Monday, February 4, 2013


I'm not just cranky.  I'm also old and, as you may have deduced, I'm a gamer.  But what you may not know is that it hasn't always been just video games.  All through high school and into my early 20s, I was an avid pen-and-paper gamer.  I did some D&D here, a little Shadowrun there, even experimented with GURPS and Palladium games.

My heart, however, belonged to White Wolf.  Vampire: the Masquerade, Werewolf: the Apocalypse, Mage: the Ascension, and occasionally even Changeling: The Dreaming.  These were my gaming bread and butter.  My purple Crown Royal bag overfloweth with 10-sided dice.  With all of the hours spent poring over sourcebooks and character sheets, I always wondered, how would our adventures in the World Of Darkness translate to a PC game?

What were my expectations going in?
I'll be honest, after 2000's pretty, yet ultimately tepid Vampire: The Masquerade - Redemption, followed by the planned/promised Werewolf game that never happened, I didn't really have much faith in 2004's Bloodlines.  I always figured I'd give it a shot, but never really had the drive to do it.  It had a rough development cycle, it was released both buggy and unfinished, and to this day remains difficult to play without patching and fixing the shit out of it.  It just seemed like too much work for something that would probably just let me down in the end.

Well this is off to a great start...

So how was it?
Aaaaaaand I'm kicking myself for that, now.   HARD.  It completely blows me away at how well this game captures the feel and spirit of Vampire: The Masquerade.  From the clans to the politics, the stats to the Disciplines, this game nails it.

Allow me to geek out a little bit here, please.  Bear with me; I fully acknowledge that half of this shit will not make a lick of sense if you are completely unfamiliar with the actual pen-and-paper game, but I promise it makes sense, and the game's tutorial level does a fantastic job of explaining it all.  You play a newly sired vampire, so the training is perfectly contextual, and handed to you in a way that makes sense within the role-playing.

Yay, geekery!
Disciplines, your blood-based vampiric abilities, work exactly the way they should.  You actually have blood points and humanity points that function as they do in the books.  You even have a tally of the times that your actions break the Masquerade, the code of conduct that the vampires live by to hide from mortals.  No matter what goes on in the rest of the game, if you break the Masquerade more than five times, it's game over.  When it comes time for your stats?   You get an actual character sheet, with dots to put in Attributes, Abilities, and Disciplines, and they work just like if you were playing the pen-and-paper version.  And yes, I geeked out, naming my PC game character after one of my favorite pen-and-paper characters I role-played.

During character creation, you can choose one of the seven Camarilla clans, or answer a series of questions on play style, and let the game pick for you.  Playing as different clans drastically changes your game, and how the world and its characters interact with you.  This element of role-playing is pretty impressive even now, let alone when the game came out in 2004.  Being a sneaky stealthy assassin type of player, the game stuck me with the hideously deformed Nosferatu clan.  Every mortal NPC I encountered recoiled in horror from me.  If you play as one of the insane Malkavians?  You get various insanity events, either in non-sequitur dialogue or in the form of conversations with street signs and fire hydrants.  Ventrue refuse to eat rats (which is a bigger inconvenience than you might think).  Your clan doesn't just change your stats and abilities, it changes almost every aspect of the game.

I am Nosferatu. "Sexy" is my middle name.
Where the game shines is in the role-playing and quest activities.  The majority of it plays more like an adventure game, collecting items and solving mysteries around town.  There are a lot of fetch quests, but they never feel like it.  Everything can be solved in a multitude of ways, be it with brute force, sneaky subterfuge, or with a silver tongue.  At no point does this game hold your hand; it lets you play however you want to play.  At first, I complained that the game was so vague, and never gave me much indication of where to go.  There is no world map, no arrows, no quest icons.  Quickly I realized how absolutely spoiled I've become by modern games, and I embraced this old school thinking.  I actually had to pay attention to dialogue and quest notes, follow directions instead of looking for a map marker.  I absolutely reveled in it, and it sucked me into the game.

Where this game definitely falls short is in the controls.  Combat is sloppy as hell, and you will find that most of the game's difficulty is not in the challenge of the opponent, but in wrestling with the interface.  Jumping has this weird floaty feeling to it, and attacks are clunky and slippery.  You just sort of swing in the general direction of enemies, rather than with any precision whatsoever.  I found myself dreading combat, often avoiding it altogether when I could.   The majority of the game gives you a choice of playing in first- or third-person, and I chose a first-person point of view.  Sadly, combat will always yank you out of it and into a third-person view with the camera controlled by the mouse.  It's incredibly awkward.  Thankfully, while combat isn't rare, it's certainly not the meat of the game by any stretch.

I love the night life.  I got to boogie.
Graphically, the game is very dated yet manages somehow to stand up to the test of time.  Polygon counts are fairly low, but the textures do a great job of masking this, breathing life into the world.  This game was actually the first third-party game ever built in the Source engine, and it shows.  Source games have a tendency to age well, and this is no exception.

Artistically, Bloodlines shines.  The city of Los Angeles feels alive as you creep through its shadows, with great attention paid to detail.  I was especially impressed with the goth club, The Asylum.  It looked and felt like a real club, minus the fact that the engine could only really support seven or eight patrons in the club.  The dance floor may have been nearly empty, but everything else felt like it was designed by people who'd actually spent many nights hanging out at goth bars.  The clubgoers looked like actual 90s to early 00s goths, not the Hollywood "version" of goths. Even the movements of the dancers were actual gothy-style dances, not the general jerky cabbage-patch "dancing" most games seem to employ.  Let's put it this way: the dancers in this 2004 game danced far more realistically than those in 2012's Far Cry 3.  

The music of this game impressed me to the point where I had to at one point pause, alt-tab out of the game, and find a torrent for the soundtrack.  The soundtrack actually features a lot of goth rock and industrial bands, including Chiasm, Lacuna Coil, Ministry, and even The Genitorturers.  I found myself hanging out in The Asylum just for the music a lot of the time.   The score of the game doesn't necessarily impress as much, but it does manage to find that sweet spot where it conveys just the right tone for any given scene without being intrusive.

Troika Games spared no expense with the voice acting.  The IMDB page for the game reads like a who's who of familiar names.  Phil LaMarr, Fred Tasciatore, Dee Bradley Baker, Jim Ward, and of course, Bender B. Rodriguez himself, John DiMaggio.  Almost every single cast member in this game has a laundry list of your favorite cartoons and video games in their resume, and they don't slouch here at all.  The NPCs don't just feel like models spouting dialogue.  These voice actors really hold up the role-playing end of this game, breathing life into every character.

There is, however, one massive drawback to this game.  As I said in the first few paragraphs, the game is broken. The game was released full of bugs and missing content. Should you purchase this game on Steam, I can all but promise you it will not work.  The current patch available can be found here, and it fixes the biggest holes and restores a lot of the missing content, but the game still has its issues.  I ran into one common bug where no matter what you do, your character is stuck running forward.  I actually had to manually edit the .INI file.  So if you want to take a journey into the World Of Darkness, be prepared to do a little work and a lot of Googling before you can really get it up and running.   In case I haven't fully conveyed this sentiment, however, I think it's absolutely worth the work.

One final thing that I feel the need to bring up is the Ocean House Hotel.  Legends of this level were honestly what finally made me break down and play the game.  It's a small, short quest that shouldn't take you more than half an hour to an hour, in which you must remove a ghost from an old burnt-out hotel.  It is also hands-down the best level of a game I've ever played, and the single scariest horror game I've ever played.  More than Silent Hill, more than Amnesia (which admittedly, I found boring and not at all scary), the Ocean House Hotel level made me jump, made my skin crawl, and had my heart racing from the moment I set foot in the building.  The rest of the game is great, but this level alone is worth the cost of the game.  It will stick in my mind forever, and I guarantee it'll stick in yours too.

This ghost does NOT want you here.

If you were ever a Vampire: The Masquerade player, or if you have ever enjoyed some tabletop gaming, I genuinely think you owe it to yourself to give this game a shot.  It may be old, but it captures the world and the mechanics of the game flawlessly.  I found myself playing a character, not just working the system and playing a collection of numbers against a set of outcomes.  I really enjoyed this game, and I definitely see myself continuing to play it well after this review is published.

Play time:  5 hours
Finished:  No
Recommended:  Very much so! 
Available For:  PC

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