Imagine, dear reader, my delight upon learning that Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines 2, a game about which I have said “...but it’ll never happen” several times, is, in fact, happening. More than that, I have seen, hands off, the first half an hour of it and have spoken to senior writer Cara Ellison (late of this RPS parish), as well as Hardsuit Labs co-founder Andy Kipling, and narrative lead Brian Mitsoda.
Bloodlines fans among you may recognise Brian Mitsoda as designer and writer for the original Vampire: The Masquerade -- Bloodlines. So not only is B. Mitsoda on board, when I met him he was wearing black fingerless leather gloves. This is exactly the sort of thing we need to see from a lead on Bloodlines 2.
Vampire: The Masquerade -- Bloodlines was and is possibly the greatest cult hit in games in the last 20 odd years (or at least the last 15, which was when it came out). There is a weight of expectation on a sequel, not least because nobody thought it would ever exist. Ellison said she’s still not convinced it does, despite working on it every day. Even if Bloodlines 2 is just okay, it will be the worst thing in the world to some people. Ellison described it as “incredibly terrifying” and Mitsoda acknowledged that it was daunting at first.
“Obviously this is a big deal," he said, "and to announce we’re making a sequel for Bloodlines… we needed to make sure we're doing a good job.”
But they also said that they’ve been working from the start to identify what makes a Bloodlines game a Bloodlines game.
“For anybody who has played the first one,” said Mitsoda, “they're going to start playing and immediately feel at home.”
The beginning is certainly familiar, in a way that made me kick my feet like an excited toddler. Just like the first Bloodlines, you find yourself on trial after being embraced (that’s ‘turned into a vampire’ for all you lame nerds who aren’t familiar with World of Darkness lingo). You were turned without permission, and representatives of the local vampire clans bicker about who was responsible and what should happen next. Then you’re tossed out onto the streets, weak and alone, and have to fight your way to safety in a run-down apartment downtown.
This time, however, you were only one of a big group of people who were illegally vamp’d in a mass siring event, you only escape your trial because somebody firebombs it and kills all the lieutenants there, and downtown is now... Seattle. There were lols in the room about how we all thought that picture of a pier was San Diego. Mitsoda explained that the main attraction for them was that there are really two Seattles, one that’s all music and culture, and one that’s big business and trillion dollar companies.
“A lot of the story is really about taking the real world issues of Seattle trying to keep its identity,” he said. “But also changing for the 21st century, and the conflict brought into the game between the factions representing that.”
Ellison said establishing a strong feeling of place was important to them. Seattle in Bloodlines 2 is rainy and moody, with bright street lights and Christmas decorations providing little pools of light. It’s all the more melancholy for the seasonal setting, in my opinion, because Christmas always has a sad face not far underneath the happy one. Seattle has back alleys and night clubs, and high buildings you can scale. But there’s also an underground layer, where the remains of 1800s Seattle that burnt to the ground lie buried. You can leap and creep around both, and it’s certainly looking more visually sleek than Bloodlines. The hub area I saw is one of several, and the only one they’re showing off now, so the game could have more than one different mood. But right now that mood is 'teenage goth upsetting your aunt over turkey dinner'.
But let me run through the other things you definitely want to know. It’s still called the Masquerade, so if you eat someone in public or turn into a bat in front of a bar you’ll get in trouble not only with the police, but also some beefier supernatural watchdogs. The humanity system returns, so killing innocents brings you closer to the inner beast. It’s first person, but yeah, you can customise your character (including choosing pronouns separately from your body type) and this time you can choose a human background that might affect how you approach problems or talk to people. The two examples I was given were cop and coroner, but if you want a basic start, with no bonuses, you can be a barista, which Mitsoda described as the default class in Seattle.
Yes, you get to choose your vampire clan, and though they’re not confirming which or how many will be in the final game, I definitely heard the word Tremere mentioned in the game. That choice happens later, though. You actually start as a thin-blood this time, a watered down kind of vampire. The americano to their espresso, if you will. You have to work your way up to full clan status. But you still get awesome vampire powers as a thin-blood, although at the start you can only choose from three: you can turn into fog, fly as a cloud of bats, or use telekinesis.
They wouldn’t confirm or deny if there’s still a late night radio talk show, but Mitsoda said that because they’re trying to keep that Bloodlines feeling, there “definitely might be something like that” So, I dunno, maybe a podcast. I also asked if we might see some familiar faces, because it took three seconds for me to convince myself that a blurry silhouette I glimpsed for half a moment was Nines Rodriguez. “All I can say is, this is still set in the same universe. So... could be?”
Combat looks orders of magnitude better than it was in the original, including throat-punching melee attacks, a backflip over the top of an enemy’s head, and grabbing guns on an ad-hoc basis. There was a very nice animation of the character finding out their shotgun was empty and tossing it aside. But I was assured that, beyond the tutorial level, there are opportunities to avoid combat by figuring a way around it in the environment. We are encouraged to look at the world as a vampire, i.e. 15 foot high walls are easily scaled, chairs can be mind-levitated away from doors, vents can be traversed as a cloud of smoke. You can also try to talk your way out of a tense situation, of course. But because I’m not an aforementioned lame nerd, I’ll be picking seduction to do that every time. Because, yes, obviously, that’s still in there too. Ellison described it as a pretty sexy game.
“I often look at like, how would someone feel sexy in this situation?” she explained, and said that there are definitely characters in there that will be shipped like mad. “Everyone in the studio is like 'Yeah I would definitely go for that one. He's my bae,' kind of stuff. They're often very unusual choices.”
She also said that they’re trying to broaden Bloodlines 2 from the more masculine power fantasy of the original, so that it appeals to way more people this time.
There will also be branching narratives, and a ton of side quests. This time you can choose which faction you work for, instead of being pushed into working for the Camarilla, the stuck-up narcs, but you might also annoy one faction so much that they refuse to work for you.
“A lot of people preferred when they could just go out into the world, do side quests, and get the reactivity to what they were doing,” said Mitsoda. “Those micro stories that littered all of the game. So definitely, there's going to be a lot of reactivity and branching in the story.”
Those side quests won’t all be dogmarked for you, and you can pick them up in a number of ways. You have a phone, for example, and can find side quests by texting people you meet. In particular, Ellison is responsible for writing a series of side quests involving your fellow thin-bloods. If you want to, you can track down everyone who was turned at the same time as you, and see how they’re finding the transition.
“I'm interested in the transitional period, the liminal period between leaving your humanness behind, and then learning what becoming a vampire actually is,” Ellison said. “Loads of different people from lots of different backgrounds will have all these different problems that they're still probably going to have to deal with as a vampire, but as a vampire.”
So some people might be struggling with leaving their family behind, while others might look at problems with a whole new perspective and be able to solve them. Ellison thinks things like how human you feel, and how monster you feel, are really interesting questions, especially for a new vampire.
Sadly, in the demo, we only met a couple of characters, and only one for any length of time. Your neighbour in the game is an unashamedly cowardly vampire who dresses like an off-brand Jeff Lebowski. He is awful. He is punchable. He is fantastic. He’s desperately trying to not pick a side in the faction war, so doesn’t leave his apartment to hunt and relies on blood bags to survive.
You, though, definitely hunt, but this time blood has a flavour. Called Resonances, you can use your enhanced vampire senses to see when your targets are experiencing an intense emotion. I was told about five of these emotions: fear, desire, pain, joy, and anger. Humans give off a bright aura, like extra big christmas lights, pink for desire, or red for anger. Drinking a person with a particularly strong Resonance will give an immediate bonus, like increasing your melee power, but over time you can acquire a taste for a certain resonance if you drink it enough. This can confer permanent buffs called Merits. Kipling described it as a way to give the player more agency in how they progress in the game.
“You might determine as a player that you want to focus on this resonance, or these two. That's going to drive your hunting experience in the hub, and what types of people you're looking for,” he said. “It's important for us to make sure that the player can express themselves in a way that is consistent with who they are as a player, both in gameplay and in customisation.”
So far, so extremely Bloodlines. But there’s still a lot to be revealed for a game that, as Ellison said, everyone seems to have been waiting for, for their entire lives. It’s incredible how many people have such a strong love for the original, which the constantly updated fan patch is a testament to. The sequel will be open to that too.
“If you look at Paradox's other products there's obviously a strong commitment to the fanbase and user-generated content and modding and stuff like that,” said Kipling, adding that it would be “part and parcel” to their approach when making a true successor to Bloodlines. Paradox are also known for their post-launch support, which includes Bloodlines 2. I don’t know how much DLC there will be, but I do know that some clans will be added to the game after launch, and that these will be free to all players.
Paradox apparently regarded Bloodlines as the crown jewel in the portfolio when they bought the World of Darkness IP in 2015. Meanwhile, at Hardsuit Labs, creative director Kai'ai Cluney came into Kipling’s office and told him they had to make a pitch. Things started happening all at once. Kipling was sending emails to Paradox saying: “We’re pitching you a game whether you like it or not,” while Cluney started reaching out to Mitsoda. They had a meeting set up within a couple of days. Mitsoda reached out to Ellison later, and said it was fun watching her reaction when he told her, a reaction she described as a “weird goofy grin.”
“We had the right people in the studio at the time, Brian was interested, everything just sort of worked,” said Kipling. “It was a perfect confluence of events. The time is now.”
“Once Kai'ai and I started talking about it," said Mitsoda, "we were developing the game like, just, really quickly. It all came together. Getting back in that headspace was very easy for me.”
It will, I suspect, be easy for players as well, new and old. Seeing the demo, the character leaping up walls, watching a mugging from a rooftop, walking around the square where they were originally attacked by a vampire, I was itching to seize the controls myself. Which would have been very rude. But it all had that beautiful gloom I remember from the first Bloodlines. That weird, sexy melancholy. All the strange strangers stamping around the streets at night, but with a level of polish that Bloodlines didn’t have the first time around. Even so, I’m trying to sit on the boiling pot of my excitement, because it’ll be a while before any of us can get our hands on it properly, or see more than that first half an hour.
I asked the team what they would want to tell all the fans, who didn’t get to see the demo, didn’t get to talk with them one-on-one, who never thought this day would come.
“It has been a key focus of us as a team and a studio that this is a true successor to Bloodlines," said Kipling. "Brian's contribution, the look and feel, the mood, the vibe, the topics. It is a true successor.”
“It's quite a mature game," said Ellison. "It feels grown up to write it. It feels like a mature, complex game, and that's pretty rare, to get to write that mature themed stuff. But really go in-depth to what makes people tick. It's just really interesting. I think that they'll enjoy exploring this world.”
And Mitsoda said: “This is the sequel you have been waiting for. It is going to be Bloodlines, as you remember it. But better.”
Ah, my dear reader. To bite. To be bit.
Disclaimer: Cara Ellison wrote things for us years ago, and has been known to make Alice O'Connor, our news editor, cups of tea (they're flatmates).