After taking your first steps in Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, you’ll be struck with an overwhelming sense of millennial angst. It offers up a near-lethal dosage of early 2000s urban gothic fantasy, which even in spite of its quirks, is something that resonated with a particular type of gamer back in 2004. Clearly, it’s also something that continues to resonate in some way, as Vampire: The Masquerade -- and the garish aesthetic that comes with it -- has blossomed into a larger video game brand, after nearly a decade laying dormant.
With Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong’s imminent release, the continued support of the spin-off battle royale title Bloodhunt, and even a fully fledged sequel in Bloodlines 2 on the horizon, it ignites an interesting question for discussion: What made Vampire: The Masquerade worth capitalizing upon in this way, and to a broader extent: is there a unique essence to Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines' aesthetic or concepts that these new titles are trying to recreate? The critical discussion surrounding the game, both at the time of its release and now, outlines some messy but insightful responses to these questions.
Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines - A Brief Retrospective
In the intervening time since its release, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines has been enduringly described as a "cult classic." We can foremost understand this as a polite way of saying that Bloodlines has retained its devout followers even amidst the game’s flaws in the face of an ambitious scope. Even Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodline’s biggest fans will be first in line to tell you that it could and should be so much better.
There is still an unwavering dedication from the fans of Bloodlines, who have supported the game with unofficial patches to allow it to run on modern systems, enhanced its graphics and features with expansive mods, and perhaps most importantly made enough noise about it in the process to make video game executives get eager about the license. We’re now living in a world where there’s multiple upcoming video games that bear the Vampire: The Masquerade license, including the big, shiny sequel that could well live up to some of the promise that the first game had.
It’s undoubtedly thanks in part to this "cult" (coven?) that surrounds Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines that Bloodlines 2 awaits. It’s also a game that has benefited from a wave of critical reassessment. Although it wasn’t exactly critically maligned, there has indeed been a slight shift in the game’s perception. As a game that received 7s and 8s across the board in 2004, the prevailing wisdom seems to be that what Bloodlines does well, it does excellently, and that looking past its more obviously weak elements to extract the crimson nectar of open-world RPG brilliance within has given rise to a more positive reception in recent years, albeit one that tacitly acknowledges the game’s unfinished nature.
In 2009, Jim Rossingol for Rock Paper Shotgun wrote on the ‘tragedy’ of Bloodlines, succinctly summarizing the dual nature of the game as one unfinished, even in spite of its impressive qualities: "Bloodlines is so very far from perfect, but it is perfectly far from almost any other game we could pick up and play today." This same opinion of the game -- one that marks it as astoundingly unique in spite of its shortcomings -- has only become more widespread since, especially in light of the community’s post-launch support.
In an article for PCGamer detailing a recent revisit to the game, Ted Litchfield describes being intrigued by the ongoing discussion of the game: "Like most of its fans, I came to Bloodlines years later, drawn by that strong hearsay. A lot of its design choices frustrated me my first time around, and I put off finishing that first playthrough for almost half a year. Despite that, it's a game I simply could not get out of my head, and I found myself diving in for another go." Litchfield goes on to give an extensive assessment of the various improvements that the unofficial patch has made to the game, determining that these changes bring out the best in the title.
Appraising Vampire: The Masquerade
So what exactly does Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines do well? If you’ve played it yourself, you’ll already know that for all of its bugs, the original Vampire The Masquerade - Bloodlines maintains a very clear sense of tone, setting, and clarity in its writing, something which trickles down into every other aspect of the title. Writing for Eurogamer’s review of the game on launch, Kieron Gillen declared: "Bloodlines has the best script I've seen in a video game since… well, since ever… in terms of writing a modern, adult video game, no-one's come near. No-one's even tried."
It’s a bold statement, but you’d be hard pressed to find a player who is willing to argue that the script is included amongst the game’s various flaws. Although edgier than some might appreciate, it's a game that employs wit and dramatic tension with deft skill. Indeed, if the Steam reviews are anything to go by, the story and setting might be considered the game’s primary strengths, carrying many players through its messier third act merely to advance its narrative.
The gameplay "trajectory" of Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines is where it asserts its position as a more divisive title, if only due to the fact that what inspires so many about the game seems to thin out, moving away from the intricacies of the vampire culture that the game introduces and restricting the freedom of choice that is so integral to the enjoyment of the early game. Some of the best parts of Bloodlines are masked by an uncomfortable focus on its weaker elements, including its combat, which rarely feels accomplished enough for something that takes up such large swathes of playtime.
As Kat Bailey described in an entry in the USGamer list of the top 25 RPGs of all time, "Vampire: The Masquerade's quality takes a hit toward the end, its complex politicking making way for its weakest element: the flailing and uncomfortable combat. But up until that point it's absolutely grand in the way that it requires to maneuver and survive amid the scheming of the various vampiric factions." This sentiment that the game morphs into a new, obviously neglected paradigm by the time of its ending is one that is fairly consistent across the critical discussion of the game in both the past and the present.
However, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines remains decidedly brilliant in its early hours, where the details of its world slowly unfold under a complex set of interlocking, traditional RPG systems. This obvious commitment to its genre allows Bloodlines to be name-dropped in conversations about the greatest RPGs, which is one of the many positions it has landed in the ongoing discussion of the game, irrespective of its prominent bugs, flaws, and many visible seams.
Almost Excellent - Vampire: The Masquerade's Legacy
In 2022, post-launch patches and modding efforts have continued to make the best parts of Vampire: The Masquerade a little easier to see and appreciate, whilst also smoothing out some of its rougher elements. Although such efforts can’t erase the game’s original commercial failings or the fact that the original developer Troika Games has gone out of business, they’ve at least done wonders for the continued positive perception of the game and in its own way, given it a second life -- and a second chance for appraisal.
Running parallel to this is the corporate packaging of such continued admiration, wherein games in different genres are being pushed under the Vampire: The Masquerade brand, such as Bloodhunt and Swansong, which certainly might have something to do with Bloodline’s legacy. In many ways, it’s nice that this world can be explored in other types of games, but for me personally, it’s the freedom to explore offered in Bloodlines that made the details of its universe so compelling.
Now, many of the original game’s devout followers, are looking towards Bloodlines 2 to meet some of the unfulfilled promises of its predecessor, hanging some lofty expectations above it long before its release. As a sequel to a game that is now known for falling just short of brilliance, there’s undoubtedly a palpable pressure to get it right. It remains to be seen if Bloodlines 2 -- which is currently indefinitely delayed -- will live up to such ambition, but as the story of its predecessor tells us, something that’s almost excellent might just be enough.