Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines is a game that has inspired fanatic awe in some of its faithful, but is largely a forgotten gem. Kotaku’s own massive list of PC Games You Must Play, curated entirely based upon reader suggestions, even omits it (in favour of Redemption, I might add).
What exactly is Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines? It’s a first and third-person RPG occurring in White Wolf’s pen-and-paper setting, Vampire: The Masquerade. In effect, vampires (and werewolves, and gargoyles, and other miscellany) are real, operating under the surface and behind the scenes, a trope that’s fairly common now, but was more novel in its inception. The titular Masquerade is the great lengths these vampires go to in order to hide their existence from the world, using a mix of superstition and science to downplay the subtle shadow they cast on human history.
You play as one of the kindred (their term for vampire) and find yourself in one of the distinct clans, genealogical bloodlines that each have their own unique traits and perspectives on the world. The Ventrue are ambitious, inclined to administration and leadership, the Malkavian are prophetic, and hilariously insane, the Brujah are iconoclastic rebels, etc. The choice in clan not only shapes how your fellow vampires view you in the game, but offers varying means by which you approach the world.
Why talk about this game now, 15 years later? Mostly because nobody else is, and since I feel the need to talk about it, this will be my first blog post on the site ever. But more importantly than just wanting to talk about it, it’s a game that should be talked about, if for no other reason than it’s doing things that many of our contemporary RPGs do not do.
In terms of gameplay itself, I was most reminded of Knights of the Old Republic, specifically the feeling of the opening Taris planet. The maps are fairly insular and dense with things to do. Since you’re a vampire, the game takes place perpetually at night, and despite its age, Bloodlines is very effective at evoking a sense of urban anonymity and space. I’ve never been to Los Angeles, but Bloodlines is working in much the same mode that Buffy’s spinoff Angel did (and near concurrently). The writing is at turns poetic, thoughtful, and (especially if you’re playing as the insane Malkavian clan) outright funny at times.
Mechanically, you’ll spend most of your time exploring dark alleys and derelict buildings, conversing with washed-up actors, pornographers, small-time gangsters and vampires of all temperaments and dispositions. The greatest part of the dialogue is in offering various means of getting what you want from people, through persuasion, intimidation, seduction, or just reading the situation correctly. Say the wrong thing to the wrong person, and you can end up closing off quests or options you might otherwise have available. Honestly, it’s somewhat refreshing and one of the reasons I miss older RPGs from that era (the aforementioned Knights of the Old Republic, the first Deus Ex especially). There are real consequences to how you approach an individual, and not all approaches are going to yield the best results.
The over side of the coin for Bloodlines is the combat. Despite what the first half of the game may lead you to believe, this is not Planescape: Torment, where social skills are sufficient to get you through any situation. You will find yourself fighting, increasingly so as the game progresses, and it’s here that I think the game has aged the worst. The gunplay is very much in the mode of Deus Ex where damage and aim are directly related to attributes, something that now feels at odds with the first-person perspective. Unarmed or melee combat are also fairly clunky, as your character flays wildly at enemies, and they in turn at you. Overall though, I don’t think that’s enough to tarnish what’s otherwise a remarkable game.
Should you play it now? It’s available on Steam and GOG for purchase, and if you like older RPGs, I’d definitely recommend it. It’s worth noting that like Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords, game development was rushed, and it was released in a fairly buggy (and partially incomplete) state into the wild, but fan mods, most notably the Unofficial Path, have restored cut content and removed most of the bugs.