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Bloodborne: Thoughts on the first 40 hours

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

We're not quite ready to publish a review of Bloodborne, as we've only had access to the game for a few days and have spent too little time with the PlayStation 4 game's multiplayer components. But having played the game for nearly 40 hours, exploring the vast dreary world of Yarnham, it's clear that Bloodborne is an incredible, beautiful follow-up to From Software's Demon's Souls and Dark Souls.

It's also a surprising deviation from those games, something that feels like a course correction — one that distances itself from concepts that have evolved throughout the Souls series. Though it shares some familiar design concepts and ideas from the original Demon's Souls, Bloodborne is its own beast.  And while Dark Souls has grown bigger and bigger — more bosses, more weapons, more spells, more concessions for the player — Bloodborne sheds much of that increasing complexity to instead stick to the core of what made the Souls games great.

In fact, it might be exactly what I wanted From Software to do after Dark Souls 2, a game that I personally found disappointing for its blandness and its bloat.

Bloodborne's greatest strength is it focus on intense, hand-to-hand combat encounters, rather than ranged attacks through spells and projectile weapons. That feels like a fix for one of the Souls series' biggest player crutches: cheaply killing enemies from afar with arrows or spammed spells. Sure, I'm guilty of slaying a dragon or two with a few hundred arrows fired safely from far, far away, but that's never been what makes the Souls games — and now Bloodborne — so thrilling. No, it's the fierce, face-to-face battles in which you barely eke out victory, and Bloodborne is full of those palm-moistening moments.

The game has sent me into a frustrated rage plenty of times, but it remains incredibly satisfying. There's nothing else like the combat in Souls games, and Bloodborne manages to boil those battles down to their essence. Miyazaki and team made some deep cuts to the Souls game's core mechanics, but it feels the better for it.

Bloodborne is also stunning to look at. It's creepy, horrific, disgusting and beautiful. It's bloody and populated with a wide variety of nightmarish creatures, like one whose bloody skin is worn like a loose cape and another that taps directly into my unwavering hatred of the common house centipede. Many of the enemies you'll face are humanoid, but Bloodborne's bestiary is certainly not lacking in imagination. There are some incredible surprises in this game.

The game's boss encounters also feature some of the more memorable battles we've seen in a From Software game. Some might even feel familiar to longtime Souls players. And some can only be experienced in the game's procedurally generated Chalice Dungeons, which feel almost — but not quite — like the rest of the game's hand-crafted areas, so there's plenty to experience beyond the game's meaty campaign.

The world of Yarnham and beyond is inviting and fascinating to explore. Levels are interconnected, but not quite in the same way that was so impressive in Dark Souls. There are some truly stunning environments, and it's fascinating to see them evolve over time.

Like Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, Bloodborne's mechanics and systems are arcane. The game certainly doesn't go out of its way to explain how certain things work, like Insight (which ties into multiplayer, but is also a currency of sorts) and Frenzy (a status effect that I'm still not perfectly clear on). If you prefer your game mechanics and your character motivations explained to you, prepare to be disappointed.

Bloodborne has a couple minor technical issues. The game's frame rate can chug when mobs of enemies get too dense. It's noticeable in Central Yarnham when a dozen or so enemies congregate around a beast being burned at the stake. There's also the occasional annoying audio quirk, a buzzing that pops up when enemies walk through water or when the player smashes a bunch of environmental objects.

The game's load times, which players will experience when they die or teleport between locations, are considerable: about 30 seconds at their worst on the standard PS4 hard drive. Sony says that From Software is looking into an update to improve those load times, but in a game where death can come frequently and you'll sometimes experience loads back-to-back while traveling, it's certainly noticeable.

Bloodborne has already won me over with its distinct look, its expert design and its focus on the core combat that I loved so much in previous Souls games. It also goes in directions I never expected. I can't wait to play more.

We'll have more thoughts — as well as tons of video — on Bloodborne throughout the week.

Polygon Video: Bloodborne Character Creation Guide

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