Sometimes described as “that lover from your past you still sigh for, the one that took your world by storm and drove you crazy with longing — the one that makes every new relationship in your life a little pale in comparison,” Vampire: the Masquerade — Bloodlines was released in 2004. It sold less than a million copies and was so riddled with bugs that it was borderline unplayable upon release. The game was a commercial failure. Why do we still talk about it?
Developed by Troika Studios, Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines is an action RPG based on the tabletop roleplaying game Vampire: The Masquerade. The premise of the game is based around the player newly becoming a vampire and learning how to navigate the seedy nightlife of this game’s twisted version of Los Angeles. All this, while avoiding the wrath of other far more powerful vampires in the process.
At its core, the game is a dialogue-heavy RPG that explores questions of morality, power, and if vampires can truly retain their humanity all while keeping the beast inside of them at bay. This, accompanied by the lore built around the universe of the tabletop RPG, makes Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines a highly engaging and lore-heavy adventure.
Troika wasn’t an amateur studio when it came to lore-heavy RPGs by any means. It was founded by Fallout veterans Jason Anderson, Tim Cain, and Leonard Boyarsky with the sole intention to publish RPG games. Troika’s previous title Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, “ sold well for a few weeks, but then faded.” Its total revenue was in the eight million dollar range.
Compare that to Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines. Bloodlines’ revenue was a little over three million. It was the studio’s worst-selling game to date, and we (mostly) have Half Life 2 to blame for it.
Bloodlines was built in the Source Engine, the same engine used to create Half-Life 2. Troika‘s contract with Valve, the creator of Half-Life 2 and Source Engine, stated that Bloodlines absolutely could not release before Half-Life 2. Troika planned to release Bloodlines in the spring of 2005 to avoid any competition with Valve’s eagerly anticipated sequel, but Bloodlines’ publisher, Activision, had other plans. They moved the release date up to November 2004 and then made it the same weekend as Half-Life 2. Yikes.
Of course, the borderline unplayable state of the game didn’t help their sales any, either. Troika, despite being a relatively successful studio for their size at the time, often struggled to stay afloat and was made up of a small staff.
Bloodlines was built on an older version of Source Engine, and because of several data leaks occurring in which the source code for Half-Life 2 was stolen, Bloodlines had to be postponed and was set for a 2005 release date while Valve tried to implement new security features for the engine. But wait, you say, the game was released in 2004! Yes, it was. If you’re familiar with how often publishers force crunch and rushed development on studios, the alarm bells are probably ringing in your head right about now.
The biggest issue was the game was too big for Troika’s breeches. It required a lot of characters to be animated, and a lot of lines of dialogue to be voiced. The designers greatly underestimated the amount of time they’d need to get all of this done on top of making the battle system, and they absolutely refused to cut any content.
Activision was getting impatient and demanded the game be ready to ship by September. Troika managed to convince them to delay this and give them some more funds for further development, but this funding wasn’t enough to pay the entire staff. Some people worked on this game with no compensation. After another few months, Activision finally had enough of the delays and shipped the game. It wasn’t finished.
Almost immediately upon the game’s release, over half of Troika’s staff was fired. The staff that was left desperately tried to patch the game to a more playable state, but Activision refused to give the studio any more funding. Troika shut its doors in February 2005.
So, why do people like it?
Speaking from my own personal experience, I have yet to find such a rich RPG that fills the vampire-shaped hole in my heart Bloodlines left when I beat it. This may sound jarring considering the information I just gave you, but Bloodlines was a critical success with an overall review score of 80/100. The only consistently bad thing most critics had to say about this game was that the bugs were overwhelming. Enter the modders.
In 2004, work began on an unofficial patch of Bloodlines in an attempt to fix the most glaring issues of the game. The project was started by Dan Upright and was later taken over by Werner Spahl, better known by his online handle Wesps5. Since then, the patch has- to this day- received constant updates, the most recent one being on May 25, 2021. The patch is so crucial in playing the game without facing potential game-breaking glitches that it’s even bundled with the game’s GOG release.
Because of this patch, players are finally starting to see this game for what it was meant to be. Bloodlines boasts a star-studded cast of voice actors, such as John DiMaggio, Grey Delisle, and Phil LaMarr, and it’s because of this cast that the game’s sharp and witty writing is allowed to shine.
“Every time I yank a jawbone from a skull and ram it into an eye socket, I know I’m building a better future.”
The plot of the game seems simple enough on paper. You’re a newly sired vampire, and the leader of the vampires in Los Angeles spares your life out of an act of “good will.” And then… he immediately sends you on a suicide mission. But you survive! As the game progresses, you begin to get more entangled in a game of political warfare, all while the threat of an apocalypse looms in the background.
As the game progresses, you learn that the goals of each and every vampire in the city revolve around their own personal gain. You, as the player, are really nothing more than an errand boy to them. Bloodlines shows this to you masterfully as you enter the Last Round, a bar inhabited by members of the Anarch faction nestled in the corner of downtown Los Angeles.
When you enter the bar, the first thing you notice is how overwhelmingly loud the music is. The song that plays is Lecher Bitch by the industrial metal band Genitorturers, and doesn’t lower in volume, even after you engage in dialogue with some of the inhabitants. The Anarchs take every opportunity to ridicule and talk down to you for your loyalty to the prince of the city, a vampire by the name of Sebastian LaCroix. Despite their disdain for you, the Anarchs will still ask you to do several tasks for them, and even upon completing these tasks, they still won’t turn their damn music down so you can hear them speak. If you want to deal with them, it’s their way or no way at all. They don’t have any time to appease someone who associates themself with a clan that contradicts their core beliefs.
The game is rich in atmosphere, truly bringing nighttime Los Angeles to life. Each location is filled to the brim with eccentric characters and flavor text everywhere you look. It would be well worth your time to do side quests if only to experience more of the characters and the twisted world they inhabit.
It’s not presumptuous at all to claim that the first 2/3 of the game is amongst the best RPG experiences available for PC.
The game really begins to show its age when you enter Chinatown. TLDR for those that don’t want to hear the grisly details: Chinatown is an extremely racist area of the game and each and every NPC you speak to is an Asian caricature, most of which speak in exclusively broken English. The locale is much smaller than every other district in the game, the quests are executed poorly, and it’s genuinely hard to sit through.
Chinatown is dominated by the Kuei-jin, a faction of eastern vampires. Every other locale in the game is run by Kindred, the western vampires. If that sounds mildly interesting to you, then I’m sorry. It’s executed horribly, is highly misogynistic, and plays into various stereotypes that are in poor taste at best and cruel at worst. TheGamer writer Corin Bae delves deeper into the racism and orientalism prevalent in this game and I highly recommended reading about the issues in this area from the perspective of someone who is affected by the toxic stereotypes it perpetuates.
Everything seems to fall apart at this point in the game. The writing is notably weaker, every part of combat involves gunplay (the weakest part of combat in a game already slagged by poor combat), and this area contains one of the worst boss fights in the game.
Chinatown is difficult to stomach and even worse to play. It’s unavoidable if you’re trying to complete the game, and is a splotch on what could’ve been one of the most compelling RPGs in recent history. All we can hope for is that the sequel doesn’t repeat the mistakes of its predecessor.
But, speaking of that sequel…
Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines 2 was announced for release in March of 2020 and was being developed by Hardsuit Labs. It still hasn’t come out. And honestly, no one is sure if it’s going to come out. The lead writer and writer on the first game, Brian Mitsoda, was fired without warning on July 16 of 2020, and “this came to [him] as a shock.”
To many, this was the first warning that something horrible was going to happen. Shortly after, senior narrative designer Cara Ellison left Hardsuit Labs, and then shortly after that, Hardsuit Labs itself was fired by their publisher, Paradox Interactive in February of 2021.
And since then, it’s been radio silence. Fans aren’t sure what’s going to become of the game. Tumultuous development seems to be a tradition for the franchise at this point, but people aren’t very hopeful.
Bloodlines could’ve been one of the most fondly remembered games of its time if it wasn’t bogged down by its own writing and programming flaws. Despite this, many remember it fondly for the atmosphere it created, the deep RPG elements, and the excellent narrative writing for the vast majority of its characters. It’s masterful at immersion and is definitely worth a play if you have the chance to pick it up.
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