Cult classic Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines is getting a sequel. The 2004 roleplaying game left a lasting impression on roleplaying fans despite some clumsy gameplay. I spent time with the folks at Paradox Interactive and developer Hardsuit Labs to ask questions and see the game in action. It captures much of the original’s mysterious mood, with some modern flourishes.
Publisher Paradox Interactive purchased White Wolf Publishing’s assets in 2015, including the World of Darkness setting which Vampire the Masquerade is set in. The team at Hardsuit Labs has been working on a proper sequel (or, as they call it a “true descendant”) of the cult classic. Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines 2 is awash with vampiric intrigue and blood and appears to live up to its pedigree.
Set in Seattle, Bloodlines 2 focuses on an event called the “Mass Embrace,” a bloody night where countless fledgling vampires were created. The player character is among the new vampires born from this event. Siring a new vampire with approval is a big no-no in the World of Darkness setting, and the player – like in the first game – is brought before a court of prominent vampires to recount what they remember of the Mass Embrace before being executed. Luckily, the court is firebombed before that can happen and the player is thrust into Seattle to find out who is responsible while also learning the ropes as a fresh-faced vampire.
In a demonstration of a pre-alpha build, I watched Paradox QA Project Coordinator Kimberly Stinson explore underground ruins beneath Seattle and the city above. These ruins were a fictional take on the portion of Seattle destroyed in the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, and while the mood captured the noir feel of Vampire the Masquerade, the exploration felt more like I was watching a new Dishonored game. Players don’t choose which vampire clan they’re a part of during character creation, although they can choose a background, such as a police officer or barista, that informs some of the choices they have and reactions characters have. Clans are joined later on. Instead, player start as a “thinblood” vampire. This limits their early powers to certain ability trees like the Chiropteran tree which allows for levitation or the Mentalism tree, which grants access to telekinesis. It affects how you might deal with exploration. If a door is blocked, you could use your mentalism abilities to remove the barricade. Or maybe you spec into the Nebulation tree, turn into mist, and sneak through an air vent. The goal of this power-focused exploration, according to Paradox Lead Producer Christian Schlütter, is to make sure players “don’t see the world like a human.”
Combat wasn’t great in Vampire: the Masquerade– Bloodlines. Clumsy and stilted animations made melee attacks frustrating to perform, while gunplay was heavily dependent on pouring your stats into a Firearms trait. The combat I saw for Bloodlines 2 seemed much more fluid. Stinson dashed about, using vampiric speed to slide into melee range and slash at enemies or execute them with melee weapons. In certain cases, the camera pulled back to showcase narrow dodges or special executions. Guns exist but are treated as temporary opportunities; you grab them (perhaps even directly out of enemy hands thanks to your telekinesis powers) and use them until your ammo’s dried up and you can discard them. It’s hard to say if that’s simply flair without playing the game myself, but combat definitely looks more involved this time around.
Flashy combat and navigation is fine, but Vampire: the Masquerade lives or dies by the roleplaying. There was less to see here in this demonstration, although there was still plenty of character to the dialogue options. Choices ran the gamut from snarky to serious to profanity laced rants. What seemed more impressive was how Bloodlines 2 plans to approaches its hub world. Seattle was active, with plenty of neon signs and nightlife. Crowds gathered outside clubs and muggers preyed on victims in side allies. The player can scale buildings, their verticality offering new paths through the world or secrets to find.
“You want to capture the essence of a location. Rather than an open world with a lot of stuff but not a lot going on block for block,” lead narrative designer Brian Mitsoda explained. Mitsoda designed and wrote story for the first game, and has been guiding Bloodline 2’s voice and tone. “It’s making sure that the player isn’t walking for a while with nothing to do.”
“It always felt like you were stumbling upon a secret,” lead writer Cara Ellison said, referring to the first game. Ellison is no stranger to interesting worlds, having worked as a narrative consultant on 2016’s Dishonored 2. “Going down a back alley and coming across something no one’s ever seen before – even if it was designed that way. We wanted to preserve that and plan for a lot of World of Darkness supernatural bits and pieces.”
The team was quick to highlight two features meant to add spice to the world. The first is a massive side-questline, written by Ellison, that allows the player to hunt down and find all of the other thinblood created during the Mass Embrace. Each will have their own story about entering into their new life. For instance, you might find a married thinblood struggling to deal with their newfound powers.
“We’re looking at introducing you to the idea that lots of different people will have a different experience of being a vampire,” Ellison said. “And their vampire puberty might be a bit more difficult or more fraught.”
Another system gives all NPCs a different aura called a “resonance.” Each colour indicates an emotional state, allowing players to get a sense of each character while also deciding who to feed on. Depending on a character’s resonance, their blood can grant various buffs or, in cases of excessive feeding on specific kinds of blood, “merits” that greatly affect what players can do. The team declined to answer if players from different clans would be given incentives to feast on certain resonances.
These quests and systems come paired with the first game’s systems: humanity and the masquerade. Players who perform too many cruel deeds, such as sucking someone’s blood until they die, will receive a penalty to their humanity. This will affect their available dialog options and actions they can perform. Meanwhile, actions that reveal your vampiric nature will result in masquerade violations which affect your reputation among vampires and could get you into trouble. Fans of the setting will be familiar with these systems, but Bloodlines 2 expands on them for more immediate impact. If you’re running around and sucking blood where lots of people can see for instance, expect less citizens wandering Seattle’s streets.
The World of Darkness can be fraught at times. The original game traded in careless depictions of sex work and some tired writing about mental illnesses like disassociative identity disorder. You could play as a member of the mentally-addled but prophecy-gifted Malkavian clan, with altered dialogue that, while humorous, danced a fine line in terms of taste. There was even some racial stereotyping for good measure. Meanwhile, White Wolf’s management of the World of Darkness setting has not been without controversy. Last November, the Paradox subsidiary drew criticism for using the real-life persecution and murder of Chechnya’s LGBTQA population as a plot-point in the setting’s vampiric politicking. Paradox fully integrated White Wolf after this incident. When asked about their approach to the setting, the team outlined how they wanted to handle the World of Darkness in 2019.
“It was very of its time,” Ellison said of the first game. “It approached certain topics differently. How we look at stuff has matured since then.”
“It’s fifteen years later and things have changed,” Mitsoda said. “We have to be very sensitive about how we handle things like mental illness and that was a concern for us and for Paradox, in how we can make a mature story but if we do anything, we do our homework and make sure that we are punching up and not punching down.”
“We talk about these issues constantly,” Ellison added. “Because we care about including people, we want them to feel powerful and sexy, and we don’t want them to feel like it’s not for them.”
I’m cautiously optimistic about Bloodlines 2. The gameplay’s emphasis on exploration and Hardsuit’s goal of building a vibrant Seattle are compelling. The team’s willingness to talk about the first game’s stumbles was good to see. And it’s exciting to have a Vampire game that appears to play well. It could be the expansive vampire RPG that players have craved for over a decade, even if they’ll have to wait until 2020 to play it. There’s challenges to the World of Darkness setting and plenty of baggage from the first game, but also a lot of potential for engrossing stories. Also, I might get to smooch a vampire. Or at least use my Seduction skill from time to time.
“We have lots of conversations about who is everyone’s ship,” Ellison said.