Premature Evaluation: BloodLust Shadowhunter

I’m not quite sure why BloodLust capitalises its L, seeing as it has happily existed as a single word for a good long time. Its earliest (hyphenated) appearance is credited to Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton, politician, poet and idiom-machine, known for coining phrases such as 'the great unwashed', 'the pen is mightier than the sword' and the opening line 'It was a dark and stormy night' - which has become so infamous as to inspire San Jose State University to hold an annual competition 'to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels'.

Each week Marsh Davies runs shrieking from the burning sun and into the dark embrace of Early Access, coming back with any stories he can find and/or an inexplicable desire to wear fishnets, a top-hat and tinted pince-nez while hanging around in abandoned Chinese restaurants. This week, let it not be said that BloodLust Shadowhunter’s name is too subtle an evocation of vampire fiction. It is, however, a surprisingly rich thirdperson RPG with a mix of dungeon crawling, urban squalor and janky make-do charm.

I never went through a Goth phase as a kid, but videogames make me wish I had. I can’t help but find their nighttime cityscapes entrancing – even the squalid backalleys of BloodLust Shadowhunter, with their grimy brickwork, sallow sodium lights, overfilled dumpsters and yesteryear polycounts. Perhaps it’s because, in games, such lonely streets are so often the player’s domain. Perhaps it’s because hours of squinting at Sam Fisher’s rubberised buns have trained me to see shadowy, deserted places as a source of empowerment, from which the populace world can be observed and navigated on my terms. Or perhaps it’s because “BloodLustShadowhunter” is my middle name. Yes, there is that, I suppose.


Anyway, 'blood-lust' appears in Bulwer-Lytton’s stodgy 1948 work 'Harold, the Last of the Saxon Kings' in which Godwin, Harold's dad, floridly chastens Harold's pugnacious brother, whose rash words threaten to break a tenuous peace: 'Hear me, thou with the vulture's blood-lust, and the peacock's vain joy in the gaudy plume! Hear me, Tostig, and tremble.' He goes on. You may note, however, that the vulture is not typically considered an especially sexy animal, and yet the trite appropriation of 'bloodlust' by this game and vampires in general (who are known to be both fans of blood and lust), mirrors a sort of wilful misunderstanding (or, charitably, reinterpretation) of the role sex has had in vampire lore.

My first name, in this game as in many others with input text, is Tubsy. Tubsy the vampire warrior lady, who awakes to unlife in the catacombs of some ancient temple, sequestered away from harm by mysterious forces. What follows is the sort of dark, antisocial power fantasy that Vampire: The Masquerade has previously dispensed in various cumbersomely subtitled forms – a moody blend of social manipulation and dungeon-crawling.

And, in keeping with Troika’s last Vampire outing, BloodLust is also bracingly shonky, creaking beneath the weight of its ambition and visibly bursting the seams of its budget. The voice acting throughout would be improved upon by a Speak & Spell. Women here are a uniform lot of gigantically-breasted mannequins in different wigs, while your own character model scuttles about in a permanent bandy-legged squat, as though preparing to drop a load. Stiff-limbed enemies spasm and flap in frictionless combat. During one early bout, a wolf flies up a wall and slowly descends, seesawing gently. The numbers rising from our heads don’t do quite enough to convey the pitched battle in which we are supposedly engaged.

Latterday vampires are seen as saucy, funloving fuckbats with a dash of fetishistic victoriana. Though vampires have long been highly sexualised creatures, they are really only sexy in a culture which is inherently sexist: one in which female sexual desire is not just shameful (though exposed via a prurient voyeurism on the part of author and reader) but also a sign of actual mental ill-health.

The first hour or two of BloodLust Shadowhunter does not see the game at its comely best, either, stuck as I am in a warren of poorly lit generic stone facades and respawning combat encounters. One of my first missions is for the gruffly affable treasure hunter Machia, who needs me to clear out a wolves’ den – or rather, a single respawning wolf which gambols back and forth in the tiny room immediately next door. Shortly afterwards, I do a job for the improbably and ostentatiously betitted local trader (above), who also hates that one same wolf and wants to turn it into pelts. Poor wolfy can’t catch a break.

Slowly, however, the fetch-quests and gloomy combat flappings give way to more intriguing stuff. The puzzles are more engaging than most – not because they are especially clever, but because they allow you to overcome them via a variety of bespoke mechanics, or bypass them entirely. A discipline can be learnt that transforms you into a mist capable of passing through gates and bars, while another gives you a magical vision mode, Second Sight, with which you can spot hidden doors. Alternatively, you can transfer your consciousness to a glowing ball of light that can zip through narrow gaps or across chasms, flipping switches or powering up those giant screaming stone heads that temple architects love so much.

Le Fanu’s 1871 novel Carmilla is the prototypical lesbian vampire story in which the female protagonist describes the ardour of the titular character thus: 'it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering'. Some quantity of quivering breasts and tumultuous respiration later and you have Bram Stoker phallically staking women whose passions have apparently brought them to madness. His male characters, meanwhile, suffer something akin to PTSD - but it’s pointed that Dracula never chooses to turn them into vampires, and they never need to be gruesomely, suggestively executed. Hysteria, as its root in the Greek for “uterus” suggests, is an explicitly female condition.

Wonky and wobbly though its exterior is, BloodLust Shadowhunter turns out to be peculiarly smart in a number of small, separate ways. Nestled within it is a system of character development broader and more varied than most RPGs of recent memory. Right from the outset there are oodles of attributes to tweak, hot-key skills to assign and talent trees to unlock (which randomise with every new character). These pretty quickly shift your avatar from Generic Neonate to Esoteric Netherbeast: I set out with a slightly bland warrior build just to get my footing in the game, but almost immediately ended up with outlandish specialisations by which I summon crows and psychically dominate enemies to attack each other. And, thanks to an upgraded bite skill, I’ve sired an entire lineage of vampiric vagrants and prostitutes to do my bidding. Putting aside the moral implications of predating on society’s most vulnerable, this is really quite cool: I can summon them to shamble into battle with me, send them to search for loot independently, or instruct them to nibble on yet more hapless humans, creating a sprawling family tree with myself at the top.

Well, near the top. The game quickly and crudely establishes that I will need to hunt down my own vampiric sire, and eventually their sire, too: the formidable undead monarch Ranior. But if I am to defeat him I must first rise through the ranks of vampire society, playing one clan off against another via quests that massage a dynamic prestige system – which also determines the kinds of powers available to you.

Pop forward to our more enlightened century, and vampires are glittery pale poster-boys who liberate bookish young girls from socially-conservative mores regarding chastity, and as much as they do their frowny-faces and look troubled by their oh-so-terrible 'curse' of being beautiful and living forever, it has to be said that they don’t represent anything like the sort of Satanic threat (or even alluring transgressiveness) that they had in the Victorian era. That’s kind of a good sign about where we’ve come as a society, certainly, but it also fails to make vampires particularly scary.

That side of the game comes to the fore only once Tubsy makes her way out of the catacombs, through the inevitable sewer section, and up into the streets. Suddenly, quest options and narrative leads multiply. A mysterious ally must be located in what appears to be the world’s least sanitary tattoo parlour. In a similar flaunting of hygiene standards, someone has been exploding women in the cellar of a chinese restaurant in an attempt to incite the clans to war. Elsewhere, a clan’s precious heirloom has gone missing. A crap birthday party begs to be gatecrashed. A disgraced vampire must be awoken – and the ingredients for this ritual located, but not before you bribe someone with tokens for a slot machine. And so on.

The game struggles to hold all these threads together; dialogue options sometimes suggest things your character wouldn’t necessarily know, or prompt redundant questions following a quest’s completion. But there’s still a lot to do, and the interrelation of events and their effect on your clan allegiances is an interesting web in which to be entangled, even if the plot and writing is little more than perfunctory.

So my challenge to you, alt-text reader, is to suggest ways in which the vampire could be once again made terrifying. What things do we fear today to the extent that Victorian society feared and misunderstood female sexual expression? I once asked Gabe Newell what were the preoccupying fears of gamers today. 'The death of their children,' he said. 'The fading of their own abilities.' Maybe start there.

But all this – the depth and colour of your characters’ advancement and the neat systems that describe your clan prestige and vampire underlings – these things don’t necessarily make up for the superficial gormlessness of the whole. The animations are still wonky. The boobs are still absurd. Combat is still an act of grim, weightless flailing. I suspect these are things which will not change very much during the time it spends in Early Access. But BloodLust is a game with ideas in its gruesome dead head and a sort of winsome earnestness about its semi-competent recapitulation of what made the official Vampire games so alluring and seductive. More importantly, it exists and a true sequel to those other games doesn’t. If it’s not quite enough to wholly satiate the appetite then it at least reminds me how just hungry I am.

BloodLust Shadowhunter is available from Steam for £10. Since I downloaded it on 02/03/2015 I’ve played too many versions of it to list, because the developer is patching things by the hour, it seems! Very reassuring.

38 Comments

Top comments

  1. April March says:

    Vampires represent two things: sex and money. Vampires have become less scary because sex has become less scary; the female vampire temptress remains a trope because female sexual expression, as amateurviking said above, is still somewhat feared. Vampires have also become less scary because of the post-dotcom advent of the kind rich: from Gates to Musk to Notch, we're at the tail end of a time in which people were expecting the rich to fix society of their own volition. I think that, in the shadow of Occupy, we're poised to see a ressurgence of the vampire as powerful social parasites, as a metaphor for the law-buying one percent.

    On the subject of opening sentences, Brazilian writer Luis Fernando Verissimo once wrote a short text of humourous novel openings. My favourite, somewhat paraphrasing: "Lord Goodsworth bit hard on his pipe, declared himself to be last true gentleman, and vomited on the table."

    I wonder how aghast someone who hasn't noticed the alt-texts will be at these comments. Anyway, the game looks interesting, if it ever gets fixed up. The idea of a rogue vampire building an empire of homeless undead sounds... quite alluring if I'm being honest.
  1. amateurviking says:

    I dunno, female sexual expression still seems somewhat feared and misunderstood if you ask me.

  2. April March says:

    Vampires represent two things: sex and money. Vampires have become less scary because sex has become less scary; the female vampire temptress remains a trope because female sexual expression, as amateurviking said above, is still somewhat feared. Vampires have also become less scary because of the post-dotcom advent of the kind rich: from Gates to Musk to Notch, we’re at the tail end of a time in which people were expecting the rich to fix society of their own volition. I think that, in the shadow of Occupy, we’re poised to see a ressurgence of the vampire as powerful social parasites, as a metaphor for the law-buying one percent.

    On the subject of opening sentences, Brazilian writer Luis Fernando Verissimo once wrote a short text of humourous novel openings. My favourite, somewhat paraphrasing: “Lord Goodsworth bit hard on his pipe, declared himself to be last true gentleman, and vomited on the table.”

    I wonder how aghast someone who hasn’t noticed the alt-texts will be at these comments. Anyway, the game looks interesting, if it ever gets fixed up. The idea of a rogue vampire building an empire of homeless undead sounds… quite alluring if I’m being honest.

    • Emeraude says:

      I wouldn’t say money. Aristocracy is more like it. The upper class. And there are poor aristocrats. They remain nobles nonetheless. Also in some version also the invading alien (but that goes more with the sexual angle).

      That’s one of the aspects I really liked about Only Lovers Left Alive*, it really managed to update the aristocratic aspect of the vampire figure to the current geek-chic trend, while still keeping them monstrous, seductive and yet underneath all the charm, morally repulsive.

      *: to me so far probably the vampire movie of the 2010s, if Morse/Let the Right One In was the one of 2000s

      • plugav says:

        Vampires used to be aristocrats, yes, but penniless aristos aren’t scary, because they’re not in power. Power used to come from blood, because people believed in the supremacy of nature over nurture – that’s why mixing your blood with a monstrous foreigner, Dracula, was so scary. And, by that line of thought, why men were never affected by Dracula’s blood – only a woman was in danger of becoming “unclean,” because she could give birth to children of mixed heritage.

        Since then, we’ve been constantly trying to tear down what made blood scary, but – as capitalism, communism, religious fanaticism, police brutality etc. have helpfully demonstrated – blood had never been the real problem. Power is the scary bit, especially when you mix it with human failings like greed, envy, vengefulness, and so on. That’s where I’d look for the recipe for scary vampires.

        And, um, sorry if I sound pretentious. Gothic horror has that effect on me, I guess.

        • Emeraude says:

          penniless aristos aren’t scary, because they’re not in power

          Money is not the only power. Many people have a political influence and power that is unrelated to their actual money worth. And then if you add supernatural powers to spice up the metaphor…

    • blastaz says:

      Best alt text ever!

  3. AbsoluteShower says:

    Vampires represent sexual disease as well.

    The thing is, unless you’re talking about Vampire:Masquerade’s Nozzies, they really don’t sell the downside to becoming undead anymore.

    • EhexT says:

      It’s really sad that Vampires and Werewolves have become props for bad romantic fiction about people with mild superpowers and woe-is-me downsides (that they’ll inevitably learn to ignore for teenage heartache anyway).

      • Emeraude says:

        The good stuff is still there., thankfully. Still being produced I mean.

    • frightlever says:

      Back in the 80s Vampire/AIDs mash-ups were popular. Less so now, though if you look at something like Helix (season 2) and look on the immortals as stand-in vampires who don’t feed on humanity, they just want to “manage” them, then I guess fear about pandemics has replaced it, because of Ebola.

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        Harlander says:

        For some reason, I’m seeing a whole lot of media lately with groups trying to forestall a Malthusian catastrophe, often by killing loads of people, Helix among them.

        I guess this is just indicative of the timelessness of worrying about Malthusian catastrophes (and possibly the widespread nature of the urge to kill loads of people)

        • frightlever says:

          Yeah. We could kill two birds with one stone, simply invade Malthusia and wipe out all those Malthusian bastards once and for all.

          But yeah. Though “The Happening” was 2008, so that’s getting on for being not so recent.

  4. EhexT says:

    Scary vampires? Fright Night.
    One of the few instances in which you’ll see a true original vampire – a predatory monster without any moral qualms or feelings.
    The original Vampire isn’t a sexy semi-rapist, but a sadist or sociopath with superpowers. See “The Vampyre” by Polidori.

    Since the alt-text brings up Stoker, interestingly the original opening chapters of Dracula were a lot more gender neutral, since it hints that Dracula wasn’t the only Vampire in Europe and was actually competing with a female Vampire overlord.

  5. elasticman says:

    Re: the first image’s alt-text: feast your gluttonous eyes on the bignitude.

    link to bulwer-lytton.com

  6. plugav says:

    I’d say The Strain (the TV adaptation at least) does a very interesting thing with vampires. The core of the story is pretty much lifted from Dracula, but instead of relying on satanic powers, the monsters exploit human fears and greed to further their plot. I’m not sure how scary that is, in the end, but it certainly feels refreshing.

    (And I know that vampires manipulating our institutions against us is also the premise of Vampire: The Masquerade, but that’s never really a source of horror in the game, because the players are the ones doing it.)

    • Emeraude says:

      I so much wanted to like The Strain, some individual scenes are so powerful – especially visually, but overall I was very disappointed by the script. Writing killed it for me.

      Vampire: The Masquerade, but that’s never really a source of horror in the game, because the players are the ones doing it.

      If you ask me, that’s th main reason why/how it should be a source of horror to players.

      • AbsoluteShower says:

        The have some dodgy leads as well. Eph especially comes across and unlike able, although Hacker girl just sits awkwardly in the cast too.

      • int says:

        I agree. It had its moments but something about the show felt off and the finale was a little lackluster. I think they showed too much of the Master and he seemed strangely underpowered then. A badass David Bradley though, is enough to keep me watching series 2 as well.

        • Stengah says:

          I’ve yet to watch the tv series, but the Master was pretty terrifying in the books it’s based on. The parasitic nature of the vampires and the slow painful body transformation into something so inhuman and unsexy certainly made their vampires scary.

      • plugav says:

        I must admit that I’ve enjoyed The Strain‘s concept (which I like to describe as “Dracula meets The Wire“) more than its execution (The Wire it is not).

        As for Vampire, I know that having to do bad things is intended to be the source of horror, but I’ve never seen it actually work. Too many vampires, too few humans in our games, perhaps?

        I know Vampire: The Requiem 2nd Edition tries to fix this by rebuilding the Humanity system so that it’s less about arbitrary morality and more about staying in touch with your human side (for example, while murder still brings you closer to the Beast, so does not talking to anyone alive for more than a week, or that first time you recover from wounds that would’ve killed a mortal). That feels like it might work, but I’ve yet to play it.

        But even done right, does Vampire‘s brand of “personal horror” actually make bloodsuckers scary, or does it just make you roleplay self-loathing?

        • Emeraude says:

          I don’t know about self-loathing. The first hack I made for Vampire started by that sentence: “Vampire, a game about self-alienation and the exhaustion of identity”. Which I think is at the core of what I wanted to play when I first read that first edition core book.

          And I agree with you, neither Masquerade nor Requiem are particularly good system-wise at providing the kind of narratives they want to explore. As I’ve been saying for more than ten years now, I do think the main reason Masquerade was so successful is that it was a failure in design.
          It wasn’t good at making the kind of persona horror it wanted to evoke come to life, but it did allow people with very different tastes and expectation come together around the table and play together.

          And yes, I do think if you *want* to elicit that kind of personal horror, you’re going to have more than half your cast be composed of humans, and the game be about the interactions of players with said humans. Otherwise you’re going to fall into the social drama soap style or the gonzo superhero horror shenanigans of the aristocracy (spacial people) of the night.. Which is a cool way to play, but only if that’s what you wanted to do.

  7. Bradamantium says:

    Oooh, how I hope this game makes it to a solid full release. Probably won’t be wondrous, bulletproof stuff, but it’ll be something.

    I think vampires can become scary again if we focus on the fact that they are, inherently, pretty scary. On a level of pure biological need, something that feeds on the blood (and, depending on the fiction, very essence) of a person is terrifying. Of course, there ends up being too many ways around it – Bloodlines et al’s blood packets, Twilight’s “vegetarian” vampires, drinking enough-but-not-too-much. Vampires that kill, that can’t just implement a half measure, actual predators with animal instincts rather than moral compasses would be horrifying all over again. Back up the literal predator with some figurative predatory underpinnings and there’s a return to depth and dimension from the Unfortunate Immortal-But-Not-Immoral Pretty People of modern vampirism.

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      keithzg says:

      The difficulty of half-measure, and the powerful, dehumanizing nature of giving into a full measure, was explored pretty well in (of all things) Blade: The Series. Honestly, overall it probably had the best and most well-rounded onscreen portrayal of vampires in the past decade and a bit, which you wouldn’t have expected from the movies. It’s rather too bad that Spike didn’t have the money to make more than one season.

  8. Traipse says:

    The one thing that Vampire: the Masquerade did really right, at least in the gamebooks if not in the video games, was the concept of immortality as a fundamentally dehumanizing force. The longer you live, the more moral compromises you make, the less you can understand or empathize with humans, the less you resemble whatever you used to be when you were a person. Passion for life (or unlife, as the case may be) was the province of reasonably young vampires; older ones tended to be calculating, inhuman monsters, and it was portrayed as a slippery one-way slope.

    The more you think about it, the more uncomfortable a concept it is, and the less fun it makes being a vampire — even a stereotypically young, sexy, broody one — sound. (Also, V:tM was very straightforward about the unpleasant anatomical difficulties of being a sexy vampire when you have no pulse, no body heat, and no bodily fluids except for a mess of stolen blood, which is something that I wish more vampire stories would think about. It’s a good antidote to the “sexy vampire” archetype.)

    • khalilravanna says:

      “Immortality as a fundamentally dehumanizing force” is a pretty great theme. I’m not sure if it originated there but I noticed it being one of the bigger themes in the early Vampire Chronicles. In fact in those books it turns into a bit of a dichotomy between the vampires who strive to maintain the facade of being human, of hanging on and being a part of human culture, and maintaining that “joie de vivre” versus those who slowly and mechanically devolve (or evolve depending on your perspective) into the calculating killer, the ruler, the ascendant predator.

  9. commentingaccount says:

    Vampires in a good vampire story scare me. It’s just that, frankly, there are so few of them. The best ones tend to involve some element of violation or non-sexual temptation(Let The Right One In has romantic, not sexual temptation).

    To be frank once again, most really, really good horror films, the ones that are actually frightening(Most are just silly or cheesy dumb or just plain dumb or good but not scary), tend to involve some element of rape, but no outright rape. A good vampire film should embrace that, the use of something as a metaphor for it.

    I might be biased here, but that kind of violation is one of the few things to scare me in life.

  10. Kefren says:

    Salem’s Lot has scary vampires.

    • Darth Gangrel says:

      The 2004 version of Salem’s Lot had Donald Sutherland and he’s scary no matter what he plays. To get vampires scary again, people should look at and embrace the Donald Sutherlandness.

  11. Aysir says:

    I confess, I downloaded the demo to this and played for all of half an hour. I kinda figured the janky MMO style action and fetch quests was going to be it for this game. Reading this article, it may be something to go back into…maybe after it leaves Early Access.

  12. Casimir's Blake says:

    ANOTHER dungeon crawling RPG that isn’t first person. Is there some reason devs don’t / can’t / won’t make these games first person? I guess us immersionists will have to keep waiting for Underworld…

  13. twaitsfan says:

    “Though vampires have long been highly sexualised creatures, they are really only sexy in a culture which is inherently sexist”

    Oh come on…

    • Marsh Davies says:

      I should have phrased that better: I’m talking about the 19th century; what was sexy about vampires to the Victorians who popularised them as sexual creatures is inherently bound up with the sexist mores of Victorian society.

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    phuzz says:

    Charlie Stross has an interesting take on vampires in his most recent Laundry novel “The Rhesus Chart”, although it’s difficult to explain why it’s interesting without spoilers. He does point out that for a human being to live on blood, they’d have to be drinking it pretty much constantly (although, as long as your “donors” are eating healthily, it’s pretty good for you), which would involve draining an enormous number of people.

  15. Matt_Ceb says:

    People do realize that Goth does not have to be a “teenager phase”, right?
    I mean… I’m 31 and still go to WGT, listen to Dead Can Dance on an almost daily basis and am excited when securing a ticket for yet another Deine Lakaien, Front 242 or Clan of Xymox live show.

    But then, HotTopic Goths seem to have implanted the “misguided teen phase” image in so many people’s heads as the “default” state of “being Goth” that I probably will have to deal with it for good. :-/

  16. Colthor says:

    Vampires have few needs, are immortal, wield influence verging on mind-control over mere mortals, and when that’s not enough can turn people into their thralls at will. As long as they have a little calculation and patience they can’t help but be scary.

    Or perhaps the world would just be better organised.

  17. maninahat says:

    It was in the great documentary The Death and Rebirth of Superman that it was stated “Writers don’t get hung up on the rules of vampires, because they don’t fucking exist. You can do anything you like with them”. The trick to making vampires scary is to stop resorting to the overly familiar conventions that have been used time and time again throughout vampire fiction, from Stoker to Meyer. Familiarity is the enemy of horror. I don’t think it is at all fair to criticize modern vampires for being unscary. A conventional vampire is anything but.

    That said, vampire writers can take a leaf out of Under the Skin‘s book: though not strictly speaking a vampire, Scarlet Johansson’s function in the story is similar – a temptress who lures in men and drains away their fluids – but unfamiliar in the way she carries out this process. Take the essence of a vampire (being undead, blood thirsty, seductive) and find a new way to present that.

  18. damien says:

    that someone took the time to write the hover-txt for these images, and the fact that i left my mouse motionless long enough to read them made my f*cking day. thank you.