Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines review
A dark, unique RPG that you've probably never heard of
Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines (VTMB), released for the PC in 2004, is probably not a game many are familiar with. This is due to its rushed release which resulted in an incredibly buggy experience. Had Activision only eased the pressure on developers Troika Games, then its reception may have been much different. With that said, VTMB has a strong cult following and after spending the last month playing this hidden gem, it’s easy to see why.
It is also easy to see why this game didn’t get the reception it deserved. To be honest, this game has more bugs than Bear Grills’ dinner plate, and this is a real experience killer. It wouldn’t be unfair to say that this game is unfinished, as a lot of content was also left out. Fortunately, some saw great potential in this abandoned gem, and decided to patch it themselves. Almost ten years later, there’s still updates to this unofficial patch, which is essentially a requirement, so if you like the sound of Bloodlines, then make sure installing it is your first port of call. If you're interested, you can find the patch here.
On the topic of fan input, it is also worth mentioning the amount of quality mods out there. Some of these include the addition of party members, extra quests, and modifications that present alternative experiences. While not necessary, unlike the unofficial patch, they have been very well refined and offer both high quality extra content, as well as content that the developers were forced to leave out.
After starting a new game, you are tasked with creating your character. To start, you need to choose from one of the seven clans and this will influence how you will play the game. For example, the Toreador are a social clan who have long been associated with the higher class, giving them exception social skills. Choose this race and you will have the upper hand in social situations. The Nosferatu on the other hand, look worse than Carrot Tops and consequently are forced to sneak through the cities shadows or sewers. Each clan also starts with different statistics and have access to unique battle abilities (called disciplines). In addition, assuming you have installed the unofficial patch, you can choose from a number of clan histories which will further refine your character. There is a lot to think about when choosing and developing your character and this becomes evident shortly after starting the game.
As the title suggests, VTMB is about keeping the masquerade. This means that you cannot make any public displays of supernatural abilities. Failure to abide by these rules and it will cost you your life. The rules put in place by the higher up vampires are incredibly strict, and this is immediately evident after creating your character. You begin the game in a court room as a fresh vampire. You see, it is an offence to turn another into a vampire without permission and as a result, your makers head soon flies across the room. Yours would too, if it wasn’t for the Prince (leader of the region) deciding to spare your life in exchange for a favour. Cool? Yeah!
The politics in the world are really complex and this is what makes the story so enjoyable. How you align yourself through the game will influence the ending. Two such options include siding with the Camarilla (lead by the prince), who believe in keeping vampire existence unknown to the world and punishing those who violate the masquerade, often with death. Then there’s the Anarchs, who believe in the masquerade, but do not trust the Prince and have slightly different views than the Camarilla. With such big personalities with core beliefs and views on the world and the existence of vampires, it soon becomes clear that things are soon going to get seriously out of hand.
The fantastically engaging story is split into six chapters, set in the areas around Los Angeles. The first four chapters focus on a specific area of LA, including Downtown, Santa Monica, Chinatown and Hollywood. Every time I was able to enter a new area, I became excited as they each have loads of interesting new characters to interact with, fascinating locations to explore, and quality side quests to take on. All of the LA areas are very dark and mature, which is probably what you would expect from a vampire game. The cities have whores walking the streets as well as strip clubs, night clubs and adult shops, and these are just to name a few of the legal establishments. Some of the deranged characters and their business plans are just flat out creepy, but this is what makes exploring and discovering the inner workings of the city such a joy. Below is one such midnight street just screaming with atmosphere.
Speaking of atmosphere, VTMB creates it exceptionally well. The entire game is set at night and at times you really do feel like an outsider; not knowing who to trust, not knowing what’s around the next corner, and needing to hide in the shadows to feed on innocent’s blood without being seen. Couple this with the range of music (the metal music in the nightclubs are particularly memorable) and you have yourself a gripping world that makes you want to explore every inch!
The world of VTMB is littered with unique, interesting characters that you aren’t going to forget about any time soon. Once such example is Jeanette; the owner of the Asylum nightclub, and her schizophrenic personality. Then there’s Nines, the bad-ass leader of the Anarchs who is very passionate about changing the way that Vampires are treated by the Prince and his philosophies. Everyone has something to say and at times, (in fact, most of the time) you just don’t know who to trust. Many characters have loads of dialogue options, all well voiced, and this gives you the choice whether to spend the time to learn about the world and the character themselves, or just pick at the necessary information. In addition, most of the ladies seem to have ginormously large racks and few clothes, which is a slight distraction from what you’re meant to be doing. Below is a screenshot of my good friend Velvet. I made sure she got a LOT of screen time.
The only way to develop your characters is through completing the many quests on offer throughout LA. That’s right; this means that killing enemies will not make you stronger. You can distribute your experience points on either skills or attributes and this in turn will increase your Feats. There are 16 Feats in total and these include stats that affect combat ability (eg - unarmed, defences and ranged attacks), stats that effect covert techniques (eg – hacking, lock picking and sneaking) and stats that effect conversations (eg – haggling prices, intimidating and persuasion). Distributing these points in certain ways will open up new possibilities in the game. For example, with a high persuasion feat, you could convince a guard to let you through a door. Alternatively, you could sneak past him and hack a computer to open the door, or just use your high combat abilities to take on everything. The large amount of options available in tackling situations is quite commendable and in combination with the many playable classes, VTMB has MASSIVE replay value.
Your EXP can also be spent to power up your characters unique Disciplines. Some of these include slowing down time, turning into beasts or the ability to soak damage. Given the limited amount of EXP at your disposal throughout the game, you’ll probably only be able to max out two of the three at best, which requires careful thought, especially considering there is no way of re-allocating your points. My strategy was either sneaking around and picking off enemies one by one with my bats, or turning into a beast and wreaking havoc on everything in my path. Below is a screenshot from typical boss battle.
While Exploring and interacting with towns and dungeons is great fun, the battle system is very simple and flawed. To simplify things, there are two main methods to take on a dungeon. The first is taking it stealthily. I am a huge fan of stealth in games, but the stealth in VTMB is very broken which makes sneaking a brainless activity. Regardless of your stealth stat, you can pretty much crouch and sneak right in front of an enemy’s eyes and they won’t even notice you. They clearly should have taken lessons from Metal Gear Solid here.
If you decide to take your enemies on, be prepared to die, constantly, especially when there are lots of enemies on screen. You can alternate between first and third person views and attack your enemies hack n’ slash style or first person shooter style while throwing in the odd spell. Melee attacks don’t seem to hit the enemy half of the time and dodging attacks are usually pointless too as you’ll get hit regardless of dodge timing. Ammo is too scarce to be trigger happy so you’ll need a mix of the two most of the time. Fortunately, you can save whenever you want, even mid-way through a tough battle, and this is something you will be relying on unless you have a firm grasp of the game.
Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines should have been a lot more polished than it was. In fact, without installing the unofficial patch, it is almost unplayable. However, with it installed, it is clear to see why VTMB has such a cult following. The simple, often frustrating battle system is a small price to pay for the incredible, atmospheric setting, the deep, memorable characters and the engaging story. VTMB ha many strengths and comes strongly recommended. Do yourself a favour and give it a shot.
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