Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines

KOTOR 2 may have fallen short of expectations, but as it turned out, I wasn’t done playing RPGs from ten years ago, because I immediately moved on to Bloodlines. I’m glad I did; it’s been a good foil for the previous experience, with VtMB holding up far better over time, despite falling more or less in the same genre and thus ostensibly subject to similar limitations. The environments didn’t feel sparse or crude, and the graphics passed muster for me without any modding (apart from a widescreen resolution patch), which means I probably could’ve been harder on the graphics of KOTOR 2. The only graphical issue I had here was a couple hard-to-see switches that weren’t standing out enough from the muddy wall textures, and a few textures occasionally failing to load.

VtMB is pretty much True Blood: The Game. With a few key differences (like how vampires still remain a secret to human society), there’s a ton of overlap in lore and atmosphere, and True Blood must have lifted a lot of its tastes straight from the Masquerade, if the Sookie Stackhouse novels didn’t. There’s the shitty goth clubs, the ghouls, the Vampire Authority/Camarilla, among other things. There’s also a sexually-charged angle, common enough to vampire stories, but worth mentioning because it seems at odds with the lore, meaning that vampires are rather flirtatious and slutty for creatures who apparently don’t have sex. I’m guessing that the disconnect is because the tastes of the game’s writers differ a bit from the style of the pen-and-paper setting, but that’s not something I have the qualifications to answer. Anyhow, the main thing True Blood and Bloodlines have in common is that they’re both pretty cool and funny.

To set True Blood aside and return to the parallels with KOTOR 2, the two share more than the genre’s pillars of gameplay–which are to travel, fight, persuade, scrounge, and be an errand boy for strangers. VtMB has its own dedicated, bizarrely-regular patching project undertaken by a fan, once again updated within months despite the age of the game, and as with KOTOR 2’s effort, this one is limited in its capacity to fix many core issues. Troika (the development team) got caught in politics with both Valve and Activision, getting stuck with an early Source engine build and a shorter-than-necessary development cycle, and the evidence is still immediately obvious after years of fan-made patches.

VtMB isn’t likely to ever get an upgrade to a later Source version, barring some crazy decision-making at Activision, which is too bad, considering the janky AI and the frequency with which the player gets stuck in doors. I also got motion sickness from it, as with other early Source games (including Half-Life 2) because of the way the camera coasts around when the player moves, although I acclimated somewhat after a few days of playing with long breaks. Other issues included having to turn on noclip to get through a glitchy swimming section, and gradually bloating save files, which made the game lock up for several seconds every time I quicksaved in the later acts. I didn’t realize quite how much this had been annoying me until I started a new file and was saving instantly again. There was also an issue where I’d unintentionally pull a gun out when I got out of a cab, causing a criminal violation unless I switched my holstered weapon to my fists before travelling between zones. But apart from the Source engine sickness, these were all manageable problems, and didn’t drastically affect my opinion of the game. And I’m sure the fan patch handled all sorts of other things I never had to notice.

Like the Deus Ex games before and after it, VtMB uses a few city setpieces and temporary locales, budget-efficient and absent of traffic, instead of the big sandboxes of Saints Row and GTA, where most buildings are never entered. Also like Deus Ex, VtMB features a Chinatown; the most cringe-inducing one I’ve ever seen in a game, with misspelt Japanese (“kamikazi”) and some really atrocious accents from people who clearly don’t speak Chinese or Japanese. If this game ever gets a remake–which would be well-deserved–please, I would beg of its creators, hire more asian actors. Sandboxes aren’t completely necessary, and they’re a trade-off, but if this game got a dream-remake with money to burn, an open LA would be really interesting, especially with LA Noire existing for contrast. Given the barely-relevant police evasion mechanics that are already worked in, a sandbox may have been a more natural fit.

Also nice would be to reduce the dependance on sewer levels. I spent a disproportionate time crawling around in the sewers, and I didn’t like it. At one point a guy sent me on some innocuous quest to retrieve a video tape, and jokingly, I thought, “this isn’t going to end with me crawling through the sewers, is it?” To my despair, it did, and by the time I got through the damn thing, I had lost all patience and only wanted to murder the NPC I went down there to find. Sewer levels are never fun–unless created by Tales of Game’s.

There were some interesting design choices. In place of a morality bar, the player gains and loses pieces of humanity as they finish quests and kill innocents. I usually had more humanity than I knew what to do with, so I never experienced going full-on Beast Mode in my first playthrough, and that’s something I would have liked to try if I had enjoyed the mechanics and quests long enough to do more playthroughs. There were no level-ups, only skill points, and these were never rewarded for picking random locks or killing random guards, only for completing objectives, which really helped to avoid manipulating the player into a tedious playstyle. However, having to pump up various stealth, speech, and hacking abilities meant not having as many points as I would have liked to prepare my character for forced combat encounters. It might have worked better if battle and non-battle skill points were separated, so players would earn battle points that they couldn’t spend on lockpicking and so on.

Being a combination shooter and hack-and-slash game, battles were less by-the-numbers than KOTOR 2’s relatively boring combat system, but the VtMB system was hardly robust, and numerically-decided game elements still played their annoying part. I couldn’t feed on many pedestrians later in the game, even if we were in complete darkness and I got right up close without them seeing me, and I think this was because they had some kind of arbitrary number-defense against bloodsucking that I couldn’t pass a check against. I couldn’t say for sure–it might’ve just been a bug.

The arbitrary, number-based reasoning was particularly unsavory in the stealth gameplay, where the crude AI more-or-less just did some check against my stealth rating and pretty much couldn’t find me in a well-lit room with no obstacles, whenever I had more than a couple points in the skill (and was crouching). But this wasn’t so bad–the game wasn’t trying to be Thief, and while it was crude, it was usually crude in the player’s favor, so it wasn’t that frustrating. The bigger problem is that guards seem to have a hive-mind, where aggroing one immediately aggros several others, before anyone has shouted, fired a gun, or raised an alarm–actually, there are no alarms–so instant-kills are necessary if you want to keep things quiet, and the crossbow (provided late in the game) is useless.

There wasn’t much of a UI to speak of or criticize. I thought it was a bit ugly to look at, and I never quite comprehended the purpose of each indicator on the stealth meter, but it rarely seemed to matter, so I didn’t bother fully figuring it out. The inventory should’ve been more readable and with no carry-limit on quest items, since I dropped some junk in the sewers when I ran out of space, and couldn’t find it when it turned out I needed one thing for a minor side-quest later. Having more containers available and not saving the locations of every little item on the ground probably would’ve prevented the huge save-time bloat, too.

I played a Tremere character, at the suggestion of the personality quiz at the beginning of the game, and it worked out alright, although my stealth-centric playstyle meant I didn’t usually get the most out of the big spells, which I wasn’t too impressed with anyway. Blood Shield was essential in a few circumstances, and Suicide and Trance complimented the stealthy approach, but other spells were generally far less reliable than a good gun, and considerably more expensive, both to buy and to use. The Suicide spell would’ve been cooler if the targets actually reacted as if they were choosing to take their own lives and their allies reacted as such, but I realized when starting my second character that a lot of the abilities were reskinned from class to class–Berserk was Possession, Hysteria was Trance, Vision of Death was Suicide. These were probably necessary design shortcuts due to the shorter-than-needed development schedule, but what gave me an even bolder taste of the “Jaded Empire” was finding out that the Tremere clan regent NPC was the one you did quests for no matter what your clan was–I just happened to pick that clan for my first game, so I assumed each clan would have their own regent, haven, and a slightly different ending. Had I started with any other of the seven classes, I never would have had these expectations.

I did find some fun and surprises in the second playthrough, but couldn’t manage to push myself all the way to the end again, even after I decided I could noclip through the sewer levels and other tedious combat zones. I was a female Malkavian, which could hardly get any closer to having Delirium from The Sandman as a playable character. When I ran into Smiling Jack at the beginning of the game and he said, “Oh man, you’re a Malkavian? You are so fucked,” I knew the game had done something right, but typically each character just had one new exchange that a non-Malk would ever see, while the rest was business as usual.

The most important thing to come away with here is that the game is funny as hell and the conversation aspects of quests were top-rate. I got to be various tones of mean, sycophantic, flirty, overly-casual, or all-business with quest-givers, and sometimes see their behaviors change as a result. I usually played nice, but sometimes my character’s cheeky responses were too tempting to pass up. It’s no Alpha Protocol–reactivity was limited–but I’ve found that I missed some conversational gold during my first run.

One quest really stands out in my mind as being the best thing in the game–a little five-minute thing where my character got stopped on the street in Hollywood by a young woman who knew me from my life as a human–up until that point, I had just assumed that prior to being turned, my character had already fallen out of any social circles he’d once been a part of in his human life, but now it was apparent that he/I had left friends behind. And of course, due to the rules of vampire secrecy, I couldn’t tell this woman, “Samantha”, what I’d been up to, so I just passed the persuasion checks necessary to convince her that she had mistaken me for someone else, as unlikely as that was.

I was hit by a feeling of verisimilitude, despite it being some fictional crap about vampires–I thought about the real me in such a situation, if I had picked up some drug addiction and fallen off the face of the earth like this Samantha character assumed I had–what would happen if I ran into somebody that I used to know? I’ve got a pretty good guess what would happen: something a lot like the scenario that played out in the game. Good people, good intentions and a sense of having your own wishes buried underneath their concern for you. There was nothing mechanically deep about it: while I hoped she wouldn’t give up so easily, it was a one-off encounter, unlike, say, the Heather ghoul questline. And I didn’t quite get the options I wanted, either: I wanted to say, Look, before you go calling everyone you know, let’s just sit down, have a cup of coffee, and let me have a chance to explain that I’ve never been better and you don’t have to worry about me. The fact that I’ve thought this much about it is a testament to the quality of the writing, which, at the end of the day, is probably more important than the flowchart-depth or choice-breadth of the encounter. It cast a lasting, wistful pall over the rest of my quests in that region, becoming inextricably linked with the BGM for that area in my mind, as these sorts of things often do.

Afterwards, I did the quest again with my Malkavian, used my dementation ability, and made her think that I was her pet turtle. C’est la vie.

I wholeheartedly recommend playing through Bloodlines once, but if you find that there’s just not enough to justify more playthroughs, you’ll be in my company, if not in good company. There are also other user mods that add more unofficial content, but I never trust those to be well-designed, especially when I have a backlog that’s a hundred games long.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.
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