Even those who don’t participate in pen-and-paper role-playing games know something about Dungeons & Dragons, whether it’s the lore, or by name only. Not far behind in notoriety, however, is Vampire: The Masquerade (V:tM).
This particular tabletop RPG hit the scene in 1991, but its second and third editions were what really sucked players in, resulting in a franchise peak in the late ‘90s and a legacy of being among the most influential games within the genre. From White Wolf Publishing, V:tM was the breakout game alongside other supernatural titles starring Werewolves, Mages, Wraiths, and Hunters, in a collected brand they called World of Darkness (WoD).
The WoD is a grimmer, more hopeless environment where the player, put in the role of a monster, brings to life tales of horror and urban fantasy. Though the company and rights have changed hands a few times over the years, there have always been enough card games, comic books, and other merchandise to define what White Wolf produces as transmedia entertainment. Naturally, with such a rich world and tons of lore to delve into, it’s no surprise that these properties eventually made their way into video games. White Wolf Publishing has had a bit of experience with the other side of game properties anyway, having turned Capcom’s Street Fighter into an RPG in 1994, yet how would they fare while dipping their own blood pool into the digital realm? This is the history of Vampire: The Masquerade video games.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Redemption
The first endeavor to spread the hidden world of the kindred in video game form came out as Vampire: The Masquerade – Redemption, which saw a release on PC (and later Mac) in 2000. This linear role-playing experience modeled itself heavily off of the Blizzard Entertainment series Diablo, especially when it came to gameplay and design.
Developed by Nihilistic Software, Redemption offered a strong single-player campaign with some lofty multiplayer aspirations that never held its players’ hands. This meant that the game was easy to adore for those who were willing to endure, but hard to just pick up and play, meaning that many skipped it or weren’t aware of the game at all.
It’s a shame, because Redemption works as a solid introduction for those wanting to get into the tabletop books or just experience a brilliant vampire game. It is not, however, new player-friendly for this type of action-RPG. The gameplay can be enjoyable, but is quite flawed with wretched AI and inconsistent collision detection, as well as a full helping of bugs. Things like repetitive combat and putting more importance on stat management isn’t anything new for those that know the genre well, but even they may be a little confused at times.
Redemption expects its players to read the manual, to know what each attribute and ability does, almost like in the tabletop version. There is no tutorial, the game doesn’t offer tips, and several mechanics can be missed entirely without looking them up. It’s a tough game to master, but the right knowledge breaks it open in certain spots, revealing more of the programming flaws.
All of this is outweighed by the rich visuals and attractive environments that were presented at the time. Redemption works hard to create a palpable atmosphere, with sights, sounds, tones, and themes, which push the long night that awaits the player. It also has a memorable soundtrack, featuring Primus, Ministry, Gravity Kills, and Type O Negative, capturing the darker mood. Taking on the role of Christof Romuald, the story of Redemption shows his past, the embrace, eventual torpor, and waking up in the modern era for revenge. The characterizations are solid, watching Christof and company progress in vampire society over time makes the story feel epic, and it intertwines a meaningful love story into the conflict, leaving most players sated.
There were a few that didn’t feel the game offered enough actual role-play, with too much focus on the hacking and slashing, but the majority of players found that the adventure lived up to its source material well enough, or made their own stories in the multiplayer mode. It was a shame that the game didn’t receive more attention from the industry and fans at first, but it did sell well and made enough of a profit to inspire another game, leaving its legacy as a solid foundation that still has a bit of bite. Another company would be handed the reins and things were only going to get bigger.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines
Taking what the previous game did and expanding on it was important for Troika Games, developers of the new game, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. The combat was still important and a big part of the gameplay, changing the action to third and first-person, but there were more interactions now, places to explore, decisions to be made, and disciplines (the vampire powers of the blood) played a stronger part across the board. No longer strapped to one pre-made character, players selected from seven playable clans, a neonate to their new world. This isn’t the story of some great kindred or chosen savior, as much as it’s about a nobody working hard to make a difference in a dangerous city.
Bloodlines’ story is helpful to those not familiar with the World of Darkness and even comes with a brief tutorial this time. For those who may still be confused about Kindred society, there will still be many details in conversations throughout the game, as well as other documents to clue them in. The idea was for players to go through the game multiple times, not only as other clans (some of which have a harder time doing missions or get special dialogue options), but to make different choices as well. Bloodlines attempted to make these decisions meaningful and had them affect the multiple endings. The designers also put more importance on the title, specifically the word masquerade. This is the code vampires exist by, making sure they aren’t exposing themselves to humans, so keeping the undead society secret meant much more this time around.
There was a lot to love about this new experience. Fans enjoyed the story, meeting new characters, references to the existing meta from the books, quests, and exploring the city. Most felt that the game included better voice acting with names like Steve Blum, Phil LaMarr, and John DiMaggio all playing various roles, while the soundtrack was once again handled well, featuring songs from bands like Lacuna Coil and new tracks receiving help from groups like Ministry. The game was adored by many and represents the peak of the franchise for most fans. But the game wasn’t so glorious when it came out, as it was barely playable and a commercial failure, with few knowing what the developers had actually gone through.
Troika thought they had found the perfect vehicle for their game, Valve’s Source engine. Using it was a benefit, being a great piece of technology and helping with the game’s visual appearance, especially when it came to lip-synching, lighting, and facial animations.
The engine was new, however, and many didn’t know how to work with it, or importantly, solve problems within the program. The use of Valve’s property also meant that Bloodlines couldn’t release until their new game, Half-Life 2, did as well. It was a buggy mess, with several advertised features never making it into the final build due to time constraints. The hub areas after the first part of the game in Santa Monica suffered also, being underpopulated, less developed, and not as engaging.
The developers went through a lot of crunch and realized that they were no longer as important to their publishers, Activision. Troika’s staff attempted to fix much of the game post-release, but they were also having to look for new projects to stay afloat. Bloodlines would be their last game.
The community had to improve the game through many mods and years of work with a little help from members of the former development team. Even with promotional artwork and posters from legendary artist Tim Bradstreet, the marketing for the game didn’t have the reach it needed and its competition was strong, releasing the same day as Half-Life 2 and in the month of Metal Gear Solid 3 and Halo 2. Bloodlines was a bold and ambitious game that was facing tough competition, put into the battlefield unfinished and forced to take a backseat until years later. It was still something special, but Bloodlines would have never made it there without the devoted fans.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Coteries of New York, Shadows of New York
Although other properties featuring creatures from the World of Darkness would release in the meantime, it would be over a decade before a new V:tM game would reveal itself.
This would be a much smaller game – especially after fans had been hyped up for the WoD MMO game, canceled in 2014 after nine years of development – two pieces of interactive fiction known collectively as World of Darkness Preludes: Vampire and Mage. Both of these stories, from different parts of the WoD, were originally released separately, primarily for mobile and tablets, and later bundled together for PCs.
The games were received warmly by fans in 2017, who were allowed to dip their toes back into this darker world, even if in a small way and only for a brief moment. Due to sexual abuse allegations levied at a member of the development team, Preludes is no longer available for purchase, so the text message-based adventure is lost to many.
The previous incursion had shown developers that the visual novel model could be a good fit for these more story-focused WoD products, leading to the 2019 release, Vampire: The Masquerade – Coteries of New York.
Opting to highlight the strongest aspect of their game even further, Draw Distance scaled back many of the other mechanics to keep the player immersed in the atmosphere and emphasize making decisions. Based on the fifth edition of V:tM, this new adventure sticks with the idea of putting players in the neonate role – complete with a lexicon for those who don’t know the terms – giving them three clans to choose from this time: Toreador, Brujah, and Ventrue. Players find themselves in the middle of the confrontations between the Camarilla and Anarchs, while being caught up in the personal plot of others as well. Coteries of New York received an update when the game was released for consoles, addressing many of the bugs and adding audio and visual improvements to the experience.
A standalone expansion, Shadows of New York, was released in 2020. It provided a brand new story set after the events in Coteries of New York that featured returning characters and other notable figures from the source materials. This time, players take on the role of Julia Sowinski, a Lasombra who is tasked with solving a murder where, once again, their choices will change the outcome of the story slightly. Both of these games were received well by fans and critics, but they also still wanted more.
The Future of Vampire: The Masquerade Games
In the past, it seemed that each game in the Vampire: The Masquerade lineage would be riddled with issues, with most not even coming from the same studio or sharing a genre. Things were looking up briefly with the release of these new titles and the work being done on Bloodlines 2, but now that seems to be following suit with another troubled development.
Atop any technical problems, developer Hardsuit Labs was removed from the project, narrative designer Chris Avellone had his work taken out of the game after sexual harassment allegations emerged, and other members of the team were fired as well, causing it to be delayed indefinitely. But this isn’t going to stop the momentum it seems, as developers are determined to give the fans more Vampire.
Developer Choice of Games is releasing three text-based adventures (one of which is already out) titled Night Road, Out for Blood, and Parliament of Knives for those who crave more of the nightlife in that form. Two new games were shown off more recently, a battle royale shooter showing the more direct struggle of the Kindred called Bloodhunt from Sharkmob, and a role-play centered experience from developer Big Bad Wolf called Swansong.
With this many titles and differences in gameplay between them, there should be no thirsty little neonates going hungry. Fans of V:tM video games haven’t always had it easy, but it’s also a series that isn’t easy to kill. Before it’s all said and done, more people will know the name, but not all the games are guaranteed to make it to release, which seems like the Vampire way.
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