Vampire: The Masquerade- Bloodlines (VtMB from here on because I’m not going to type out that obnoxious title) has a fascinating history as when it was first released, it was apparently a buggy mess and borderline unplayable for some people. But certain fans saw enough gold through all that muck and have been releasing updated patches to make the game run with current OS’s (as I understand it, the current one is version 9, which is the one I used). Even though it bombed on first release, mostly because it released around the same time as Half Life 2, it’s since gained a devoted fanbase. After playing the game myself for the first time about two years ago, I’ve gone back and completed a second playthrough. This review, in addition to describing what the game is like and what works and what doesn’t, will also discuss how the game has held up over the years.
You begin the game by creating a naming a character. You can choose to be male or female and choose from one of seven different clans, each with their own abilities. For instance, the Gangrel clan can buff themselves with a magic shield and turn their hands into claws. Meanwhile, the Brujah clan has a super cool ability to slow down time around them and run around Matrix style. You are also given skill points to put into different skills. Things like strength, dexterity, firearms, and more. From there the story begins. Your character is a recently created vampire who is put on trial due to something called The Masquerade, which is where vampires try to hide their existence from mortals.
As all the leaders from the major clans in California meet, the leader of the Camarilla, the more civilized sect of Vampire society that upholds the Masquerade at all costs, decides to kill your sire but to spare you as an act of mercy. After an attack on the meeting that also serves as a tutorial, you are brought to your apartment in Santa Monica, where you are told to meet with a man named Mercurio because he has a message for you.
Sound a bit complex? That’s because it is. The game is filled with fascinating lore about the supernatural side of this universe and does a superb job at showing all sides of Vampire society. As you progress through the game, you take on a huge variety of missions, ranging from retrieving a stolen explosive or hunting down a missing person to more exotic ones like finding the origin of a truly disturbing snuff film or finding the source of a plague in downtown Los Angeles. All of these objectives bring texture and atmosphere to the world, and the characters back it up. While the graphics look rough in some ways, particularly during cut scenes, the facial animation actually holds up very well, helping the characters pop to life in a way not seen in very many games. This, coupled with the superb voice acting, helps make the cast stand out, even minor characters.
What works so well about the atmosphere and world is that its woven into the very fabric of gameplay. For instance, the aforementioned Masquerade is in place to prevent fanatical hunters from bringing down everything the Vampires have made for themselves. This means that you can’t reveal yourself to be a supernatural being to the outside world. You can’t, for instance, feed on a human in the middle of the street. Your best bet is to wait until they are alone and out of sight. Too many Masquerade violations and packs of hunters will find you and hunt you down. But you can’t just kill willy nilly, either. There’s a stat called humanity that basically determines whether or not you go berserk. Let the stat fall too low, and you might transform into a homicidal beast. Then there’s your blood meter, which basically acts as magic. Most innate abilities in your clan cost one blood point, and the only way to refill it is to feed on someone.
The atmosphere remains consistent and incredibly engaging throughout the entirety of the game thanks to the constantly interesting objectives and characters. The game’s strongest asset is undoubtedly the world building, with a plotline concerning the supernatural apocalypse and unclear motivations of every major character. The gameplay, while certainly engaging, unfortunately contains a few issues. The strongest element is character progression and customization. Rather than using a traditional experience point system (ie kill a bad guy and get 100 points), VtMB uses a simpler system where you earn points from completing objectives and spend those points into whatever sections of your character you want, with each category having the same flat rate of point expenditure (for instance, powering up the first level of a skill might cost three, points, next one costs six, etc). There’s plenty of options, as well. Want to be a cold hard killing machine who can take a hit and dish out damage like nobody’s business? Pour your points into your defense and melee skills. Want to be an assassin type who is good at hacking and sneaking? Upgrade computer related skills and stealth related skills. Your best bet is to try and be well rounded as possible, with one area of specialization if you want to complete all the side quests since they often call for very specific abilities.
The game also does a good job of presenting multiple ways to complete any given objective, especially in the first half or so of the game. One quest has you stepping in the middle of a feud between some Russian mobsters and a local club owner. You can talk to the club owner, who will pay you for killing them (yeah, you’ll run into more than your fair share of lowlifes in this game) but then when you go to the Russians, they might present you with a counter offer. Something else about this game is that it’s entirely possible to fail quite a few quests, often in unexpected ways. Even in the more linear, story based missions, there’s usually more than one way to get to your objective depending on how you’ve built your character.
Some problems crop up with the second half of the game, though. While most of the missions are still fairly open in how you complete them, there are some that make me question what was going through the minds of the developers. One such mission involves an extended segment in the sewers of Hollywood. The first time I played the game, it took me the better part of an hour to get through this, and it was almost entirely combat focused, which meant that if you didn’t have a character who is good in a fight, then you’re screwed. The endgame missions are all fairly focused on combat, as well, although if your sneaking stat is high enough you could theoretically get through them quietly. Then that brings up the issues of the bosses, where good fighting abilities are absolutely required. If you don’t have a good combat character, these will be extremely difficult to get through.
That brings up the other major issue with the game. Stats are very lop sided in usefulness. The Persuasion stat, for instance, doesn’t pop up enough in dialogue to really be all that helpful and more often than not, it either brings little to the table or doesn’t do anything for you. Then there’s the Research stat, which is all but useless considering the amount of points you’d have to spend to get any use out of it. But other stats, like Dodge and Stamina, are absolutely necessary, and you really need to make a decision early on about whether you want to be a melee character or gun character. The problem with that, though, is that melee is, simply put, far easier and more efficient. Guns are wildly inaccurate unless you really pour your points into firearms and their damage output is simply not that good when compared to your capabilities as a fighting character. It’s disappointing that the developers didn’t balance things out so you could truly play any way you wanted, but as I understand it, the development cycle was plagued with problems.
Still, none of these flaws should keep you from playing VtMB. It’s held up fairly well over the years and despite the occasional glitch here and there, it still runs like a dream thanks to fan made patches that keep it up to date and stable. And while certain elements haven’t aged very well (mainly the combat, which can feel clunky at times, and the stat balancing), this is on the whole deserving of all the praise that gets heaped upon it thanks to its stellar writing, fascinating world, and strong character customization. This is an RPG that gets into the nitty gritty of what it might be like to be a vampire and isn’t afraid to go to some really messed up places to present its seedy and duplicitous world. There’s more than enough for RPG fans to sink their teeth into (and no I will not apologize for that).
+ Stellar voice acting, a great script, and good facial animation bring the characters to life
+ Fascinating world filled with cool lore
+ Great story that will keep you guessing
+ Open ended character customization
+ Loads of replayability thanks to multiple clans and outcomes
- Stats and combat can feel lop sided in terms of effectiveness
- The occasional glitch can be distracting
- Certain pacing decisions near the end will leave you scratching your head