TIME Turnarounds

How Sony Got Up and Out of Its Death Bed

President and CEO of Sony Corporation Hirai speaks at a Sony news conference during the 2015 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas
Steve Marcus—Reuters President and CEO of Sony Corporation Kazuo Hirai speaks at a Sony news conference during the 2015 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Jan. 5, 2015.

For the first time in a decade, the electronics company has a shot

In the annals of consumer electronics companies that have slipped from great heights, none has taken a bigger fall far from its glory days than Sony. But after years of struggling to right itself, the company is finally making real progress on a turnaround.

Just as Apple helped revive itself in the early 2000s with the iPod, Sony built much of its success on the idea of helping people carry music around in their pocket–first with the transistor radio in the 50s and 60s and later with the Walkman portable cassette player. Those products, coupled with smart engineering, made the Sony brand synonymous with peerless quality.

In the early 2000s, Sony began to lose its competitive edge. Rivals like Samsung had emerged to undercut its higher-priced TVs and stereos. Sony couldn’t get a foothold in new markets like mp3 players. Its earlier expansion into new areas like insurance and its overspending on film and music studios left it with a structure that was at once bloated and siloed.

Sony named Howard Stringer as CEO in 2005 to turn things around. Stringer cut a charismatic figure, but couldn’t speak Japanese and, as a lifelong media executive, lacked an engineering background. Stringer tried to conjure a convergence of electronics and media properties that never quite gelled. (Stringer is on the board of Time Inc.) Meanwhile, further setbacks struck: the global recession in 2009, the Fukushima earthquake in 2011 and a stronger yen that hurt Japanese exports.

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Sony has posted net losses for six of the past seven years. As a result, the price of its ADRs traded on the NYSE fell from $55 in early 2008 to below $10 in late 2012. (An ADR is a stock that trades in the U.S. but represents a specific number of shares in a foreign corporation.) Its credit ratings eventually fell to near junk levels. But then things began to look up: After bottoming out below $10 in 2012, its ADRs have risen back near $33 this month, a rally of 238% in the last two and a half years.

The change came after Sony replaced Stringer with Kazuo Hirai in early 2012. Hirai was a Sony veteran known for wringing profits from troubled businesses like the PlayStation gaming division. And like Stringer, Hirai didn’t fit the mold of the Japanese salaryman. Hirai grew up in Japan and North America, giving him a fluency in English and also a gift for being plainspoken, like when he told the Wall Street Journal on taking the job, “It’s one issue after another. I feel like, “Holy shit, now what?”

Hirai began an ambitious restructuring of Sony over the three years that followed. He quickly announced a “One Sony” structure that built on Stringer’s convergence with an emphasis on communication and joint decisions among siloed divisions. He focused the electronics business on mobile, gaming and imaging products. Over time, he cut thousands of jobs, sold off the Vaio PC unit, separated the ailing TV business into its own company and overhauled the smartphone lineup.

All of this added to financial losses with restructuring charges and made for a tumultuous 2014. But the low point came last November, with the infamous hack that left sensitive documents from Sony Pictures Entertainment in public view. But it was just around this time when some analysts began voicing their conviction in a Sony turnaround. The turnaround painstakingly plotted by Stringer and Hirai was finally bearing fruit.

That became more evident when Sony reported its most recent earnings. There were encouraging signs in the past year’s finances, like revenue rising 6% and the TV business posting its first profit in 11 years. But the better news was in the cautious forecast for the coming year.

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The bulk of the restructuring was behind Sony, CFO Kenichiro Yoshida said, and while revenue may decline 4% this fiscal year, operating profit would rise fourfold to $2.6 billion, its highest profit since 2008. Hirai had earlier projected net income to rise above $4 billion by 2018, which would be its biggest profit since 1998, before the great fall began.

There’s still some restructuring to do. The revenue decrease this year will come largely from Sony’s move away from mid-range mobile phones to focus on the high end of the market. While camera sales continue to decline, Sony is seeing strong growth in imaging sensors used in smartphones. Overall, Sony will be a smaller company in terms of revenue but with bigger sales and slow, steady move from aging markets into growing ones.

A turnaround needs more than cost cutting and restructuring. Sony has a long road ahead to go from playing catch-up in technology markets to playing a leading role in new ones. That step requires a lot more work, but Sony’s return to profitability makes a major turnaround as feasible as it’s been in more than a decade.

TIME Gadgets

Sony Is Taking Advance Orders for Custom-Made Earphones That Cost $2,500

All of a sudden Beats look crazy affordable

There are expensive earphones and then there are Sony’s new Just Ear XJE-MH1 earphones.

After unveiling the product late last year, the Japanese tech giant announced that it was taking advance orders this week for the earphones tailor-made to mesh with an individual’s environment, ears and audio tastes.

To optimize the listening experience, the buyer’s individual measurements are taken, allowing the device to fit snuggly along the contours of the outer ear. However, the experience does not come cheap.

Rocket News 24 reports that the headphones will sell for approximately $2,500.

TIME Video Games

The 15 Biggest Video Games Coming Out This Spring

Check out our springtime list of PC, console and handheld video games to keep an eye on

These are the biggest games for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U and Nintendo 3DS out this spring, including Bloodborne, Mortal Kombat X, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Xenoblade Chronicles 3D.

  • Mario Party 10

    Nintendo’s jamboree four-player Mario Party series comes to the Wii U, harboring its peculiar melange of boardgame-like mini-games, with this particular batch crafted to avail itself of both the Wii U’s unique second-screen controller and Nintendo’s wirelessly programmable Amiibo figurines.

    Wii U

    March 20

  • Bloodborne

    The popular line on developer From Software is that the studio makes counter-culturally punishing hack and slash games. That’s too easy. Once you isolate each game’s patterns, they’re relatively simple to crack. The difficulty’s in sussing the patterns, it’s true, but these games trade as much on their ambience, and Bloodborne‘s no different: an abattoir of the arcane that’s as gratifying to rubberneck as unravel, piece by bloody piece.

    PlayStation 4

    March 24

  • Pillars of Eternity

    A bona fide old-school PC roleplaying escapade inspired by several popular turn of the century Dungeons & Dragons computer gaming hits, Pillars of Eternity resurrects bygone staples like isometric (top-down, off-center) camera angles, round-driven tactical combat and an almanac’s worth of statistical esoterica. But it’s all thoroughly modernized here, and as friendly as this sort of world-building exercise is likely to get.

    PC

    March 26

  • Axiom Verge

    Give Petroglyph (Command & Conquer) developer Tom Happ five years to fiddle in his spare time with a side-scrolling platformer, and you get Axiom Verge, an homage to games like Metroid and Castlevania, but one that layers in its own curiosities and inventions, adding to a growing chorus of recent, deceptively throwback games that bristle with progressive surprises.

    PC, PlayStation 4, PS Vita

    March 31

  • Story of Seasons

    A Harvest Moon-like (developer Marvelous Entertainment is known for its work on the long-running Harvest Moon series), Story of Seasons lets players raise ye olde crops and livestock, but in this case you can peddle your wares in an online market composed of various “countries,” each with unique trade-related demands.

    Nintendo 3DS

    March 31

  • Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin

    Another Sisyphean From Software ordeal, Scholar of the First Sin packages last year’s Dark Souls II with all of its expansion content, upgraded for the latest consoles and sporting new enemies, items as well as support for more simultaneous players in online sessions.

    PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

    April 2

  • Etrian Mystery Dungeon

    The dungeon-exploring Etrian Odyssey series meets the roguelike Mystery Dungeon games. It’s not clear yet how that mashup’s going to distinguish itself, but it presumably involves random-generated dungeons, three-dimensional environments and chess-like (I go, you go) combat.

    Nintendo 3DS

    April 7

  • Affordable Space Adventures

    2015’s list of Wii U games feels worryingly sparse with The Legend of Zelda slipping to 2016. While you’re waiting, there’s Affordable Space Adventures to think about, a clever-sounding Wii U exclusive that hands you control of a tiny spaceship with discretely playable and granular systems, allowing friends to crew aspects of the ship like thrust, stabilization or scanning in concert.

    Wii U

    April 9

  • Xenoblade Chronicles 3D

    One of the smartest roleplaying games in the genre’s history comes to the New Nintendo 3DS (and only to the New 3DS–it’ll be the first that taps the new handheld’s souped up processor). This is your chance to play what by all accounts looks to be the definitive version.

    Nintendo 3DS

    April 10

  • Grand Theft Auto V

    It’s a shame a studio as stately as Rockstar’s made players on the most popular and generationally resilient video game platform around wait a full year and a half to play the company’s 2013 magnum opus. If you’re one of PC gaming’s many slighted, however, the Windows version appears to be definitive (that is, if you have a PC powerful enough to crunch it).

    PC

    April 14

  • Mortal Kombat X

    It’s another Mortal Kombat for the latest-gen hardware, meaning a compendium of even more graphically intricate carnage erupting from the business end of whips, chains, bows, swords, hats, hammers and various weaponized limbs.

    PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

    April 14

  • Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China

    Assassin’s Creed Unity was the first critical misstep in Ubisoft’s annual stealth-parkour franchise, in part because the company oversold it as its boldest rethink since the series debuted in 2007. Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China, a downloadable 2.5D platformer (it’s a 2D side-scroller with 3D elements), will be the first in a trilogy of diversions designed to fill the space between Unity and the series’ next installment, ostensibly due this year and reportedly set in Victorian London.

    PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

    April 21

  • Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 Record Breaker

    Sporting the world’s weirdest name and likely bound to scare off anyone not in the tactical roleplaying Tensei-series know, Devil Survivor 2 Record Breaker revisits the acclaimed 2012 Nintendo DS game (of the same name, sans the “Record Breaker” appendage) by way of a new scenario that picks up where the original game left off.

    Nintendo 3DS

    May 5

  • Wolfenstein: The Old Blood

    You won’t need a copy of Wolfenstein: The New Order (reviewed here) to play developer MachineGames’s standalone prequel expansion, which takes series protagonist William “B.J.” Blazkowicz back to Hitlerian climes circa 1946, canvassing two pivotal alternate history events leading up to the last game’s break with World War II and Man in the High Castle-ish leap forward.

    PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

    May 5

  • The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

    You may want to take the rest of the year off to play The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Polish developer CD Projekt Red’s apparent bid to eliminate every other game from your playtime schedule. Imagine Skyrim multiplied by Skyrim and you’re in the ballpark of this East European-inspired fantasy-verse. And if hundreds of potential hours of freeform gameplay isn’t enough to sate your Heisenbergian appetites, the studio just announced two expansions due for release over the course of this year into early next, totaling some 30 hours of additional content.

    PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

    May 19

MONEY millennial

8 Gen X Favorites That Millennials Scorn

Millennials will probably never understand why Gen X, or anyone, was once so enamored of U2, Gap, and these six other things.

Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that — no matter what Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys wore 25 years ago — Adidas is not cool, with sales faring especially poorly among young people. It’s not easy for any generation to accept that the zeitgeist has left it behind. (The Boomers still haven’t.) But with the oldest Gen Xers having reached 50 and the youngest well into their 30s, that conclusion looks unavoidable. Here are eight other things that Gen X loved, but that millennials just don’t seem to care about.

 

  • Saab

    1989 SAAB 900i
    Bob Masters Classic Car Images—Alamy 1989 SAAB 900i

    Oddly shaped, with a pathetic engine and the ignition inexplicably located on the floor: The Financial Times described Swedish automaker Saab as “the anti-brand brand.” Could it be any wonder that Generation X loved them? Saab sales climbed steadily throughout the early 1980s and, after a drop off in 1986, rebounded through much of the 1990s. The car took a star turn in such slacker classics as High Fidelity and Sideways. But as the FT concluded, “the commercial drawback of being an ‘anti-brand brand,’ of course, is that many people drive Saabs precisely because other people don’t.”

    Saab sales hit a wall in first part of the last decade, in part because GM, which acquired the brand in 2000, watered down the car’s distinctive flavor in an effort to expand its appeal. Saab essentially stopped production in 2011. Millennials, lukewarm on cars to start with, don’t seem to notice what they are missing, at least according to AutoGuide.com.

  • Michel Foucault

    French philosopher Michel Foucault
    AFP—Getty Images French philosopher Michel Foucault

    If you went to college in the 1980s or 1990s, chances are you smugly obsessed about (or just as smugly avoided) abstract yet strident discussions of the way language shaped our perception of the world around us. It was kind of like “checking your privilege” through abstruse academic jargon. If “the theory wars” no longer rage, maybe it’s because there is no one left to fight them. In 2010, just 7% of college students majored in the humanities, down about half since the late 1960s. Yale, which graduated 165 English majors in 1991, had just 62 in 2012. So what exactly do college students get overwrought about these days? Apparently, it’s who’s going to get that internship at Facebook.

  • Gap

    1990s UK Gap Magazine Advertisement with Miles Davis
    The Advertising Archives 1990s UK Gap Magazine Advertisement with Miles Davis

    It now seems strange that a mall store known basically for T-shirts, khakis and other basics became a fashion icon. But it just kind of happened. Here is writer Lucinda Rosenfeld’s take in Slate: “It’s hard to overstate the importance of black pants to young women in the early 1990s. Once you found a pair that fit perfectly — and maybe a good square-toe black ankle-boot to match — half the work of assembling a sleek, confidence-building wardrobe was done.” She goes on to explain that, while her favorite pair cost “a week’s salary” back in the day, her second favorite pair, which she wore three days a week, came from Gap. How did Gap — or The Gap as we used to call it — lose its lucrative role as the workhorse of 20-somethings’ closets? Perhaps anti-fashion could only be in fashion for so long. And the company has faced plenty of low-cost competition from chains like H&M and Uniqlo.

  • U2

    U2 Fans
    Daily Mail—Alamy

    How long is any rock band’s shelf life? U2 managed to remain cool longer than most — from at least the early 1980s through the 1990s and into the oughts. They even made Christian rock seem cool. But the jig was finally up last year when Apple’s decision to gift U2’s new album to iTunes users sparked a backlash. One obvious explanation is age — Bono is past 50. Another is the decline of guitar-oriented pop. But don’t overlook changes to the brand of U2’s homeland. Once associated with post-industrial poverty and violence, the Irish Republic traded its troubled but defiant image for computer chip factories and real estate speculation. Maybe U2’s social justice street cred went into the bargain.

  • Cameron Crowe

    SINGLES, Bridget Fonda, Matt Dillon, Kyra Sedgwick, Campbell Scott, 1992.
    Warner Bros—Courtesy Everett Collection SINGLES, Bridget Fonda, Matt Dillon, Kyra Sedgwick, Campbell Scott, 1992.

    The New York Times called Cameron Crowe “something of a cinematic spokesman for the post-baby boom generation” in 1992. At the time Crowe had Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Say Anything already under his belt, and was just getting ready to release Singles. (If you haven’t seen it, let’s just say it’s aged far better than Reality Bites.) The former Rolling Stone writer later hit box office gold with Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, which deliciously skewered Boomer narcissism from a vantage that’s somehow both younger and less credulous. Since then, however, Crowe has failed to match his ’80s and ’90s success. Elizabethtown, which inspired the mocking “manic pixie dream girl” trope, was widely seen as a disappointment. In 2011, Crowe managed something of come-back with We Bought a Zoo. The film, which earned about $75 million at the box office, was better than the title makes it sound. But it’s hardly going to inspire any garage bands.

  • Sony Walkman

    ca. 1991 Sony Walkman cassette player
    Dorling Kindersley—Corbis ca. 1991 Sony Walkman cassette player

    Just like millennials, Gen Xers put on their headphones on and tuned out the world. There were differences. Unlike today, fancy gadgets were never white but black or silver. (A notable exception was the youthful, yellow “Sports” model that made a cameo appearance in Hot Tub Time Machine.) And there were a lot more buttons, partly because music players came with a radio and partly because in an analogue world, more rather than less signaled connoisseurship. But there were similarities too: Gen X’s technological marvels were also conceived in a far off place whose special culture fostered unique capitalistic virtues that our betters admonished us to learn from and imitate. It just happened to be Japan rather than California.

    Sony managed to transverse the mid-1980s move from cassette tapes to CDs, with the Discman. It wasn’t as if digital music caught the company blind sided. Sony introduced something known as the “memory stick Walkman” in 1999, more than two years before the iPod appeared. But Sony’s reluctance to embrace the MP3 format and its struggles integrating hardware and software proved to be just the opening Apple needed.

  • NBC

    FRIENDS with Jennifer Aniston, David Schwimmer, Courteney Cox Arquette, Matt LeBlanc, Lisa Kudrow and Matthew Perry, (Season 1), 1994-2004.
    Warner Bros—Courtesy Everett Collection FRIENDS with Jennifer Aniston, David Schwimmer, Courteney Cox Arquette, Matt LeBlanc, Lisa Kudrow and Matthew Perry, (Season 1), 1994-2004.

    Young people tend to identify themselves more with music than with television, especially network television. But few would argue that in the 1990s NBC was the envy of its competitors. Jerry Seinfeld is a boomer. But Seinfeld’s quartet of ne’er do-wells, whose humor mostly involved aimless complaining, fit right in with Gen X’s celebrated ambivalence. As for Friends, well, Generation X may now be faintly embarrassed that they watched. But watch they did. The show was a top 10 series for its entire run, averaging 20 million viewers, according to Slate. It’s finale garnered more than 50 million. Since then NBC has had hits — even with millennials — like The Office and 30 Rock. But the rise of cheap-to-produce reality television, new competition from cable channels like HBO, and, of course, the Internet, mean networks just don’t enjoy the same cultural relevance or profits that they used to.

  • Major League Baseball

    Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa (L), shares a laugh with St. Louis Cardinals' first baseman Mark McGwire (R), after receiving a walk in the third inning. McGwire stayed at 63 home runs and Sosa stayed at 62 as neither had a home run in the 3-2 Chicago victory.
    Peter Newcomb—AFP/Getty Images Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa (L), shares a laugh with St. Louis Cardinals' first baseman Mark McGwire (R), after receiving a walk in the third inning. McGwire stayed at 63 home runs and Sosa stayed at 62 as neither had a home run in the 3-2 Chicago victory.

    The 1990s was a golden age for baseball. Or so it seemed in 1998 when Mark McGwire’s and Sammy Sosa’s race to surpass the home run record riveted fans. The long ball helped (along with a fashion for building new, smaller “bandbox” ball parks) to boost attendance and television ratings, making baseball seem secure in its role as the national past time, even in era of Michael Jordan. Today, the sport is still trying to cope with the fall out of what we now call The Steroids Era. Average attendance, which climbed from about 25,000 following the strike-shortened 1994 season to roughly 30,000 by end of the decade, has been more or less stuck there ever since. This year’s gambit — a clock to speed up the pace of play — is apparently designed to appeal to millennials. But many of them seem more excited about soccer.

TIME Video Games

Sony Just Made the PlayStation 4 Dramatically Better

Sony Corp. PlayStation 4 As Game Console Goes On Sale In U.S.
Bloomberg—Getty Images A logo sits on the front of a Sony PlayStation 4 (PS4) games console, manufactured by Sony Corp., in this arranged photograph taken in London, U.K., on Friday, Nov. 15, 2013.

You can now pause games as the console enters rest mode

Sony’s upcoming software update for the PlayStation 4 will include a number of “social enhancements” to beef up its online network of gamers, the company revealed on Wednesday.

Software update version 2.50, which Sony has codenamed “Yukimura,” will be out Thursday with a bundle of new features, including a friend finder that enables gamers to search for Facebook friends within the Sony network and connect with a single-step invite. Once invited, gamers can see which friends are online and playing the same games via a new “Friends Who Play This” viewing window.

The update also includes a faster way to jump in and out of gameplay through a new suspend feature, which will pause the action as the PlayStation 4 goes into rest mode. Games will be resumable with one tap of the button.

Read next: 4 Reasons Why Video Game Consoles Will Never Die

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TIME Video Games

Bloodborne’s 10 Quirkiest Ideas So Far

From Software's PlayStation 4 exclusive does just enough to walk the studio's unique action-roleplaying ideas forward, but it could have done more

That I’m nowhere near finished with Bloodborne says as much about From Software’s PlayStation 4 lycanthrope-mauler as anything. I’ve had the game since late last week and clocked at least 40 hours through Monday night — just shy of what some claim it takes to beat the game. I’m still working through the first few areas. Chalk my sluggishness up to being a slower, more methodical player.

But it’s also because Bloodborne carries forward the Souls’ series back-breaking pedigree: this is a game about pushing the proverbial ball up something more like a mountain, millimeter by grueling millimeter, looking for meaningful perspective on your progress. From Software’s great triumph as a studio — and Bloodborne epitomizes this — is in making that feel like something you want to do, not that you have to.

Here’s what I think of Bloodborne so far, absent the multiplayer angle, which I’m waiting to futz with until the game’s launch tomorrow, March 23.

The new “regain” system changes everything

From Software’s entire developmental oeuvre trades on simplistic sounding gameplay ideas that wind up having monumental depth. To wit, in Bloodborne the studio’s added what it calls a “regain” system to combat.

It sounds trivial: after an enemy damages you, you have a few crucial seconds to strike back and, if you connect without taking further damage, replenish your flagging health bar. They hit, you hit. On paper, it’s as nuanced as a pugilism seminar.

But Bloodborne packs its Grand Guignol zoo with deft, spontaneous enemies who make it incredibly difficult to land reciprocal blows before the regain timer runs out and the damage to your health bar becomes permanent. Regain is thus another dare (in a game about daring), goading you to act recklessly, to make split-second tactical choices that, if you’re not thoroughly versed in an enemy’s attack patterns, often result in your taking even more damage.

Multiply by the barrage of new enemy types, each with unique attacks, and how you dispatch them — the crux of these games, requiring methodical thought — is easily the most nuanced of any of the prior Souls installments.

So does the game’s loot-hunt twist

The Souls games are basically risk-reward abattoirs wrapped around hack-and-slash chutes. You haul around souls (the games’ version of cash), but drop them if you die, after which you have just one shot to bash your way back to the spot you croaked and reclaim your booty. Die before you get there, and those dropped goods vanish forever, forfeiting all your hard work to that point.

Bloodborne continues in the same vein (instead of souls, it calls your cha-chings from enemy kills “blood echoes”), but with a fascinating wrinkle: now, if you die in the vicinity of enemies, they can snatch up your lost treasure and go for a stroll.

Return to the spot of your demise, and you’ll often find it bare. Instead, you have to scan nearby enemies until you identify one with glowing eyes — the telltale sign it’s the creature schlepping your goods. And the only way to retrieve them is to defeat the creature in combat. Suffice to say I’ve lost a lot of hard-earned moola overzealously rushing blood echoes thieves flanked by lethal helpers. (Woe to anyone who loses their trove in battle with a deadly mini-boss, and has to fight it to get their blood echoes back.)

From Software

It’s all about crowd control

The Souls games generally involve engaging enemies one and sometimes two at a time. Bloodborne by contrast opens the battlefield up to whole squadrons of horrors, each creature bristling with different weapons, hit ranges and attack sequencing, making them pretty much phalanxes of anarchic insanity.

Figuring out how to break down a crowd, maybe by luring away one or two enemies at a time (you can toss pebbles, Shadow of Mordor-like), is thus as crucial as leveraging the game’s new arsenal of crowd control weapons. If you’re into observation-related strategizing, and I am, Bloodborne forces you to pause and study groups of enemies before engaging them far more than in From Software’s prior games.

You can scan enemies from a distance — and you’ll need to

Demon’s Souls and both of the Dark Souls games opened on vast panoramas, but blurred their beautifully bleak far-off scenery for technical reasons. Bloodborne makes no such compromises, spotlighting ever exquisite distant detail of its Boschian nightmare-scapes, allowing you to eyeball enemy mobs (and their shambling trajectories) from several stories up, so you can plot your approach vectors accordingly.

It’s the apotheosis of From Software’s ultra-creepy visual aesthetic

I’ve loved the bleak, convoluted, almost Peake-ian feel of the Souls games for years, but Bloodborne ratchets that up another order of magnitude. In the starter areas, you’ll prowl gorgeously macabre coffin-choked cobblestone streets, observing flamboyant gothic tableaus framed by cathedral structures with coruscating stained glass windows and knuckled spires, while a fat, apocalyptic star baptizes the landscape like something out of a Jack Vance yarn.

I imagine you’re going to see the adjective “Lovecraftian” slung around a lot here, and fair enough, since he’s clearly an influence. But after reading Jeff Vandermeer’s hypnotically weird Southern Reach trilogy last year (if you’ve read it, I’m thinking specifically of the tunnel/Crawler sequences), I have a new word to describe how these games work on me: Vandermeerian.

From Software

Access points are just access points (again)

Dispensing with Dark Souls’ “campfires-make-it-all-better” approach to vitality replenishment, where you could heal by tagging the nearest bonfire, Bloodborne’s lantern-lit checkpoints are simply I/O ports to and from the game’s safe hub (that is, they’re more like Demon’s Souls’ bonfires). If you want to heal, you instead have to quaff blood flasks swiped from defeated enemies.

The only problem: so far, those blood flasks are pretty easy to come by. You can carry up to 20 on your person off the bat, and store another 100 in the safe hub (they’re a lucrative business, too: I’ve probably sold half as many as I’ve gulped). I have yet to run short of flasks during the toughest boss battles, where when I’ve died, it’s because I didn’t drink them fast enough.

And the levels cross-connect in fascinating ways

I’m not sure we’ll ever see an open-world From Software game (or that we’d even want to), nor is Bloodborne in so much as the same hemisphere as those sorts of games. But the levels I’ve plumbed are far more intertwined, and in cleverly concealed ways, offering, among other things, the option to take on certain bosses out of sequence. If you enjoy hunting for secret avenues or byways, some that lead to secret items, others that open up shortcuts or ways of cutting ahead, Bloodborne is flush with them.

But some of the boss fights are too pattern-enslaved

Maybe this changes further along, but all the end-area creatures I’ve battled have been tediously bipolar: you’re either destroyed quickly for lack of pattern recognition, or winning almost effortlessly once you’ve sussed the latter.

The most interesting thing about Bloodborne (so far, for me) is the crowd-control dynamic that coalesces spontaneously in the midst of a level, defying rote approaches. The boss fights, by contrast, come off too much like the same old static puzzles: once you’ve solved for X, you’re just going through the motions.

From Software

It really is Dark Souls with shotguns (but they’re not the main attraction)

That’s what a Sony community manager called it. It sounds glib, but only because it misses Bloodborne’s real star: its transformable arsenal of melee weapons. Brandish the game’s cane, for instance, and you’ll execute a series of fast, nominally damaging hits at short range. But pull one of the gamepad’s triggers and, after rapping the cane on the cobblestones (transformations aren’t instantaneous), it’ll change into something Castlevania’s Simon Belmont would appreciate: a jangling whip that, while slower to strike, deals pain at much greater range and lets you tag entire swathes of enemies.

Projectile weapons, by contrast, are more adjuncts to your melee armory, used offhand to stun or drive back enemies before you launch the coup de grace from your main hand. They’re helpful, in other words, but only as blowback tools. There’s no ballistic finesse involved, and since the main action’s happening in your other hand, that’s as it should be.

The chalice dungeons are kind of boring

The idea with chalice dungeons is that you stumble on goblets in the main game, then perform a “chalice ritual” in the game’s safe zone to spawn mini-dungeons from random seeds, which you can then visit at leisure to practice or level up. Each time you perform the ritual, the layout of the dungeons — including creature placement, trap arrangements and boss finales — gets rejiggered.

Random generated dungeons are already dull by design, but here they feel doubly so. After slogging through Bloodborne’s handcrafted main levels hundreds (and eventually thousands) of times, who wants to plow through haphazardly computer-built ones?

As an alternative to grinding out the same choreographed battle maneuvers in the primary areas to level up, introducing optional mini-dungeons isn’t a terrible idea. And the way the game mashes up enemy types and difficulty levels makes for a curiously asymmetric (and in that sense, unique) experience. But so far, they’re too arbitrary to hold my interest, though perhaps that’ll change once I’ve had a chance to try them in cooperative or player-vs.-player modes.

TIME Media

Sony’s New TV Streaming Service Is Way Easier to Use Than Your Cable Box

PlayStation Vue is out Wednesday in three major cities

Sony’s slick new cable competitor is finally here.

PlayStation Vue, which launches Wednesday in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, is Sony’s attempt to bring the traditional cable bundle online. It boasts a streamlined, personalized interface and an emphasis on recording shows automatically so users can binge-watch at their leisure. The service brings a much-needed overhaul to the clunky cable box interfaces to which we’ve all grown accustomed, but the price tag of $50 per month to start and lack of key channels may keep cord-cutters from hopping on board.

Vue, which will be available initially for the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4, attempts to marry cable’s wide selection of live content with the ease-of-use of online platforms like Netflix and Hulu. The service boasts more than 50 live channels, including CBS, Fox, NBC, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon, with AMC on the way next month. A cloud-based DVR-system automatically records at least three days of content for most of the channels. Users can also record 28 days’ worth of programming for up to 500 shows. Couple these features with Vue’s on-demand movie and TV show libraries — which Sony says are comparable to what you’d get with a typical cable subscription — and Vue comes packed with an absolutely massive trove of content.

Sony simplified navigating its humongous offering by focusing on content rather than channel numbers and showtimes. In the midst of a live show, users can bring up a menu that will show the current program, upcoming shows on the same channel, recently watched shows across all of PlayStation Vue, and Netflix-like recommendations based on the show currently airing. Users can also select individual channels to view their lineups and most popular shows, or select “Live TV” to see all the shows on air at a given moment. “Live TV” can be sorted by real-time popularity, making it easier to quickly flip to a March Madness basketball game or the latest episode of Empire. Dwayne Benefield, head of the PlayStation Vue service, says pretty much any show can be accessed within three or four clicks.

“We wanted to take out the frustration of finding what you want,” Benefield says.

Vue also sports a more traditional TV Guide-like schedule listing and a search option. There’s an “Explore” tab that lets users filter shows by genre, channel and age-appropriateness (an option we’d love to see on Netflix’s apps). Sony is clearly trying to serve users who want to quickly find a specific program as well as those who want to lean back and channel surf, and it appears as if Vue’s speedy interface may be flexible enough to do both (Sony demoed Vue for TIME on a PlayStation 4, the most powerful platform that runs the service; Benefield says menus will be similarly snappy on PS3).

While Sony has developed a user interface that puts most traditional cable operators’ to shame, Vue comes with big caveats. Sony has yet to work out a carriage deal with Disney, meaning ABC, Disney Channel and ESPN are nowhere to be seen. ESPN is the most valuable television property by a huge margin, and a staple of nearly every cable package. It’s a glaring omission in a service aimed at young, male gamers.

“We do recognize that there are other channels our user group wants,” Benefield says, though he won’t directly mention ESPN. “We’re in discussions with networks.”

Another issue may be price. The basic-tier version of Vue costs $50 per month. A version that includes additional sports channels is $60 per month and an expanded cable equivalent that includes dozens more niche channels is $70 per month. In New York, Time Warner Cable offers a cable package that costs $40 per month for the first year and includes ESPN. But adding in the cost of renting a cable box that includes On-Demand shows and DVR functionality boosts the cost to $64 per month, to say nothing of installation fees. By avoiding these fees and their associated headaches (you don’t have to wait for a cable guy to come install Sony’s service), Vue can undercut its most direct competitors on price slightly. But it’s still more expensive than services like Netflix and Hulu, or even Dish Network’s live-TV streaming service Sling TV, which includes ESPN but not broadcast networks.

Vue is also limited in reach by being tied to PlayStation consoles. There’s a version in the works for Apple’s iPad, and Benefield says Vue will eventually spread to other streaming devices as well. For now, the app is aimed at a narrow base of consumers. To lure a big fish like ESPN, Vue may need to build up a subscriber base so large it can’t be ignored. But with Sony only vaguely committing to expanding Vue to more cities at some point later in the year, 2015 seems like an experimental year for the service.

Despite the question marks, Sony’s new TV service seems robust and well-implemented. It’s an important early step ushering in an era where consumers where have considerably more choice in how they pay for TV. However, those choices will be much more convoluted than the old cable bundle. In addition to Vue and Sling TV, Apple is reportedly prepping a similar cable-like service, while networks like HBO, CBS and Nickelodeon are planning to offer their content on a stand-alone basis.

“What we’re beginning to see is a continuum of offers,” says Dan Cryan, a broadband media analyst at IHS. “I dont think we know yet what the sweet spots are along that spectrum.”

Read next: 5 Things Apple’s TV Streaming Service Will Need to Kill Cable

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TIME movies

Watch Classic Video Games Attack Earth in the New Pixels Trailer

"Pac-Man is a bad guy?"

A giant glowing Pac-Man goes on a rampage through New York City in Sony’s first trailer for its upcoming action-comedy Pixels.

Adam Sandler, Josh Gad and Peter Dinklage are called into action when enormous pixelated characters from old-school video games try to destroy the earth.

This is because aliens misinterpret the feeds of classic arcade games as a declaration of war, and so send all the old 8-bit favorites, including Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, Frogger, Centipede and Pac-Man, to wreak havoc on our world.

Also starring is Kevin James as the U.S. President, Jane Krakowski as the First Lady, plus Michelle Monaghan, Brian Cox, Ashley Benson and Sean Bean.

Directed by Chris Columbus, Pixels is based on a short 2010 film by Patrick Jean.

Watch it in theaters July 24.

TIME Media

Sony’s Cable TV Killer Is Launching Very Soon

Sony Corp. PlayStation 4 As Game Console Goes On Sale In U.S.
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images A logo sits on the front of a Sony PlayStation 4 (PS4) games console, manufactured by Sony Corp., in this arranged photograph taken in London, U.K., on Friday, Nov. 15, 2013.

New service will let PlayStation owners stream live TV via the Internet

Sony’s new, cable-like service for TV lovers is almost here.

The company plans to launch PlayStation Vue, an online pay-TV service that will stream live programming, within the next two weeks in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, according to the Wall Street Journal. A national rollout is expected by the end of the year.

Vue is simultaneously a play to lure in “cord cutters,” people who have ditched their cable subscriptions in recent years, while also expanding the appeal of the PlayStation brand beyond video games. Sony has signed up several big-name media companies to offer their channels on the service, including NBCUniversal, 21st Century Fox and Comcast. Notably absent is Disney, which owns ABC, ESPN and several other popular cable networks.

Vue will be available on the PlayStation 4 and the PlayStation 3, as well as Apple’s iPad.

Pricing hasn’t been announced, but early impressions indicate that the Vue bundle of channels is extremely large and features many niche networks, just like cable. If that’s the case, Sony may end up trying to compete based on ease of use and Vue’s built-in DVR service rather than on price.

That would put it in contrast with Sling TV, the streaming TV offering from Dish Network that offers a fairly modest selection of channels for $20 per month and allows users to pay $5 extra for genre-specific bundles.

TIME Video Games

The 5 Biggest Video Game Announcements You Missed This Week

Sony Project Morpheus
Sony Sony Project Morpheus

New game-streaming hardware, virtual reality headsets and more

The Game Developers Conference currently transpiring in San Francisco wraps up Friday, meaning all the major announcements have already dropped. If you missed the show or didn’t catch all the news, here’s a recap of the highlights.

Valve showed Steam Link, a $50 box that’ll stream your PC gaming library to any TV

Steam Link, due in November, was arguably the show’s biggest tech revelation — especially if you’re a PC gamer, because it means that for a trifling $50, you can pipe games from Valve’s Steam library to any screen in your house essentially lag-free.

Valve’s Steam is the de facto way to play games on a PC, with a digital library of nearly 4,000 titles and membership topping 100 million. The company—otherwise known for first-person blockbusters like Portal, Half-Life 2 and Counter-Strike—has been making a protracted bid to capture a more substantial share of a pie traditionally dominated by console-makers like Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. And for another $50, you can add the company’s forthcoming PC-Steam Controller (also due in November) to the party.

Nvidia unveiled its first set-top media box, the Shield

Not to be confused with the $250 Shield Portable, a gamepad with a flip-screen that Nvidia launched mid-2013, Nvidia’s Shield hopes to fill a gap somewhere between a Roku or Apple TV and a high-end games console or PC.

It’ll output 4K video content (when/where available), play last-gen console games like Crysis 3 and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel natively, stream upcoming triple-A games from Nvidia’s GRID service and let you stream games locally from your PC just like Valve’s Steam Link.

The only catch: it’ll cost $200, which means Nvidia has to lure a demographic that may or may not exist or materialize once the Shield arrives this May.

 

HTC and Valve announced a virtual reality headset

I know, “Not another one.” But that’s where we are with virtual reality in 2015: everyone’s jockeying for air time. HTC and Valve’s take is called the HTC Vive (HTC leading, Valve consulting), and pairs wand-like, handheld controllers with a fairly standard-looking, fully wraparound headset that plugs into your PC and outputs 1080p visuals to each eye.

The wrinkle: the headset tracks where you are in a much larger space, so you can move around instead of standing in place, assuming they figure out how to make the headset wireless (and, you know, put you in a room without trip hazards). Will the Vive include a little speaker that goes “Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!” like the warning system in a vehicle when you get too close to a wall?

Sony’s Project Morpheus is coming…by mid-2016

Sony’s take on virtual reality was kind-of-sort-of supposed to arrive in 2015 (chalk that up more to wishful thinking on the part of the press). Thus there was some predictable sighing and hand-wringing when the company announced Project Morpheus, a VR headset for the PlayStation 4 and PS Vita, will now arrive in the first half of 2016.

Hey, at least Morpheus has a release timeframe. That’s more than Facebook/Oculus (Oculus VR), HTC/Valve (HTC Vive) and Razer (OSVR) can say (to be fair, the Oculus-powered Samsung Gear VR is reportedly coming by the end of 2015).

Sony’s PlayStation 4 has sold over 20 million units

At last check (in early January), Sony said it sold 18.5 million units through December 2014. At GDC this week, it bumped that figure to 20 million units sold through February 2015, still shy of the PlayStation 4’s one-and-a-half year anniversary. Rebutting gloomy analyst predictions about this generation of console gaming, the PS4 is the fastest selling video games console in history.

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