When Sony showed us Bloodborne at E3, it was like that disconcertingly racy feeling of seeing someone you really like and then realizing it's their younger, even more attractive sibling. It looked like a Souls game, albeit one even deeper into a goth phase, but bits and pieces felt weirdly unfamiliar. After putting hundreds of hours into three such similar games, it was surreal to sense the shifts in something that clearly has its roots in the Souls series, even if it doesn't share a surname.
I think what I needed was hands-on time, and that's what I got at Gamescom, even if it was for just 15 minutes. Once I picked up the DualShock and navigated the shadowy hero along the game's cobblestone alleys, things began to click. It was like stepping into a pair of your favorite shoes, but using them to ride a brand new bike. While wielding a shotgun.
First things first: The understandably choppy frame rate of E3 was gone. That allowed the demo to truly showcase the foggy, dark Victorian London-like setting of Yharnam, from the intricate coils of its iron gates to the ornately decorated stagecoaches abandoned all around. That was all lit up by the not-so-festive bonfires, around which plagued, torch-lifting villagers congregated, like Resident Evil 4. In case it needs repeating, Bloodborne is a major technical step up from the studio's previous fare, particularly in the fine detail.
Within seconds I'd settled into my trenchcoated avatar. It was like motor memory; the weight of his walking and running, his turning circle, the reactions to hitting and being hit, and soon enough, even that familiar extended pause of ignominy after death. Those glowing wisps in corpses are items, there's a health bar and an energy bar, you switch out what you're wielding using the d-pad, and the circle button lets you step back or sprint. In terms of the bare bones of Bloodborne, this is evidently a game made from Souls DNA.
The biggest difference was a huge one for a Souls player like me who prefers to use great big shields and block like it's a bad Twitter day. Going by what we've seen to date and underlined by what I played, offense looks to be the best defense in Bloodborne. So far, From's shown us builds with a combat weapon held in the right hand and a firearm in the left. In the demo I selected the standard build was a muzzle-loading blunderbuss paired up with a blade-like saw. The other option was described as heavy, with a pistol in the left hand and an axe in the right.
I soon discovered the blunderbuss, like a shotgun should be, was useless outside of short distances. When the zombie-like villagers were more than few feet away, it sprayed its fire limply and registered only a modicum of damage. Instead, the gun was most useful as a counter blow. A correctly timed shot mid-enemy lunge, which I didn't find easy to pull off, would send the foe sprawling to the ground, stunned and vulnerable.
At E3, Bloodborne director Hideki Miyazaki discussed the importance of counter-punching, and that was rammed home to me at Gamescom as I had to rely on dodges, backsteps, well-timed attacks and finally, when push came to shove, a stay back fiends with the gun. The bullets were fairly hard to come by and that emphasized the firearm's importance as a weapon to be used as and when needed. On the rare occasions I was able to step out of harm's way, there was an agility and speed to my movement, similarly hinting at a more proactive form of resistance than typical Souls fare.
That shift towards offense over defense is reflected by another key change to the Souls formula, this time found in the red-colored health bar. When you take damage, a portion of the lost health is displayed as a yellow line. When the yellow line's there, you have a brief window of opportunity to regain some of what you've lost by attacking enemies and leeching back the health. Like countering, I found this was easier said than done, especially with no shield and few bullets available to regain the offensive.
The other most obvious change was a permanent button for healing potions, which in the demo was just one kind of potion, the blood vial. The amount of potions I had left was denoted by a number next to the health and energy bars. You could argue this is simply more streamlined from a user interface standpoint, and if Bloodborne truly is limiting the space for defense, it makes even more sense to make healing easy to do.
The one aspect I really needed much more time to explore was transforming the right-hand melee weapon, in my case the saw. R1 and R2 were reserved for lighter and heavier attacks respectively, and L2 for the firearm, but a L1 tap let me switch between a short and long form of the saw, offering different ranges and attack motions. So the idea seems to be you can quickly switch between the two forms, mixing them up like some kind of graceful, bloodied ballet dancer. In my limited practice: swipe, swipe, missed swipe, death.
It's that limitation of time with Bloodborne that makes me wary to draw too much, but my time with it at least rounded out two thoughts I had at E3. The first is that Souls DNA is all over this game, and you only have to pick up the controller to see that. The second is that despite that shared DNA, From Software looks to be taking significant risks with a tried-and-tested formula, shifting emphasis away from defense to offense and more proactive combat. Yes, Demon's Souls 2 would probably be lovely, but it is encouraging to see From trying something different. We'll continue to see just how different Bloodborne is in the lead-up to its arrival on PlayStation 4 next year. For more on the game's bloody horrors, be sure to check out our E3 preview.