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SummaryOnce again, pure RPG bliss courtesy of Troika
The GoodAs every fan of role-playing games should know, the guys from Troika Games played a major role (no pun intended) in the creation of the landmark title Fallout. As they established themselves as an independent game-developing company, they delivered Arcanum, one of the most interesting and flexible RPGs known to mankind. Bloodlines is their most original work; based on a pen-and-paper rule set used, to my knowledge, only once before in a video game, it is gorgeous, deeply satisfying, and impossible to put down for all the reasons you love RPGs for.
Bloodlines draws inspiration not only from classic "pure": RPGs, but also from hybrid games, most notably Deus Ex. A more traditional RPG than that seminal game at heart, it nevertheless has elements of a third-person action game and first-person shooter. Its action is clever, it depends on the way you have customized your character, and most problems can be solved in two or more different ways. In fact, Bloodlines belongs to en exceedingly rare breed of role-playing games that retain much of their genre's depth but are no strangers to inspiration coming from other styles.
Already the character creation gives you an idea about what a wonderful role-playing experience you are treated to. Different vampire clans are defined in a uniquely appealing way: instead of the usual fighters and clerics you'll have a choice between beast-like Gangrels who can summon ferocious animals; insane Malkavians who have unique dialogue lines seemingly taken from a surrealist book; ugly Nosferatu who must hide from humans during the entire game, and so on. The differences in the playing styles of all those creatures are sometimes so big that the game begins to shift genres depending on your choices: it can become a hack-and-slash melee game, a shooter, a stealth game, and more.
Unlike most other RPGs, you don't gain experience points from battles in this game, but only from completing quests. This encourages speech-related approaches and also makes it possible to run away from some difficult battles without fear of losing valuable experience. When you gain experience points, you distribute them to raise various attributes of your character. The role-playing system of Bloodlines is varied and flexible. Besides just making your character stronger and tougher, you can upgrade such skills as lockpicking and stealth, as well as feats such as persuasion or seduction. In a true role-playing fashion, the game allows you to do whatever you like. Feel like hacking computer terminals, picking locks and silently creeping past unsuspecting guards? You can do that. More inclined towards diplomacy? Raise your charisma and persuasion, and you'll be able to complete many quests which can't be solved with stealth or brutal force. And maybe you'll spare yourself a fight or two. Or just make yourself sexy and seduce people in bars and discos. You can do all that. Welcome to real role-playing.
There is also plenty of vampire-exclusive stuff in this game. After all, you are playing an immortal creature, you can't be killed in conventional ways, and you can drink blood, right? Of course! All those vampire aspects are beautifully integrated into the gameplay. First of all, there is the Masquerade. It means that you are not allowed to reveal to humans your true nature. So, if you are playing as a Nosferatu (who don't look human), you can't even allow yourself to be seen. If you violate the Masquerade, be it through reckless mentioning of vampires in conversation, public blood-drinking, or usage of your special disciplines in front of human witnesses, you get a warning. Five such warnings, and the game is over. You should also pay attention to your Humanity: you are constantly reminded that even as a vampire, you needn't be evil. Yes, you are a dark creature, a predator, a blood-sucker, but that doesn't mean that you should go on a rampage killing innocent people. If you do anything of the kind, you'll lose Humanity. The less Humanity you have, the more you will be inclined to uncontrolled frenzy.
The "meat" of this game are the quests. Of course, theoretically you can just follow the main story quests and be done with the game, but first, you'll really need the experience, and second, those quests are for the most part quite exciting and original, sometimes even more so than the main storyline. You'll get various simple bad guy-killing or item-retrieving assignments, but also such interesting material as preventing a book from being published, criticizing food in a restaurant, or convincing a girl her boyfriend is really not interested in her. Many quests can be completed in various ways - persuasion skill plays a particularly important role. Will you kill a person, lockpick his office, or convince him to do what you want? The choice is yours.
When you fight, you do it either by punching your enemies, using melee weapons, or shooting. To use your vampire disciplines (some of which are unique to certain clans, so you'll never see all of them unless you play the game several times), you need blood. Blood points is another excellent vampire-related twist to the traditional usage of MP. Each discipline requires a certain amount of blood. Those disciplines range from increasing your attack power to driving your opponent insane. Blood points can be replenished by drinking blood packs, but of course a much cooler way is to feed on your enemies, if they are human. High unarmed combat rating increases your chances of successfully feeding on an armed enemy. This way you can replenish your blood points and health as well. The fights are exciting, there are different melee weapons and guns to try out, and overall combat is nearly as satisfying as are the quests.
Bloodlines is set in one of the most unforgettable worlds ever seen in a video game. The atmosphere in this game is, quite simply, amazing. The visual design is absolutely fabulous. Never mind the technical quality of the graphics - it's their artistic touch that makes them shine; the incredibly stylish set-up, with all kinds of weird and grotesque ideas, full of imagination - gothic horror, immense sensuality, and decadent glamour are mixed together to create something really special. This is one of those games where extensive usage of adult-oriented imagery - sex and gore - has a true artistic value. There are many bloody locations in the game; suffering and physical pain literally surrounds you. At the same time, the game feels erotic - in a dangerous, menacing way. There are reasons for all that: these stylistic elements are there because they help to create a believable, convincing, seductive world. Bloodlines is a masterpiece of dark beauty.
Some locations and setpieces in this game stay in your memory long after you've finished it. When I was running around the haunted mansion early in the game I felt as if I were having an unsettling dream. And when I descended into the sewers to investigate the video tape murders, I was genuinely scared by those terrifying demons. I nearly jumped on my seat when the first of those creatures suddenly attacked me in the internet cafe. And the werewolf chase? Undeniably, that was one of the most nerve-tickling, scariest moments in my game-playing career. I remember how I ran away from that beast and crouched helplessly in a dark corner of that tram shack. The werewolf was madly running about, crushing the door of the shack. It didn't notice me and continued howling and hitting the walls. It was terrifying. The only thought I had was: "Don't move! Just... don't move". And then the tram finally arrived, and I jumped into it at the same moment as the werewolf's claws hit me... I escaped alive, gazing at the spectacular panorama of nocturnal Los Angeles spread in front of me, sensing deep relief and still trembling at the thought of what I have just experienced.
Yes, this game is very intense - poetically, artistically intense. But the more "normal" locations, those you visit all the time, and where scripted events rarely occur, are visually as appealing as those unique sequences I described above. There are four main "hubs" in the game - Santa Monica, Downtown LA, Hollywood, and Chinatown. Each one of those big locations is depicted with great care and enormous attention to detail. I often found myself simply stopping and staring at the dark skies, with all those neon signs cluttered on top of the skyscrapers. Character graphics are excellent as well: conversations are shown up close, with remarkable variety of facial expressions. You won't forget those faces even if you try to. Not to mention the technical side of the whole thing - shadows, reflections, lights, and so on: everything just looks fantastic in this game.
Bloodlines also has an intriguing plot rooted in rich lore. The story mostly revolves around politics and power struggle in the vampire world. The various vampire organizations of Los Angeles are believable and well thought-out. There is the leading party of Camarilla, a conservative movement, corrupted from within, but with clear inclination to order-preserving; the Anarchs, sort of radical leftists who don't recognize any authority and believe in a "free world"; the vicious Sabbat, who exploit the beastly, cruel part of the vampires, and whose goal is utter destruction; and finally, the mysterious Kuei-Jin, Chinese vampires with different traditions and ideas about spirituality. The best part of all this is that before the endgame begins you'll have to decide which side you are on. Some decisions won't be possible, because during the game you were too rude to representatives of certain organizations, or did something to offend them. In the end, it is you, the player, who has to find his own ideology and believe in it. You get different endings depending on which side you choose. You'll also skip one of the two final areas if you side with certain people.
Most of the characters in the game are memorable and interesting. It's a pleasure just to hear those characters talk - first, because the voice acting is of surprisingly high quality, and second, because the dialogues themselves are wonderfully lively and often quite witty and humorous. The humor plays an important role in the game - there are hilarious dialogue lines, messages, and Eastern eggs spread around it.
The main plot itself is just the tip of an iceberg. One of the most impressive aspects of Bloodlines is the whole background information you receive about the game world. I never played the pen-and-paper RPG, but I enjoyed reading all this info on the loading screens (I had more than enough time to read them...), or grilling various NPCs for news coming from the World of Darkness and its inhabitants. It was great to read about the history of vampires, their clans and societies, their nature, Caine, Antediluvians, all kinds of prophecies, blood relations, social rules, etc. It is a fascinating world, and the game makes you believe it exists alongside the real one.
The BadThe problems of Bloodlines are mostly technical. Every location in the game loads separately, and the loading times are too long even on a powerful machine, resulting in poor performance. Clunky, choppy movement is not uncommon on a system exceeding the minimum requirements, making you physically connect to the pain of the computer trying to load so many things at once. On top of that, the original release was plagued by bugs, which were later corrected by several patches. Downloading a patch is pretty much a must.
Everything else is nitpicking. Perhaps firearms should have been made more rewarding - playing as a melee-oriented character is too tempting, since close combat weapons are generally more convenient to use. I wish certain areas were more interconnected - there are a few quests taking place in seemingly open, rural locations, but all you can do there is just go inside and complete your mission, unable to physically walk back to the city. Some may argue that combat is overused and only buffed-up characters can survive towards the end; however, investing points into speech skills results in additional quests leading to more experience you could easily apply to combat attributes later.