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The spirit of Dark Souls rests in the rapidly beating heart of Bloodborne

Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team From Software hate us all. What other explanation is there for the infamous Souls series? We gamers are rats in a very deadly, carefully crafted maze, subjecting ourselves to one sadistic, no-win scenario after another. And we love it. That’s why Miyazaki stepped away from Dark Souls II to develop a spiritually connected but wholly different take on his infernally challenging action-RPG template. You’d be forgiven for mistaking the From-developed PlayStation 4 exclusive Bloodborne as a Souls game at a glance, but the pacing of the action stands in polar opposition to Miyazaki’s earlier work.

Story/Concept

Awakened evil. Bloodborne‘s setting is the city of Yharnam, a vast, Old World metropolis marked by the towering spires, flickering gas lamps, and leering gargoyles that characterize the Gothic architecture of 19th century Victorian-era London. Once a place of healing that drew travelers from all over, the city is crippled when a terrible affliction sweeps across the population. None know the source of the curse, but its effects are clear enough: Residents of the city — human and animal alike — are transformed inside and out. Some mutate into horrific, hulking beasts of nightmare while others simply slip into the depths of violent madness.

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The game’s as-yet-unnamed protagonist is one of many travelers who came to the city in search of healing, only to discover nothing more than death waiting upon his arrival. Everything in the city is out to kill you. The protagonist’s motivation for pushing ever-deeper into the city remains unclear at present, but it’s likely that the journey eventually leads to uncovering the truth of whatever’s plaguing Yharnam.

Gameplay

Action reversal. The Souls games are built around defense-focused combat, but Bloodborne is designed to deliver a stronger in-your-face action experience. It’s hard to say how successful that approach is without actually going hands-on with the game — and our behind-closed-doors E3 preview amounted to a hands-off look only — but we did walk away with a sense of how the arsenal supports this notion of more aggressive combat.

The main character in Bloodborne carries a weapon in each hand (from what we’ve seen so far): one melee and one ranged. The weapons can be used in tandem with one another, and each fills a different role. The “saw cleaver” melee weapon revealed in the demo (and debut trailer that preceded it) looks like a short sword with a single, serrated edge. A button press flips the saw cleaver’s blade outward, extending its range and turning it into more of a heavy-hitting, halberd-like weapon. The offhand firearm is Bloodborne‘s equivalent of a shotgun.

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As far as we could tell from our hands-off perspective, combat in Bloodborne depends on combining slow-to-attack melee strikes with fast blasts from weapons to interrupt enemy attacks, and carefully timed dodges. Enemies are as aggressive and as damaging as you’d expect from a game conceived by the creator of the Souls series, but this nameless protagonist is meant to remain on the offensive as much as possible.

There’s more to be revealed, including how the game’s stamina system impacts the flow of combat and what sort of upgrades the RPG-like progression provides — not to mention any number of other weapons — but this first look gives a good sense of how Bloodborne‘s gameplay stands apart from the Souls games that precede it.

Presentation

A twisted city. One glance at Bloodborne and you can see it’s a real looker that takes good advantage of the PS4 hardware, even in the game’s current, pre-alpha state. The play of light and shadow is especially effective in the creepy Gothic surroundings, and the creatures you encounter — twisted humans with elongated limbs, skinless death dogs, and leaping, oversized crows, to describe just a few — support a horror vibe. Completely lightless locations pop up throughout the game — the one in our demo amounts to a shortcut — that require you to swap out your firearm for a torch. Ambience supports play, and vice versa.

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There are also elements of the visual execution that exist to support Bloodborne‘s more aggressive take on Souls-style RPG action. Blood is a big one; it spatters virtually everywhere. Slashing an enemy with the melee weapon results in a satisfying spray of plasma that coats the environment convincingly. Performing a finisher on a weakened foe with the saw cleaver is even more brutal, with the blade ripped across the doomed creature’s midsection as its life floods down to the cobblestone in an improbable deluge.

Takeaway

There’s no judgment to pass on Bloodborne at this point, one way or the other. Miyazaki’s touch is immediately apparent if you’re a fan of the Souls games, but it’s impossible to really get a sense of what sets this new effort apart without actually feeling how it plays firsthand. There’s also plenty more yet to be revealed about the various progression-driven systems, as well as a teased-but-not-revealed “open explorative community” for online players. We’ll certainly find out more before Bloodborne hacks its way onto PS4 in 2015.

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