The moonlight reflects in a shallow puddle, casting a luminous glow upon a pitchfork-wielding resident. To call him a zombie would feel wrong. He’s human but barely. “STAY BACK, STAY BACK”, he screams as he approaches, thrusting with his pitchfork. His curse has left him confused; not mindless but not far from it. I smash him on the head with my oversized hammer and he stops screaming, his head exploding over my clothes. Bloodborne is dark, dangerous and scary. Thankfully, its high-stakes combat system keeps you in full control.
Bloodborne embraces its Gothic setting wholeheartedly. Buildings of Victorian design rise forebodingly into the night sky. Ragged villagers patrol filthy cobble streets, looping without purpose only guided by the light from their ferocious torches. Inhuman creatures also inhabit the despicable city of Yarnham; hellish dogs, ferocious wolves and far worse creatures of a Lovecraftiannature. A giant tarantula, at least 100 feet tall, with tens of eyes and tendrils reminiscent of Cthulu wraps itself around a building far in the distance. It looks menacingly at home.
Fortunately, my unnamed protagonist was fully equipped to deal with the men and monsters that waited in the shadows. Bloodborne is very much built around its movement and combat mechanics. At most times, you wield a melee weapon in one hand, such as a sword, and a gun in the other. With a light weapon you can move very quickly, attacking in fast rapid slashes and dodging with fluid grace. The weapon I wielded was a hinged blade that double-backed on itself, which could transform at a tap of L1. In doing so it changed from a short-ranged sword to a longer scythe by flicking the blade out, doubling its effective range but making it slower to swing. These modes can be alternated freely and doing so in mid attack will carry on a combo and as such is encouraged.
Bloodborne relishes in providing unnaturally whimsical weaponry. I held a large hammer two-handed, which swung with immense weight and power. With a tap of L1 my character placed the hammer on his back and then unhooked its handle, revealing a long thin sword hidden deep inside. In order to re-equip my hammer, tapping L1 made my character haphazardly grab the handle-less hammer, smash it down upon the enemy ahead, then sheath the sword within it. Imaginative weapon design such as this removes the safety net of preconceptions, asking players to embrace Bloodborne’s wacky weapons. You may recognise a weapon in Bloodborne but you can’t be certain it functions under the same principles as real life.
Whereas the first couple of enemies waited for me alone, the majority actively patrolled around the city of Yarnham in groups. Thinking about how to tackle them without being swarmed felt like a puzzle of its own right. You can draw one hapless villager away from his buddies by throwing a carefully aimed pebble. If through an unfortunate incident you happen to grab the attention of more than one then Bloodborne punishes you. In seconds you can be trapped within their erratic attacks. This is where your secondary weapon, a gun of sorts, comes in to play.
Unlike FromSoft’s previous Souls series, you cannot hide behind a shield or block. In it’s place, there’s considerable emphasis on evading enemies. When overwhelmed and unable to dodge, guns are used for crowd control, dealing minimal damage but stunning groups of enemies within their wide-spread fire. Timing is key; if you fire just as an enemy attacks, it will open up a window where you can counter-attack for massive damage. The gamble is that mistiming will result in suffering hits, which is risky when you can only take a few hits before dying, there’s no regenerative health, and healing Blood Vials are hard to come by.
Many times I found myself not wanting to approach a group of enemies because I was terrified that they would kill me and I’d lose my entire progress. Bloodborne’s regain system smartly entices you to keep attacking instead of hiding when near death. When hit, there’s a brief window where upon attacking you will begin to regain the health that you just lost, with a string of successive attacks possibly leading you to regain all of the damage just taken – not too dissimilar from Street Fighter 4’s Focus mechanic. If hit before regaining this health or waiting too long to attack, the moment is lost and the only means to recover is by popping a Blood Vial. If out of vials, you have a split second to decide whether it is worth the risk to attempt to regain any health just lost or to run away to safety. It’s a tough choice.
By the end of my three hours with Bloodborne it seemed clear that FromSoft are creating a hack and slash game far removed from the norm, throwing in many elements and themes from their previous titles. The risk-centric combat system is flexible, fast, frenetic, fearsome and fun. If you like to button mash, perhaps look elsewhere. But, if you want a rewarding challenge where every action counts, it looks like Bloodborne will have you covered.