Hello all, and welcome to Retro Gaming Month, Mark II. I did this once before, almost three years ago (has it been that long? geesh). While my previous attempts to celebrate an entire month filled with wacky, antiquated PC gaming fun were aborted shortly thereafter, today I decided to pick up the torch and run with it again, if only for a short ways more.
I’ve been revisiting several classic PC games lately. Whereas in our last Retro Gaming Month I featured titles from the late ’90s, this time around I’m into newer stuff — vintage 2003 or thereabouts. The first title I’d like to celebrate is Vampire – The Masquerade: Bloodlines, an FPS/RPG mix by Troika Games, which sadly went bankrupt and dissolved last year. Similar in mechanics to Deus Ex, Bloodlines casts you in the role of a vampire in modern-day California, where you become embroiled in the secret underworld of vampire politics and intrigue. Seriously, it may sound goofy, but it’s quite engaging — and very entertaining.
My friend Pooch got me Bloodlines as a Christmas gift a couple years back. Back then, the game pushed the limits of my computer, and in fact ran a bit choppy in many areas. I played the game a little more than 50% of the way through before putting it down and never returning, although I’m not sure of the exact reasons why I gave up. Well, a few weeks ago, I was surfing through an online message board and saw a discussion about good games of the past three years. Several folks mentioned Bloodlines, which reminded me that I should give it a whirl again — especially with my brand new computer in the house.
The experience this time — from a technical standpoint — was totally different. Gameplay was fluid throughout, the graphics were excellent and the atmospheric gameplay really sucked me in like never before. I decided I was going to finish the bloody game this time, so I download a strategy guide from GameFAQS to use in case I got stuck, and then set to work.
As I mentioned, when the game starts, you set up your character. You get to choose which vampire clan you want to belong to, which gives you different abilities and weaknesses. You can also outfit your character sheet any way you see fit. Along the way, you’ll gain experience points which you can spend to upgrade your skills, like a traditional RPG. There’s also four basic forms of combat in the game: Brawl, Melee, Firearm and Special Powers (like vampire magic, sorta). During my original playthrough, I focused heavily on melee and ignored firearms and special powers, and as a result, I ended up in a tough spot later. I made much smarter choices this time around, focusing initially on Brawl and then improving all the other skills equally as I gained experience. I also chose a character from the Tremere clan, so I could make people puke all over themselves on command. Funnnnn.
The game takes you across a landscape of various cities in California — Santa Monica, Los Angeles, Chinatown, etc. — as well as some special locations, like a haunted hotel, a really disturbing mansion, a museum, and so on. The level design is excellent for the most part, and the background music is haunting and mysterious — perfect, in other words. Combat is more mechanical than immersive (more RPG-like than FPS-like) but it gets the job done. The AI is actually quite stupid, but it doesn’t really matter. You play a game like this for the story and the intrigue, not the mindless combat. And there is plenty of the former to be found.
Bloodlines uses the Source engine, the same that powers Half-Life 2. It does not, however, make much (if any) use of Source’s advanced physics processing, which is a let-down. Despite that, it does utilize Source’s excellent character modeling, facial expressions and lip-syncing features, and I have to tell you, the NPCs in the game are some of the most lifelike that I’ve ever seen. Even just the passing pedestrians on the street are so realistic, occasionally you want to just stop and check them out. Like the chick in the screenshot above. Every time she walked past me on the streets of Hollywood, I swear she would steal a sideways glance at me, like I creeped her out on some subconscious level. (I am a vampire, after all — maybe she senses it!)
In fact, the NPCs in the game are nothing short of a pleasure. There are all sorts of wacky, creepy, seductive, sadistic, and otherwise unique characters to be encountered — nearly all of whom have some darkly humorous or macabre story behind them, in keeping with the game’s theme. For example, there’s the twin sisters who own a nightclub in Santa Monica. At least, you think they’re twin sisters — in the end, you discover that it’s just one woman who suffers from a multiple personality disorder! The important NPCs all have unique appearances, too — there’s even a police officer who looks like Jerry Seinfeld. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
My favorite NPC was Yukie, the katana-wielding Japanese schoolgirl who’s hunting monsters in Chinatown. The whole thing is ridiculous, but all kinds of funny. I only wished Yukie’s voice actress sounded less like an American trying (and failing) to read Japanese words properly off a cue card, but the character herself somehow manages to be a straight-up anime cliche that you actually feel something for, and want to help to complete her mission. Troika Games seemed to like dishing out J-pop fanservice, in fact — at the Hollywood Internet cafe there’s a computer account belonging to a Japanese exchange student, and you can read the emails she’s received from her friend back in Japan, complete with horrible Engrish that had me howling.
While the game has light-hearted moments like this, it also has a very serious side. My favorite mission of all was the one where you are sent to the mansion of Dr. Grout, leader of the Malkavian vampire clan, in order to find the missing doctor himself. The Malkavians have a peculiar trait: they’re all quite mad. Ironically, Dr. Grout — in his former life as a regular human — was a prominent psychiatrist at one of the large state mental hospitals of the 1940s. He was “sired” (converted to a vampire) by a vampiric inmate at the asylum, and since vampires have eternal life, has been trying ever since to find a “cure” for the condition. Since the rest of the outside world thinks he is dead, Dr. Grout toils away in secret, performing cruel experiments on insane humans in an attempt to devise the cure he seeks — not just for him, but for his wife, who has also fallen prey to vampirism.
In this case, the inmates really are running the asylum, as Dr. Grout — a Malkavian — eventually went completely mad. What’s really awesome about this mission is, as you wander around the strange and labyrinthine mansion, you can play back tapes Grout has recorded as a form of notes over the years. He becomes gradually more insane and more paranoid with each entry, but what’s really fascinating is how he laments the decline of the great mental hospitals of the ’40s and how they provided a unique and haunting atmosphere that can never be recreated. As someone with a strange fascination with mental hospitals of that time period, I found myself sucked in by this narrative — and thoroughly unnerved. It was, in a word, excellent storytelling.
Unfortunately, I have just one gripe with the game. It suffers from a number of bugs, some of which were fixed by a series of patches — and some of which weren’t. Many of these, in particular, crop up in the later levels of the game. In fact, as you get close to completion, it becomes obvious that the developers were rushing to get the game out the door — level design becomes hurried, lackluster and uninteresting, the level of polish decreases dramtically…and the various engine bugs (which were just minor annoyances early on) start to actually prevent you from completing the game. One bug in particular was killing me every time. If you’re in an area with a lot of machinery or other objects moving, rotating, spinning or performing some activity on a preset path, if you save the game and then reload, they will no longer be moving. If the motion of these objects is somehow inexorably tied to completing a task at hand, you are well and truly screwed — forced to reload an earlier savegame from before you entered the area.
In fact, I was being faced with that exact bug the last time I fired up the game. I was at a secret lab in Chinatown, where experiments were being performed on me as if to prove that I was actually a vampire. There was one room that I could not get through. In order to pass through the room, I had to get beyond a series of whirling, moving blades. I got cut to pieces, so I reloaded my game to try again. Much to my dismay, the blades were no longer moving. And because of this, I could not trigger the particular script that the game was programmed to recognize and allow me access to the next area. I was so frustrated, I quit the game and have not been back to it since.
I’ll return one day, though, and finish it up. Because overall, Bloodlines is a truly excellent game, decidedly under-appreciated, and certainly worth a purchase — if you can find it. And hey, what’s not to like about a game that lets you have your own ghoul as a pet, anyway? Incidentally, her name is Heather — she becomes attached to you if you save her life early in the game, and later on, she’ll show up especially to do your bidding. Isn’t that sweet. You can be mean to her or nice to her, and I always chose the latter path…although I happened to discover that if you ask her to change her appearance enough times, eventually she’ll decide that you apparently must want to see her walk around in a camisole and panties. Hey, nothing wrong with that, I guess.