Warning in the game for discussions of child sexual assault, rape, abuse. Warning for racist depictions of East Asian, Black, and Latine people. Warning for ableism towards people with Dissociative Identity Disorder and mental illness.
Los Angeles, California, 2004. The moon paints the night sky with its slightly yellow glow, and a bloodcurdling scream can be heard. You have just been embraced by a vampire. You wake up on a theatre stage on your knees with your hands tied behind your back. Your sire is beside you in the same position, a monstrous executioner next to him, and a pompous voice echoes from a third. The audience watches as your sire is decapitated, and the voice almost sentences you to the same until someone yells out from the crowd, “this is bullshit!” You are saved. For now.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines was developed by Troika Games, which was founded by three of the main guys who had worked on Fallout. Bloodlines had a 32-member team (shocking to me with the amount of complexity to this game), but its production was chaotic as the scope exceeded their resources, and the team was left without a producer for a year. After the game was in development for three years, Activision set a strict deadline for its completion, and it was released incomplete in 2004. Even in 2021, Bloodlines has had several fan-made unofficial patches/mods that fix bugs and add unused content thanks to its cult following. They are considered essential now to fixing the original, buggy game, so you definitely should get them if you plan to play.
In Bloodlines you play as the Fledgling, a newly-made vampire. This video game is based off of the tabletop roleplaying game Vampire: The Masquerade, so you choose your clan based on several choices from the source.
- Brujah: rebels and rogues with a fearsome inclination toward frenzying.
- Gangrel: bestial and untamed, often coming to resemble the animals over which they demonstrate mastery.
- Malkavian: a clan fractured by madness, each member irrevocably suffering under the yoke of insanity.
- Nosferatu: they have become disfigured by the Embrace, so they keep to the sewers shadows and traffic in the secrets they collect.
- Toreador: they enjoy every sensual pleasure the world has to offer, idolizing physical beauty and the adoration of their thralls.
- Tremere: vampiric sorcerers that wield the supernatural power of their past, though they became vampires through treachery and artifice.
- Ventrue: they are the nobles of vampire society, though their entitlement and greed encourages them to seek ever more at the expense of others.
What makes this really feel like you’re role playing is that the clan you choose affects how you interact with the world and it with you. If you’re a Nosferatu, you look too much like a movie vampire, so your kind all become incredibly adept at stealth and travelling via sewers, otherwise you will violate the Masquerade. (The Masquerade is what keeps kine [humans] and Kindred [vampires] coexisting in society.)
If you’re a Malkavian, you have a peculiar way of speaking, such as saying, “I am no longer here,” instead of a simple “bye.” You often speak in riddles and the insight you have into the world has you say things that not even you should be aware of, surprising everyone else. You will often hear and read true intentions behind what someone said or wrote. While speaking with someone, a voice may whisper “liar” into your ear, or while watching the news, the reporter will seem to be speaking directly to you.
While playing a Malkavian can be incredibly interesting for their foresight (but very confusing if it’s your first playthrough), the ableism upon which they are based is far less interesting. You can make your character laugh maniacally for no reason when speaking to people like you’re the Joker, everyone calls you “cr*zy” the first time they speak to you, and the armor you have is ridiculous (from a cowboy outfit with assless chaps to a sexy cop outfit…)
If I were to recreate the game today, I wouldn’t have Malkavian foresight come about because they are mentally ill (or “ins*ne” as the game puts it), but instead have their foresight be what distinguishes them from other clans in the first place. It’s understandable that having the entirety of the world pouring through your brain is painful and confusing, but that doesn’t mean we need to perpetuate damaging stereotypes. Additionally, while mental illness would likely work differently for vampires, I don’t see why only one clan has to have mental illnesses.
You also get to choose your gender, but unfortunately you cannot customize your character’s appearance beyond gender and clan. Since you can switch between playing in first-person or third-person, I would’ve loved to have control over my appearance, especially since this is usually something RPGs give us. Drawing from its tabletop roots, you have a skill sheet, so rather than traditional leveling up, you put points into a variety of skills such as brawl, computer, and manipulation to improve.
The first half of the game allows you to play with your preferred style, which is just what I like to see. One of my first tasks was to get a special bomb, and while I could go in the house and murder everyone to get it, instead I entered calmly, seduced the leader, drank every last drop of his blood, and walked out with the explosive without so much as a raised voice at me.
The most memorable questline was given by some of my favorite characters, Therese and Jeanette Voerman. They are Malkavian twins that own a local club, the Asylum. Therese acts as the Baron (Kindred leader) of Santa Monica, a serious businesswoman allied with the Camarilla, an overly bureaucratic sect. Jeanette is her flirtatious, chaotic sister that is allied with the Anarchs. I didn’t realize or understand what Malkavian vampires were when first playing, nor that that was what they were, so the final twist with them took me by surprise when it seems so obvious in retrospect.
Therese says you have to go to the Ocean House Hotel in order to get her to do you a favor. This quest is what made me realize this was a horror game (sorry, vampires aren’t enough for me to consider something sp0oky). The hotel is haunted, and you need to help her un-haunt it by retrieving an item of the ghost’s because Therese needs to start using the property for its intended purpose. From the moment you enter the hotel, lights are electrocuting you as you walk past, paintings are flying at your head, and electronics are exploding. As you walk up the staircase to the second level, it falls apart and you fall into the basement. You have to find your way out as spectres run past you screaming and elevators try to crush you.
[SPOILERS AHEAD] Of course it turns out to be a tale as old as time once you discover a diary. A woman came with her husband and children to the hotel in 1958, and he grew increasingly jealous and unstable, thinking a locket his wife was wearing from her mother was given to her by a suitor. You also find a drawing by one of the children showing the family all looking perfectly normal except for the father who looks furious and is on fire, hinting he was violent and angry long before this incident. His paranoia ends with similarities to The Shining’s storyline, he kills the kids, comes after her with an axe as she hides in the bathroom, and finally sets the hotel on fire.
After completing this quest, you feel like you’re being ping-ponged between Therese and Jeanette. Every time you come back to their room, one is waiting to yell at you and demand you do something else resulting in the most enduring scene of the game. You hear them arguing as you approach the room and once you enter you see Jeanette pointing a gun at the wall where the bathroom is. Then she turns to you and she is essentially half Therese and Jeanette. All this time, they were two women in the same body, meant to be a representation of Dissociative Identity Disorder, Jeanette being Therese’s alter.
The argument that ensues between the two is horrifying and graphic, be warned of discussions of child sexual assault, rape, and murder, but it is also incredibly compelling. As they argue, the camera keeps changing angles to show you more of one side of their face and coupled with Grey DeLisle’s skilled voice acting, you still see them as two separate characters. One of them is going to kill the other, or, if your persuasion skill is high enough (as mine was), you can convince them to coexist. I wish they came back later in the game as this is the end of your interactions with them. [SPOILERS OVER]
Unfortunately, in the second half of the game, combat becomes much more of a focus and you cannot avoid it. Once I got to the infamous sewer section, my frustration was reaching its peak. Maybe it wouldn’t be so painful if the combat wasn’t clunky at best, but the neverending barrage of monsters attacking you isn’t fun, it’s tiresome. Combat doesn’t seem to require much skill or strategy, you level up the relevant skills and then button mash wildly. This emphasis on combat is unfortunate as it drags the game down in the back half. Bloodlines is ripe with interesting stories and characters, so I wish it had let me decide what I want to do in it and how.
There are four hubs you explore in this gritty, atmospheric world: Santa Monica, Downtown, Hollywood, and Chinatown. For a game that looks this dated (but great for its time) and that isn’t open world, it has a ton of locations within each hub that make it feel lived in. Characters have surprisingly complex facial animations for the time as well.
Unfortunately, Bloodlines has issues with racism. We have two Black characters in the entirety of the game, neither of whom are terribly important. One of them is Fat Larry (Phil LaMarr), a guy with a horribly done afro (not his fault, developers just never want to learn how to do non-straight hair correctly) that sells illegal weapons out of the back of his truck and has the most stereotypical voice I’ve ever heard.
Then there’s Skelter, a member of the Anarchs who’s also voiced by LaMarr. (He’s got a great voice, but do we not know any other Black voice actors?) While Anarchs and Brujahs are known for being hot-headed and aggressive, when your only depiction of a Black vampire is a militant character ready to bite your head off, it’s not a good look. This is precisely why media needs multiple well-developed characters of the same race, to show the variance of humanity and Kindred.
Next is Nines Rodriguez (Armando Valdes-Kennedy), one of two Latine characters in the game (and the only one of prominence). I’m not sure how we’re in Los Angeles and the area isn’t filled with Latine people. He is also a member of the Anarchs and seen as their de facto leader. While I’m perfectly fine seeing a Latine person be among the Anarchs, having the main Latine character being part of this rebellious group has a similar issue to Skelter. Of course we’re the ones being violent and aggressive, right?
Then there’s Rosa, a thin-blooded vampire that lives on the beach of the Santa Monica pier, that you can completely miss if you decide not to speak to her. I didn’t even realize she was Latina until I read about her. She has some sort of “foreign” accent and is played by Courtenay Taylor (Jack from Mass Effect, Ada Wong from Resident Evil), a white woman. She is clairvoyant as a result of her thin blood and speaks very confusingly. She can predict the events of the entire game for you, though it’s very difficult to understand her until you’ve played through the game once.
No discussion of racism in Bloodlines could be complete, however, without discussing its treatment of Asian characters. Once you get to Chinatown, you learn of a unique type of vampire that appears to only exist in Asia. While it could be interesting to show how fantasy creatures differ by region and culture, here the racism is on clear display. The first time the game tells us about an “Asian vampire,” I wondered why they continuously referred to him that way since nobody else is referred to explicitly by their race.
Even the name given for vampires from East and Southeast Asia, Kuei-Jin, is supposed to mean “ghost person” by combining Mandarin Chinese and Japanese. This is a fairly nonsensical thing to do since the creatures you’re using that name for wouldn’t even refer to themselves that way in their own countries and languages.
There are several Asian women we get to interact with, but they all feel like hollow tropes. One is the leader of the Kuei-Jin, Ming-Xiao (Edita Brychta, another white woman). She is the archetypal Dragon Lady, “characterized by her […] untrustworthiness, and mysteriousness.” [SPOILER AHEAD] She is one of the main antagonists of the game, and the game does its best to make you dislike her. While with other characters you can choose to be rude, neutral, or kind, with her you have several mean options and nothing all that positive. At best, you’re neutral. If you choose to ally yourself with her at the end of the game, she will betray you, proving you were wrong to trust the foreigner. [SPOILER OVER]
Then there is Yukie, a Japanese girl who speaks mostly in English with random Japanese peppered in. She’s a shih, demon hunter. When you meet her, you can ask her, “you’re over eighteen, right?” and I don’t need to elaborate on the infantilization and fetishization Asian women face. You can even tell her that her English is horrible (not that it would matter, but it’s not) and refer to her as a kid, yet when we fight a monster with her later, her skirt flies up repeatedly. Funny how that happens.
There’s a character whose daughter gets kidnapped and only moments after is apologizing for being inconsiderate to you (which he wasn’t), and it feels like more of the docile, respectful Asian stereotype. Same goes for how a lot of characters in Chinatown aren’t fluent in English, and while I’m well aware immigrants of color exist, I always worry that the accents and manners of speech we’re hearing put on in media are meant to mock rather than express a lived experience when white people are at the helm.
There are also elements of Yellow Peril: for example, early on in the game when we are looking for that “Asian vampire” and find his computer journal, he reveals a plot point we won’t fully understand until closer to the end of the game. [SPOILER AHEAD] It turns out the Kuei-Jin are in Los Angeles because they want to take over. The Kindred don’t trust their presence (probably because they’re foreigners from the East), and even them being of a different bloodline than Kindred furthers this division between Us and Them. As always, the West must fear being enveloped by the unnatural, outsiders of the East. [SPOILERS OVER]
Despite all this, I couldn’t help but feel compelled to continue playing the game. I was interested in what would happen next, who else I’d meet, and what else I’d discover. Truly being able to make choices and roleplay a character makes this a great roleplaying game. Just make sure you play with the unofficial patch, and be prepared for some less than stellar combat and blatant racism. Regardless, Bloodlines is a game that all RPG fans should play as it shows what other RPG games could and should aspire to, especially when they have the resources to finish their games.