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    Bloodborne: Far from the same Souls story, but FromSoft has done it again

    We’re not in Lordran anymore. Nor Drangleic. Nor Boletaria, for that matter. With a deliberate lack of the word Souls in From Software’s first full current-gen outing, there’s a clear statement that this will be a very different beast. Much has changed for a game that is as large a leap from the Tokyo studio as we’ve seen since Demon’s evolved into Dark. But can the reshuffling of the previous games’ generation-defining brilliance lift us to new heights? Or will it misstep right into the path of our critical buckshot? Join us as we descend into the gothic environs of Yharnam…

    We suppose we might as well get this out there front and centre. Bloodborne boasts one of the all-time great gaming locations. The sprawling city of Yharnam twists and turns, through sumptuously detailed cobblestone streets framed by impressive, imposing architecture, and lit by the glow of pyres aflame over plague-ravaged bodies. It meanders around and in on itself, pushing you inwards and outwards through labyrinthine forests and tight, oppressive cave systems. It forces you to explore nightmare worlds, urges you into decrepit stately homes. And it always, always asks questions of you. What happened here? What is the nature of the plague that ravages the city? Why are the denizens of this place so hostile towards you? And, ultimately, what is your place, as a hunter of beasts, in this horrific landscape?

    It’ll be a familiarly ambiguous state of affairs for Souls vets, but heed your surroundings, peruse item descriptions in your inventory, and speak to as many NPCs as you can find, and you might just piece together some of the answers. It’s all on you, though. From’s is a narrative delivery that is perfectly attuned to the rest of its game. “Go on,” it seems to whisper, “figure it out for yourself.” And when you do feel the disparate clues slot into place, much like making it to the other side of a boss fight in one piece, you’ll feel like you’ve done something special. Speaking of fighting…
    “You’re regularly emerging from the other end of a fight, staggered by what you’ve done”
    Come at me, bro
    Combat is where From fans will feel the most important changes have been made. unlike the defence-orientated foundation of Souls, here it’s all about aggression. everything about going toe-to-toe with the less savoury monstrosities of Yharnam has been tuned to allow for some of the most intense moment-to-moment melee action we’ve ever played. You’ll find that you’re regularly emerging from the other end of a fight with hands shaking, genuinely staggered by what you’ve done and how powerful the game has made you feel. FromSoft has struck an inspiring balance between bestowing this power upon you, yet still ensuring you feel immensely challenged within this dangerous world.

    At the centre of this sense of power-versus-fragility is the Regain system. Take a hit from an enemy and you’ll lose a chunk of your precious health bar. Manage to retaliate fast enough and you’ll win a portion, or possibly all, of that lost health back. You’re rewarded for leaping into a fight, rather than back-pedalling. That is, if you can land that riposte before your enemy follows up with another strike. The secret is to learn the patterns of enemies, decipher when to dash in and attack, or at what stage it might be better to side-step around them. With shields a distant memory (there is one in the game but it’s useless), the Regain system allows for the odd mistake as you make headway in the world, without punishing you with a restart from the last lamp (née bonfire).

    The wider systems at play in Bloodborne’s combat have been boiled away compared to those found in Souls. There are far fewer weapons here, along with loads of upgrade materials, and it’s much easier to find one that you like and stick with it throughout. There’s little scope for spending your limited supply of upgrade materials on a weapon only to find down the road that it’s not actually as effective as you’d hoped. This is a double-edged blade, however, as there’s also less chance you’ll feel like you own your decisions. We kind of liked the fact that in Souls you could balls up your weapon upgrades by not paying attention or picking the wrong things. You’d make a mistake and you’d then have to live with it.
    “Retaliate fast enough and You’ll win a portion of that lost health back”
    That said, the fighty sticks that do exist here are the stuff of legend. Hunters in this world wield trick weapons, which alternate between two forms with a tap of the L1 button. We’re particularly fond of Ludwig’s Holy Blade, a short, swiping, single-handed sword which, when tricked, clunks audibly into its ornate sheath to become a heavy-hitting double-handed greatsword. You’ll bump into many players wielding it, as this is the greatsword, rather than a greatsword.

    Other elements have also been flayed away. Poise is no longer a concern, so there’s no need to worry about your character’s equipment load, or if they’ll be able to move fast enough when burdened with armour or heavier weapons. Said armour stats are much more closely defined, so what you choose to wear is more about how you want to look over what you want to do in the world. This makes for a much more fluid, instant access combat experience, but one that may leave those Souls veterans wanting for depth, if not for an iconic scrap. There are plenty of those…

    Beast is beast
    Dark Souls II, brilliant though it was, came in for a bit of stick for having boss fights that were too samey. There were too many humanoid bosses, the community opined, or too many that were recycled forms of things we’d seen before.

    That’s not a problem here. If you can point to a more imaginative, more bizarre, more challenging collection of enemies outside of the first Dark Souls, we’ll eat our Charred Hunter Boots. The best of them inspire you to learn their attack patterns to survive, let alone emerge victorious. There are zero gimmick fights, too. every boss room you enter asks exactly the same thing of you: just. Be. Awesome.

    This may sound like level one stuff for those who’ve faced off against Ornstein and Smough or the Fume Knight and lived to tell the tale. But know that thanks to the speed, the aggression, and the fluidity of animation that fuels these encounters, these fights are a different proposition. Rather than stand back and merely observe, you’re forced to get in there, to act on the knife-edge between success and failure, and to perform at the very limit of your ability to gauge and react to what’s happening. In time you’ll come to act without thinking, stunning an enemy with a perfectly gauged blast from your Hunter’s Blunderbuss +4 and dashing in for a devastating Visceral Attack (Bloodborne’s ribcage-exploding take on Souls’ parry and riposte) with the grace, precision and intensity of a master surgeon performing a transplant while sitting bare-buttocked on a barbecue grill.

    Manage to make it through the main game and there are still 30+ more boss fights awaiting you within the Chalice Dungeons. These procedurally generated optional areas are perhaps the most contentious aspect of the game. While they offer up a near-endless collection of areas to explore, they’re at odds with the architectured brilliance of the main game’s environments. The varied locales you summon forth with each Chalice ritual do the job from a visual perspective, but it’s hard to feel as enamoured with these places when you can see the functional videogame blueprints working backstage to link them all together. The need to reproduce certain elements endlessly necessitates that each dungeon level comes with a boss door, and a lever to open that door, for example. There’s no wandering around a corner and stopping dead at the feet of a boss you weren’t expecting.

    Vial creatures
    There are other things to whinge about, outside of the Chalice Dungeons. The main healing item of the game, here dubbed Blood Vials, are a finite resource that you’ll need to stock up on by purchasing or farming from foes. The quickest way to get these vials, we found, was to revisit an area early on in the game and take out a few of the enemies there. This is something you will have to repeat time and again all the way up to the end of the game. Is this fun or interesting or challenging? no. More irksome, however, are the four loading screens, each one upwards of 40 seconds (allegedly to be shortened in a patch) that you’re forced to sit through each time. If the idea is to punish you for failure, we could kind of understand, but good golly if this isn’t the dullest aspect of an otherwise thrilling ride. It particularly bothers us that this is a fault that was found in the original Demon’s Souls. Dark Souls’ respawning estus flask fixed it, so why regress? An odd, though not necessarily deal-breaking, design choice.

    These are all minor issues, however. For the best part of Bloodborne’s 40-50 hour long main adventure and beyond through the many months of delving through its optional nooks and crannies, its as yet undiscovered mysteries, its finely buried stories and its menagerie of often genuinely unnerving foes you’ll be puzzling, sharing, and exploring with gusto. It might have you yearning for the old Souls’ depth by the end, but regardless, this is still by far the best game made for current-gen.

    You’ve Been Framed
    Shining torchlight on performance issues
    This is a From Software game so however intricately designed it is, it’s not surprising there’s a few technical hiccups. Most irksome is the frame rate, which dips jerkily below the 30fps mark on occasion. This appears to be less a combat thing and more about the camera it’s not as bad as the infamous Blighttown stutter, though. Speaking of that camera, some boss fights see the ruddy thing refuse to cooperate. More than once we found ourselves looking at the inside of a wall texture while our hunter was helplessly bludgeoned to bits. Grrr.

    Ring My Bell
    Need a hand? Trying phoning a friend
    Much like in Souls, you’re able to call upon pals should you need aid while battling the baddies of Bloodborne. Near the beginning of the game you’ll pick up a Beckoning Bell, which lets you call for a co-op partner. The Small Resonant Bell you get a bit later on will let you lend your skills to others. In a similar way to Souls, there’s a sense that you’re pushing forward as a collective, through the messages you can leave behind or the bloodstains which, when activated, reveal another player’s often-horrific last few moments before death. You can now set a password, too, so you can specifically call a known buddy in, rather than only rely on randoms.

    PvP is a little harder to set up, which makes it pretty much impossible for the invasion trolling celebrated so aptly in Dark Souls II’s Pharros trap-laden areas. Whenever you’re in co-op you might be invaded by someone ringing a Sinister Resonant Bell, or you may discover that there are certain late game areas where [redacted spoilers] allows for invasions, too.

    Multiplayer in the Chalice Dungeons is also possible, although it’s a pain to get going. You’ll need to share a dungeon seed, here called a glyph, with a bud, and then ensure they’re up to the same layer in the dungeon as you in their version of the game. Oh, and all players get booted after each boss fight, so there’s a lot of repeating bosses and retreading areas if you want to complete a whole dungeon together…

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