Even though I've put way too much time into Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, and Dark Souls 2, there's one item my characters never leave home without: a shield. Despite my experience with the series, it's always nice to have a safety net, frayed though it may be. So when I stepped up to play Bloodborne at Sony's preview event and noticed my character held no broad, metallic plank to hide behind, I thought, "This is going to be interesting."
In case you missed its slightly convoluted backstory, Bloodborne exists as a PS4 exclusive because Sony failed to capitalize on its distant ancestor: the PS3's 2009 sleeper hit, Demon's Souls. When the company neglected to give the game an American release, Atlus stepped in, then Bandai-Namco took over publishing duties for the two Souls games to follow. Essentially, Bloodborne can be considered the spiritual sequel to Demon's Souls: It features all the elements you'd expect to see in FromSoftware's beloved series, but with a hopeless atmosphere that hasn't been this oppressive since its PS3 debut. Don't be mistaken, though—this isn't "just another" Souls game. And if you walk into Bloodborne with that attitude, you're going to get your ass handed to you. (As I did.)
Though I only had about 45 minutes with the game, Bloodborne addressed some of the more common complaints about Dark Souls 2 in the sliver-thin vertical slice served to me. The city/graveyard level at the preview session felt somewhat straightforward at first, but after a bit of exploration, I began to notice it had the same dense, clustered design seen in many areas of the original Dark Souls. The square footage I fought my way through didn't amount to more than what you'd find between bonfires in Dark Souls 1 and 2, but even in this small amount of real estate, I opened up a few shortcuts I didn't realize were shortcuts until my brain made the visual connection.
FromSoftware doesn't only use visuals to reinforce continuity. One of the level's city streets features a hefty set of doors with a loud banging on the opposite side coming from someone—or something—trying to get in. Further in the level, I eventually discovered a terrible humanoid enemy pounding away at the same set of double-doors, this time from the other side—another "a-ha" moment that assisted me in understanding my exact location within the level. It's a small touch, but Bloodborne's use of landmarks, enemy placement, and visual and audio cues exist to help you construct a map of the area in your brain. True to the Souls series' tradition, you'll find no other assistance in navigating your way through an area's countless dangers.
Combat is where Bloodborne diverges most from previous games in the series, though it still operates with the same very familiar set of controls. But while your character carries the same sort of weight to all of his attacks, combat feels much snappier—mostly because you can't hide behind a shield until an opening presents itself. The "circle around an enemy, backstab, repeat" strategies of Dark and Demon's Souls won't serve you well here, though, as this powerful combat move has been replaced with a new technique utilizing Bloodborne's most misunderstood addition: guns.
The addition of firearms to a FromSoftware RPG might seem like a desperate ploy to appeal to a Western audience, but Bloodborne's take on these weapons doesn't play out like Gears of War. Instead, guns feel more like a tool, one used to deliver a powerful riposte to attacking enemies. Somewhat similar to the parrying system found within past Souls games, firing a round into an enemy within a certain window of its attack allows you to follow up with a powerful plunging technique, which usually kills in a single hit. Combat with your primary weapon works a bit differently, too: While you still have weak and strong attacks at your disposal, your weapon can extend at the push of a button. If you're fighting one enemy and see another one coming at you from the side, giving your weapon an extra bit of range in an instant can help with crowd control.
After playing so much of the Souls series, it admittedly took me a while to come to terms with the demands of Bloodborne. Enemies in this game feel a lot more aggressive than they did in Dark Souls 2, and FromSoftware has a brilliant way of camouflaging them against the dense environments—I was taken by surprise way more than I'd like to admit. And, thanks to the PS4's high-powered architecture, Bloodborne populates its levels with more enemies than you've ever seen at once in past Souls games. One of my biggest challenges presented itself when Bloodborne tasked me with working my way through a cluster of about a dozen angry villagers surrounding a fire on a narrow street: Each time I tackled this objective, I tried a different approach, and each one worked, to some degree: I used the elevated walkways to avoid the crowd altogether, lured them out a few at a time, and ran past them while taking a few potshots. Even in the small chunk available to me, the game welcomed several ways to overcome its many challenges.
It's refreshing to see Bloodborne keep what made Souls so great, while adding some elements to push veterans out of their comfort zones, but I still have so many questions this demo couldn't answer. I have no idea how character builds work, the variety of weapons and items available and how they're upgraded, and if Bloodborne features the standard Souls system that makes repeated death an essential element of the game—kicking the bucket in the demo just shoved me back to the title screen. That said, even in this small slice, I felt the same hooks that made me such a huge fan of the Souls series: Each death presented an opportunity to ponder my mistakes, and generate strategies to avoid repeating them on my next attempt. If FromSoftware can manage to keep up the momentum seen in this early stage of the game, Bloodborne could be one of the greatest console-exclusive games of this generation.