Everything old is new again, especially when it comes to legacy role-playing games.
Paradox Interactive, the publisher behind Crusader Kings II, Stellaris, and other games you've probably spent way too much time playing, announced at GDC Thursday that it'll be releasing Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines II, the sequel to the cult classic action game that debuted in 2004.
The game is being developed by Hardsuit Labs, the company behind the free-to-play Blacklight: Retribution. It's based on the World of Darkness tabletop RPG of the same name, which has thrust players into the political world of immortal vampires, clans, and moral ambiguity since 1991.
Oddly, fans have been expecting an official announcement after an ARG released by Paradox seemed to tease the game.
"Keeping this game a secret for the last few years has been quite the Masquerade for us!" Ebba Ljungerud, CEO of Paradox Interactive, said in a press release. "It's both exciting and relieving to finally let everybody know what we have in store for them."
We got the opportunity to check out a small sampling of the game, which is set to release in Q1 2020. Paradox showed off the first 30 minutes of the pre-alpha build, so things including story elements, gameplay, and key art are subject to change
You wake up in a courtroom
The first thing you experience in Bloodlines II is a courtroom and you're the one on trial. A bald man in a suit tells you that two weeks prior, you were created in a vampire attack and he wants to know why. A flashback shows that you were walking around Pioneer Square in Seattle when a group of vampires started attacking random citizens and siring new kindred (the series' name for vampires) without the go-ahead of a clan.
But you don't know much more than that and as you recount your story, the upper brass — representing warring clans — start fighting and the whole place goes up in flames. You escape into the Seattle Underground and discover that you have heightened senses and new powers. This is where the game introduces the three play styles you can choose from: Chiropteran, which relies on the power of bats; Nebulation, where you have control over mist; and Mentalism where you use abilities like telekineses to fight and move.
You escape but are confronted by a man with a cellphone. You find out he's being controlled by a mysterious woman who's on the other line and tells you what you are and what you need to do. There's a man on the pier that can help, she says. She also tells you that you need to feed, so you drain blood from the poor man in front of you.
You arrive at the pier after your first combat encounter and come across a man named Dominic. He tells you that there is something mysterious at work in the underbelly of the city and gives you an address to an apartment, but he's soon decapitated by a gray-haired assassin. He's also about to kill you but says that you aren't on his list and he lets you go.
You go to the apartment where you meet another vampire named Dale. He gives you some basics on the world — that there are warring clans and that as a clanless vampire, you're in immediate danger. He tells you to stay out of sunlight and out of the way of normal humans. This is where the "Masquerade" comes in. Vampires must not reveal themselves to humans and to do so is a major violation. He gives you the key to the apartment and lets you go.
At this point, your character can go out exploring, whether it's to feed, fight enemies, find clues to the larger mystery, or to try out your powers. There is a main storyline, but the rest is up to you.
How do you follow up after so long?
It's been 15 years since Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines. The action role-playing game, developed by the now-defunct Troika, became a cult classic post-release and it's easy to see why. Compared to other games at the time, it offered this unique blend of role-playing, narrative, and combat — encapsulating all the best parts of the pen-and-paper tabletop game.
Nowadays, games are extremely good at balancing multiple elements, genres, and play styles so on paper, Bloodlines 2 isn't particularly innovative. However, there are key elements that Paradox and Hardsuit showed off in the pre-alpha build that developers hope will pay tribute to the older game, but expand on it.
For one, key pieces are returning. Hardsuit managed to hook up with Brian Mitsoda, who worked on the original game and is returning as the lead narrative designer. The dark, noir tone is also present, as is the fog.
At the preview, developers explained that they used the last game as a stepping stone, taking elements that might not have been ideal and attempting to perfect them. In the first Bloodlines, for example, you're put immediately into the thick of all the clan and political intrigue that defines the World of Darkness RPGs. The issue is that people entering the game might not be familiar.
"The first game you're just dumped into character creation without a full understanding of what you're getting into," Rachel Leiker, the lead UX and UI designer for Hardsuit, said. "For this game we wanted you to focus on building up your vampire-ness first before we bring you into the whole clan environment because those two can be two different experiences for gameplay."
Fans more familiar with the series won't be missing out on any intricacies. The beginning character creator will allow you to choose how you look cosmetically, but it'll also let you choose who you were before coming down with a case of vampirism. As the game goes on, you'll be able to choose your place out of five clans, figure out the mystery of why you got turned, and how the political climate is changing Seattle.
Those with series experience know that your outer appearance is not only great for cementing your character but also informs how others in the world interact with you. The same goes for Bloodlines II. As you decide whether to feed constantly, what clan to join, your play style, and other factors, it'll change what quests you encounter, dialogue choices you'll get, and generally how people react to you.
Player choice was a key part of the first Bloodlines, and developers wanted to maintain that here. Everything adds to what story you'll get as you progress — things as small as dialogue choices to events in the main story can be impacted by your decisions. It's unclear just how many different play styles, character types, and tracks there are but Leiker said there was "a lot."
"We have built systems and experiences around making sure the player has utter control over the kind of stuff they want to do in the game," she said.
Seattle is great for vampires. It rains all the time
A huge change between the two games is location. The first took place in various places around Los Angeles, while the second takes place in Seattle. The latter city doesn't feature prominently in any of the pen-and-paper campaigns but was chosen because that's where Hardsuit is based. It's also just a great setting for Vampire: The Masquerade, a story that's intrinsically about political conflict and progress vs. tradition.
"There's actually a lot of history there," Martin Ka'ai Cluney, creative director at Hardsuit told me. "Seattle historically is a very pioneer, progressive, traditional town and over the last few years, Microsoft, Amazon, the whole tech thing is affecting Seattle. There's definitely a constant push and pull between progress and tradition. it reflected larger themes that are going on throughout the country and throughout the world ... That constant tension, where there's really no give, was a really good bed for the story."
Plus it looks great at night. And in the rain. Isn't that all a vampire wants?
The deep history and lore is also something you might want. Dominic — that poor sap who got decapitated — has been researching the vampire clans, but also Seattle's history as a city run by criminals. You essentially find a starter pack of research in his apartment. In the world of Bloodlines II, real-world events have supernatural twists, and you can find these bits as you explore. There's also a side quest where you can find all the other humans that were turned the night you were. Everything about this is optional, but it's a huge part of the game not only in terms of gameplay but of depth and meaning. Bloodlines II seems to be a game that's as much about its location as it is about the protagonist.
It's always tough to say what a game will look like at release when all you have is a pre-alpha build. That being said, there's a lot of promise for fans of RPGs and player choice. World of Darkness has fans not just because you get to play as supernatural creatures (although that's definitely a part of it) but because you can engage with a much larger system of political intrigue and social strategy. Hardsuit seems to understand that freedom and a complex narrative is key to Vampire: The Masquerade and that's incorporated into the game's foundation.
It's unclear how large this game will be, how many tracks there are for players, or even what clans are involved (that'll be revealed at a later date), but based on what's here, there's a lot to look forward to, even for people new to the series.
Bloodlines 2 is now available for pre-order on Steam, the Epic Games Store, GOG, and the Paradox Store for $60. Paradox is also offering a "Season of the Wolf" season pass for $90, which gives players access to additional story content expected to be released after launch. The game is expected to debut in Q1 2020 on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
Are you excited for a new Vampire: The Masquerade game? Did you play the first installment? Sound off in the comments below.