Game Review: Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines

Dan D’Arpe delves into the archives, looks into the history and delivers his verdict on Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines.

If you had never heard of Vampire: The Masquerade -Bloodlines, no one can hardly blame you. The game, a mature action role player developed by Troika Games and released by Activision back in 2004, was the literal definition of “disaster” the moment it hit the shelves. A horribly broken, unplayable mess at launch, the title had the further misfortune of being released at the exact same time as Half-Life 2, Halo 2, and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. As can be expected the game barely sold, was immediately forgotten by most, and led to the total and utter demise of its developer… which is one of greatest tragedies of the industry, for Bloodlines is one of the best video games ever made.

The game starts by selecting gender and a Kindred (vampire) clan, each unique and offering slight variations in gameplay (or major ones if choosing the Malkavians or Nosferatu). After selection, the story begins during a night of steamy shenanigans, which culminates in the player’s character being transformed into a vampire by their lover. Before the new fledgling has any time to even comprehend what the heck has happened to them, they are captured and brought before the Camarilla, the organization tasked with keeping vampire society a secret from humanity. Condemned to death by LaCroix, (the leader, or “Prince” of the Los Angeles Camarilla) an unexpected turn of events spares the fledgling at the last moment. Instead made into LaCroix’s personal assistant, the fledgling is instead sent out: tasked with foiling the workings of the Sabbat (bad, animalistic vampires) while uncovering the secret of an ancient sarcophagus that many believe be the herald of the apocalypse.  All in all, talk about waking, (or um, rising) up on the wrong side of the bed.

Gameplay wise, Bloodlines is that perfect combination of atmosphere, lore (the game is based on White Wolf’s Publishing pen-and-paper World of Darkness series) and writing that meshes together to create a truly unique and breathtaking product. Level designs have a gothic, run down feel to them: few areas of the game can be described as graceful, yet they are still hauntingly beautiful. These designs not only better reinforce the shadowy, dreary world in which vampires live, but also add tension to the apocalyptic mood that seems to be hanging over everyone’s head. As the game goes on, this sense of crisis only deepens as the mystery of the sarcophagus grows more and more intricate-and dangerous.

Overall, the game has four main hubs (Santa Monica, Downtown L.A., Hollywood, and Chinatown) that players unlock through progression. Although not open world, the areas are large enough to allow for some exploration and an opportunity to take a break from the main storyline via the completion of side quests. Since experience is only gained through completing quests (and not by defeating enemies), these skill points soon become invaluable. Upgrading gets expensive fast, forcing players to really sit back and think about the build of their characters. The path to take: whether to be a brawler, smooth talker, or shadow ninja, is entirely up to them.

For all its positives, the area in which Bloodlines truly shines is in its characterization. At its core, this is a game about interaction, where the player gingerly discovers their place in an unforgiving world. The cast you encounter is memorable, from the colorful nymphomaniac Jeanette, the laid back Smiling Jack, to the utterly silent Sheriff. The writing and voice acting are truly top notch, which makes this odd ensemble even more noteworthy, especially when compared to most NPC’s. Vampire society is clearly defined as unending power struggles and manipulation, with the new fledging obviously being at the very bottom of the pecking order. Making your way through this world, deciding who to trust whilst awaiting someone to inevitably screw you over, is one of the features that makes the game so quirky and enjoyable.

This all said, there are flaws. Bloodlines isn’t regarded as a masterpiece, but as a flawed masterpiece, falling just short of complete greatness. For starters, the game came out when having full voice acting in an RPG was a novelty; such age shows. Character models aren’t exactly next gen, while graphics aren’t even last gen. (To be fair, facial animations could very well pass for current Bethesda releases). The real crux of the problems however lay in the construction of the game, which was ripe with difficulties from the get go. In a nutshell, Troika bit off far more than they could chew, trying to make a game well beyond their capabilities. Unfamiliarity with the Source engine, alongside a perfectionist attitude, resulted in things going far over budget and being schedule, with no end in sight. Tired of waiting, Activision eventually stepped in and forced a deadline, which ultimately caused far more harm than good.

Combat wise, the game is clunky and awkward. Certain animations look strange, while a rush in character designs is painfully evident throughout. As many players have noticed over the years, the point in which Activision took control of the project is clearly evident by a noticeable decline. The rich, world building atmosphere is replaced by linear, combat intensive missions. At best, this becomes wearisome and boring; at worst it becomes a total nightmare. The ending itself winds up being quiet abrupt, a disappointment given all the painstaking tension and buildup. In short, Bloodlines ends with an anticlimactic fizzle.

Despite these shortcomings, nothing can take away from Bloodline’s legacy. In every sense of the word, the game is a cult title with a truly dedicated fan base. Even though it’s been over a decade since its debut, the community continues to release patches and mods which continually keep the game interesting. Such dedication and enthusiasm alone shows that Vampire: The Masquerade- Bloodlines is, and was an overlooked and unique gem. For fans of RPG’s like the Fallout, Elder Scrolls, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic franchises, this is a title that is definitely worth a look. Few games have ever again reached such an awesome height, and perhaps none ever will.
Recently, Paradox Interactive brought the rights to the Vampire universe, giving a spark to a long dormant franchise. Will Bloodlines see a sequel? Maybe. Would a sequel be able to attain the same greatness as the original? That’s impossible to say. But if there is indeed a sequel-and it’s anything like its predecessor- then it truly will be a force to be reckoned with.

FMV Rating *****

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