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It's been quite a while since I last rounded up previews for Bloodborne, and given this is not a particularly eventful newsday I thought I might as well take the opportunity to catch up on some coverage for From Software's fantasy action-RPG for PlayStation 4.
Battle has a lot in common with previous games, but there are lessons to learn above the fundamentals. Backstrikes make a return for an instant death on regular grunts, and a bespoke parry, named Counter Shot, takes advantage of your left-hand Blunderbuss; a buck-shot that involves tapping L2 just before the enemy strikes. Mixing up the weak and strong attacks works as usual, while a bottom item slot grants a choice of either pebbles or Molotov cocktails here. One for discrete luring, and the other for a more direct affront.
But there are also changes to the control layout, which may, at first blush, flummox players set on the Souls standard. For starters, From Software tosses the shield off the castle bridge, and instead allots the L1 button a new role; transforming the right-hand weapon between short and long-ranged forms. Want to break the opponent's guard with broad, arcing sweeps? Use the latter. Need faster, lower-risk strikes? You're covered. Plus there's the option to attack mid-transformation to build up a more varied sequence of strikes, and even hold R2 for a charged lunge. That's all new, and the move potential becomes a bit mind-boggling.
Even with the demo's nerfed difficulty, this offense-focused design made the learning curve of Bloodborne a touch steep for me. After all, Dark Souls lets most character builds settle into a simple sword and shield combo to start, just to play defensive until you find your feet and advance - in my case - to riskier two-handed weaponry. But here we cut to that fiery end-point; from the off, you're expected to roll and sprint around enemy attacks with little backup, while wielding the firepower to make quicker dispatches.
(We want to introduce to you our Regain system,) said Yamagiwa, (and this is something that we feel really adds to the sense of terror and perilous combat. You really feel that relief and sense of achievement at every single enemy you face.
(In the Regain system, when you receive damage from enemies you have a very limited time-frame to get that health back by landing your own attacks.
(We offer this other than your more traditional shield block, defense kind of thing. It leads the player into the exchange of deadly blows and really draws the user into the perilous combat that we want to deliver.
(With things like the shield it's quite obvious that the attack's going to come in and you time the block with the shield, but with this you're looking for an opportunity to get your own hit back. If you go in blindly and take multiple hits then you will miss that opportunity to get the health back.
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.
Players also have the ability to mix things up from their inventory on the fly, which is easy to access and use, fortunately. In the demo at Gamescom, we watched as the blackclad protagonist selected a vial of oil and then a Molotov cocktail. After hurling the former at an oncoming foe, he took a quick step back and tossed the latter, resulting in the creature bursting into flames and turning to a cinder.
We were told, however, that this Molotov cocktail trick isn't a solution to every single encounter. Some items don't work on certain enemies so it's up to the player to try different combinations.
They're encouraged to mix things up in the combat, too. There's room to try out different combinations of dual-wielded weapons; you have the option of light, quick weapons - mixing say, a sword with a blunderbuss - or those that deal heavy attacks at the price of speed.
As someone who loved Dark Souls 2 but certainly had a few complaints about it, the creature design in Bloodborne feels much more creative and memorable. Beyond the (normal) enemies I described previously are giant malformed ravens that spew feathers and make awful shrieks as they surround you. There was a giant troll who picked up chunks of brick and charged at me with terrifyingly reckless abandon. Then of course, the big boss at the end of the demo features some of the most confident creature design in recent memory. The hulking hybrid of wolf and tree immediately gives off an air of history and dread. If the small collection of enemies we've seen so far are any sign of the rest of the game, Bloodborne is set to raise the bar in creature design.
But the fantastic atmosphere doesn't stop there. It goes without saying that the PS4 game is visually impressive, but after making it a priority to slowly meander my way through the demo and soak in the small details, I gained a new appreciation for the tiny, oftentimes unnoticed elements that help Bloodborne's world building. The way objects like coffins and toppled over carriages litter the environment with tokens of what this city used to be succeed in some great environmental storytelling. Same goes for the flames of the villagers' torches, which cast ominous light on the dangerous citizens of Bloodborne, and create long, uneasy shadows across the landscape.
Bloodborne is by no means a hack and slasher. You can't fight your way through battles like Dante from DMC: Devil May Cry and expect to survive. In fact, foolishly running into a fight could mean an easy death, a lesson we learned the hard way during our hands-on. That said, there are some tactics that you can learn to help you survive. And in later cases, you'll need every single one of them.
Perhaps the big ability here is using transformation to expand your combo attacks. You start out with light and heavy strikes, which you can combine together to strike at foes multiple times. On top of that, though, you can use transformation techniques to expand both your range and power, although you have to hit the button at the right time to execute these properly. Doing so really opens up your attack style, so it certainly doesn't hurt to get the hang of it.
There are also secondary items to use, such as health potions, Molotov cocktails (perfect to chuck at groups from afar) and, of course, your gun of choice, although your bullet count is limited, so you'll want to save the shots for when they absolutely count.
During my first demo a few weeks ago, I played a more traditional loadout featuring the speedy sword cleaver. For this round, I went with the heavy combo of axe and shotgun. The axe transforms into two-handed mode for a feel like a Souls halberd, while offering a standard moveset similar to the Souls axe. My moves definitely took a bit more setup to use effectively, but I was able to move through the (easy mode) (Difficulty lowered so that players waiting hours in line were not dead in 20 seconds) demo smoothly, taking on a variety of enemies from corrupted townsfolk to freakish, bloated crows.
The expository crawl through a corrupted town has been seen in trailers and video, but it's hard to even do the experience justice. Souls players that are reticent to dive in because of the combat changes do not have to worry, it's the same precision and tactical prowess with more of a razor's edge to it because of the lack of shield. You still need to be highly aware of the situation at hand, and with the regain system constantly assaulting you with questions of (what should I do now? Attack? Roll away and lose health for good? Run?). Bloodborne takes all that is great about Souls combat and adds a layer that goes beyond the safety of the shield raise.
Even though I was pretty low on valuable items I did wind up making it to the Cleric Beast towards the end of the demo and after getting his health down to about 25% I wound up dying. A few things I noticed about the Cleric Beast during my first encounter with it is that it has health regeneration. The boss would occasional back up and a glowing red aura would begin to appear. This would have been the perfect opportunity for me to strike viciously if I were paying attention to the damn health meter! Fire items also seemed to do a significant amount of damage on the boss as well.
During my third playthrough I constructed a plan to beat the boss. Little did I know that I would never see the boss again, literally. On my third trial I decided to conserve as many items as possible. I learned that ammunition is limited to about 16 shots, but hunter bullets seemed to drop frequently in the demo so I didn't really have to spare too many. After stacking up on blood vials, oil urns, molotov cocktails, and hunter bullets I made my way towards the bridge where the pack of Lycanthropes (weird mutated wolf-like creatures) awaited. Hunter Gascoigne was sitting in a corner away from these creatures and would only assist if I lured them towards his direction. As we fought the beasts and destroyed them I immediately watched as Gascoigne fired his weapon and murdered me. What I forgot to realize is that he is an NPC and too many accidental hits will piss him off and he will turn on you as soon as he feels you're a threat.
Feeling defeated and a bit pissed I got in line again for another playthrough. During my fourth run I pretty much replicated my previous run. One thing I began to notice is that I could not perform a critical hit after a counter shot. I had the saw extended and performed a counter shot perfectly, but could not perform a critical hit. I assumed that critical hits were possibly disabled temporarily, but I later found out that the saw weapon could not be extended in order to pull off a critical hit. This is completely opposite to what we have seen in the official gameplay demo.