--there are no shields in Bloodborne. No shield means no arm wasted for maximum damage potential, and with two weapons equipped, you become a ceaseless force. Never standing still is the best defense.
Dodges are zippy in a way that defies human ability; the game’s main character covers significant ground in an instant. It’s a necessary complement to the aggression of enemies you’ll encounter. From plague-ridden humans turned monsters to hopping crows (a truly terrifying sight), the game’s opposing forces will strike fast from the shadows of alleys and the dark corners of interiors lit by torchlight. Bloodborne’s city of Yharnam exudes atmosphere, and the Victorian architecture supports a vast network of bridges, plazas, and rooftops that layer upon each other. The richly detailed, dauntingly complex product extends upward with seriously impressive verticality, making it especially difficult to form a mental map of your surroundings. As such, predicting enemy locations and scare points is next to impossible. This is especially true when you factor in alternate pathways and shortcuts through areas. These maintain a sense of place for an open-world city that would otherwise serve only as a linear path through maddening obstacles.
A bigger, more detailed setting wields the promise of abundant content. But the prospect of having to revel in my surroundings even more, attempting to better understand the lore and in-game events, is an unappealing side effect. Emergent, player-driven storylines usually resonant with me, but Bloodborne’s combat seems exciting enough to make the time between battles feel wasted. I’ll take a spoon-fed mythos if it means I can spend more time opening execution opportunities with blasts from my sawed-off shotgun, or slashing at groups of enemies in a wide arc to open multiple streams of blood. As the demo leader played around in Bloodborne’s pre-alpha world, director Hidetaka Miyazaki kept reiterating the importance of exploration to the transference of story ideas. All I could think was how cool it looked to smoothly dodge the lunging swipe of an infected human and transform the hero’s Saw Cleaver weapon into a blade with tremendous reach.
That’s not to say Bloodborne will be easier for all the changes that make combat proactive. Rather, the speed and aggression you’ll need to stay a literal step ahead of enemies is a constant dare, challenging you to react quicker, with greater confidence, in increasingly treacherous situations. Miyazaki pegged the game’s difficulty in the same realm as Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, but reckons that the feelings of satisfaction and relief will be all the sweeter. There’s less room for error in a world without shields. When standing still isn’t an option, every move must carry a purpose in a carefully executed symphony of strikes and slides.
The copious amounts of spilt blood that subsequently fill the screen--and cover the hero’s clothing--are a constant reminder of the central conflict’s pathogenic nature. Plague-ridden humans on the verge of grotesque transformation walk among us, and the player character--plague-ridden himself--has taken up the call to arms. I hope learning about his motives and significance in Yharnum doesn’t dramatically shift attention from what looks like Bloodborne’s strongest hand: tense battles, always exciting, that penalize wrong moves and keep you on your toes. As an action-RPG, Bloodborne has to nail these gameplay fundamentals. If it does (and it’s certainly on the right track), I’ll feel inspired to push through the maddeningly difficult parts to fully immerse myself in the world and story proper. The hauntingly beautiful Yharnum, replete with the visual and material trappings of Victorian horror, deserves no less. Even in its pre-alpha state, Bloodborne is looking fantastic. Souls fans have a PS4 exclusive to be excited about, and the disenfranchised like myself have reason to pay attention.