Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 2 Hands Off Demo: A True RPG Descendant
Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines 2 for PC, PS4, and Xbox One has the intentional to be a true evolution of the classic RPG.
Entering the hotel room in which Paradox Interactive and Hardsuit Labs was to show their unannounced game, I had no expectations. Paradox as a publisher has always been associated with strategy games so I thought perhaps this would be another entry in that genre. I showed up a little early and the PR person I talked with briefly outside the door made sure he didn’t spoil anything for me which piqued my interest. So when I sat down and they said the words: “Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines 2,” I was shocked.
The original released in 2004; afterwards, developer Troika Games went defunct and publisher Activision had no interest beyond maintaining control on that original game. Paradox purchased White Wolf from CCP in 2015 and along with it the IP rights to Vampire: The Masquerade. Despite the many rumors in the years since, as well as the Tender ARG that was ongoing up to its announcement last Thursday, it is still a big shock to know that there is indeed a fully fledged sequel to the cult hit Bloodlines. Thankfully, it looks like it will be a true evolution of the classic RPG.
During the hands-off demo I was shown, both Paradox producers and Hardsuit developers talked me through the opening bit of the game as well as a brief exploration of the first hub you will be given access to. Though I haven’t played the original Bloodlines myself, I love watching YouTube critics such as Cannot be Tamed, who released a twenty minute video discussing Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines and why it was and is so beloved by RPG fans, so I had a vested interest in what was being shown.
The introduction shown was very similar to Bloodlines, as it showed the player on trial as an unsanctioned vampire, one that was created not by the will of those in charge. This event in which you were turned is referred to as the “Mass Embrace,” with you and seven others surviving the event. During the trial you get a sense of a feud between some vampire clans and a fire is set off mid-trial, letting you escape while also killing some presumably important vampire figures at the same time. It sets up the main mystery of who created you and why, sending you off to make alliances and enemies of your own while learning the history of the vampire world.
“Hardsuit was created to make games like this.” says Creative Director Martin Ka’ai Cluney. “We’ve been building this team pretty steadily and pretty deliberately just to do things like this. As soon as the opportunity came up, we just dove on it. Mauled it to death.” Despite his reserved voice he would sometimes break into excitement at certain aspects, such as the unannounced voice cast. “I can’t say enough that our cast is so fucking badass.” While the protagonist is silent, choosing from text dialogue on-screen to converse, everyone else has a voice. Though no specific VO has been detailed, some from the original game will be returning for this new entry.
LA is out and Seattle is in, and it is also the home of developers Hardsuit Labs which gives them a great opportunity to fully realize the city, its history, and adapt the current issues with a vampiric edge. Character customization and a tutorial were not shown, though the developer said players will be choosing a background for their character, deciding things like what their career was when they were human. Players no longer assign attribute points to determine their abilities; instead, you are capable of handling any weapon you come across. In the demo this included a shotgun and pipe to take out a few enemies who were set on killing you.
A decision you will have to make early on is what kind of mobility do you want. Do you want to turn into gas in order to float through air vents? Maybe wield telekinesis to pick up and throw objects, or perhaps fly over gaps with the required visual effects of bats surrounding you? This decision showcases one of the many RPG aspects of Bloodlines 2, following in the steps of Prey, Dues Ex: Mankind Divided, and Dishonored, by allowing the player to pick from multiple options how they want to interact with and traverse the world.
Bloodlines 2 may share immersive sim elements (first person perspective, rummaging through items, reading logs, watching the world react to your actions) but at its core is an RPG. “There’s been kind of a dearth of really good games that aren’t ashamed to call themselves RPGs,” dismays Cluney, “You have a lot of RPG elements in games like that but Brian [Mitsoda] wants to make RPGs, I want to make RPGs, Hardsuit wants to make RPGs.”
During this introduction your character makes their way through the Seattle underground, a real part of the city that was built over after the Great Fire of 1889. That being said, the real underground isn’t as expansive as the one in Bloodlines 2, as following reality would make it much more boring as its mostly basements, small tunnels, and some old signage. The duality of old vs. new in Seattle is something that will not only be present in the locations but also in the themes of the game.
Cluney, when talking about the themes of Bloodlines 2, mentioned, “Seattle has been having this struggle over the last few years, decade really, between what the tradition of what the city is and its roots versus whats been coming in lately with tech and money and everything else.” It’s not hard to connect that sentiment to the invasion of Amazon and other tech companies into the city in the past decades and their continued attempts to influence policy.
One of the most recent clashes between Amazon and Seattle was over a tax on large employers to fund affordable housing and homeless services. This was ultimately dropped due to pressure from those big tech companies. Despite their success, Amazon pulled out of its lease anyway. Big tech villainy is a staple of the futuristic cyberpunk genre, but as we rapidly approach billion dollar companies exerting more and more control over the cities they reside within (or want to reside in) it wouldn’t be surprising to see some aspects of that genre adapted with a vampiric tint for the modern day. “Both sides very much are pushing against each other. Right at this point right now they’re not coexisting. Then if you look back over history, Seattle is very much a boom or bust town, this isn’t the first time its happened.”
The main questline will follow the mystery of who it was that turned you, as well as seven others, and why. An early phone call brings in another mystery, a woman who appears to help you, though exactly who she is and why she is helping will have to be solved over the course of the campaign. Like many of its ilk, the perspective in Bloodlines 2 is always first person, save for a few climbing animations where a third person camera is used briefly to show you ascending a wall or special combat animations.
Before you are free to roam the world you have to undergo some exposition on the rules of the masquerade, essentially keeping the existence of vampires secret. Once that is done you are able to freely explore and interact with the world and watch it react to you. A mugging can be stopped and you’re allowed to consume or spare the victim. Feed on someone in the open and cops will rapidly descend on you. Frequently breaking the masquerade will gain the attention of higher vampires who will see you as a liability and take the necessary steps to put you down, so tread lightly when not in back alleys or enclosed spaces.
Much has changed in the fifteen years since Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines released. Just as the game acknowledges that everyone is carrying an internet-connected camera nowadays, making it harder than ever to stay hidden, developer Hardsuit also acknowledges the decline of expensive immersive sim RPGs. Prey, Dishonored, Dues Ex, and Underworld Ascendant aren’t exactly topping the sales charts.
That doesn’t matter to Hardsuit, whose love of RPGs as well as Bloodlines meant they approached Paradox with a pitch that was make or break for them, as they had invested a lot into the project. “We had not actually asked for submissions, we had not asked for pitches,” stressed Florian Schwarzer, a Senior Product Manager at Paradox Interactive, “It is very rare that a studio, independent studio, takes a risk going to a publisher with a pitch that hasn’t been requested that can only be pitched to one publisher.”
Brian Mitsoda who was a major part of the first Bloodlines narrative success is returning along with Cara Ellison, whose recent work includes Void Bastards, Dreams, and Dishonored 2, as well as author of Embed with Games. The addition of Ellison was due to Mitsoda wanting to bring her aboard for the game. “Brian’s always really liked her work but mainly we wanted her to handle what we call the U7. The unsanctioned vampires that were created at the beginning of the game,” Cluney explains, “We felt like her tone matches really well with the plight of basically vampires who are completely out on their own.”
Consuming blood is mandatory and picking who to feed on is influenced by their flavor. The colored “resonance” they are outputting (rage, sadness, etc) will determine what buff you will get upon feeding on their blood. Using a special vision that also highlights what objects in an area you an interact with, you can tune into what emotion a person is undergoing and highlight them for consumption. How you get them into a non-populated area though is up to you and your current skills.
Every indication from talking to Hardsuit Labs and watching their introductory demo shows that they know what made the first Bloodlines successful and have every intent of bringing it into the modern generation while retaining all the key elements and systems that make Vampire: The Masquerade unique. Ditching sequential levels is the natural evolution for the genre, as even Dues Ex: Mankind Divided, was nearly there with its large Prague hub, which was perhaps the most successful aspect of that game.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 2 will live or die based on how well it is able to capture and integrate Seattle with a mysterious vampiric history worth exploring, and Hardsuit Labs is definitely dedicated to nailing that combination when the game releases for PC, PS4, and Xbox One in Q1 2020. For more on the game you can check out our interview with the game’s developers.