Bloodborne: Cutscenes are, as ever, sporadic, brief and vague in the extreme.

Just as we thought, the second time through, a little of the magic has gone. The jump scares have lost their spring. Pitch-black rooms and blind corners no longer make us tremble. The servers are now online, and the ground is smothered in messages from fellow travellers, warning of threats and proffering solutions to problems we once struggled with alone. Nice as it is to be proven right, what took 40 hours last month takes just 15 on the second time of asking, the strangling power this gruesome world once held over us no longer so effective now that its threats, tricks and shortcuts have been committed to memory.

Then we reach Yahar’gul, and are put right back in our place. This is Bloodborne’s Anor Londo, a sprawling, brilliantly constructed sequence of encounters and environmental puzzles designed to push you to what you thought was the very limit of your ability, and then ask for even more. Where Anor Londo summed up Dark Souls’ sense of waning majesty, Yahar’gul encapsulates Bloodborne’s world gone so terrifyingly wrong. It is beautiful in its way, but it’s hard to appreciate it when enemies rise up from nothingness drenched in blood, when dark corners hold horrible secrets, and when colossal, indescribable creatures hang off buildings and shoot lasers from their well, we’re not sure. We’re too busy running for our lives to look. Past the lasers is the most smartly placed lantern in the game, a chance to unclench and take a breath, affording a fleeting sense of achievement and a false sense of security before you’re thrown right back into the horror of it all with one of Bloodborne’s toughest encounters. It’s not even a boss.

The bosses are challenging enough as it is. After Dark Souls II’s parade of humanoids bearing melee weapons, Bloodborne’s varied set of progress-barring beasts are a revelation. And while you can take them on with nothing but your wits and your weapon, you can substantially change the flow of some fights using certain items. A few hours in, a rival will be stopped in his tracks by the song of his daughter’s music box, but using it too soon hastens his transformation, and you won’t like his second form one bit. These physical evolutions are a recurring theme: only at the very end boss does FromSoftware offer a fair fight against an unchanging foe, though it’s no mere walk in the park.

Those bosses, and the enemies that roam the world in between them, are only made possible by the combat. Bloody, blisteringly fast and enormously satisfying, Bloodborne’s fighting system means From can ask more than ever of its players, knowing that they have the tools to cope with it. The dash, which replaces the traditional Souls roll when you’re locked on to an enemy, is transformative. Combined with the regain system, through which you can claw back lost health by quickly chasing down and striking enemies, it encourages a faster, more aggressive style of play, making you a more capable fighter than in earlier games, albeit one facing greater odds than ever. It takes a certain chutzpah to respond to taking a bloodied, poison-slathered claw to the face by dashing after it instead of backing off to heal, and it takes some getting used to. You’ll get there, your confidence growing, your attachment to your chosen trick weapon becoming ever stronger with each beaten mob and fallen boss.
Blisteringly fast and enormously satisfying, Bloodborne’s fighting system means From can ask more than ever of players
Ah, yes. About that. There was some consternation online at our only having found six trick weapons in 40 hours. While we’d found a good deal more by the time the credits rolled, this is hardly Diablo. Bloodborne may have fewer weapons than we’ve come to expect from a From game, but each is a weighty joy to use and, thanks to their dual forms, useful in just about any situation. As the Souls series progressed, it took the concept of weapon variety to ludicrous extremes, presenting you with more options than you could ever hope to upgrade, and leaving you feeling like you were missing out on something better. That weapon anxiety is gone: you know there’s no greatsword with a better moveset or scaling value than Ludwig’s Holy Blade, because it’s the only weapon of its kind in the game. With fewer stats on your character sheet, you’re rarely put in the unhappy position of finding a great new sword that you don’t have the skill to use, and the lower tiers of upgrade materials are plentiful, encouraging you to  beef up each new discovery and play around with it.

That may suggest Bloodborne is a less replayable game than its forebears, but 80 hours in there is plenty here left to discover. There are surely more friendly NPCs to send to the incense-sweetened sanctuary of Oedon Chapel. There are the Covenant-like Oaths to seek out and join up with, and at least two optional boss fights we’ve shied away from out of fear. We are still discovering the effects Insight this game’s equivalent to Dark Souls’ Humanity and the mechanic From asked us to not discuss in E278’s cover story has on the world. Some of the toughest enemies we faced on our first trek through Hemwick Charnel Lane are nowhere to be seen now we’re spending our Insight on co-op summons. And at some point we hope to find, and silence, the source of the haunting, distant cry that permeates the back half of the game and persists into New Game Plus. And when we’re finally done, a hundred-plus hours in, there are more sleep-starved school nights to be spent in the Chalice Dungeons.

We’ll admit we were sceptical. How could a studio so renowned for the intricacy of its worlds possibly hand off the heavy lifting to a procedural algorithm? We were right in a way there are none of the main game’s eureka shortcuts here, elegantly leading you back to an area you left behind hours ago. Rooms are big, boxy and frequently reused. But the Chalice Dungeons’ magic comes not from their layouts, but what those repeated environments might contain. Walking into a familiar room with no idea what awaits, or where it is, injects a new sort of thrill into From’s formula, endlessly sustaining the tension and terror that eventually fades as you unpick the world above.

Don’t just expect random spawns of recognisable Yharnam enemies either. There are lots of those, of course, but they might now fling poison knives or have flames licking from their blades, and there are many brand-new kinds of horrific aggressor. There are new bosses as well plenty of them. Some drop new chalices, others the materials to put in them, others still leaving their gear for purchase from the merchant at the Hunter’s Dream, your base of operations and hub throughout the game. Dungeons are shareable, either by giving friends a glyph password or by opening the doors to the world, and you can download and play others’ creations too. A throwaway, underdesigned gimmick? Not a bit of it. This is Bloodborne ’s Endless mode, and there’s enough here to power a game of its own.

It’s all playable in co-op as well, with a password system making it straightforward to link up with friends. Indeed, multiplayer in general is a good deal kinder. When Hidetaka Miyazaki told us that he has no problem with any playstyle except those aimed solely at annoying other players, what he didn’t tell us is that he has designed such approaches almost out of existence. Invasions, as we know them, are all but gone. Ring the Sinister Bell to signal your intent to face another Hunter and you’ll only find an opponent if they have just rung the same bell in the same area, or if a player has just summoned a co-op partner. When a friendly joins your game, From spawns a bell-ringing woman somewhere in the vicinity, opening up your world to invasion. In Bloodborne, PvP either means a fair fight against a willing participant or invading with the odds stacked against you though this being Miyazaki, there’s a twist. Bell-ringers are regular enemies in some areas, and since there’s no longer a notification when you’re invaded, you’d better watch your back. Yet such moments will be rare. Yharnam is a harsh enough place as it is, without the threat of an underlevelled troll with a plus-ten blade lying in wait just before the first boss.

That change is just one of a host of seemingly small tweaks that have had a profound effect on the FromSoftware template. This is the best combat the studio has devised; its most intricate, flowing world; its steepest, most rewarding challenge; and quite possibly its most replayable creation too. It’s a shame that the partnership with Sony Japan Studio hasn’t eliminated From’s trademark technical issues the framerate that stutters as you turn a corner, the camera that loses you a boss fight by spending a fatal split-second on a close-up of a gigantic beast’s arse, the long load times before you’re back in the action but such concerns pale into insignificance in the context of another Miyazaki masterpiece. Few would have complained had From’s president simply made another Souls  game, but it wouldn’t be right for a creator that pushes his players to the limit to simply rest on his laurels. The result is a dazzling work of dank, abject horror that cements Miyazaki as one of the all-time greats. Sixteen months after PS4’s launch, the new generation has finally begun.

Out Of Sight
From starts dropping hints about Insight’s importance to the fabric of Bloodborne’s world from the very beginning of the game. You can’t level up until you have an Insight rating of one, at which point a porcelain doll will take on her walking, talking form. When you reach ten Insight, another merchant appears at Hunter’s Dream, offering better items and gear. There are suggestions of its power elsewhere, too. Halfway into our second playthrough, we are yet to see two offworld areas from relatively early in the game. Could it be that your Insight level dictates which parts of the world From allows you to see? Only time, and the rapid discoveries of a community hundreds of thousands of Hunters strong, will tell.

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