Vampire: the Masquerade - Bloodlines - Review  

I Have Lost My Mouth Again.
by Scott Wachter

Less than 20 hours
+ Some great moments
+ Good voice performances
+ Captures the style of Vampire: the Masquerade
- ...for better or for worse
- Inconsistent gameplay
- Terrible sound design and music
Click here for scoring definitions 

   More than a decade has passed since White Wolf's World of Darkness and its flagship game Vampire: the Masquerade were the biggest thing in the RPG sphere, and its video game adaptation from Troika was dead on arrival, buried by stiff competition and ultimately killing the company. These days, both the tabletop and video game are kept afloat by a determined cult of fans, though in the case of Bloodlines, perhaps that effort might be better spent elsewhere.

   Note: There are numerous fan-created and maintained mods and patches to improve upon the initial release and improve the game's performance with modern machines. This review forgoes all of them in the interest of critiquing the product as it was released.

   Vampire: the Masquerade - Bloodlines, as it is properly titled, transports players to an alternate version of 2004 where computers still run on DOS prompts, the goth scene is a major force in pop culture, and Los Angeles is secretly controlled by several factions of vampires. The first two on the list seem more far-fetched than the last in the grander scheme of disbelief suspension. The plot follows a newly created vampire as they find themselves recruited as an errand boy for every named character in the metro LA area, mostly based on a feud between the three major vampire factions over an ancient Sumerian sarcophagus of MacGuffinous import.

   The writing has captured the spirit of the Vampire: The Masquerade tabletop game to a painful degree. It features not only the best bits from the books that made it the juggernaut of the 90's, but the style that made LARPers the laughing stocks of convention halls for more than a decade. There's a lot of corn and cheese floating around the game, most of it in good gothy fun, but a few segments can really generate some eyerolls. That joke last paragraph about playing gopher for every bloodsucker with a name isn't mine; the '3' key in nearly every dialogue exchange is dedicated to leaning on the fourth wall to whine about being bounced around LA like a ping pong ball at the behest of the west coast’s assortment of Lestat wannabes. The story is well voiced with appropriately delightful cringe-factor for most characters, with two exceptions. Grey Delisle's Malkavian countess and John "It's me, Bender" DiMaggio's Anarch mastermind are both career defining performances and standouts in the medium.

Regular human beings - no, really. Regular human beings - no really.

   On the interface and interaction side of the equation, VtMB makes do with half of the tabletop version's character sheet when it comes to stats and skills. It also has the full range of powers to customize player characters, though half of those are not worth bothering with -- except when sometimes they are mandatory. There isn't much rhyme or reason as to when, how, or why they are supposed to merit a point investment, but it is always frustrating. Firearms, even the best ones with the highest skill rating, feel like popguns compared to any melee weapon, but they remain required for a number of enemy types, including many boss fights. Similarly, stealth only seems to count in combat environments and even then only if the designer allows for it. There are a few early encounters that can be sneaked through. Later on in the game, however, there is a deeply one-sided series of fights in a den of monster hunters that seems to have no nonviolent solution short of a magic only useable by one of the vampire sub-races.

   There are similar inconsistencies in enforcing setting rules. Masquerade violations and humanity loss only seem to apply in the overworld, combat zones are clear of any restrictions or punishments on overt vampirism or immoral actions.

   Enemy AI is a very specific sort of stupid. Characters will fling themselves directly at the player, spamming one power repeatedly, unless of course they get stuck on a physics object. Then they will run in place like aerobics instructors. Speaking of physics, players will find themselves stuck on physics objects yourself as bits of the level clatter about, especially when crawling over breakable obstacles.

Meaningless titillation and impatient responces. Meaningless titillation and impatient responces.

   The game's art reflects the general aesthetic of the setting very well, but even in the year of release it looked dated in execution, textures end up feeling a touch muddy and unfinished. Time has not improved upon these facts. For example, my machine liked showing off the corners of the LA skybox with heavy black lines. On the subject of dated, the ubiquitous prostitutes/bloodbanks have jiggle physics and raised nipples modelled as well. It's uncanny to an almost Lovecraftian degree. Why?

    While there is some unpleasantness on the eyes, the sound of VtMB is just plain bad. Sounds effects are outright cartoonish, especially when blood magic effects are active. The incidental music is intrusive, repetitive and generic in the worst sense. One track in particular, the 'spooky' music that plays during the haunted hotel segment and a few zombie infested areas, sounds like it was lifted from an episode of Scooby Doo. The game's licensed tracks are a grab bag of goth metal favourites, with only Ministry's title song having a connection to the actual game.

    PC RPG fans have built up a lot of cult favourites over the years, and each has their own reason for that status. There's a lot of possiblity for that sort of thing, usually related to the game being as engaging to play as it is to discuss. Bloodlines, for all the love it gets in some corners, is deeply flawed in many frustrating ways for a property that comes across more corny than cool. That's not to say it doesn't have its moments, as the haunted hotel is still a great bit of level design and the very end is delightfully surprising, but each of those moments is marred by shoddy coding, awkward presentation, or both. This title got buried in the Christmas release cycle of 2004, a fate it seems to have deserved.

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