Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines Review
As a game, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is stunningly imperfect, but undeniably one-of-a-kind and addictive. As Troika’s swan song, it’s a perfect example of the kind of unfettered creativity (and subsequent bugginess) that they had quickly become known for as developers. The story of Troika is ultimately a short, sad one, but it’s impossible to look at Arcanum and Bloodlines and not feel that they succeeded where most developers have failed; not only are Troika’s games some of the most interesting and unique games ever made, but they’re also among the elite few classics that remain consistently playable despite their age.
Fan patches remove the bugginess
All that stuff about bugs really only applies to the officially patched (or unpatched) versions of the game. If you’re the adventurous sort, however, then you should look into the fan patches that make the game even more stable. There are two options for fan patches: the “true patch” and the “unofficial patch.” Despite their names, both are unofficial patches that fix several bugs that were left unremedied when Activision callously drove a stake through Troika’s heart, and the big difference between the two is that the “true” patch focuses almost entirely on bug fixes while the “unofficial” patch also restores some content that didn’t make it into the final game. Honestly, you can’t go wrong with either one (especially if you’re on Windows 7, in which case they’re pretty much the only way to get the game to actually run). It’s also advisable to use the resolution patch that unlocks higher resolutions than the vanilla game allows, if only because the added soupçon of prettiness ends up being the cherry on top.
The characters are very memorable
One of Bloodlines’ greatest triumphs is the memorability of its characters, from former pirate Jack to flesh-eating vampire Pisha. Sure, many of the female characters are sexualized like crazy (Velvet Velour and Jeanette in particular, both of whom are pictured in the screenshots at the bottom), but it would be a serious mistake to think that they’re simply one-dimensional characters who exist purely for fan service reasons; not only do both VV and Jeanette have potentially discoverable reasons for their promiscuity, but they also serve to demonstrate one of the ways many vampires cope with their curse.
Not only that, but Velvet and Jeanette (as well as countless other characters, male and female) serve to highlight the key elements of their clans, of which there are seven that you can choose from at the beginning. Each clan has their own eccentricities: Toreadors are artistic and sensitive, Brujah are quick to anger, and Malkavians are cursed with madness and the ability to see the future without even realizing it. In-game, this basically means that different clans come with different advantages and can change the way you play through the game. For example, a Tremere has the opportunity to get a special haven from another important Tremere at one point in the game, while a Malkavian (which is what my screenshots are of) has illogical dialogue and the ability to mess with other people’s minds in a “Jedi mind trick” kind of way. All of this adds quite a bit of replayability to the game, but more than that, it allows for huge differences between vampires that keeps the game from feeling like a bunch of Draculas running around. Vampire life really does feel like its own culture, complete with cliques and factions that don’t always get along.
There’s lots of humor
You’d think that a game about parasitic supernatural creatures would be dark and completely serious, and yet Bloodlines has a tendency to break up its more serious moments with unexpected bits of welcome humor. This comes in many different forms, from amusing encounters with other characters to hilarious signs, but the most notable bit of lightness is definitely the radio. There’s only a single radio station that’s ever playing, and it’s a talk radio show called “The Deb of Night” where the host basically makes fun of all of her callers. You can even find spam about penis enlargement in your email, and all of this weird humor makes the game even better than it’d be otherwise.
No grinding whatsoever
Fighting random enemies to level up your skills and become more powerful has been a staple of RPGs since the very beginning, but the tedium of having to fight waves of enemies to become strong enough to continue along with the story is rarely a good thing. Bloodlines combats this by refusing to reward experience for fallen enemies, instead rewarding you with experience solely for finishing missions and sidequests (experience can then be spent leveling up your skills/attributes, or left pooled for when you need it). Because of this, there’s no grinding whatsoever in this game.
While the lack of grinding is a good thing, one of the biggest problems that Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines suffers from is its (admittedly infrequent) tendency to force you into what amounts to a mini-dungeon crawl, complete with oodles of combat. If you were playing as a stealthy character up to that point and relied on a mixture of sneaking, invisibility (“obfuscation” in the game), and speech skills, completely forgoing combat skills, then guess what? You’re going to have an awful time trying to get through these sections because they’re virtually impossible to sneak through. For some reason, certain kinds of enemies almost always see through your invisibility, so it’s critical to your enjoyment of this game that you level up your melee and gun skills as you go along. Barring that, there’s also the -noclip cheat that lets you move through walls (and fly, which is always fun).
Tone issues are also a bit of a concern, with the game taking sudden and inexplicable turns toward the macabre and spooky at several points. The first instance of this is the haunted Ocean House Hotel, which you’re forced to go through as part of the story. In there, you’ll have things thrown at you, see an axe-wielding psychopath when you turn around, and generally have to contend with miscellaneous jump scares like that. Speaking of jump scares, there’s a later section of the game where you’re having to move through a house while fighting enemies that can only be described as twisted demon faces with legs, and they have a habit of jumping out while screaming. As bad as that sounds, I hate scary games and movies, but managed to get through all of these sections without too much trouble. Really, all it takes is to turn off the volume and listen to happy songs on an mp3 player. Since the creepy sections don’t actually pose much actual danger to your character, they suddenly become much more palatable (and even funny at times).
Floaty controls/perspective problems
Bloodlines allows you to freely use both a third-person perspective and a first-person one, though you’re all but forced to use both; shooting with guns is always done in first-person while fighting with melee weapons is always in third-person, and because of the difficulty of playing using only melee or guns, you’ll likely end up using a combination of both to get through the game. The first thing you’ll notice about both is the the controls have a tendency to feel kind of “floaty,” meaning you never really feel like your character weighs anything. That’s something that you get over quickly, however, and I’d be surprised if it actually takes away from anyone’s enjoyment of the game.
Another problem that’s little more than a small annoyance is how unruly the third-person view becomes in small spaces such as pipes—while you can easily navigate through such areas in first-person without too much of a problem, the third-person view makes the camera zoom in to the point where your character disappears, and controlling your character/navigating around becomes difficult because of that. Of course, you can simply switch to first-person mode until you’ve entered a more open space, but it’s worth noting because Bloodlines perfectly demonstrates the pros and cons of both the third-person and first-person perspectives.
As mentioned earlier, some enemies can see through your invisibility without any problem. It’s difficult to tell who can and can’t, however, because the mechanics of invisibility and how sneaking factors into it are never really explained, so the inconsistency of it all can lead to quite a bit of frustration. For example, after leveling up my invisibility skill to its maximum level, I cut through an entire map of human vampire hunters while invisible, using stealth kills to get through the entire thing without being detected once. Not long after that, I was asked to clear out a bunch of enemy vampires, but I couldn’t get within striking distance of them before they noticed me and started shooting. I still don’t understand the reason behind the inconsistency, and there’s nothing in the skill description that even hints that some vampires will be able to see through invisibility, but it would have been nice to know that my favored approach to the game would stop working midway through.
A few awful puzzles
There are two puzzles that suck. However, having knowledge of them beforehand will enable you to breeze through them without a problem. The first puzzle is in the sewers (trust me—you’ll know when you’re there) and involves a fan that you need to get past. When it’s off, you can swim past it, but the chambers you need flooded remain dry. When it’s on, however, you can’t swim past its current, making those chambers inaccessible. What the game fails to tell you is that the fan starts up slowly, so you can get past it by turning it on and jumping into the water as fast as possible to swim past it before it’s spinning at its full speed. At no point is it hinted that fans have multiple speeds, and this is so counter-intuitive (especially in an older game) that many people become stuck at this part.
The second bad puzzle is late in the game (though depending on who you side with at the end, you may skip it) and involves jade animal statues and podiums. The way the puzzle works is that each statue is on a unique podium when you find it, and you have to set the statue on a matching podium in another room. This puzzle is easy if you know how it works ahead of time and make a mental note of which statue is on which podium before you remove it, but if you go through this part of the game without paying attention to the podiums—and really, why would you?—you can easily end up having no idea which statue goes where. Then you’ve no choice but to reload an earlier save, turn it into a guessing game of trial and error until you finally get the statue placements right, or resort to an internet search. No puzzle that requires any of those things is designed particularly well, and I can’t help but wish that this puzzle was removed from the game altogether.
The end has too much combat
While there are several boss fights throughout the game, most of them are spread out quite a bit, making them fairly painless (and even enjoyable at several points). However, the very end of the game forces you through several boss fights over a relatively short period of time, and this can be incredibly frustrating. Granted, you’re obviously equipped to handle yourself in combat if you’ve made it to that point in the game, but it’s not anywhere near as enjoyable as it should have been. However, you can’t blame Troika for this—they were forced to release the game before it was done because of Activision, which is one of many reasons why you should hate Activision with a deep, fiery passion.
The Masquerade and areas
There are three different kinds of areas: “masquerade” areas where you have to avoid revealing your existence as a vampire (which means you have to be careful to not be caught feeding on NPCs), “elysium” areas where powerful vampires live (your powers and weapons are automatically disabled in these places), and “combat” areas where anything goes. Each area is represented by a symbol on the screen, and the “different freedoms in different areas” thing ends up working surprisingly well. In fact, I’d argue that it’s a great approach that more RPG developers should use.
Blood and humanity
Early on, you’re informed that all the things you used to find important are no longer a priority. Sex, food, and booze? All of that has been replaced by your love/need of blood, and it’s always a good idea to keep your blood levels high (since it’s used to fuel your powers). This can be accomplished in several ways, with the most obvious method being feeding on an NPC in a dark alley where no one can see. However, you can also replenish your blood by drinking blood packs that can be purchased at a local blood bank or found littered throughout the world, though it’s usually best to save them for boss fights. Whatever your method, restoring blood points also increases your health’s regeneration, so feeding serves dual roles.
It’s important to not kill those you feed from, however, since all vampires have “the beast” inside, just itching to get out. The beast is basically your inner monster, and it manifests as an uncontrollable killing machine that can get you in a lot of trouble. Vampires keep the beast inside at bay by retaining aspects of their humanity (such as not killing innocents), so draining a stranger dry is a bad idea if they’re not trying to cave your skull in with a tire iron. You can tell how much blood an NPC has while feeding on them by a meter that appears at the top of the screen, and they’ll survive so long as you leave a little sliver left.
Bloodlines is an older game, so there are some blurry textures to contend with, but using the resolution patch can make things look surprisingly good. Bloodlines has a great art style, for sure, from the perpetual night to the way the game uses colors in subtle ways (look closely at Jeanette’s eyes). It’s not going to win any awards for its graphics, but there are definitely several areas that you’ll want to revisit because of how memorable they are.
Most games that license music do so without any creativity, usually opting to throw a bunch of songs into a playlist (or “radio” that’s basically the same thing) for the player to use as they like. In doing so, they forfeit their ability to tailor the soundtrack so that each song matches the area it’s found in. However, Bloodlines isn’t most games, and while a good portion of the soundtrack is licensed, these licensed songs are used as set background music for each area. This works better than you’d probably think, and it gives Bloodlines a sound all its own.
Here’s what you should do: