Game Review: Vampire – The Masquerade (Bloodlines)

Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines

So today I’ll be reviewing Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, which is one of my top three favourite games, in fact if you are interested the order goes Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, I’ve actually talked about each of them on Off the Record before, and you can check out the San Andreas and Skyrim reviews here and here respectively.

Anyway, I have such positive feelings for this game that it will be difficult to be objective in this review, but we do pride ourselves on our honesty, as well are our fair and balanced approach so I will do my best to keep that in mind as we go forward. I actually wrote two companion pieces for this review, an interview with Kenneth Hite, a veteran tabletop game designer who was responsible for designing the latest version of the tabletop version of Vampire: The Masquerade and you can check that out here. I also interviewed Werner Spahl also known as Wesp5 who was responsible for creating the ‘Unofficial Patch’ which served to mitigate the various issues with the game post release due to Troika Games, the developers, closing up shop shortly after releasing the game so were unable to do so themselves, and you can check that out here.

So let me hit you with some of the bare facts about the game, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines or VTMB as I will be calling it from this point on, is an action role-playing game which was released in November 2004 by Activision and was developed by Troika Games shortly before the company shut down. VTMB is based on the White Wolf Publishing tabletop role-playing game ‘Vampire: The Masquerade’ which is set within their larger ‘World of Darkness’, which encompasses three distinct but related fictional universes created as setting for these role-playing games. Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is an indirect sequel to Vampire: The Masquerade – Redemption which was released in 2000 by Activision, and was developed by Nihilistic Software (later known as nStigate Games).

I think what I liked most about this game was that despite being set in a world inhabited by werewolves, ghosts and a variety of other supernatural entities, it still manages to feel real, and I think that’s entirely down to the world building present in the game, as well as the sheer attention to detail. I mean everyone that you talk to has their own personality, and you almost feel like you’re having a real conversation when you engage with them. Sure there are limitations, but considering the company folded shortly after releasing it, and also that it was released over sixteen years ago, it’s an incredible piece of game design.

I mean your dialogue choices don’t just elicit some generic response, they are contextual and feel organic, and more so once you develop stats, you can influence people you interact with using one your abilities and stats. I touched on the depth and world-building above, and perhaps the best example of it are the radio and TV broadcasts, throughout the game you can tune in to a variety of broadcasts, often which either reference specific things you’ve done or being involved in doing throughout the game, or adding broader context to the world around you. Especially at the time it was practically unheard of and these little bits just act to flesh out the game, they can be ignored or missed without feeling like you’ve missed anything, but, at least I feel enrich your playthrough when you do listen to them. A personal highlight is the radio show, The Deb of Night, which airs on the in-game radio station KTRK, and is hosted by Deb (voiced by Karis Campbell) who is a charming and sassy late night radio host, who may or may not be Kindred (one of the terms used within VTMB to refer to Vampires, and specifically the broader community). I often found myself stopping off at my Haven just to enjoy these broadcasts. There’s going to be a direct sequel to VTMB which is currently scheduled for an unspecified 2020 release date, and I sincerely hope that The Deb of Night makes an appearance, even though there is an obvious and considerable gap in time between both games, and she was based in L.A whereas this new game is going to be set in Seattle. Although I suppose however that if she were in fact a vampire then perhaps it isn’t too far fetched.

It’s surprisingly hard to say why this game is so good, because there are so many things I could say, so it’s not something that’s easily summed up succinctly, which probably explains why this is one of my longest reviews. But if I had to say just one thing as to why I love this game so much, it’s that it has held up incredibly well, even in 2020 it’s still a fantastic game, one that holds up much better than a lot of other games released around the same time, and even more impressive still because of the lack of post release support offered by the developer. It’s the reason why I end up replaying the game at least once per year.

Something else that I really admire is how well they translated this game from it’s tabletop origins to a video game format. This is especially admirable because the previous video game based in the Vampire: The Masquerade universe, and the indirect prequel to this game, did not handle the transition nearly as well.

Speaking of which, the story of VTMB is very engaging, and it flows well, but isn’t purely linear, which allows for individual choice and a limited amount of freedom. I think the open-ended RPG story style is one of the reasons why this game has so much replayability. This is compounded and enhanced by being able to pick your starting class, which can radically change the core gameplay, especially if you pick either Malkavian or Nosferatu. Being able to select your clan therefore not only fundamentally changes how you play the game but also adds diversity to the world-building, and just makes for a richer gameplay experience.

VTMB is an incredibly engrossing game about modern vampires, living in Los Angeles, that was unfortunately handicapped by various glitches that existed in the base game. These issues, fortunately were fixed or mitigated somewhat by a fan developed ‘Unofficial Patch’, which I will talk about in more detail later.

The game follows an unnamed human character who can either be male or female depending upon the player’s choice, who after spending a titillating evening in a seedy hotel room with a vampire of the opposite sex, are turned into a vampire. You start the game now as a fledgling vampire, ready to be introduced to the rich and complex ‘world of darkness’ to which you now belong. Unfortunately you don’t get to enjoy this newfound vampire life for too long because shortly afterwards the door to the hotel room burst open and you are your sire are both staked, this paralyses you both, and from there you are taken to be judged in front of the greater vampire community based on Los Angeles. It turns out that in turning you, your sire broke vampire rules, and for that you are both to be put to death. Before you are killed however, someone objects and in a calculated act of mercy, the ‘Prince’ of L.A (the de facto ruler of the civilised vampire community in the city) Sebastian LaCroix decides to let you live. So that’s where you begin, confused, sireless and in debt to the local ‘Prince’ to whom you are now expected to act as an errand boy.

You learn very quickly that there is a power struggle taking place in Los Angeles and as a newcomer you are stuck right in the middle of it, on one side representing the establishment known as ‘The Camarilla’ is LaCroix and on the other side you have the Anarch community, represented by figures such as Nines Rodriguez and Smiling Jack, who are fighting the oppressive authority of The Camarilla. You are able to decide who to listen to, which side to support and your choices will inevitably lead to one of five distinct endings. Alongside those two groups, there is a third major faction in the group, known as The Sabbat, who are made up largely of human thugs and low level vampires, who act as shock troops and canon fodder. You do not have the choice to support or work with them, and instead they act as an antagonistic body regardless of which main faction you select during the game. Leading The Sabbat, are a group of powerful vampires known as the Tzimisce clan, who are inhuman and sadistic, and are masters of a unique vampire discipline known as flesh-crafting, which allows them to create a variety of fleshy gestalt monstrosities from the bodies of multiple still living victims.

Each faction in the game despises and/or fears the others and this is the situation to which you are thrust into at the start of the game. I will add that you at least get a tutorial, and a pretty succinct one as well. You do have the option to skip it if you really want but honestly even if you are familiar with the gameplay mechanic it’s still good to get a recap if you are jumping back into the game after a gap, and it’s always fun to spend some time with the infamous Smiling Jack. I actually quite like that your youth and naivete are used to your advantage, that you are welcomed by both groups at least initially, although as the story progresses, you are pressed to pick a side, although you can always side with no one, and then it’s just a matter of killing anyone that betrayed you, instead of fighting on your side. Also this might just be my personal opinion but I would leave the straight Anarch playthrough until you go around. The good thing though is that you can experience multiple different things by playing with different clans and siding with different factions.

As well as all the political strife that’s taking place in Los Angeles, the entire city is also in an uproar because of what many people believe to be harbingers of Gehenna (which is the vampire name for their own personal apocalypse). Harbingers include the appearance of thin bloods (which are vampires who are incredibly weak, and display very little vampiric abilities, although on a more positive side, are also less affected by sunlight) and sightings of Caine (the biblical Caine, who is also reportedly the father of all vampires). This fear regarding the impending Gehenna is all focused on the central MacGuffin of the story, the ‘Ankaran Sarcophagus’ which is believed to house an ancient sleeping vampire. Gehenna tells that the end of the days for vampires will come when their ancient forefathers awake for their millennia long sleep and feast upon their descendants. So considerable fear rests with the idea that the ‘Ankaran Sarcophagus’ holds one of these sleeping old ones, and they will awake. As well as the fear of this antecedent in the Sarcophagus, there are those that want the body to consolidate their power, by committing the act of Diablerie (consuming the blood of another more powerful vampire to the point of their death in order to become stronger and more powerful themselves).

As you can probably guess, one of your tasks as the main character is to uncover this Sarcophagus, although what you end up doing with it is your decision, and as the game repeatedly tells you…DON’T OPEN IT!

I’ve gone into considerable details thus far, and yet I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface, I mean I’ve played the game from start to finish probably about a dozen times, and each time I find the game engaging and entertaining. Moving away from the story for a moment, I want to discuss the gameplay mechanics. First off, let’s briefly touch on character creation. Now I mentioned earlier that you can decide on your character’s gender, and while this selection doesn’t notably impact the game itself it’s still good to have the option. As well as gender, and in a decision that far more influences player experience, you can also select your clan. This choice isn’t just a different skin for your avatar, but a unique balance of traits, bonuses and weaknesses that make certain aspects of the game easier or more difficult. For example I am quite partial to playing as a Tremere, not only because of their design style but also because they have a decent balance between Melee, ranged combat and stealth, with relatively equal opportunities to pump experience points into any of those stats.

All of the clans present in VTMB are based on clans originally featured in the tabletop games, and they are largely accurate to the source material. There are of course some clans which never made the transition from tabletop to video game but this was most likely in the interests of simplification and balance. There are also still enough options to give you plenty of choice, and to provide several distinct and interesting playthroughs. In Bloodlines you can choose to be Clan Brujah, Clan Gangrel, Clan Malkavian, Clan Nosferatu, Clan Toreador, Clan Tremere, Clan Ventrue.

Each of those clans have their own unique attributes and weaknesses, for example Clan Tremere which I mentioned I prefer to play as have access to a unique vampire blood magic called Thaumaturgy which allows them to use a variety of unique abilities such as Blood Strike (you fire a projectile at opponents which will return bringing you blood points) and Blood Shield (you are covered in a layer of blood that absorbs damage) but as a result of them focusing on their mental abilities and disciplines their physical attributes have atrophied and so they can raise no physical attribute above four. Another fine example would be Nosferatu, they get extra benefits when feeding on rats, and their intelligence stat is naturally boosted but as a result of their horrible visage they can’t raise their seduction level above zero and also their appearance can cause instant masquerade violations. I think that the pros and cons are an excellent way to balance the game, because without them you’d find certain aspects too easy and there wouldn’t be as much replayability because the clans would then be too homogeneous. While I’m talking about clans I want to issue a little bit of advice, avoid playing as a Nosferatu or Malkavian for your first playthrough, they are both fine clans and both force you to come at the game from a different direction, but because of the difficulties in playing as either clan, it’s not advisable to play as first time around because you aren’t familiar with the game or have the appropriate context.

Next up, I’d like to discuss the various points systems in the game which are all important for one reason or another. The points systems can be broken down into Blood Points, Humanity Points, Masquerade Points and Experience Points, with each having an impact on the game. Blood points are analogous to Mana Points, because they are the pool of points through which you can use your various disciplines, which are themselves analogous to magic or spells. Each time you use a discipline it depletes the pool of blood points you have, which you can then refill by either feeding on people, rats or blood bags.

The next point system that’s important is humanity, in terms of the story this means the moral structure of your character, humanity is how you fight the beast within. In the game, you have a total of ten humanity points, and will gain or lose those points depending upon the choices you make. For example, outside of combat zones if you kill a person, then you’ll lose humanity points, although within combat zones you have carte blanche to kill anything that moves, and in fact it’s probably beneficial that you eradicate anything that stands before you, unless of course like me you are a fan of stealth. Speaking of sparing people, there will be points in the game where you are presented with the opportunity to spare characters and as a result regain humanity points. Another method of gaining humanity points is dancing, if you go to one of the various clubs throughout the map, and dance uninterrupted for five minutes then you’ll regain a humanity point. Humanity Points aren’t just to impose a moral structure on your character, if you have a low humanity level then you run the risk of a Frenzy (where you lose control of your character and they will drain and kill any nearby humans, which will unfortunately lead to a masquerade violation).

Next up are Masquerade Points, you have five of these and they require a little bit of explaining. The Masquerade is a term used by vampires to describe the maintenance of the secret that vampires exist, so anything that could be considered a violation is therefore anything that could outwardly reveal vampire society to humans. The game will end if you lose all your masquerade points. You lose masquerade points for being caught feeding and for using certain disciplines. Nosferatu suffer instant masquerade violations if they are seen at all because of their appearance, whereas other clans, unless they do something overtly supernatural can walk freely among humans.

Lastly, we have Experience Points, your progress through the game is signified by you accumulating experience points for the completion of quests. With additional experience points being granted for completing the quests in particular ways such as without being seen or without killing anyone. These experience points can then be spent in the character menu to increase your stats, making it easier to sneak or hack or use melee weapons or a variety of other capabilities. You can also use these points to buy back lost humanity points but since you can just dance to regain them and also have opportunities during main or side missions to regain them that seems pointless to me and it would be far more valuable to either save them up for more expensive upgrades or just pour them into one stat.

Next, I want to discuss the map, the game takes place in 21st century Los Angeles, and you can travel between a few different locations. Initially you can only move around the first location, Santa Monica, but you will unlock other areas as you complete quests. Eventually being able to travel between all of the main hubs in the game which include the aforementioned Santa Monica, as well as Downtown, Hollywood and Chinatown. There are also areas which are only available for a limited amount of time such as Grout’s Mansion (easily one of the best parts of the game by the way) and the Society of Leopold Monastery, but once you’ve completed the mission segment, you cannot return to these areas.

You travel between these various hubs in one of two ways, either by taxi, which becomes available as soon as you unlock the Downtown area, or via the sewer systems. Unfortunately if you play as a Nosferatu, because of their appearance, travelling via the surface is almost guaranteed to elicit a masquerade violation, so you are pretty much limited to travel via the sewers.

As well at the main explorable hubs in the game each location can be split into one of these areas; Masquerade, Elysium or Combat. Each area has its own rules and requirements. Masquerade areas are plentiful, usually streets and open areas, this is where you are likely to interact with and be spotted by humans should you do anything supernatural. While you are in these areas, the rules of the masquerade are in place and you must do nothing to reveal vampires to the world. Elysium areas are usually buildings and are neutral territories for vampires in the game, you cannot use weapons or disciplines (with the exception of bloodbuff) while there and so cannot cause any mischief. Finally combat areas are places in the game where you can fight and kill without worrying about loss of humanity or masquerade violations, you can kill your way through even innocent humans here with no negative consequences.

Before I move onto the technical aspects of VTMB I want to discuss dialogue options which can change depending on the clan you picked and which stats you’ve spent most on. For example if you’ve piled experience points into appearance and charisma then you’ll be presented with more seduction options, identified by pink text in the dialogue box, whereas if you went the intimidation route then you’ll be presented with more intimidation/domination dialogue options which are identified by red text. Whether these dialogue options succeed however depends on your stats again, so you might have a high enough intimidation factor to make the option available, but not enough for it to be successful so it’s sometimes a swing or a miss type situation using those dialogue options.

Okay so I’ve talked about what I liked, and I’ve talked about the game overall, now I wanted to briefly discuss some of it’s issues, in the spirit of being fair and balanced. Firstly, while the graphics and design are okay, especially for a game released in 2004, they are not great, and they haven’t stood up particularly well in the grand scheme of things.

Audio is another issue, for the most part it’s not too bad, but sometimes it felt like the voice actor recorded their lines while turned away from the mic. The music, however, is very good and easily makes up for any minor audio gaffe. A real issue I did have with the audio were the sound effects, they were clearly intended to add a sense of atmosphere to the game but were well executed so instead you can expect to be treated to a variety of random coughing, laughing, gross squelching sounds and other noises that at least for me break the immersion of the gameplay. That being said, their is one sound effect I’ll never get tired of though, part way through the game a character gets decapitated and you can shoot his severed head through a basketball hoop and be rewarded with ghostly cheering, it’s a macabre but entertaining thing that more me was just a little bit of dark fun.

Now I want to discuss the AI (artificial intelligence) in VTMB which I am sorry to say was sorely lacking at times. Now I can’t really complain when the obtuse guards can’t see my character If I just move back a single step, but I’ll be honest it did take away from the challenge of playing as a stealth based character when the game itself made it too easy. I’ll give you an example of what I am talking about, towards the end of the game, you encounter a group of mercenaries, who you can assume are highly trained, and they are kitted out in full black protective gear, and they are all lined up side by side. I was able to, without use of disciplines to subdue them, kill each of these highly trained soldiers, without alerting the others next to them. Now I put considerable experience points into my stealth stats, but I can’t shake the feeling that being able to do that had far more to do with poor AI than my own skills.

So with all that in mind I think that I will give VTMB a rating of 8/10 because honestly, it’s very nearly a perfect game. In fact if Activision or whoever owns the rights to the game now were to release an official updated version of the game then they would have at least one guaranteed customer right here. Speaking of which, if you would like to buy the game for yourself then you can either via Amazon, and here’s a link here or via Steam (for the very reasonable price of £14.99). If you haven’t got yourself a copy already, then I strongly suggest you do, and if you do have a copy, don’t you think it’s about time you dusted it off and played it again?

Unofficial Patch
Last thing before I wrap things up, I wanted to discuss the ‘Unofficial Patch’ which I mentioned above in more detail. The reason why this is tacked on at the end is because I felt that it deserved it’s own distinct section, because it’s not a part of the core gameplay, or even, as the title suggests an official part of VTMB.

The patch has a profound impact on both the technical and gameplay components of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, this is because the game received little to no post release support from Troika, because shortly afterwards the developer shut down. But because of the immense potential of the game, many fans started to develop their own patches and fixes for issues. Dan Upright was credited with creating the ‘Unofficial Patch’, which is widely seen as the most prominent of these fan fixes. The development of this patch was later taken over after about a year by Werner Spahl, also known as Wesp5 who has continued this development, and supported fan fixes for over ten years. The Unofficial patch is split into a basic and plus version, the basic version serves only to fix the various noted glitches in the game whereas the plus version added or re-added unused content and quests and adjusted stats and feats to create a more balanced game. Many people consider using the Unofficial patch the only real way to play the game. I was lucky enough to interview Werner Spahl, and you can check that out above.

 

First Published on: https://offtherecordblog.org/


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