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Notes on the Bloodborne Alpha (Updated)

Bloodborne is a Souls game. If that is the assurance you came for, then rejoice: the combat satisfies, the world of Yharnam confounds and the enemies kill, repeatedly.

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Bloodborne

Update: Due to an unexpected glitch – where players were able to access the non-Alpha regions of Bloodborne – the third day of the Alpha (originally October 5th) was rescheduled to October 19th. This article has been appropriately updated to reflect the findings and discoveries made during the final day of the Alpha.

  1. I was able to try the Saw Cleaver character, which seems like the most balanced of the four offerings. Also the extendable polearm has a chargeable heavy (R2) attack and the direction of the swing changes based on the button pressed i.e. Left to Right requires L1 while Right to Left required R1.
  2. I encountered a glitch in the game while exploring a nook between a few immovable burlaps and a certain fence with a player left message reading ‘this is the end’. I should have voted up the message because that was indeed the end of that playthrough as I got stuck in the world. Jumping out from there had my character hung in the air and attacking had him glitched in a funny hitting animation indefinitely.
  3. I was able to whittle the Cleric Boss down to 15% health this time, the strategy that proved effective was the more aggressive one, wherein I ‘courage countered’ him to regain lost health and only retreated occasionally. Also the boss seemed to grow aggressive as it took damage, hinting at possible encounters that escalate in momentum.

Bloodborne goes back to the roots of the Souls series, for instance it is again a PlayStation exclusive and it seems to be introducing complexity to what already feels like a daunting real-time, tactile and incredibly weighty combat mechanism. But it shies away from the Souls name and it’s better for it. Because ultimately, it shows the potential to be a more non-conventional game, like Demon’s Souls and not an incremental installment like Dark Souls 2. It goes for a darker mystery and a palpable claustrophobia and thanks to its new setting Bloodborne seems dark and colorless, but it shines in a brilliant sheen of tar, oil and blood.

My analysis of the Alpha is broken down into three categories. Starting with the “World structure and the landscape”, followed by “the Quality” of the game as can best be judged by the build and lastly the nitty-gritty of its “game mechanics”.

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The world

(Note: Since the Alpha had no economy or Soul drops it was a consistent experience, making it difficult to judge the sense of progression of the gear or the character)

  1. The game still feels mysterious, cunning and highly treacherous. Enemies hide behind brick walls in darkness and lunge forward to attack the unaware; some pretend to be corpses or just sit there, contemplating only to rise to strike from behind.
  2. There are Souls-esque shortcuts that instill some promise of interconnected and complex level design that these games have come to master and the players have come to expect.
  3. Yharnam is sprawling with stone structures, bridges with broken ledges for shortcuts, ladders to reach higher ground (you could hold Cricle to descend faster and even ascend quicker). There are all kinds of doors in the game. There are locked doors (why not), doors that are locked by certain contraptions and others that only open from one side; hinting at complexity in world design and secrets for the dedicated.
  4. The enemy variety is staggering. There seems to be all sorts of hitters: hard, scrappy, ranged, heavy and even wheelchair-bound. Enemies have a variety of weapons ranging from garden forks to torches, from rifles to even bricks and all of them usually have attack combos that hit more than once. Enemies also seem to have instant reactive attacks, wherein they are only briefly staggered and react to sword hits almost instantaneously. Also, the enemies come in hordes, ready to ambush and overwhelm.

Game quality

  1. The game looks stunning with an altogether different palette of colors and inspirations than the Souls legacy. Bloodborne feels fresh if morbid and mysterious if melancholic. The animations are superb, character seems responsive, weapons have weight and combos feel tactile.
  2. The catch is that the game looks so good and is so incredibly detailed, that I fear that it might lose some of its glimmer upon release (à la Dark Souls 2). In the Alpha itself, I experienced some sluggishness, with frame rate dropping when I sprinted past a bunch of enemies. It wasn’t the smoothest of experiences but let’s not forget that it’s an alpha release.
  3. There is the reliable press-R3-to-lock-on mechanic but it brings with it the – still -wonky camera. This is not helped by the fact that the boss in the Alpha (Cleric Beast) has a high jump attack; during which if locked-on can make the player lose his bearing.
  4. The torch makes a comeback. The darker alleyways and interiors are wonderfully illuminated should you choose to have it equipped in place of a firearm. One of the interior sections in the Alpha is so pitch dark- with four enemies lurking around to bring death to thee – that your only escape is the torch.

The mechanics

  1. The Alpha gave a choice of four characters (the word classes is best avoided here), which determines the weapons you have equipped for that play through. The character’s movement speed as affected by the weapon weight (Since being an alpha, the weapons did not have durability stat and thus no degradation effect). These classes were:
    – Saw Cleaver (extendable to polearm) + Blunderbuss [Medium build]
    – Axe (extendable to Scythe) + Pistol [Heavy]
    – Kirkhammer, a sword which can be attached to a hammer’s head + Blunderbuss [Heavy]
    – Twin Blades (can be dual-wielded for unique moveset; think Power stance from Dark Souls 2) + Pistol [Nimble]
  2. You might have noticed each characteris equipped with two weapons (or a primary plus an extendable weapon type). Not only can you tapL1 to switch between the two modes (switch is a loose term here, you either combine the two weapons together, or dual-wield them); you can also combo the two together into an overly complicated manoeuvre. I discovered this on myKirkhammer (Hammer + Sword) character wherein I was rocking the sword half of the weapon and would get quick and humbleR1 attacks.Soon I was hitting L1 > R1 > L1. This performs a light sword hit (L1), followed by heavy overhead smash by the half of the hammer attachment (R1), followed by an animation that combines the two ends (hammer attachment and sword hilt) to make the Kirkhammer result into a forward thrust attack (R1). Hoping the game features multiple weapon types, it essentially doubles the available moveset and strategies based on weapon characteristics.
  3. The firearms seem to have a stagger effect on all enemies, but only on specific weaker enemies does it lead to a stun effect which can be followed by a critical front stab using R1. I was able to execute this move only twice (probably because I am more of a fan of close range combat).
  4. It is noteworthy that switching between the two weapon stances does not consume stamina, prompting that it is encouraged to do so on the fly. Similarly taking shots with the pistol or blunderbuss doesn’t consume stamina either (something that I suspect will be patched further down the line when PvP battles witness gun-spammers).Going back to point 2 of combo-ing weapons into each other: given the limited amount of stamina in the Alpha I was only able to combo the sword into hammer just once until I ran out of stamina. I suspect with greater stamina (through leveling up) you could switch weapon stances more than once in a single combo (i.e. sword > hammer > sword), creating greater possibilities.
  5. With my Kirkhammer character, I noticed that when I had the straight sword equipped, I could charge my strong attack by holding down R2, until the blade glimmered, dealing significant damage in the process. The same could not be replicated with the hammer stance however.
  6. Clicking the left side of the touchpad brings up the gestures menu (the game still cannot be paused). The Alpha contained 5 gestures in total, of which “shake off cape” is the most meme-worthy. The right side of the touchpad opens up an items menu with a few peculiar items, the first one of which could be interacted with. It was a bell which my character rang in his hand. Resultantly, around the feet of my character, grey concentric circles seem to form which zoomed away from his legs. I guess it signalled an attempt to “connect” me to PvP interactions but unfortunately I never connected with anyone, nor was I ever invaded in my time with the Alpha.
  7. Item drops in the game were restricted to four key things.
    – Blood vials: a single use item that retains lost HP, mapped to triangle and they do carry over when you die. Similar to the crescent grass from Demon’s Souls or the Lifegems from Dark Souls 2.
    – Molotovs: Fire projectiles that can be thrown at enemies for fire and splash damage along a parabolic trajectory. Mapped to square and can be circled through with the D pad. Essentially the firebombs of Bloodborne.
    – Pebbles: Stones that can be thrown on enemies for negligible damage, they might work as prism stones from previous editions (unconfirmed) or as distractions for enemies.
    – Oil Urns: Urns filled with oil that can be hurled at enemies. I tested throwing the Urn at the Cleric Beast and then throwing a Molotov and it significantly increased the damage that the Molotov did. Testing the effect of torch swings on enemies after dousing them in oil still needs to be tested though.
  8. The absence of a shield is highly disconcerting for a player like me, who played all of the Souls series with L1 held up 90% of the time. Out of trepidation, I would accidentally click L1 only to find a more aggressive stance my character had taken. If that’s not a way to spite the reluctant and risk-averse players – who have maybe cheesed/shielded their way through the Souls series – I don’t know what is. It is a clear message from the makers: The risks are high here and so are the rewards. Which brings us to the most revolutionary mechanic Bloodborne employs.
  9. I call it the “courage counter”. Every time your character gets hit,a fraction of theirmaximum HP (denoted by the red bar) is lost, but a part of that lost HP is still hanging in the balanceto be claimed back (denoted through a lighter shade of red). You can only reclaim that lost HP if you choose to hit the enemy reactively within the next few seconds, otherwise it is lost forever.It is a highly risky tactic that rarely led me to the most favorable results. I was either able to recover a miniscule amount of HP or I died horribly in my greed to maximize the returns, hacking and slashing mindlessly towards zero stamina, only to be bludgeoned/shot/slashed/pierced to death. But there is something deeply psychological about this mechanic. Not only is the game suggesting that you react to enemy hits and not wait it out, it is slowly punishing you for not doing so, by taking away the HP that could have been yours. So the evergreen strategy of a Souls player – to take the hit, retreat with the shield up, take an Estus swig, fight back – is thrown out the window from the get go. And due to this simple-yet-twisted take on battle, Bloodborne seems like its own game.

After the Bloodborne Alpha went offline, I couldn’t help but think about what lay behind a certain locked door or what would occur if I had slain the Cleric Beast or were those far away spires and stone structures reachable in the game. It seems so rich in detail and interactions that I definitely could not have experienced all there was to it in the meager two hours of playtime.

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I am sure FromSoftware is positively conflicted by the double whammy of making an approachable game with low barrier to entry while keeping it complex enough for the Souls veterans. From the Alpha, Bloodborne does not seem like the mass audience product that it is believed to be, evidenced by the fact that the alpha was invite-only, reserved for the Souls enthusiasts. Personally, I even lost my death count by the end of it all, which says a lot about how mainstream it is.

Bloodborne is scheduled for release on February 5, 2015 in Japan and February 6, 2015 in North America and Europe.

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Monish is a lover of all things complex: RPGs, Fighting Games, puzzles, skill trees, combo setups, time-limits, roguelikes, languages and alternative music. I write well – or so I am told – so read away.