White Wolf initially sought to bring its pen and paper series World of Darkness to video games with Vampire: Redemption. This was a party-based RPG with some engaging settings, but ropey AI that made it frustrating to play. Around 2001, White Wolf partnered with Troika Games to try again – this time taking the ultra-ambitious route of mimicking cult favorite Deus Ex. It took three years to get the game out in a mostly-finished state, where it took a long time to get traction in the marketplace. The game may have been a touch too ambitious for Troika, but then again, they ultimately succeeded in making one of the best hybrid RPGs in the business. Surely you’ve heard someone other than me fawn over the game. You’re about to read some more.
Bloodlines takes place in Los Angeles in the early 2000s. California had long been considered a vampire “Free State,” but now faces invasion from the supernatural Kuei-Jin from across the ocean, and the Camarilla from the East. The Camarilla seek to unite all vampires under their rule, and ruthlessly enforce the protective veil of secrecy preventing most humans from knowing that vampires exist (the Masquerade). However, the Camarilla also bring with them politics, a power hierarchy, and a ruler – the Prince – who can, among other things, put out death bounties on anyone he sees as a threat. On top of all this, vampires have their own version of the end of the world (Gehenna), and many a clan truly believe the coming days are the world’s last.
You’re brought into this dark world without permission, making you, basically, an illegal vampire under Camarilla law. Your mysterious sire is put to death in a public execution for this crime, while you are spared at the last moment as a goodwill gesture from the Prince. Now in his service, you head through a series of quests that introduce you to the ancient politics at work, move you around a host of locations and dangerous situations, and eventually let you choose which side to rally with as everything churning in L.A. comes to a head.
It’s a fantastic, rich setting that takes excellent advantage of all the prior development done on the World of Darkness series. You can have lengthy conversations with characters about the histories of their clans and the various vampire prophecies that may or may not be coming true; all taken from the pen and paper universe. Most popular myths or conspiracies are also true here, so you’ll encounter ghosts, zombies, werewolves, “evil” vampires (the Sabbat), and a variety of supernatural monsters hiding from (and preying on) humanity.
There’s always something to uncover here – at least as someone unfamiliar with the PnP game – and a real sense of discovery. The clans’ complex backstories also give many of your decisions a feeling of weight and consequence. Wondering who to side with over the ultimate fate of L.A. was certainly something I pondered over even outside the game.
We should break here for a moment and mention the patches. Bloodlines was initially released with a series of bugs and unfinished features. Though I completed the game without any real trouble when it was released, many users got caught up on scripting that didn’t trigger, freezes, crashes, and assorted nasties. Flash forward many years later, and you now have the benefit of an excellent series of fan patches. Installs come in “basic” (bug fixes only) and “plus” (deleted content re-added) formats, and my new playthrough for this review was with the plus patch. I don’t have a list of what was added, so I may inadvertently be referring to extra content. I would highly recommend the “plus” version anyway, as what I played was meticulous balanced, virtually seamless, and probably contributed to the 80+ hours I sunk into this (according to my saves).
Character creation either walks you though a series of questions, or just sends you right to the character sheet. You spend experience points on attributes (strength, charisma) and skills (firearms, computers) to affect the overall effectiveness of your feats (lockpicking, persuasion, stealth). Feats max out at 10, and will require a combination of attributes and skills to get to this point. Feats can also be temporarily buffed by your vampire disciplines. You spend experience points to boost the effectiveness of these, and spend blood to activate them. Players get three universal disciplines, and three more determined by the vampire clan they choose. These run the range from Auspex which boosts a Toreador’s perception, to Dominate which lets a Ventrue mind-control humans.
There are seven clans to choose from. Other than the fixed disciplines, which vary per clan, there is little enforced difference. Some dialogue options will change, and some minor paths will be opened to one clan but not to others (like a unique haven), but overall, every character is able to do every mission and see just about everything there is to see. They are also equally effective – at least before disciplines – at every task, so you’re free to determine what you’re skilled at based on the distribution of your experience points. Those disciplines do make a serious impact though, so it’s beneficial to match your clan with your intended playstyle.
Much like Deus Ex, you’re free to approach quests in a few different ways. From an extremely high-level view, every main quest has a dialogue path, a stealth path, and a straight combat path, all of which get to the goal. Combat is generally treated as a last resort, and bonus XP is given to finding peaceful solutions. However, side quests can be more restrictive. A Nosferatu series requires some familiarity with stealth and hacking to complete, and if you’re unable to talk your way into at least one situation I can think of, you’ll alert guards and lock yourself away from other side quests in that area. If you do absolutely everything, however, you’ll be rolling in experience points – enough to serviceably buy all the hacking, lockpicking, and sweet-talking skills you’ll need to experience all the content with one character.
Combat comes in ranged and melee flavors, and in this case, costs mean you will want to pick one and stick with it. Ranged is tough to get into, as your early six-shooter sucks ass. You’ll also miss wildly (shown by expanding crosshairs) at novice levels of Perception and Firearms. Things turn around drastically around mid-game though, and some of the final weapons (like the assault rifle) swat down enemy vampires and otherworldly bosses with delightful ease.
Melee boots you to a third-person perspective automatically, and keeps you there as long as you have a weapon out. Here, you can either specialize in hand weapons, or fists/supernatural claws. My first character on release was a Gangrel who could turn to a “beast” form and cut swaths through enemy lines. Weapon-focused melee characters get the benefit of finding unique swords and the like that have awesome stats and deal special damage. You also won’t have to purchase ammo, saving you both money and the occasional awkward situation where you’re deep into a dungeon and realize you haven’t brought enough bullets.
You must also be mindful of the Masquerade. Whip out your guns or assault civilians in public, and cops will spawn to attack you. Get seen feeding on a human or use certain disciplines (like super-speed, or Blood Shield) and you’ll lose a Masquerade point. Lose five points, and hunters put you down. Both of these systems are rarely an issue, and pretty much in place to keep the unknowing from bombing through the game like a first person shooter. If you’re playing in-character, slinking around alleys and being cautious and aware, you’ll never seriously run afoul of either penalty system. Certain side quests can restore Masquerade points if you do, and the cops can be easily ditched by hiding in the sewers.
The interaction between your skills and the world feels exceptionally balanced, and I rarely felt I had to “step out of character” because I hadn’t spent enough points on my intended path to get by (like having to shoot up the place because I couldn’t talk past the bouncer). However, being able to do everything on a single character does lead to some replayability issues. Only the hardest of the hardcore are going to go back to see the handful of lines that change when a certain character talks to a female Tremere instead of a male Brujah. The five endings are all variations on the same central theme – they’re more about what happens to you, and there’s no post-script about how your choices change L.A. The third act in general is shaky compared to the rest, and apparently was when development was getting squeezed for time.
This is where the two “penalty” characters (my words, not theirs) come into play – the Malkavians and the Nosferatu. Both of these character choices are crippled in some way; Malkavians are insane and so can’t communicate well, and the disfigured Nosferatu must stick to stealth as even being seen counts as a Masquerade violation. These definitely shake up the gameplay a bit, and definitely shut out entire series of side quests. You can argue whether locking off content is a real gameplay feature, but you will certainly have to play the main game differently. Nosferatu in particular must use the sewer system and air vents religiously, can’t talk to any unknowing civilian, and must approach situations in ways vastly different than any other clan that could just walk right in. Consider them the “advanced” class for returning vets.
Graphically, it’s a looker. This is the first third-party game to use Valve’s Source engine, and actually released right along Half-Life 2. I remember it riding HL2’s graphical hype a bit, and being very impressed with the lighting, effects like the distortion through glass, and the excellent facial animation. There are some beautiful looking characters here, and a host of expressions that help bring the extensive dialogue chats to life. Eyes are a bit glassy, some walking animations a bit jerky, and fabric physics often freak out, but that’s all I can really complain about. The death animation for vampires, as they dissolve into firey ash and skeletons, is a particular highlight.
The locations are also fantastic. There are four main hubs that unlock as you make progress, plus a series of special “one-off” maps for specific missions. Hubs are vibrant and active, but also fairly small – only about two or three blocks. This is admittedly disappointing, and leads to ridiculous situations like the missing character being literally across the street from the person looking for them, but the trade off is in the detail. Every single building in a hub can be entered at some point, and if the door is locked, you just haven’t found the quest yet. I love that there’s no placeholder doors or “filler” buildings. I also enjoy the exaggerated gothic take on many of the buildings, and the extra-dingy feel of the seediest locations. It’s certainly got atmosphere, which makes the game a joy to explore.
The game’s surprisingly smart and funny too, with plenty of sly pop culture references. The insane Malkavians will have unique insights and encounters, including a dialogue with a TV reporter (through the television). You’ll run across a thinly-veiled parody of Quentin Tarantino in a Hollywood motel, who’s working on a gritty, “real-life” vampire script. A brilliant Nosferatu hacker is named Mitnick, and there’s no real attempt to suggest that it isn’t that Mitnick. The game’s computers actually work, and give a number of laughable spam emails and error massages. Even background characters will have some pretty amusing lines, like the stoner that invents “Piznachios,” or the late-night radio show that attracts some of L.A.’s most colorful callers. I actually laughed at loud at the “Van Helsing experiment.” Excellent voice acting sells both the comedy and the drama yet further.
But most important, there’s just a ton to do. I absolutely adore how the game has you playing as, essentially, a vampire private investigator (option this TV series, Fox!) and the side quests especially play into this well. You’ll track down a supernatural serial killer that’s mangling his victims, and even nearly corner him a few times like in the best of cop show clichés. A chilling snuff film has you chasing leads through the seediest of L.A.’s sin bins to find out who made the tape and if its contents are real. A paranormal TV show crew gets into real trouble when they find something that actually exists, and you’ll need to keep the lid on this Masquerade violation. And of course, the Ocean House Hotel – a virtual love letter to the best haunted house moments. It’s one of the most chilling locations/sequences in gaming history, and it’s just a side quest here.
I’m trying to think of some complaints or disappointments, and am legitimately coming up short. I found melee to be somewhat imprecise and the third-person control to be a bit “swimmy,” but it’s ultimately functional. Your movement speed is fine for outdoors, but sometimes too fast inside, while the “walk” speed is atrociously slow. The Malkavians don’t seem to have as many unique dialogs as you’re led to believe – instead it’s different non sequiturs and analogies over the same dialogue choices, which you can learn to understand in context. Even patched, there are still some relatively frequent graphical glitches, and some of the more tightly-scripted sequences can and will break down, but the game is extremely generous on creating and storing autosaves to offset this.
Even the lack of replay value isn’t really a lack of value, so much as it’s just me wanting more of what’s offered here. That’s got to be a pretty good sign. If you enjoyed Deus Ex, System Shock 2, or any of the modern, non-party RPGs, you owe it to yourself to check out Bloodlines if you haven’t already. Its combination of deep in-game history, tons of interesting side quests, buckets of atmosphere, and unique characters to play as make it a brilliant RPG that shouldn’t be missed.
Sits right up there with the modern RPG greats. An exciting and well-realized world taken from the pen-and-paper RPG, some smart and funny writing, a nice spread of enjoyable skills and powers, and a plot that keeps up a great sense of mystery and atmosphere. Plenty to do, and it’s all worth seeing.
Different characters aren’t overly distinct, somewhat limiting replay potential. Still some bugs and graphical glitches – expected for a project this ambitious (don’t forget to patch!). There’s no sequel by now, which makes me almost as ripshit pissed as Damsel.
“You’ve made a powerful enemy today, sign.” — Malkavian player, arguing with a Stop sign