Is this good for gamers? Jeremy Parish is approaching E3 2014 by asking if creators have their fans' best interests in mind.
Hidetaka Miyazaki doesn't look like the sort of person who revels in the suffering of others: mild-mannered, baby-faced, with only a scruffy soul patch to peg him as something other than a friendly high school student who somehow sneaked his way into E3.
But then he begins speaking quietly as he walks a crowded room through an early build of his latest dark fantasy action adventure, Bloodborne, and you start to get a sense of what ticks behind his quiet demeanor. It's not that the man behind Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, and this new adventure cut very much from the same cloth as those previous works is a particularly hateful or vindictive man. He simply operates under the calm conviction that fighting an uphill battle against a video game is a noble and worthwhile pursuit, one that all people should share.
"We made it so the character can take lots of damage for the E3 demo," he noted several times in the course of the demonstration. "But the real game will be much harder." It sounded almost like an apology; after the protagonist stumbled into a group of violent villagers and their mangy, rangy, aggressive dogs, Miyazaki mumbled, "In the real game, he would have been dead a long time ago." His sense of dissatisfied embarrassment was almost palpable.
And, really, fair enough. Miyazaki's games aren't for everyone, but they're definitely for someone. Atlus brought Demon's Souls to the U.S. when Sony passed on localizing it (the game had been a co-developed joint venture between Sony Japan Studio and From Software, the same as Bloodborne); it greatly surpassed Atlus' humble sales projections. Namco Bandai localized the game's spiritual sequels, and Dark Souls has quickly become a pillar for that company's U.S. software arm as well. As the rise of roguelike-influenced video games suggests, a certain percentage of the core video game audience thrills at the prospect of facing impossible odds and being humbled repeatedly by video games. Dark Souls, and now Bloodborne, tap into this masochistic streak.
One gets the impression that Miyazaki really makes games for himself, which is probably why they resonate so well with his fans. Bloodborne doesn't seem like your typical big-budget, big-studio design-by-numbers project. The game looks stunning — From's art resources have come a long way since the days of King's Field and Eternal Ring — but it doesn't center on cool combos or stylish action or quick-time events in which the game plays itself. It's nasty, brutal, and grim. Player action in Bloodborne seems to possess the same weight and delay as Miyazaki's previous projects, and the team member driving the demo took a beating every time he let his concentration slip. This doesn't look like a casual game for a casual audience, but rather a crushingly difficult adventure designed for people who share its creator's interest in a good challenge.
Despite its foundational similarities to Dark Souls -- Miyazaki even ducked down a side route before facing the demo's boss to open a shortcut to the beginning of the area -- Bloodborne is not simply a next-gen sequel or rehash. The deliberate pacing of its melee combat differs considerably from its predecessors in that the ability to block and counter has been removed completely. The protagonist carries a massive, unfolding, sawblade-like sword, but in his offhand he wields not a shield but instead a shotgun. As Miyazaki points out, this obviates the ability to take a passive approach to combat, forcing players instead to become proactive and aggressive.
I shouldn't say countering has been canned altogether, but here a parry happens not with a precisely timed shield action but rather by interrupting an enemy as it winds up for an attack. The shotgun excels at staggering foes as they close in for the kill. And in place of parrying, the protagonist of Bloodborne can dash backward or roll to evade. But, in keeping with the spirit of From's adventure games, Bloodborne's evasive maneuvers don't come off as the kind of skill you can spam to win with no effort; dodging, too, looks to be a task that involves precise timing as well, and only takes you out of danger for a second... and only if you've managed to avoid allowing yourself to become surrounded.
The emphasis on active combat combined with the Victorian style of the game's setting definitely define this as a different game than Dark Souls. It comes from the same place -- namely, Hidetaka Miyazaki's dark heart -- but seems less of a classic take on a fantasy RPG and more like the From interpretation of a game like Devil May Cry. But don't expect to be rated on the coolness of your combos here; Bloodborne seems like the sort of game in which success is measured not in chain attack streaks but rather by how long you simply go without dying.
As one of two Sony-exclusive games set in a pseudo-Victorian fantasy realm, Bloodborne makes for an interesting contrast to The Order: 1886. The latter definitely feels like it's chasing after the standards of an existing genre, coloring within the lines of the cover-based shooter. Bloodborne seems content to be true to itself. That will almost certainly make for a less salable game — but one that seems equally certain to satisfy its target audience of resolute masochists.