Horrifyingly Close to Perfection

by Arthur B

Like members of the Malkavian clan of Kindred, Vampire: the Masquerade - Bloodlines is deformed and warped in ways which are not immediately obvious. But when it's at its best, it's probably the best World of Darkness-based RPG we're ever going to get.
I feel sorry for Troika - cursed, irradiated, mutant refugees from the Fallout development team that they were. They never quite got around to releasing a game which wasn't horrifically riddled with bugs on release, and in the case of Vampire: the Masquerade - Bloodlines, neither official patches nor a dedicated unofficial patching project from the fanbase can quite fix everything. Which is a same, because as far as CRPGs based on tabletop RPGs go, it's nice to see one which isn't based on Dungeons & Dragons, and it's especially nice to see one which captures the game in question so perfectly. (It'd just be nice if my chair in my haven wouldn't sink a foot into the floor and start spinning around wildly whenever I gently nudge it...)

It's also good to see someone grasping the nettle and trying to adapt a World of Darkness game to the CRPG format. It's strange that it took so long for Vampire: the Masquerade and the vast number of offspring it spawned to enter the videogame arena; it took 9 years after the release of the original RPG for any Vampire-based computer game to be published at all (the less widely celebrated Redemption) whereas it took a mere 5 years for a TV show to be produced based on the property. It's particularly odd, because in the 1990s the World of Darkness was a seriously big deal - or at least, a very big fish in the very small tabletop RPG pond, and it's still pretty significant to this day.

In its prime, Vampire and its coterie of siblings were the second largest force in the hobby next to Dungeons & Dragons, through a combination of tapping sufficiently into the zeitgeist to appeal to an audience which hadn't been targeted by RPGs before, and through TSR's bumbling incompetence driving the D&D line into the ground. Following the scorched-earth approach White Wolf took when redesigning the system and rolling out the new World of Darkness setting - during which period all the old game lines were swept aside and replaced by uncanny and unfamiliar simulacra like Vampire: the Requiem - it seems that the game line isn't quite as huge as it used to be, but it's still a force to be reckoned with, and all of the statistics I've been able to track down suggest that the World of Darkness is one of the most consistent game lines in the tabletop RPG hobby - other games have their spurts of popularity, sometimes even knocking the World of Darkness off the number 2 spot, but invariably they also have their fallow patches, whereas the World of Darkness just consistently sells well from month to month.

And yet, this hasn't translated into widespread videogame adaptations. To put things into perspective, there have been more Call of Cthulhu computer games than Vampire-based adaptations, and there's been an equal number of games based on Shadowrun and Traveller. These game lines are reasonably well-known in the tabletop community, and loved intensely by their fans, but nobody would claim that, when Vampire was in its prime, any of the three could hold a candle to it in terms of the size of the audience or popularity.

It fell to Activision to take the plunge, and they called on Troika to come up with a fresh approach after Nihilistic Games' Redemption failed to set the world on fire. What they came up with was imperfect, not least because Activision didn't give them sufficient time to give the game a decent ending, but it's also a brilliant snapshot of what was engaging and fun about Vampire.

Bloodlines starts out on the right track by being extremely friendly to newcomers to the system. When commencing a new game you have an option of building your own character from scratch, or answering a series of questions to assign stats and a clan to your character. (Vampire clans are basically character classes, but don't tell White Wolf because they'll get upset and huffy.) I gave it a try, since I'm not especially experienced with Vampire (I've played in one unofficial LARP which used the tabletop rules rather than Mind's Eye Theater, and a tabletop oneshot, and that's it), and I didn't really have any firm plans beyond playing a Malkavian, a member of the vampire bloodline whose members are all utterly insane (because playing a Malkavian is supposed to be awesome, and it is, for reasons I will explain later). I was pleased to see that not only did the question-and-answer format let me steer towards a particular character concept if I were interested in it, but it also provided neat pointers for skill areas I should consider developing (it felt I would do well as a mainly social character with a sideline in sneaking and shooting), and crucially it gave me a full-blown guided tour of my character sheet, explaining precisely how the various attributes and skills fed into the various activities I could partake of in the game. Frankly, every CRPG should do this, and it irritates me that many still don't.

Assigning the few points left over from the character generation process, I decided that my Malkavian would be an Iain M. Banks fan, and duly named her "It's Your Funeral". A cut scene depicts how It's Your Funeral, after a night on the town, unwisely chooses to go home with a vampire who has trouble keeping his fangs to himself, and is "sired" by him to join the nefarious secret society of vampires within LA. It turns out he didn't do it with the permission of Prince LaCroix, ruler of the local Camarilla-affiliated vampires, and as a consequence the Prince has Funeral's sire killed and takes her on as a troubleshooter. There ensued a number of missions relating to the core plotline (involving a mysterious sarcophagus), which It's Your Funeral wasn't very interesting, as well as - at least until around halfway through the main plot - a delightful variety of side quests and sub-missions, which Funeral found much more enjoyable.

The first thing I noticed was how silly Funeral looked. To give Troika their due, they appear to have come up with different costumes and looks for the male and female vampires of each of the playable clans, so if you make a Ventrue character they will look stuck-up and classy and Toreadors will look fey and artsy. However, someone at Troika decided that female Malkavians should dress like sexual playthings. Maybe they're of the opinion that crazy chicks are total sluts, or maybe they reckon that the only thing more appealing than having a predatory psychopath cut your throat and drink your blood is having a paranoid schizophrenic predatory psychopath cut your throat and drink your blood; whatever their reasons, they saw fit to send dear little Funeral out into the world dressed like a goth parody of a cheerleader, complete with tiny little sweater halter and a short skirt that has a funny way of riding up so you can see her underwear when Funeral is laying the smackdown on people. You do get changes of clothes later on - which effectively act as the local equivalent of armour - but there's little improvement. The "heavy clothing" option involves the buttless chaps and wide-brimmed hat of a cowpoke on the Anal Ranch, whilst the "light leathers" ensemble makes you look like Officer Pertbutt of the Hump Patrol. It's only when you get into "heavy leather" that you cease looking less like a sex worker and more like a dangerous biker chick.

But it's not just the way they dress Funeral at game start which got to me. Using the third-person view, it became brutally apparent that when Funeral went out on this fatal evening when she met her vampire sire, she neglected to wear a bra. Funeral, bless her, has the sort of figure where you really do require some form of support if you don't want your anatomy slapping you about the face when you go jogging, and the lovingly rendered boob-jiggling animation - the most advanced I've ever seen outside of Soul Calibur - gives a new meaning to "uncanny valley". They're like two half-filled water balloons sloshing about in a sack, and it's incredibly distracting, and not in a good way. It was bad enough that I only used the third-person view in melee combat, when you don't have a choice about it. Actually, the only female Malkavian NPC also has startlingly huge tits, so maybe there's something in a supplement somewhere that I'm not aware of, or maybe I missed one of the pretentious little quotes in the main rulebook.
"And lo, the curse upon the spawn of Malkav was twofold; a blight was laid upon their minds, such that they would forever be strange, mad, lost souls, and the bosoms of the Malkavian women would swell fivefold, such that the minds of the living would be shattered by the enormity of the Malkavian glands."

- The Malkavian Book of Boing Zorp Woof Woof Meow
Malkavian voluptuousness aside, the designers have by and large done an excellent job of ensuring that the game responds interestingly to your choice of clan, especially when it comes to dialogue, a field in which the game generally excels. It doesn't take long for clued-in characters to realise that you're a Malkavian, since your dialogue is enshrouded in a thick blanket of gibberish, although occasionally it's useful, helpful gibberish, based on the hidden insights imparted to you by the voices in your head whilst other people are speaking. Players who want an extra challenge might chose to play one of the hideously deformed Nosferatu, who must travel around the sewers all the time because they breach the Masquerade if they show their face in public, or the Ventrue, who are so haughty and blueblooded that they can't easily digest the blood of commoners.

The acquisition of blood and maintenance of the Masquerade, the centuries-old pretence that vampires don't really exist, are of course major concerns of any Vampire: the Masquerade character, so I was pleased to see that they're a fairly major part of Bloodlines. The game helpfully classifies each area of the world as an Elysium, a Masquerade area, or a combat zone. An Elysium is a specially-designated neutral ground, enforced by vampire society, so using your weapons or vampiric Disciplines (think blood-powered superpowers) is impossible. In a combat area, you're likely to be going toe-to-toe with dangerous dudes, who either know about the Masquerade and don't intend to break it or aren't the sort of folk who really seek public attention, and so won't go telling stories about your activities the next day, and you can use your weapons and Disciplines as much as you like (though killing innocents is probably a no-no). In a Masquerade area, you need to be vaguely careful about what you do; attacking people in front of witnesses will get you police attention, and using certain Disciplines in public will breach the Masquerade - generally, it's those Disciplines which involve obviously supernatural shit which cause Masquerade violations. (One of the cool things about being a Malkavian is that all of your Disciplines are Masquerade-friendly, since they only involve stuff going on inside people's heads...) If you break the Masquerade 5 times, the other vampires corner you and kill you off to protect themselves, although various side quests can, if completed, earn you forgiveness for previous violations.

Of course, since the combat zones really only show up in response to specific quests, most of your feeding is going to take place in Elysium or in Masquerade areas. Working out regular means of getting sweet, delicious blood is something which really depends on your character's skills and your approach to the game. Personally, I found that since I had a reasonable seduction score the easiest and best way to get blood was to go to nightclubs and pick up women. It was only after I had this technique well-established that I realised that It's Your Funeral had effectively become a sexual predator - gosh, actual "personal horror" in a Vampire game, as promised in the tagline to the main rulebook? That's a first... It is, in fact, mildly interesting to note that of the various human beings you can seduce/hypnotise into being your personal blood banks in nightclubs, they're basically all women. And the prostitutes who you can lure into back alleys to drain of their vital essences are also women. In fact, most of the time it's actually quite hard to drink the blood of men unless you're actually jumping from behind and latching on. It's almost as though men are incapable of being vulnerable, or that women in nightclubs will let you do anything (including munching on their necks) if you're persuasive enough but men never, ever, ever go out to clubs in order to get the same sort of treatment.

It is worth saying that if you actually get someone to consent to giving you blood, it is considered bad form to take so much that you kill them. Doing so will incur a loss of Humanity, your stat which tracks how much of a nice person you are. The lower your Humanity is, the closer you are to giving into the ravening beast within, and the more likely you are to randomly Frenzy when injured. (Frenzy consists of the screen going all weird and distorted and you going on a mad killing spree until you calm down). Your Humanity increases when you do lovely things and decreases when you do mean things; if you lose all your humanity, you end up succumbing completely to the Beast and having to be put down for the good of vampirekind, but you'd have to be quite determinedly nasty to do that. (Most of my humanity losses involved feeding random NPCs to the extremely helpful and useful Sabbat-affiliated flesh eating vampire in the basement of the abandoned hospital who gave me lots of cool toys in return for being nice to her.) In short, whilst the game does include the two main punishment sticks used in the tabletop to enforce good behaviour on the part of PCs, you'd have to try pretty hard to actually get punished for wrecking the Masquerade or succumbing to your dark desires, so there's plenty of leeway to be an utter cad, so long as you are subtle about it and don't regard murder as the default solution to all of your problems.

So much for the nightly care and feeding of your vampire - what do you actually do in the game? For a long time White Wolf seemed to have rather lofty ideas as to what player characters in Vampire: the Masquerade would get up to; it's easy to get the impression from reading the books that you are expected to languidly flop about bemoaning the torment of your existence or something. This is at odds with what most people actually used the game for, which I will dub the "dark, edgy superheroes" approach to the vampire myth: despite the fact that the flavour text in the core book suggests otherwise, the system is really geared towards simulating superpowered go-getters in the service of the Camarilla authorities kicking seven varieties of ass and looking cool whilst doing it. Troika, quite sensibly, chose to minimise the angst and maximise the adventuring in Bloodlines, and thus the quests all revolve around rather standard CRPG activities - assassinating people, stealing things, exploring places, that kind of thing. Up to a certain point, the quests also provide a certain amount of leeway in how you approach them. In general, I found I tackled most problems using sneaking, combat, or social skills (my social abilities being enhanced by the fact that I could implant delusions in people's brains whilst talking to them), and by and large it turned out that even if a particular part of a quest rendered one of those options non-viable I could still fall back on the other two.

Unfortunately, this approach to quest design seems to fall somewhat by the wayside towards the end of the game. The point which made me give up and turn on god mode was a mission where one has to clear out a Sabbat headquarters; they're not up for talking, and their supernatural powers makes sneaking not a viable option, so you're basically forced to shoot and hack your way through. This proved frustrating, not least because I didn't really buff my combat stats as much as I'd been improving my sneaking and talking skills. In fact, the last three or four missions are just a long series of somewhat tedious fighty bits. The ending does at least give you a chance to side definitively with one of the vampire factions, or strike out on your ownsome (as I chose to), but at the same time I kind of wish I'd had the option to jump ship to one of the other factions earlier, rather than being obliged to work for Prince LaCroix for most of the game (in fact, with just a few dialogue tweaks 99% of the main plotline could have panned out precisely the same, whether I'd been working for the Prince or the Anarchs or the Camarilla Elders). According to walkthroughs, you can in fact accept an offer to join the Anarchs at an earlier point in the main plot... but then they tell you to go back to the Prince and pretend everything is absolutely normal, so it doesn't have any real impact beyond changing some bits of dialogue. It's pretty clear - to me at least - that Troika had grand and ambitious plans for the plot, which unfortunately they couldn't implement due to time constraints.

The overall impression given by the end of the game, in fact, is of a tabletop campaign run by a somewhat heavy-handed and inexperienced Storyteller. All of the side quests get shut down to force you to stop mucking about and pay attention to the GM's beautiful coherent storyline, and most of the endings involve a) enormous copouts when it comes to revealing (or not revealing) what's inside the mystery box, and b) waffle about the nature of the Kindred and the curse of Caine and the coming of Gehenna and the Time of Thin Blood. It is disappointing, but it's also very true to the source material, and in that sense it's reflective of the very best of Bloodlines: it's so faithful to the tabletop it makes me want to go and play Vampire: the Masquerade, and under normal circumstances there are at least a dozen games on my shelf I would rather delve into than that. Caine bless you, Troika, for making Vampire awesome again for that brief, magic spot where Bloodlines is at its best.

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Comments (go to latest)
Dan H at 21:23 on 2009-11-15
One of the things I liked most about Bloodlines was its absolute fidelity to the way Vampire *really* worked, rather than the way it was *supposed* to work.

The obvious example being the Combat Zones. You lose humanity if you surrender to the Beast and kill people. Unless, k'know, they're people who you've got to kill for the plot. Then it's A-Okay!

On the seduction thing. I saw a walkthrough once which amongst other things gave ratings to the various skills. Seduction came out rated a C for men and an A for women because apparently "If you're a man, you can seduce a couple of the women and that's it, if you're a woman you can seduce *all* of the women and a lot of the men as well".

Again, kinda true to the source...
Arthur B at 22:30 on 2009-11-15
So male vampires do, in fact, run the risk of being the Only Gay In the Village...

Another way in which it is true to the way the game is actually played: it's always nighttime, and you basically never have to worry about finding somewhere to hide from the sun. Because that would get irritating fast.
Wardog at 10:27 on 2009-11-16
This was a hilarious review - and alas! The woeful breast curse upon Malkavian women!

I own pretty much every horrendously flawed masterpiece that Troika ever made (Temple of Element Evil so close, yet so far, Arcanum - so close yet so far...*sigh*) but Bloodlines is heartbreaking, isn't it? It starts so well and then fails miserably.

I'm sorry you had problems getting through the end part as a Malk - I actually didn't have a problem because of the, I thought extremely cunning, blood buff ability. You know, where you burn a point of blood and suddenly all your physical stats increase the maximum? I thought that was a genius piece of design, actually, because it meant that you didn't necessarily have to pump your physical stats in order to feel *way* more powerful than everybody else. One of the things I really love about Bloodlines is that way it genuinely lets you be an immortal predator who can kick the crap out of basically any human you encounter.

I hear from various rumour-milly things that they were orignially going to *literally* implement voices for the Malks. So you'd hear them as you wandered around - there are a few examples of this left in the game, like when you're in the diner.

And finally ... Arthur ... Arthur ... Arthur ... surely you didn't miss Heather?!!
Arthur B at 16:07 on 2009-11-16
Of course I found Heather! I just didn't want to spoil her for people who did not know of her and her ghouly ways.

I was nice and sent her away once she started having premonitions of her own death because hey, I'm a Malkavian, I'm meant to take shit like that seriously.

I never used blood buff very much, for two reasons:

- It uses a significant amount of blood, and I was concerned about going into Frenzy in the middle of a crowd of Frenzy-proof monsters. Especially when I needed that blood to use my precious Obfuscate. Which the game decided I wasn't allowed to use for the Sabbat mission.
- In any situation where I needed Blood Buff, I also needed Blood Heal. And I was crap at changing between disciplines quickly. So I'd use Blood Buff, kill a load of Sabbat, get horribly hurt, faff about trying to remember which key corresponded to Blood Heal, activate Blood Heal, swear because it's slightly too slow to be useful, and die. :(

The trouble with using Blood Buff for the Sabbat takedown is that most of the enemies in there are actually other vampires, who have just as much access to cool disciplines as you...
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