When I first saw Bloodborne played at E3 2014, I took note of its faster combat pace and what looked like an aggressive, proactive style of play. For the most part, that first impression held up in my hands-on time with Bloodborne at PlayStation Experience this weekend. I played the game’s latest alpha build, which some lucky community members have had their mitts on for a couple weeks now. It’s also roughly the same area and enemies as were shown during the E3 demo, which sets up a nice basis for comparison.
For starters, Bloodborne looks so much better than the already impressive state in which we first witnessed it. The frame rate isn’t quite there yet, lighting is hit-or-miss with some absent shadows, and my slain enemies had a few ragdoll quirks. But what sticks with me are the astounding positives. Abundant particle effects dot the sky with embers in a smoky haze. My feathered cloak blows realistically in the wind at dozens of articulation points. Animations convey the weighty purpose of every swing, stab, and gunshot. Realistic flame positively erupts from oil slicks.
The plagued city of Yharnam is the star of the visual show. There is incredible detail in both the textures of the city and the city itself. Towering Gothic architecture intertwines and connects seamlessly while the ground is positively littered with refuse of the time and troubles. Rather than merely serving as window dressing hiding the occasional pick-up item, these boxes, nets, gravestones, and dirt piles communicate the city’s aesthetic of despair.
In these nightmarish streets where bodies are piled by the dozens and mutated villagers burn their disease-ravaged friends knowing full well they’re probably next, you play a mysterious hero(?) who has come to Yharnam to confront the dark secrets of a pathogen that turns men into monsters, dogs into fierce beasts, and crows into the scariest hopping menace this side of headcrabs. My demo didn’t have much in the way of traps or surprise attacks, but the patience and critical-thinking so important in Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls appears here in deciding how to balance and approach these enemy types with the tools you have. This mitigates potential concern that Bloodborne’s twitchier combat and emphasis on timing will comprise the series’ notorious difficulty. The tough choices are still there—you just need to be faster at executing them.
To that end, my demo gave a choice between four weapon set-ups likely to be common usage for players: the Saw Cleaver and Blunderbuss, Hunter’s Axe and Pistol, Kirkhammer and Blunderbuss, and Warped Twinblades and Pistol. I spent time with the first (most balanced) and fourth (most agile) option. Right off the bat, I saw how the Saw Cleaver’s dual modes of “shortened” and “elongated” add tactical depth to combat. Knowing whether to use the arms-length blade or its extended version for sweeping attacks was an art I found myself not very good at. After a few mid-swing deaths, I switched to the Warped Twinblades. With a knife in each hand, I could quickly seize attack openings after an enemy miss, lessening the burden of timing somewhat. On the other hand, I had to be consistently closer to my enemies in order to hit them. Because their pitchforks and spears had no trouble reaching me at Saw Cleaver distance anyway, the tradeoff was easy.
It’s clear that ranged weapons are meant to function more as stuns than damage dealers—the Blunderbuss and Pistol gave rather pitiful damage but created valuable openings on several occasions. From Software wants you to get up-close-and-personal with these baddies; no surprises there. And the closer you get, the more effective faster weapons become. I didn’t spend enough time to make a definitive statement either way, but I worry that agile character builds and fast weapons like the Twinblades will be overpowered given the game’s incentives to play aggressively.
I’m not just talking about taking advantage of openings, either. There’s a system-specific reason to strike quickly. Enemy hits deal an amount of damage conveyed by a discolored portion of your health bar. Rather than being lost all at once, this damage “potential” is inflicted over time immediately after the initial hit. If you strike back and successfully hit the enemy any time before that health portion is completely lost, the loss will stop. Effectively, you mitigate the damage you receive by staying on the offensive; the quicker you counterattack, the less permanent damage you sustain. Of course, a constant offensive has its own risks. In your careless haste to respond, you might suffer another hit, instantly completing the previous hit’s damage-over-time and inflicting a new penalty.
With only a brief bit of gameplay to call upon, it’s difficult to say whether Bloodborne’s character builds and playstyles will be equally viable in light of its emphasis on speedy execution. It’s also unclear how much slower, hugely satisfying strategies—namely, pouring an oil slick and setting fire to a whole group—will fit into the picture. For now, it’s safe to say Bloodborne doesn’t deviate dramatically from what people love about the Soul series. It may, however, entice players seeking faster action and greater risks with equal reward. Yharnam alone captured my complete attention; Bloodborne’s intense fights and horrific enemies were icing on what’s sure to stand among 2015’s best.