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Premature Evaluation: BloodLust Shadowhunter

Lestat buff

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.

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Marsh Davies