"Prepare to die." Dark Souls issued the challenge and gamers responded. Then promptly died, over and over again, becoming more skilled and experienced with each crushing setback.
In Bloodborne, however, that mentality won't get you anywhere. If you mean to unravel the secrets behind Yharnam's mournful bloodsoaked streets, you need to be prepared to KILL.
Don't panic: Bloodborne is still unmistakably From Software fare. It's a third-person action-RPG, tough as nails, as dark and soulful as you'd expect. You'll stalk through intricate and evocative environments, feeling truly isolated and alone one moment before all hell breaks loose the next. Punishing and deeply pretty even in its early Gamescom build, sharing many of the same buttons as its spiritual predecessors, Bloodborne will feel second nature to fans of Miyazaki's work.
Yet it feels unique from the off. Much of this is down to Yharnam itself, a very different beast to Lordran or Drangleic. Medieval fantasy trappings have been traded in for a more modern setting, a brooding rain-drenched industrial town of deep shadows and gothic overtones. Rooftops, rat-trap alleys and branching streets all interlock in a pleasingly three-dimensional way, as ladders and gates unlock shortcuts that gradually bind the whole city together.
There'll be little time for sightseeing, mind, since Yharnam is alsoin the process of going straight to hell. A terrible sickness has struck the city leaving its infected villagers to patrol the streets with improvised weapons, scythes and torches, faces twisted with hate, on the hunt.
Hunting YOU, in particular. They blame you for sins unknown, their illness most like. They comb through the city in mobs with murder in mind, flanked by disgusting diseased dog-spiders sniffing out your scent, and ganging together when they hear the city's bells tolling. Shrieking and bellowing, these gangrenous foes are a far cry from the fantastical beasts we're used to slaying.
You can avoid them. When your enemy's mob-handed, it's usually the only option. But it's a temporary solution at best, meaning that the only way to survive the hunt is to take the initiative yourself.
And kill, kill, kill.
Dark Souls often felt like a very reactive game, rewarding blocking and painstakingly cautious exploration. Sorry, sword and board fans, because Bloodborne doesn't even have a shield. Our character wields a weapon in each hand; one a transforming axe-saw for brutal close combat cleaving, the other a powerful shotgun or blunderbuss capable of ripping foes apart.
Instead of blocking, you'll rely on backsteps and perfectly-timed counters to turn enemy attacks against them; constantly pushing the advantage and forcing foes off balance rather than letting them dictate the flow of the fight. Your shotty may be useless at range, and ammo is limited, but it can knock a scythe-wielding madman off his feet or stagger a dense group, allowing you to reposition or queue up a brutal finisher. Unwary enemies can be mauled from behind with a one-two blow, dealing ruinous damage, while even transforming your melee weapon between its two modes is a powerful attack in and of itself.
Indeed, combat feels more responsive, tuned and tighter than the Souls series, and infinitely more brutal. Villagers may be horribly mutated, insanely durable and half-mad, but they're still human, meaning that every blow results in a shower of gore and viscera that's shocks even at this early stage.
It's still rock-hard of course. Even individual foes put up a stiff fight and can deplete most of a health bar, let alone a deranged hunting party out for blood. Timing is still the key to victory, as is approaching situations with a level head and a clear plan. But now, to stay alive, you'll have to take the offensive.
The best defence, they say, is a good offence.
Demon's Souls and Dark Souls were games I deeply respected, but never quite managed to love. Their cohesive art direction, non-traditional narratives and willingness to brutalise are everything I look for on paper, but as a fan of responsive brawlers, we just never quite clicked.
From what I played at Gamescom, Bloodborne and I are going to get along famously.
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment