Bloodborne alpha impressions
Bloodborne’s city of Yharnam is coated in an inescapable layer of trepidation and dread – that much is clear from my first few moments within its perilous confines. This is a diseased city after all, where carcasses and coffins line the streets next to dilapidated carriages with no horse to guide them, and unfathomable beasts make their presence known with chilling shrieks across the night air.
It’s a city in decay, but there’s still beauty in darkness. Yharnam is an aesthetically resplendent place; reminiscent of a deeply gothic Victorian London, all cobble-stone streets and rising smog, with an ominous verticality to its looming architecture. It’s a departure from the medieval melancholy of previous Souls games, capturing an altogether more foreboding atmosphere where the sound of distant church bells is enough to send a shiver down your spine.
It’s here where atmosphere and gameplay are so intelligently entwined, too. Bloodborne may not bear the Souls name but I’d be lying if I said it took me no more than a few seconds to attain an intense familiarity with From Software’s PS4 debut. The weight of movement, lock-on system, animation priority and player messages littering the ground make it abundantly clear Bloodborne follows in the palatial footsteps of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls.
“Familiarity is an oddly treacherous mentality to have when first jumping in”Yet familiarity is an oddly treacherous mentality to have when first jumping in. I’m still not sure if it’s because I’m attuned to playing the Souls games in a specific way, or if Bloodborne is just exceedingly difficult all its own, but I died a lot during my three short hours with the alpha. While this may initially feel like another Souls game, changes to the formula are plentiful, both subtle and much more apparent, shaking up the standard routine in a way that throws Souls veterans like myself through a bewildering loop filled with death, death and more death.
It’s absolutely wonderful.
After three games it’s incredibly refreshing to be able to forget everything you know about From’s past works, lest it be your very downfall. Take those who preferred to slink through the worlds of Boletaria or Lordran with their shield held high as a striking example. They’ll feel the most hard done-by at the hands of Hidetaka Miyazaki and his sadistic team with blocking being completely absent from Bloodborne. You’re no longer able to sit back and absorb damage or use a reactive block as a last resort, thrusting combat in a completely new direction that rewards quick reflexes, discipline and an offensive mindset in a much more drastic way than ever before. You only need to look at the Regain System to notice this.
Sustain any damage and you’ll have a small window in which to attack an enemy and reclaim your lost health. Represented as a depleting yellow meter, this sent me into a panic on more than a few occasions as I scurried into danger to try and regain lost health before it was gone altogether. Reply too hastily and I faced losing even more, but time it just right and I’m back to full health with my limited healing items untouched. This drastically altered my approach to combat, especially when low on health, knowing an attacking move could put me back on top. When you consider this same system applies to your enemies it becomes genius, further encouraging an offence-focused approach that balances risk and reward with superlative aplomb.
If you would prefer not getting hit altogether then rolling still proves a useful tool. This works much the same way as before, only now if you’re in close proximity to an enemy you can quickly dash backwards to create some much-needed breathing room. Circle-strafing enemies and goading them into attacking still works well with some precisely-timed dodges, but there will also come a time when you may want to retreat and re-think your options, and the dash allows you to do just that (provided you time it right, of course). It’s fast, too. There’s an increased speed and flow to each encounter; the combat is more active, the violence more tangible – each strike sprays blood forth until you’re coated in a veneer of crimson gore.
Firearms play into this as well. You may think the introduction of gun powder would sour the formula but ammo is scarce and their damage output is decidedly weak so they’re less than ideal for all the murdering. Instead, with a Blunderbuss or pistol in one hand you can fire off a quick shot to interrupt an incoming enemy attack or disperse one of Bloodborne’s many crowds, perhaps dizzying a stout blocker or luring a single enemy away from the herd where your chances in a one-on-one encounter are much more advantageous.
“With a Blunderbuss or pistol in one hand you can fire off a quick shot to interrupt an incoming enemy attack or disperse one of Bloodborne’s many crowds”Doing so is a common tactic in Bloodborne, where enemies are plentiful and often crowded together in a way unprecedented for the Souls series. Yharnam feels more alive than any other Souls locale after all. Its undead residents aren’t keen to stay in place; they move around, proving unpredictable and keen to surprise. Imagine my shock when the ghastly creature I avoided earlier happened upon an area I was exploring nearby, prompting a quick escape up a flight of stairs and another more welcome surprise: a friendly NPC. No longer needing to be summoned into existence, this garish seven-foot tall, axe-wielder was ready and waiting, leaping into action to tussle with the aforementioned creature hot on my heels.
A co-operative tussle with my new buddy and a pair of werewolves bookends the alpha before a final encounter with its gargantuan Cleric Demon boss. By this point I’m well versed in death but also on the path to adopting the Bloodborne way of things. One particular highlight from my brief playtime is the ability to switch between two distinct weapon modes. This happens on-the-fly, generating a similar appreciation of visual satisfaction as reloading Resident Evil 4’s Broken Butterfly. The axe extends out like a toy Lightsaber, while the sword is tucked away and then extended again as though a barber’s razor blade. Its eye candy for the minutiae but also proves functional, one weapon mode generally allowing for short, swift strikes while the other provides more range and slower swings. You can also switch between modes while attacking, producing some rather swish looking combinations.
Like everything else included in the alpha it’s another new change that shifts the format in a completely new and welcome direction. We still may not know all of its intricacies – levelling up is absent from the alpha and there’s no indication of whether it will even be featured at all – but the excellence of its combat is already clear. Remnants of the past still remain, of course – not least an iffy framerate – but Bloodborne remains firm in its stance that there’s a reason the Souls name is absent from its title. I, for one, cannot wait to delve deeper into the depths of Yharnam and relearn everything I thought I knew.