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SummaryAtmospheric, addictive RPG with a strong personality
The GoodI've heard different opinions about this game; one of the most popular definitions was " Diablo with a better story and clumsy combat". Since I didn't like the monotonous gameplay of Diablo games, it took me some time until I finally tried "Vampire" (one of the reasons was the fantastic Bloodlines, which introduced me to the fascinating world of White Wolf's RPG universe). To my surprise, I discovered an engrossing RPG with plenty to offer in nearly every aspect.
The gameplay system here is much deeper and more complex than in hack-and-slash games like "Diablo". You have a party of up to four characters, and you can switch between the active characters at any time. You can also go into solo mode and navigate each of the characters separately, which opens new possibilities for battle strategy. This determines the nature of the gameplay, which is much less action than role-playing. The core of the gameplay is to develop your characters, to prepare well, to think of good strategies, and to navigate the characters wisely in combat.
This is a real role-playing game, in which you develop your characters the way you like. You can spend the experience points you earn to upgrade your characters' basic statistics, or to teach them disciplines, the magic spells of the game. The main attributes all make a difference, including not only obvious ones such as strength or stamina, but also more refined manipulation or appearance. They influence certain disciplines, and if you want to specialize in some of them, you must raise the corresponding attribute before you can actually handle the spells. There are vampire-exclusive things here you won't find in your usual RPG. For example, the source of magic spells is your own blood, and one of the ways to replenish it is to feed on your enemies, which in its turn requires a special disciplines in five different levels that determine its efficiency.
There is a wide variety of disciplines to learn. From the standard healing and buff spells to summoning wolves to fight for you and making enemies admire your beauty, there is a lot of stuff to experiment with. Although characters have different basic attributes (for example, Eric is not really well-suited to be a mage because of his raw strength and low wits and intelligence), you are unrestricted as to how you want to develop them further. Different vampires have different disciplines (like Gangrels having Animalism, which allows all kinds of communications and summoning animals), but you can also find tomes of magic in the game which will teach the appropriate discipline anyone you use it on. In short, there are many possibilities, and you'll definitely want to re-play the game to exploit them all. It's a RPG that makes you think for a long time before finally deciding how you want to spend your hard-earned experience points, and that's just what I love in RPGs: choice.
Speaking of choice, there is also moral role-playing in the game, something I appreciate very much. In this game, vampires are not just cruel, soulless beasts. Various vampire clans have their own morality codes. There is a humanity attribute for all party members, which influences a variety of things, from weapons and armors the character can equip to their ethical views. Everything you do is recorded by the game, influencing your humanity level. Kill innocent people while feeding on them and you'll lose humanity. Bravely stand up against a vampire prince and defend your ethical principles, and your humanity will raise. You will influence the story line and achieve different endings depending on how much humanity you have left. You'll have to make decisions during the course of the game, which include some really interesting moral choices. For example, a person wants to die and asks you to kill him - what do you think is the more humane thing to do, to satisfy his wish or to refuse? The choice is yours.
There is a lot of other RPG-related goodness in the game. The hardcore dungeon crawling, the scope of regular battles, the challenging bosses. There is an insane amount of items scattered around, so every dungeon crawl is also a treasure hunt. You'll open enough treasure chests and break enough barrels to satisfy your collector's instinct. There are tons of weapons, armor, accessories, and magic scrolls in the game you can find in dungeons or buy. Melee and ranged weapons (bows in medieval times, guns in modern times), two-handed weapons, different kind of damage to deal and to protect from (bashing, lethal, aggravated), and so on. Once again, you'll have to think when visiting a shop and looking at the long list of wares.
The battle system was heavily criticized by many people, but I don't think the criticisms were justified. I think it was judged as an action game, which it is not. It is an RPG, and a challenging one at that. In RPGs the outcome of battles depends more on preparation, good strategy, and character building than on finger dexterity. You won't achieve anything by madly rushing through the dungeons, hacking away at enemies. You'll be outnumbered, surrounded, and killed. That's why it is unfair to say that the combat in "Vampire" is bad because it takes time to kill the enemies. There is a lot of variety in character building and plenty of little tricks that will help you survive. You can send a character solo, luring away enemies one-by-one and then attacking with the entire party. You can use long-ranged weapons to trigger the attention of enemies, then run away, or charge with melee weapons. There are many disciplines that will make battles easier - different kinds of magic and supporting spells, various ways of replenishing your health and blood, and other stuff to try out. Enemy AI is anything but brain-dead; for example, enemies would run away when low on health, and heal themselves, forcing you to chase and to corner them. The combat has much more depth than your usual action-based system (like in Diablo), but there is still a good feeling of addictive hack-and-slash in the fast-paced battles.
But the gameplay alone would probably not be enough to make this game great. "Vampire" has a highly original and attractive setting. Instead of your typical fantasy world or sci-fi with robots and spaceships, the game is set in the real world. The unique twist is the separation of the game into two parts: Middle Ages and modern times. The first part of the game is set in the medieval Prague and Vienne, while the second will take you to modern-day London and New York. While the historical Middle Ages setting alone is already quite unusual and refreshing, the inclusion of modern times brings a new dimension to it. This is decidedly one of the coolest settings I have ever seen in a game. It is simply a blast to spend half of the game running through the narrow streets of Vienne, equipped with bows and swords, and the other half visiting bars and clubs in New York, wielding pistols and rifles. Everything changes drastically, you have plasma bags instead of blood potions, and computer hackers in your party instead of axe-wielding barbarians. The contrast between "ye olde medieval" era and the modern time with its pop culture is simply overwhelming, it refreshes the game enormously. It's also quite funny to see Christof adapting himself to our epoch, or the Brujah vampires turning from wise guardians of occult lore into punks!
It is possible to see that this game is set in a well-crafted, detailed universe. The different vampire clans are very interesting, and each has its own personality. Noble Brujah and insane Malkavians; arrogant, treacherous Ventrue and cowardly magic-using Tremere - you'll meet all kinds of people in the world of darkness. Everything here has its own history, "parallel" to the history of our real world, so the whole imaginary setting becomes really convincing. Legends, rituals, traditions, ethical codes, mythology and literature - everything is here to make the world more credible. When you fight against a ceratin vampire clan, you never fight just against some "bad guys". You are given information about them, reasons to why they behave as they do, their culture and traditions. This is noticeable in many details. For example, as you fight your way through hordes of ghouls faithful to the Lasombra clan, one of the characters will note that Lasombra are obsessed with painting and portraits because they cannot see their reflection in mirrors. Just a small detail, but one that gives you some insight on the enemy.
What's more, there were some references to real word history, which I found delightful. Wilhelm will comment about the Teutonic Knights, saying that they bring disgrace to his country. This allows us to establish the time period the game begins in, even if we didn't know it before. In the northern part of Prague, there is a Jewish Quarter, with wise rabbis who manufactured a golem, an artificial creature who obeys the commands of its master. The legend of golem, indeed, leads us to Prague of the Middle Ages. I really love it when there are correct historical and cultural references included in a game.
The story line itself is very powerful. It is mainly based on personal feelings - love to a woman, sense of duty, desire to revenge. It is not very complicated, but it captivates you right from the beginning and doesn't let you go till the very end. It is an emotional, majestic tale, which is also quite unusual for this type of games. I honestly don't recall another Western RPG with a story based on romantic love. There is even something Shakespeare-like in the dark passion of the game's story. It is full of suffering and conflicts, it is dramatic and suspenseful. It is nearly as original as its setting, and both are combined into a powerful whole, attracting the player and providing him with so much motivation to keep playing the game.
The characters in the game are not very numerous, and not all of them are fascinating, but the player's attention is entirely focused on the main heroes - Christof and Anezka. And those two certainly don't disappoint. Christof's passion and Anezka's courage make them wonderful main heroes for the drama. You won't find many other game protagonists with whom you'll be able to identify yourself as strongly as with Christof. He is a real hero, a strong and passionate man, and his love to Anezka is worthy to be featured in a real stage drama. But other characters are anything but "filler material". You party members are colorful and have interesting personalities. They often comment on the events and participate in dialogues, so you never have a feeling that you are just dragging a bunch of mute pack horses with you. The interaction between your party members becomes particularly amusing during the modern age part of the game. Characters like Pink or the insane hacker Dev/Null really enhance the game.
By the way, the quality of the game's dialogues is surprisingly high. The English language of the game is rich and sometimes complex. Every person speaks in his/her own manner. Most of the dialogues are cleverly written and are a pleasure to read. Colorful expressions, irony, anger, compassion, and humor are clearly manifested in those dialogues. The modern times conversations are particularly amusing and well-written. I was literally laughing out loud during the conversation with Dev/Null, the Malkavian computer geek. The voice acting, often the weakest chain in many games, is totally acceptable here - while some lines sound over-acted or too bland, most of the dialogue is delivered with appropriate emotion.
But that's not all. Some people would argue that the strongest aspect of this game is its atmosphere. Indeed, "Vampire" has exceptional atmosphere which will draw you into the game world the moment you look at the title screen. I played this game usually during the day, but I was genuinely immersed into the game world and felt as if I were there. The world is crafted in such a way that you'll have no doubts concerning its reality. I can seriously say that this game would be worth playing even if the only good thing it had were the atmosphere.
Having good graphics alone would not be enough to create such an atmosphere. The technical quality of this game's graphics is outstanding. I often found myself stopping and just enjoying the superbly crafted 3D world. "Vampire" is easily one of the best-looking games of its generation. But what really makes those graphics stand out is their artistic quality. The locations of the game come to life because they were depicted with care and attention to detail. Every dungeon is unique. Even though most of the locations in the game are dark and macabre, there is an amazing variety within this color palette. This is not achieved by throwing in buckets of blood and scary monsters. Just look carefully at the detailed design of the locations, the architecture, materials, objects, everything that makes a location real, and you'll see that the power of this game's atmosphere comes from the high creativity of its graphic artists.
On top of that, the music in the game is fantastic. Once again, it is mostly of the same kind, dark, depressing, and threatening, but there is so much subtle beauty in it that you'll find yourself stopping and just listening to the music. It fits the game perfectly and is another important factor in creating its marvelous atmosphere. The sound effects are also great. You'll just have to listen to the characters' moanings when they feed on enemies, to the creepy noise of ghosts' attacks, to the sound of steps in a seemingly empty corridor, anticipating enemies that await you around the corner...
The BadThe most serious flaw of "Vampire" is its lack of NPC interaction. Many people wander the city streets, yet the only way you can interact with them is attacking or feeding on them. You can only have conversations with important characters. This doesn't make the cities of "Vampire" any less atmospheric, but certainly detracts from its depth as an RPG. You'd think that this flaw can really destroy the game, but surprisingly, you'll want to spend time in the world of "Vampire" even though you can't talk to most of its inhabitants. I just can't help thinking what this game could have become if it had dialogues with unimportant NPCs.
The battle system has its problems. The path-finding is not always optimal. Sometimes party members were stuck or circling around mindlessly, while the enemy hacked away at me. Party AI could have been better - sometimes your party members would waste valuable spells on easy enemies, run to attack when they are low on health, etc. The biggest downside of the battles is the lack of damage feedback. Sure, you can feel that you're killing enemies quicker when you have more strength or a better weapon, but how big is the difference exactly? You can see that the enemy is bleeding under your attacks, but how much health did he really lose? As in some other conversions from pen-and-paper RPG systems, luck plays an important role in the combat of "Vampire", and therefore the battles are not always well balanced.
And the original, unpatched version of the game comes with a terrible save system. You can only save in your haven, or rely on auto-saves between different levels. In a game that is not very easy to begin with, it is just an additional frustration factor. Fortunately, it was corrected in the patch; in the upgraded version you can save anywhere you want.
The Bottom Line+ Original setting
+ Incredible atmosphere
+ Emotional story
+ Addictive gameplay
+ Fantastic graphics and music
- No real NPC interaction
- Some flaws in battle system
It cannot be denied that this game is not perfect. But none of its shortcomings really ruins it, and if you are willing to look past them, you'll find an original, engrossing RPG with a captivating story and surprisingly addictive gameplay. It is not a "heavy weight" RPG like Bioware's creations or like the other Vampire game; it is a more straight-forward, entirely story-driven game. But it still has plenty of RPG goodness, and it is hard to resist the sheer power of its personality and its magical atmosphere.
Now go away, mortal, and play this game, or we shall embrace thee before the sunrise!