Each of From Software’s incredible Souls worlds has been bled utterly dry of content. Lordran has been laid bare. Drangleic is done and dusted. Boletaria’s bones have been picked clean. With his latest foray into the action-RPG genre, series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki poses a new question: what if there was no end? What if you could conceivably continue playing endlessly, with a section of the world individually generated for each player that enters? This is exactly what Bloodborne’s recently announced Chalice Dungeons do. And they change everything.
“You might see familiarities with old-school roguelike games,” says Miyazaki. “They’re procedurally generated. A distinct feature is [that for] whoever is looking at the dungeon it will appear differently.” As he talks, a live Chalice Dungeon run plays out before us and two players join forces to tackle a cobweb-strewn underground tunnel system. This optional location unravels deep beneath the ten areas of the game’s central world: the quasi-Victorian, gothic-inspired city of Yharnam. To unlock it players will have to perform an as-yet-unknown (and probably very tough) ritual within the main game.
Step into this dungeon and you’re met with an entirely new space to explore, one that’s individually crafted for you. For each player who ventures into this area the enemies will change, both in terms of who and what you’ll fight, and where they’ll be waiting. The places themselves shift and alter. Our demo moves from dank and ominous stone corridors, through a swampish open area, and into an ethereal, ghostly passageway. Then there are the traps.
Upon initial entry, we see a hunter picking a direction to explore and trotting forward a few steps. A giant boulder smashes down and begins rolling, Indiana Jones-style, towards him.
The walkway is narrow, so our hero’s forced to run straight back where he came from and to pick the other direction to jog in. He then falls down a hidden pit, the stones underfoot clattering away.
We spare a thought for our future selves, getting one-two’d by a double-whammy such as this. The welcome sounds of enemies elsewhere in the dungeon getting mullered by the still-rampaging rock play out in the distance.
Far from being a series of interchangeable corridors, however, we’re quickly whisked into a large, open pit of liquid pollution. Demon’s Souls vets: think the Valley of Defilement turned up to 11 and you’re on the right track. Trudging through this waste reveals a large, lurching foe wielding a giant sword wreathed in fire. As it always manages to do, From Software plays around with our expectations. That sludge which comes up to your knees? Yeah, there’s oil mixed in with that. With each sweep of his blade this new foe causes billowing flame waves to erupt, forcing you to act. Or die.
How are you supposed to react to such an unpredictable encounter? How are you supposed to prepare? Well, this enemy is especially weak to heavy weapons, the type of breeze block-ended hammer that would stun even the most stoic of brick-built outhouses. Dex builders may want to bring along a friend who’s capable of wielding such a weapon – and this is where co-op multiplayer comes into play. You can share your own Chalice Dungeons with friends and tackle them together. There will always be a corner of Bloodborne’s world which is unknowable and ripe for exploring, sharing and mastering together.
During a hands-on with the latest version we get to sample how the much-discussed regain system works within the confines of these new, player-specific locations. With the dungeons being so different to one another they’ll be harder to prepare for, so the likelihood you’ll take damage is higher. In fact, the more aggressive nature of combat in ’borne pretty much necessitates you’ll get hit. Strike back at the offending foe quickly enough, however, and you’re able to reclaim a significant sliver of your health bar.
This system inspires acts of bravery that would appear freakish to more hardened Dark Souls veterans. Where once you would take a hit and run away to heal, now you’re reliant on getting stuck in to stay alive. The two games might look vaguely similar in structure (though Bloodborne is a million times better visually), but with regain there’s a keener sense of both fragility and, oddly, power. It’s a curious mix, and tantalisingly different to that which we’ve become so familiar with up until now. In Souls you observe, learn and use that knowledge to attain victory. In Bloodborne you either do, or die. Guess which happens most often?
From Software is not a studio known for its cutting-edge technology, and it really did wring every last ounce of mileage out of its Dark Souls engine, first built in cahoots with Sony back in the Demon’s Souls days. The PlayStation maker didn’t know then what it had got hold of, but now, just looking at the crisply delivered world, full of creatures boasting immense detail, it’s clear that it’s taking From’s Yharnam excursion very seriously. We always were, but the endless possibility of those Chalice Dungeons has just raised the stakes even further.