I’ve written before about how video games and RPGs make such good bedfellows, and White Wolf – makers of the popular pen-and-paper series World of Darkness – clearly agreed. A modern audience is probably more familiar with the psuedo-sequel Vampire: Bloodlines (and if you’re not, I’d recommend it) but Redemption offers the first chance to explore the dark vampire lore of the series. It does this extremely well – so it’s unfortunate that the gameplay doesn’t keep up.
Redemption follows the tragic tale of Christof, initially a loyal Templar knight in the year 1141. After being wounded in battle, he is sent to recuperate at a monastery in Prague. There, he meets the young nun Anezka, and passions instantly flare. Their forbidden love/lust is built over the game’s initial missions, which see Christof heading into a nearby mine and slaying his first vampire lord. This act draws the attention of the other vampire clans, and he is soon “embraced” by a small clan who intend to use his skills in a growing vampire civil war.
There’s an obvious set-up for some delicious, if telegraphed, conflict as the stalwart soldier of God must come to grips with his new reality as a member of the walking damned. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t choose to dwell on this. For the purposes of gameplay, Christof is totally okay with being a vampire pretty quickly – including willingly taking orders from the very vampire that “killed” him and denied him his love. Any conflict is instead handled by your dialogue choices and some in-game actions, which reflect in a “humanity” meter. Talk about how you won’t abandon Anezka or refuse your next task (trust me, it’s always just talk) and your humanity meter stays up while the linear story goes on unimpeded. Low humanity, earned from bloodthirsty decisions or killing innocents, gives you the poopy ending.
Without venturing too far into spoiler territory, it’s worth noting that the story expands across a century. A mid-game turn of events puts Christof on ice until 1999, where you’ll continue the tale in the gothic underbellies of modern day London and New York. The radical change in setting is one of the game’s best features, including all the changes in characters and equipment (guns!) that time brings. It’s not quite two games in one, but it is nice that the game not only references the eternal “life” of a vampire, but also lets you directly experience it.
The combat mechanics also pay much more than simple lip service to your new vampiric state. In White Wolf’s world, vampires are not immortal monsters susceptible only to silver or a stake through the heart. In fact, vampires can be killed fairly easily with conventional weapons – swords, guns, even fists will reduce enemy vamps to skeletons and ash with enough hits. Instead, vampires are dangerous because they can regenerate and have access to a host of supernatural powers; from enhanced strength and speed, to the ability to control enemies or summon elemental attacks.
Blood is the currency that drives these special abilities. Using these powers (to boost your speed, damage, and resistances) is critical to winning fights, so it’s important to level up your favorites and deploy them with purpose. Blood can be replenished through inventory items (blood bags or bottles), or by using the “Feed” ability against a civilian or enemy. When feeding, your character will drain blood from the target until you click for them to stop – suck all the life out of an innocent, and your humanity drops. Blood is also the only way to heal yourself – your most useful power – so you’re wise to keep everyone in your party well fed.
You must also manage your vampires’ “frenzy” meter, which references the classic struggle with their own beast within. Frenzy raises through damage taken. If you’re low on blood, frenzy raises faster and more drastically. When the frenzy meter fills, you lose control of that character while they go on a rampage – killing everyone in sight, attacking friendlies, or grabbing another member of your party and sucking their blood. You won’t regain control until the meter drops down again. Your party members get knocked out if a vampire drains them of blood, so a frenzied vampire is a legitimate danger to their comrades. It’s yet another reason to keep your party stocked with tasty vitae.
The interface is completely driven by the mouse. You will left click to attack enemies or move to a designated spot, and right click to use your currently selected power. There are six quick slots for powers, and you can either click to arm them, or use the 1-6 keys. There are far more powers than this that you can potentially learn – Christof specifically can pick up all seven of the game’s disciplines, each with multiple powers in a tiered format. You can open a “discipline” menu to cast any spell in your repertoire, but this is inefficient in combat. You’ll want to set up ahead of time, or stick to your six favorites.
It’s neat stuff, and it’s presented well. Redemption’s story will take you on a whirlwind tour of the various clans in the Vampire: The Masquerade world, from the delirious Malkavians to the mobster-vampires, the Giovannis. The vampire’s strengths and weaknesses are clearly laid out, give you plenty of different ways to grow your character (and party), and generally do a great job of being an RPG where you play as bloodsuckers. If the goal for White Wolf was for this game to act as an ambassador to its brand and product, then mission accomplished. As a game though, it’s frequently lacking.
The first issue is with the interface. You’re unable to click through objects, so you’ll constantly be repositioning the camera to move around corners, under bridges, or even just to pick items up off the ground. You can’t click through your allies either, so they’ll interrupt your attacks as they crowd in, or even become the unintentional target (with Feed). Combat feedback is limited as well, and purposely kept invisible. The log (showing what spells were used) shares a window with identifying items, and so is frequently masked as you move the mouse around and highlight things. Damage numbers can only be activated with a cheat, and even then, only for Christof. You won’t be pondering item stats and min/max builds here.
AI is mostly inept. If you could pause the game to issue orders, this might be less of a problem. Instead, every encounter is a jumbled free-for-all as the AI shoves into each other, fighting over position to try and get a hit in. You can directly control any of them, but only one at a time. You can only govern the others with a basic passive/aggressive state toggle. Pathfinding is easily the worst of their flaws, and their favorite trick is getting caught on corners or each other. All too often I’d rush into combat alone, to find my merry band running in place into the door behind me. Objects or enemies on different elevations or stairs pose a similar challenge and often require direct intervention.
Your team is also terrible at managing their powers. The most you can guide them here is an option to use only what’s on that character’s quick slot, hopefully preventing them from doing things like casting an area spell on the last enemy. The bigger problem is their inability to smartly ration blood. If they have it, they’ll use it, and they won’t save any for later. If you give them blood packs in their inventory, they’ll gobble them and recklessly spend that blood too. This means you frequently have a party full of empty vampires – who are then prone to frenzy and can’t heal themselves. The AI also takes over when you switch characters, so as you leave Christof to babysit another ally, Christof will immediately blow all the blood you’ve been saving on needless self buffs.
There are a lot of nice powers, especially the poison breath, or the one that rains fire from the sky, but control powers rule the game. The various incarnations of “mesmerize” spells are overpowered and, from what I can tell, nearly indefensible. I couldn’t find the stat that resists enemy control, so the first character to encounter mez-using enemies will be promptly shut down every time. The flip side is that maxing out Feed plus some of your own control powers can take down anyone. You can pull enemies right toward you and kill them with Feed, keeping your precious blood supply topped off. Later in the game, Prisoner of Ice stops anybody in their tracks (even the final boss) and lets you lay on damage with total impunity. Naturally, your AI companions don’t know either trick. Max their Feed power, and they’ll rarely use it against enemies – preferring instead to walk around dry, hungry, and a few hits away from frenzy.
Combat is totally numbers based, which means the early game is packed with clicking on enemies and having nothing happen. You’ll need to significantly raise each characters Dexterity stat to keep them from constantly missing, but luckily, you’ll be plenty deadly around the time you hit 100 DEX. You will also need to pay for better gear – not just for yourself, but for everyone in your team. I hit a wall early in the game when faced with a golem I couldn’t defeat for anything. All it took was a couple thousand coins in armor and swords to make a tremendous difference.
This click and die roll based combat draws comparisons to Diablo, but loot is unfortunately not a factor here. Gear stats are not randomly generated, and a handful of fixed special equipment mark the last gear you’ll ever need. The Ainkurn Sword drains blood with each strike and as such is so magnificently unfair that there’s not even a weapon in the modern times that can best it. This leads to less variation across the game, and less strategy or change across individual combat encounters. You’ll be using the same equipment, and simply picking up new gear to sell it.
There are other little issues that add to the total frustration. Tiny enemies like rats or Hoppers attack in fast-moving packs and are a real bitch to click. Quest items don’t go into your inventory – for all intents they completely disappear – but the quest log doesn’t always update accordingly. Many a time I was unsure if I actually had the item I needed to proceed. There is no fast travel system, and the map only shows in what general district a location is in, so there will be a lot of walking and learning the streets. There is no dungeon map at all, but luckily these areas are never more than four levels deep, and all are pretty linear.
Graphically, it’s impressive. Characters are blocky, but textures stay sharp at high resolutions. There’s a decent lighting engine casting shadows, some shiny effects for powers, and the “dissolve” animation for dead vampires is a nice touch. Reflective floors, working mirrors, and weather effects provide a steady stream of graphical tricks to enjoy. Locations are varied, from snowy Vienna to rainy London, and both the dungeons, and the unique clans that inhabit them, are differentiated from all the others quite nicely. There’s also no shortage of gore, with gibs, heads that can be lopped off foes, and splayed torture victims decorating the depths of many vampire lairs.
Audio is a bit of a mixed bag. There are tons of cutscenes with an abundance of “thee,” “thou,” “nay,” and other such period appropriate chatter that makes my skin crawl (remember, fantasy and Middle Ages stuff is not my preference). This is somewhat played for laughs when Christof awakens in 1999 with his same antiquated dialect. Acting in general is a little stilted. Christof seems to get better as the game progresses (or maybe I just got used to him), and the amount of screen time a character gets corresponds pretty well with the quality of their performance. Lesser bosses are cackling caricatures, while party companions generally hold their own. I didn’t care much for Pink as the cockney punk jester, but he did at least give a performance.
A quick tip of the hat is due to the inventive multiplayer, which tries to digitize the traditional pen-and-paper experience. The server host acts as a Dungeon Master, with enhanced tools available to drop monsters, loot, and dialogue into the world. The other players role-play accordingly, and the game automates all the troublesome stat matching and die rolls. It’s a pretty brilliant idea, and from what I’ve read, works surprisingly well. Props for doing something different that also excellently befits the source.
The story is told well, introduces White Wolf’s take on the world of vampires very well, and generally keeps you engaged and interested in how it all ends. The gameplay does its best to sabotage that as often as it can. Party AI can handle itself in a fight, but not without getting in your way. The combat system is pretty simplistic, with no random loot to spice up the hundreds of battles you’ll click through. The interface frequently stumbles and prevents anything resembling tactics. Redemption is functional enough to wade through the frustrations, but Bloodlines does a better job of mixing great story with enjoyable gameplay.
Engaging vampire sim, with clear strengths and weaknesses for your undead characters. Love the two different time periods. Sharp graphics. Story must be engaging to have kept me playing through all the combat frustrations.
Inelegant interface, with lacking information and sketchy click detection. A.I. frequently stumbles and gets in your way. Awfully heavy on the cutscenes. Combat tends to be boring (when the A.I. isn’t getting the way) and lacks nuance.
“His faith is the strength behind his steel. Stripped of his faith, would be of any use to us, I wonder?” — Ecaterina