Have you seen those fourteen year old teenage girls as of late, who read Twilight books on the bus and loudly complain how their boyfriend is nothing like Edward? Maybe your own significant other happens to be dragging you to see the latest Twilight film at this very moment, while you tighten your grip on the door handle and cry out “Vampires don’t sparkle!”.
You’re right of course. They don’t. Vampires have always been about mystery, fear, madness and their lonely, yet never-ending existence. If you long for the simpler times, when vampire fiction was still permeated by intrigue and horror, instead of sparkling and whinging, I suggest you get yourself a copy of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines.
Despite the popularity of both vampire fiction and urban fantasy in general, we see very few games that successfully take on these themes and deliver them in an engaging way. Bloodlines is one of those few rare jewels, but like most jewels, it still required quite a bit of polishing to truly make its most powerful concepts shine.
Bloodlines is based on White Wolf’s cult pen-and-paper RPG, Vampire: The Masquerade, and borrows on its extensive mythology and lore. It is thus no wonder that the game is deep, engaging and most of all, intriguing. Since the very beginning, you feel like a tiny part of a much larger and (perhaps more importantly) a much darker world.
The game’s most impressive element is its storyline. Deep and immersive, it surprises you with constant plot twists, takes you to places that range from sewers to madhouses and allows you to meet a cast of incredibly bizarre characters and perform all sorts of odd errands for them.
As the game begins, you’re greeted to a scene of what appears to be a rather unclean hotel room. A still shot of a condom wrapper, giggling and heavy breathing indicates that tonight, you got lucky. Don’t high-five your in-game-self just yet, however, as the next thing you hear is a whisper: “I want to show you something” quickly followed by your own terrified scream.
Remember when you were younger you were told – “Don’t have sex, you’ll die”? Well, this is pretty much what happened here – a one night stand leaves you as a vampire. Not long after, your sire is executed for turning you without asking permission. As a political move, the vampire Prince spares you, but as a consequence you become his errand boy for the foreseeable few centuries.
While you begin by completing low-level missions, you soon become involved with the secret vampire nightlife more intimately. That is not to say that low-level missions are boring, however. Some of the game’s best and most atmospheric quests come as early as within the few first hours of the game.
Missions within the game are numerous and varied, making them one of the game’s best features. Sure, you may need to bust a gang’s hideout and slaughter everyone inside every now and then, but you will also get to investigate a haunted mansion and sneak into a hospital to retrieve a vial of werewolf blood. To me, the aforementioned mansion remained the most memorable experience in the game – as not only was the mission quite close to the start, its grim and haunting atmosphere caught me by surprise and left me scared of every shadow. Before long, I found myself muttering “I am a scary vampire, I am a scary vampire” just to keep my nerves at bay.
Missions are not the only thing that keeps you immersed till the very end either. The world of Bloodlines feels very much alive. Members of the oldest profession are just around the corner and available for hire (sadly, the only service they can provide in the game is blood donation). A businessman just outside your safehouse is desperate to get out of Santa Monica, and with some intimidation, you can convince him to give you his money and his watch. Every now and then vampires create ghouls – they feed regular humans their blood, so that they become addicted and serve them faithfully. Well, you can do just that, getting your very own human slave. While the idea may seem a bit disturbing, it is nonetheless a very fun option to have.
The storyline is laced with numerous plot twists, but its most grand plot twist is you. Throughout the game you remain a wildcard ,and until the very end no one knows who you are truly working for. This is reflected in the game’s four endings, in which you can side with any of the three factions or choose to remain independent.
You begin the game by creating your own vampire character, firstly by choosing his or her clan. There are a total of seven vampire clans, all descendant from Caine, the original vampire. The clans are not just simple character classes, each have a certain flavor to them, drawing from the many popular vampire archetypes. Clan Ventrue, for instance, are based on the idea of vampires as rich and snobbish control freaks, while Clan Nosferatu are twisted and disfigured by their transformation, not unlike Count Orlook from the namesake film.
Clans determine the character’s vampiric powers and, unfortunately enough, appearance. The game lacks a true appearance customization system and each clan has only one default appearance for a male and a female. To me, this was a major nuisance, as the clans with the greatest abilities seemed to have the worst looking characters.
Each Clan also has a specific gameplay quirk to them, which may be minor, such as Ventrue’s quite posh inability to drink animal blood or downright game-breaking, such as Nosferatu’s inability to walk on the streets, due to their hideous appearance violating the secrecy of all vampires. Because of these quirks, it is close to impossible to create a boring character – a combination of their strengths and weaknesses create a truly unique experience on every playthrough.
Bloodlines is, in my opinion, one of the best examples of an RPG done both well and untraditionally.
Instead of levels and skill trees, the game adapts the skill and dot system of its pen-and-paper counterpart. The player has several attributes, as well as skills and disciplines, the former being the vampire powers of your clan. Each attribute, skill and discipline has five dots total, which the player can purchase with experience points, with each subsequent dot requiring proportionally more experience points to acquire. Likewise, experience points are not attained by you killing enemies, but are rewarded to the player upon completing quests. This is a clever little trick that eliminates grinding altogether, and makes stealth and charm much more viable options, since mindlessly slaughtering everything on your path may in fact only complicate matters.
All player stats are divided into physical, mental and social and one of your biggest dilemmas in the game shall always be the allocation of experience points among them. No matter how much you love smashing enemies with your tire iron or flashing your man-bat form, you will soon find out how frustratingly difficult it is to complete quests without at least some hacking or lock-picking skills.
Other than the health bar, your character also possesses a blood bar. Being a vampire, you require blood to survive and may feed on any human to restore your reserves, which you can then use to activate your vampire abilities.
Whilst the game was conceived during the time when the Mass Effect dialogue wheel was not yet invented, it still has a morality system. Your character has humanity points, which he may lose if he acts in inhumane ways, such as slaughtering innocents on the streets.
As well as humanity, the player must worry about masquerade points of which he has five. These are quite straightforward – vampires exist in secrecy and want to keep it that way. Nobody cares if you drain humans dry or feed on rats, but if you begin flashing you powers in public, you are screwed.
Losing all of the Masquerade points means the end of the game.
The game’s greatest downfall, it seems, is its combat system. Whilst it works well enough not to completely spoil the game, it is clumsy and lackluster at best.
First of all, ranged combat in this game is so bad, you will almost never find yourself aiming any of those fancy rifles you pick up along the way. This is because melee is not only more effective, it also simply works better and is more fun to engage in. There are times, however, when the game consciously presents you with challenges that require mastery over ranged combat – some enemies, like the gigantic wereshark or the slug form of one of the game’s antagonists, are gigantic and impossible to approach safely. This is where you begin to curse at those empty dots ever present in your firearms skill tree.
Vampire powers make combat much more entertaining, but even they are not without their flaws. If anything, the disciplines are incredibly unbalanced. For instance, clan Gangrel has an ability which allows them to summon a spectral wolf that instantly mauls and devours an enemy, while clan Toreador has a discipline that… allows them to see auras. I mean, auras, really? Who would honestly choose that?
Fighting against groups of enemies can be downright suicidal, and yet such situations are encountered with frustrating frequency. Some enemies are overly jumpy and fast, in stark contrast to your own character, leaving you thinking “How the hell am I supposed to hit him?”. On the other hand, glitches may make certain enemies stand idle and ignore you completely, as you then shrug and decapitate them. I managed to defeat one of the game’s strongest bosses by finding a corner which its AI was not able to find and simply fired everything I had at her (luckily I never used those firearms, so I had quite an arsenal at hand).
All that may make you consider the alternate ways to approach the game, such as stealth, charm or intimidation, which are, however, not devoid of flaws of their own.
By now Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines can be considered a rather old game, but this status is certainly untrue in terms of its quality. While not lacking in flaws, it can easily serve as a handbook for role-playing games for its skill system and complex storyline, which more than make up for the clumsy combat.
Eight years after its release, I still think that many games are yet to top Bloodlines as an RPG and many could learn from this well-crafted game.