I would never say I was into horror games - I managed about 90 seconds of a YouTube playthrough of P.T. before tapping out, and even the cover art for The Evil Within is a bit much for me - but FROM’s Souls series is the exception to the rule.
They can be deeply disturbing games, certainly (Tower of Latria, anyone?), but their power to unsettle you doesn’t come from shock value or gruesome imagery. Souls director Hidetaka Miyazaki’s idea of horror is predicated on survival, mortal danger, and the fear of the unknown; it is built with subtle sound and darkness and mounting trepidation. Despite the name, Bloodborne doesn’t go for gory horror. It goes for subtle terror instead, leaving fear to ferment in the dark places of the imagination.
Back at E3, where Bloodborne was first revealed, it seemed so close to a Souls game it was spooky. The lonely echo of footsteps on stone, the moaning and screaming of monstrous foes, even the animations - all were drawn straight from the existing FROM Software design playbook. The setting and fiction and aesthetic design differed significantly from either Demon’s or Dark Souls, but a lot of the basics seemed extremely similar. And they are similar, clearly, at least superficially - but actually playing Bloodborne reveals changes to the combat and rhythm of play that are hugely significant to anyone intimately familiar with Demon’s or Dark Souls.
I played through the same demo that was shown at E3, a gothic town gone to ruin filled with shambling undead townspeople in battered top hats and cloaks and capped with a uniquely distressing skeleton-goat boss. You can watch it above, or read about it right here. The regain mechanic is the most significant change. All the on-screen meters and bars and numbers in Bloodborne are very familiar - health, stamina, items and weapons. But the health bar is a little different. When you get hit, it leaves a yellow trail in the bar, rather like in Monster Hunter - and you can win your health back by countering with your own attack. If you get taken by surprise, then, you can make a comeback. You stand a chance at regaining your health with quick reactions and daring.
Masaaki Yamagawa, Bloodborne’s producer at Sony, explained Miyazaki’s own typically unique way of looking at the regain mechanic: rather than representing constitution, the health bar rather represents your mental state, your will to go on; your bravery, almost. As you lose health, you plunge further into despair; as you regain it, you regain confidence. Your bravery is directly tied to your health. The regain idea, then, is like a mechanical manifestation of the psychological effect of the Souls games - that way they have of making you fall to pieces when your nerve fails you. If you want to keep your health, you have to keep your nerve, and hit back as soon as you’re caught off-guard.
The philosophy behind this seems to be to enliven the combat, to encourage the player to be aggressive and respond quickly. In Souls, it’s too easy to end up relying on the old hide-behind-a-shield-and-poke-things-with-a-spear technique, because it makes it less likely that you’ll die within ten seconds of seeing an enemy. Plenty of skilled players roll and dodge and dual-wield and enjoy the full range of Souls’ combat mechanics, but I bet plenty more never get any further than blocking and swiping.
In Bloodborne, blocking and swiping isn’t an option. Playing through the demo, I find myself behaving very aggressively - countering rather than rolling, waiting until the instant before a hit to let off the blunderbuss, hacking at advancing enemies with the transforming Soul Cleaver blade rather than backing away cautiously. It works. It feels different.
It helps that the weapons are different, too. Bloodborne’s protagonist, a demon hunter, will always wield two weapons. The default option in the Gamescom demo was a blunderbuss and a kind of handheld guillotine blade that can extend into a cleaver with wide reach, called the Soul Cleaver. The other options were an arm-mounted mechanical metal stake that can be laboriously retracted and then released for huge damage if your timing is good enough, paired with a telescoping halberd that transformed from hand axe into a long axe with slow, spinning attacks. I love the imagination in these weapons. They are vastly more interesting than a longsword and shield, or even a rapier and buckle, or a scythe.
You’ll have noticed that the primary weapons both transform. It seems like pretty much every primary weapon will have two forms, making them not just two weapons in one, but three - pressing the transform button mid-attack unlocks a whole different moveset for each. I tried hacking with the cleaver and transforming it into a blade on the second swing, which knocked a couple of shambling townspeople back and gave me room for a backstep. (It didn’t help, in the end; I was sadly overwhelmed. It seems like “never take on more than one enemy at once” is still a good rule of thumb). Spellcasting isn’t being touched upon yet, but it will have to work differently from how it does in Souls if it’s to fit in with this new rhythm.
Health recovery is different in Bloodborne too, I notice - recovery items are automatically mapped to the Triangle button, so they no longer take up a slot in your active inventory. That leaves more room for experimentation with items. Producer Yamagawa says that combining item effects - a bottle of oil followed up with a Molotov cocktail, for instance - will be a big part of Bloodborne, now that you can have two different items equipped at once without having to worry about health items.
FROM’s Gamescom presentation gave us just the briefest of glimpses of some new places in Bloodborne’s world, too. The demon hunter stands before a set of gigantic stone doors; the creak as they open, slowly, leaving you several seconds to begin to fear what’s behind them. They open up onto what looks like a marsh, dotted with strange structures that look like witches’ huts. There is shrieking coming from somewhere in the distance, and the weird quorking of some crow-like birds. It’s not long before he’s beset by shrieking hags that flail in wild flurries of blows. Rolling into their legs staggers them, giving him a moment to swing the cleaver.
It cuts, then, to right after the boss fight with that horrendous screaming goat-thing on the bridge that ends the playable demo. Crossing the bridge, he heads through a doorway and into a dilapidated building, creeping over rotted rafters with centuries’ worth of cobwebs draped between them. (At this point I start to really appreciate what the PS4 is doing for FROM’s visual imagination - the level of detail is astounding). I don’t know whether it’s the dark or the distant, discomfiting sounds that’s more disturbing about this place.
He drops down; mist wreathes everything, lying thick around the floor and prone bodies lie sunken beneath it. Of course, some of them promptly reanimate, dragging themselves along the floor with long arms, vomiting god knows what onto the floor in front of the demon hunter. On closer inspection, they are legless.
It all comes back to the idea of peril: of not knowing what’s coming, but knowing that it will be mortally dangerous. I’m more confident now that Bloodborne will not be a Demon’s Souls re-run (though that would have been no bad thing), but a different vehicle for FROM’s and Miyazaki’s unique approach to terror.