Thursday, October 06, 2016

Werewolf: The Rave: Wineboxes

I need to slightly amend my earlier ebullient praise of Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines. As Rahul had warned, it dips a little in quality in the second half of the game. The most distinctive features I had loved in my early experience (open-ended environments, many solutions to problems) are diminished or eliminated, replaced with a more typical level-based structure that requires you to travel from point A to point B, dealing with any hostile enemies along the way, and then defeat a boss.

It’s still good. Even when the design is less creative, the atmosphere is still amazing, and the game continues to collect dividends from its early investment in character development. I’d still recommend it, just with more caveats.

Some additional technical notes:

I’d forgotten to comment on this before, but one unusual and occasionally annoying aspect of the game is its frequent shifts between third-person and first-person view. I always preferred playing the game in third-person, but it automatically switches you back to first-person at many common points, such as after picking a lock. Fortunately, you can easily toggle the view yourself by pressing the Z key, and after the first couple of hours that was so ingrained into me that I ceased noticing that I was doing it.

It’s kind of amusing that there’s a common key for switching camera modes, and I almost love that as much as I love the fact that there’s a common key for “feast on the blood of your enemies”. Pressing F will attempt to Feed on whatever living creature is in front of you. For much of the game, I hardly ever used this: I generally initiated feeding through dialogues with “willing” human subjects, and less often from unsuspecting strangers in dark alleyways; when I needed to top up during a long-running mission, I used blood packs from my inventory. Later in the game, though, when the levels get harder and longer, I finally discovered the advantage of feeding on enemies. The most obvious advantage is a significant boost in your blood supply, and also a quick and sizeable recharge of your health. A further advantage, though, is that it’s completely silent: even if you feed on one enemy while right next to a second one, the other won’t notice its comrade fall. It’s also a great equalizer, as feeding can kill any non-boss enemy, regardless of its health or power. Feeding tends to be effective, so long as you start from stealth: if an enemy is not alert, you’ll often succeed on your first attempt. The capper, though, might be that failing to feed does not break stealth: you can keep trying until you manage to latch on.

I alluded to this in my previous post, but sneaking is incredibly effective. Even with a mere 2 points in the ability (1 each from Dexterity and Stealth), you are effectively invisible to most enemies in the game. Depending on the level design, I would sometimes bypass them, sometimes perform one-hit stealth kills, and sometimes feed on them. I invested in melee skills because of how much I enjoyed this up-close-and-personal approach to combat. After finishing the game, though, I think a much better approach would be to invest in ranged combat instead. Melee+Stealth is fantastic for working your way through a level, but you don’t need many points to be successful at it: a stealth kill always succeeds whether you have 1 point or 10 in melee or stealth. In contrast, though, many of the boss fights were EXTREMELY difficult as a melee fighter. In a couple of cases I could only finish them with firearms, even with virtually no ability in that style. So, the optimal approach is probably stealth + melee through a level, then break out your guns at the end. This would also help conserve ammo for when it’s needed.

In general, you can probably get away with following my lead in point allocations. Early on, you can ignore combat-related skills, as the vast majority of quests can be completed without them (and non-lethal solutions generally give bonus XP). Putting points in things like Persuasion, Hacking, and Lockpicking helps beat those early objectives and build up your skills and cash. Once you start approaching the max in those, you’ll be able to branch out into more combat-focused abilities.

The highest Hacking requirement I found was 8. If you have Auspex, you can keep it lower and just boost it when needed. Hacking isn’t important at all in the endgame, either missing entirely or at a much lower level, so if you haven’t been keeping it up there isn’t much point in boosting it later on.

There are quite a few doors that require Lockpicking 10 to open. I never made it that high, capping out at 8 with Bloodbuff active. None of those level-10 doors are required, of course. Most often you can find the key elsewhere; I think that once or twice it might guard extra valuables or a quicker exit.

Unfortunately, Persuasion and Seduction don’t show their skill-level unlocks, and as far as I can tell you just don’t see options that are unavailable. I ended the game as Persuasion 9 and Seduction 8, which seemed effective, but it’s possible that taking them higher might have opened more non-lethal options.

I leveled Auspex up to 5, primarily for the boosts to Perception and Wits, but being able to see enemies through walls also came in very handy during some missions, and it’s a relatively cheap power. I mostly ignored Celerity and Presence: I would activate them during boss fights, but didn’t invest much in them. Near the end of the game, I started to regret that; since recharging blood during missions was easier than I had thought, there probably isn’t much need to conserve power, and those powers seem like they could come in very handy.

Money did eventually come in handy. I ended up with a pretty nice surplus, though not a ridiculous amount. The most useful purchases are new outfits. If you’re trying for a stealth-based approach, you might want to stick with Heavy Clothing, the first upgrade you can get. Everyone should probably skip the second upgrade, Light Leather: it’s completely surpassed by Heavy Leather, which comes before too much later. The extra soak of Heavy Leather is fine, but it’s useless against aggravated damage, which is what you’ll be facing for your hardest fights. I personally feel like you’re better off focusing on your dodge than your soak, but I haven’t crunched the numbers to see how effective it is. In any case, though, you’ll have enough money for both, so you can swap them out as needed, for gameplay or style reasons.

There are some other useful items you can purchase: skill books, some trinkets that boost your stats. The big sink is probably blood packs. They are incredibly useful, as you can use them mid-combat to refill your power and health. I tended to lean on them heavily during boss fights.

Okay, let’s talk about story now!


I had a pretty clear goal in mind for my character: she was an ambitious climber who craved power. She liked Nines and sympathized with the Anarch movement, but knew that she wouldn’t be able to build a base of power in an egalitarian community, so she threw her support behind La Croix. She didn’t trust or like him, but thanks to discussions with Maxmillian Strauss, she knew that there was some dissent within the Camarilla, and anticipated overthrowing or even replacing him.

The roleplaying for this game was REALLY intense, especially in the early scenes. I tend to play “good” characters, and, when possible, try to avoid killing others when a non-lethal solution is available. However, the world of Vampire: The Masquerade is a dark one, and it’s very easy to question yourself. You are, after all, dead: your body animated by a curse, and by any standard a monster.

One of the most intense scenes for me came during the time in Hollywood. V. V., a compelling and charismatic Toreador vampire, is one of the most likeable characters you have met by a wide margin. She seems to have retained much of the humanity that other vampires have lost. She shows concern for people, both collectively and as individuals. Still, she is a vampire, and so needs to uphold the masquerade that protects her and others of her kind.

An early quest for her is largely a matter of self-defense. A vampire hunter has gone underground as an erotic dancer in order to infiltrate her club and kill her. You need to kill the hunter, but V. V. is adamant that you should do so without harming any innocents. With some clever actions (sabotage, hacking, persuasion), you can clear the area of onlookers and take on the hunter yourself.

The next quest is initially highly entertaining. Drawing on a hilariously on-point satire of wannabe screenwriters, you must track down and destroy a script that exposes secrets of vampire life. Following V. V.’s wishes, you can do this peacefully, sparing the human who penned the words. However, things get intense later on when you track down his source. This is a “thin-blood”, a human who was embraced by a vampire but has not gained many of the powers associated with it. You’ve met him before: he stammers badly, and seems kind but adrift, rejected by both the living and the dead.

I was determined to eliminate him because… well, because V. V. wanted it. The game makes this agonizing, though. Through dialogue, he pleads with you, begs you to show him mercy, promises to leave town and never do anything like this again. I felt my resolve wavering: this was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a villain. I had just recently let a serial killer walk free; why should I kill this guy who had talked too much and seemed remorseful?

But, I did. It wasn’t a glorious, exciting, challenging boss fight against an imposing foe. It was a pathetic affair, chasing down a victim as he fled whimpering away. And all to uphold this dark system in which I was trapped.

I dunno. It was really intense. My mark of a good game is one that gives me compelling options to act in a good way. This was much more interesting, a game that somehow led me to act in an evil way and feel bad about it.

The other major arc that had a big impact on me was your relationship with Heather Poe. When you first meet her, she’s dying in a hospital, and can choose to save her life by feeding her your blood. This works, but also turns her into a ghoul: over time, she gradually becomes utterly devoted to you, turning all of her life into a singular focus on improving your own.

The mechanics of this process hit some of the notes I’m familiar with in video-game romances. You meet the girl, say the right things, she starts to like you, and eventually moves in with you. However, there’s a profoundly unsettling sense of wrongness in how the Heather situation plays out. You can never forget that she’s losing her free will, becoming your thrall. The same events that would ordinarily make me happy in a video game now filled me with deep unease.

I’m almost certain that the game designers were aware of this discomfort, and so leaned hard into it. If it was played more lightly, it would have been more palatable on the surface but also less defensible: pure titillation of the player. By doubling down on the worrying aspects of it, though, they wrap back around the far side of acceptable and make it something disturbingly brilliant. It ends up feeling like a really barbed critique of video-game relationships in general. After all, NO character in a video game ever has agency in pursuing a relationship with the player character. This game just makes it harder for you to forget that fact.

The very ending of Heather’s story was pretty heartbreaking. It’s a textbook case of “women in refrigerators”, even taking place inside a kitchen, and happens immediately before you confront the boss who ordered it in order to fill you with pathos and rage. It’s still an effective trope, though, and I have to admit that I felt moved by it.

Looking at the bigger picture, though, I’m not sure if there’s any good ending to her story. If she had lived, she would have just become a more devoted slave to me. More and more, I found myself wondering what I should have done differently. Saving her life had definitely seemed good in the moment, but would eternal life without free will be better than dying as your own person? I’d made that choice for her, and deprived her of the ability to make any future choices. I dunno. It’s a disturbing quandary that’s still jostling around in my brain, which is a sign that they’ve done something right. (Or, alternately, very, very wrong.)

I don’t want to go over every side-quest, but that’s a taste of what the first half or so of the game is like: intriguing characters, open-ended scenarios, difficult choices, muddled consequences. Plot-wise, I allied with La Croix; I never explicitly took an anti-Anarch stand, but made clear that I saw the advantages of Camarilla leadership (not least their funding of the arts!)

After Hollywood, Chinatown starts constricting the gameplay a bit more. It’s still designed similarly to the other areas, with multiple buildings and different factions and quests. Some of the quests are still quite engaging - a long sequence with some aging hitmen is good, and there are some intriguing missions from the evil old man who runs a curio shop. Still, the design starts to feel a bit more limited around this point, with fewer options to pick alternate approaches.

That winnowing becomes extreme in the endgame. Once you start to go after the sarcophagus in the Giovanni mansion, the game itself shifts. It’s no longer an open-ended roleplaying game. It’s now a HalfLife 2 level with vampire powers. You move through a level, sneaking past and/or killing all of the enemies in your way, maybe solve a couple of puzzles, maybe collect a power-up or two, and then kill a boss.

This isn’t necessarily BAD. HalfLife 2 was fun, after all, and in some ways this arguably improves on it. You can look incredibly stylish when you’re sneaking through the dark and surprising foes with your katana, and the variety of blood powers makes for some really unique and interesting gameplay. Still, it’s ultimately pretty disappointing to become so focused on combat after the game has done such a great job at presenting unusual solutions to problems.

The game comes to a climax after a couple of these missions: I’m guessing the details vary based on your background, but in my case, La Croix reveals his alliance with the Kuei-jin, sends me to meet with Nines, then attempts to assassinate Nines and frames me for it. He calls a bloodhunt on you, and only Smiling Jack, the Anarch dude from the tutorial, is willing to help you out. You sneak through Santa Monica to a waiting cab, and then pick your destination.

The cab conversation is incredibly well done. The identity of the driver is mysterious, but he seems very knowledgeable about the situation and the world in general. It can veer in a lot of different directions depending on your dialogue. Ultimately, you end up selecting your loyalties and eventual ending. In some ways, this may sound like the Mass Effect 3 ending, which was widely panned, but I thought this approach was far superior. First, you aren’t making a choice that immediately leads into an ending: you’re selecting your final path, and still have much more gameplay before you reach the end of that path. Second, it feels far more natural and organic. Not just pulling one of three levers, but a free-flowing conversation that serves to clarify your goals. They did a fantastic job at crafting this discussion, and, after having played through it three times, I’m really impressed at all of the different flavor it can convey while still fulfilling its purpose of delivering you to the endgame.

I was unsure how to proceed: I still had my eyes on the prize of dethroning La Croix, but how to get there? I initially followed a thread towards rejoining him, but the driver kept emphasizing how he had mistreated me in the past, which led me to second-guess my approach. I was fascinated to see an option to ally with the Kuei-jin; I had enjoyed my previous interactions with Ming Xiao, and while I didn’t trust her, she had been a lot more honest to me than La Croix. The driver was even more shocked at this idea, warning me that I would be eternally outcast from my own vampire community and never welcomed by theirs.

It felt like the game was pushing me towards the “I’ll go it alone” path, but, again, that didn’t line up with my own goals. I initiated both the La Croix and the Eastern plots; both seemed cool, but it looked like there would be more upside with La Croix (the dialogue choice was something like “I’ll support him, until I see the opportunity to kill him”), so I reloaded to that and proceeded. La Croix called off the bloodhunt, though I was disappointed to see that this didn’t give me the opportunity to return to the streets and pay a final visit to Jeanette and V. V. (who had been mysteriously missing in action lately). You’re fully locked into the rails at this point, and your only options are to go shopping or to kill all your enemies.

Moving through the final level was relatively easy, except for one puzzle with jade statues that I needed to consult the wiki for. The final boss fight was super-hard, probably more so because of my reliance on my katana. Fortunately, I had maxed out on blood packs prior to arriving. I burned through all of my Elder Vitae and a couple of Blue Blood packs along the way. Once I figured out the mechanics, I shifted focus during the fight: as soon as a tentacle broke off, I would chase it down (again, katana) and whack it down before returning to the main growth. Once it got down closer to death, though, I just kept whaling on it. When it went, so did the offspring. I was victorious!

The final ending was AMAZING. All along, I kept repeating the mantra, “Don’t open it. Don’t open it.” You’ve been hearing this since near the beginning of the game, from the Russian seer in Santa Monica, well before learning of the sarcophagus. I had decided long ago that I would not open it, having learned well from other games that bad things happen when you do the bad thing. But, at the end, there is no choice: La Croix allows you to do the honors, you open it, and It Happens.

I sat there, stunned. As the credits began to roll, I couldn’t help laughing, and then flipped off the monitor. It’s probably the greatest “Screw You!” ending I’ve seen in any game since Neverwinter Nights 2.

But, this one was more affecting, since it was an earned ending. NWN2 ends the same way regardless of your actions, you can’t change it. In V:TM:B, though, I had fought for this ending. And, in retrospect, it made sense. Sort of.

After cooling off, I came back a day later, reloaded to just before the taxi ride, and tried again. I’d initially thought of doing the Kuei-jin ending, but discovered that I’d missed a conversation path that ended in doing what I ACTUALLY wanted: contacting the Tremere regent to depose La Croix. This requires pursuing the same MacGuffins as before. I didn’t have the patience to play through the temple again, so I used the console to grant myself invisibility and just ran through it and the boss fight.

From here, I was sent to the La Croix office for a second final level. This was also really cool, and I think more enjoyable than the temple approach. Human guards are some of the only opponents who can actually see you when you’re stealthed, which adds more tension and difficulty. At the same time, if you use care, you can still position yourself to stealth-kill them, so it’s still fun. I was impressed to see that they also brought out some entirely new enemy models for this level, with super-cool-looking stylish vampires joining the fray (a nice step above the bestial creatures among the Sabbat). The environment is really cool as well, with half-finished areas under construction and industrial elevators and glass ceilings.

The boss fight for this was more challenging. The first phase against the sheriff went fine once I got in the habit of running and looking around after he teleported. The flying form was a lot more difficult because, again, melee weapons. I peeked online for advice, and discovered that you can use the searchlights on the roof to blind him and make him crash into the roof. With two phases of this, I had him down to a sliver of health, and some wild and unskilled firing from an assault rifle finished him off.

This ending was VERY satisfying, which seems fair - narratively, and also since it took twice as much work to get. Your exact status at the end seems ambiguous, but there’s enough room to headcanon that you are taking control; Strauss had very explicitly said earlier that, while he distrusted La Croix, he didn’t want to lead the Camarilla himself. Even if you are not in charge (which is perfectly reasonable, given your age), it’s clear you’re a significant player in the new order, which is awesome.

The very ending here is a clear ripoff of Raiders of the Lost Ark - but, again, that’s cool. It fits the theme and story very well.

So! The big question is, what WAS in the sarcophagus? I’m not sure if the game every directly addresses it, but here are my thoughts.

For starters, it isn’t very clear that there ever was anything of power in the sarcophagus. All along, the vampires have noted that the uneasy feeling they’ve had started around the time the ship arrived in port; but correlation does not prove causation, and it’s very possible that some other entity arrived unnoticed around the same time as the vessel.

When you see the sarcophagus on the ship, it looks like it has previously been opened. By the time you reclaim it from the Giovannis, though, it is firmly sealed. What happened? One distinct possibility is that the creature inside has escaped, and is covering up its tracks. I’m attracted to the shaggy-dog option: that Smiling Jack and/or his allies opened it up, found a perfectly ordinary mummy inside, and then set a trap.

So, what WAS causing the uneasy feeling affecting the vampires? The obvious culprit is the taxi driver. He’s very mysterious, but also seems to know a great deal about the situation and vampires. He also talks more like a stereotypical vampire than any other vampire in the game. What’s his deal? There’s no proof in the game that he’s anything in particular, but it seems to quietly imply that he might be a Big Deal: perhaps Cain, or some manifestation thereof, or an antediluvian of some sort. (Again, my lack of familiarity with the source lore is a handicap in speculation.)

I’m at a loss to explain what relation Jack has with the driver. They obviously know each other since he points you at the taxi, and in the La Croix ending the driver appears to join Jack and the mummy at the very end. I’m a little curious if there’s the same continuity in all of the different endings, though. Maybe, in the Camarilla ending, Jack DIDN’T put a bomb in the sarcophagus. Maybe it still has the mummy inside. Or something else. Maybe in this ending, the driver is just a driver. I dunno.


While V:TM:B didn’t end up as cool as it started, it was still a fantastic game, one of the more brilliant RPGs I’ve played lately. It’s good on its own terms, and also kind of fascinating as a historical artifact; or, more specifically, an evolutionary offshoot. You can imagine an alternate universe in which this game was a hit, and the last decade has seen an explosion in RPGs set in the modern world, with a diminishing emphasis on combat, more freedom in approaching and solving problems.  And maybe more vampires.

In accordance with my ancient laws and custom, I’ve assembled two albums of screenshots. The main one covers the bulk of the game, from about 10 hours in up until the first ending. There’s a slim chaser of an album that just covers the new content in the second ending I got. Beware: these albums are not safe for work. They include sexual content, gore, and many unsettling images. Also a lot fewer polygons than you might expect, but, hey, what do you expect from a twelve-year-old game?

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