I did not know this before, but Vampire: The Masquerade started as a tabletop horror game that was released back in 1991 and is part of a series of tabletop games occurring in the World of Darkness, a dark and gothic variation of our real world, inhabited with vampires and werewolves and all kinds of supernatural creatures.
And now it’s a VR game releasing on Quest and PSVR2. This isn’t the first video game based on the franchise, in fact – it’s the seventh, but it’s the first one built for VR!
You play as a character called Justice, the main antagonist of the game who’s trying to retrieve an artifact of importance, and the game lets you choose between female and er..slightly less feminine hands, and female or male voices for your characters. It’s set in a gothic version of Venice. And it takes a substantial amount of inspiration from Dishonored, and anybody who’s played Dishonored will notice that immediately. Your teleport ability is called ‘blink’. You can pull off blink attacks, and you have a fairly good skill tree to fill out as you progress through the game.
You start with fairly limited powers, you can teleport around, climb pipes, and various other things. Sneak up on enemies, grab them, and suck them to death. Soon, you’re given a wrist-mounted crossbow, for which you start acquiring various types of bolts.
You can play the game as a stealth game and are encouraged to do so. The bad guys have guns and rifles. You do not, and it only takes a few shots to take you from undead to dead as a doorknob. However, as you acquire more and more skills, you can also start becoming more aggressive, since it costs less to perform deadlier actions. But it’s more difficult to acquire those skills if you’re playing it like an action game since you earn more skill credits by fulfilling stealth goals such as remaining undetected or not killing any mortals. It’s a good way to balance the gameplay and keep players from going too gung-ho.
As a single-player campaign, Vampire is refreshingly ambitious. Nobody’s going to be calling this another tech demo. Fast Travel Games have tried to build a full-on game here and should be appreciated and applauded for doing so. There are a good number of levels, called ‘Undertakings’, each of which has a small intro, and most of which have a gameplay prelude on the streets of Venice before you reach their start.
The story isn’t as engaging as it could be, but it also doesn’t suffer from lengthy bouts of exposition, so although it may not engross you narratively, it also won’t bore you. It’s a decent enough story, but since it’s adapting the first game in a set of several tabletop games, it doesn’t feel very conclusive. In fact, by the end, it very much feels like it’s setting up a sequel.
That’s not a bad thing, at all. A series of Dishonored-type VR games with vampires? Sure, sign me up.
It’s not all smooth sailing, though, but we’ll get to that. First, let’s talk about pretty things.
The first thing you’ll notice when you start up Vampire is that its night-time Venetian environments are stunning, no matter which platform you play it on, and I’ve been to Venice. It’s quite beautiful, but what they don’t tell you is that it’s dank. That’s what happens when you have so much water around all the time. But I digress. Built with Unreal, Vampire: The Masquerade – Justice is beautiful, and you’ll be looking around you all the time, taking in the scenery and thinking, damn, this game’s a looker.
The same, understandably, doesn’t apply to the NPCs, they are more stylized, and to a certain degree, their low polygonal count somewhat contrasts with the environment.
A weaker point, perhaps, is that all the characters are key-frame animated rather than motion-captured, so their body language and gestures feel stiff and clumsy, somewhat destroying the illusion that you’re talking to another character.
One thing to note, however, is that the PSVR2 version, although it has some better graphics, more noticeably when it comes to particle effects, flames in barrels, etc, appears to have a slower frame rate than that of the Quest version. It simply doesn’t play as smoothly and seems to chug as you move through the streets. It’s very odd, considering how much more powerful the PS5 is compared to either Quest. Re-Projection issues? Perhaps.
So if you have the choice, I’d recommend you play it in Quest unless FTG release some kind of patch that makes it smoother on PSVR2.
But let’s move on to the audio.
The Red Violin
The first thing you’ll notice about Vampire‘s audio is the wonderful soundtrack composed by Two Feathers (Elvira Björkman and Nicklas Hjertberg) and featuring violinist Jeff Ball. Their work on Vampire: The Masquerade – Justice is possibly the best soundtrack work I’ve ever heard in a VR game. It’s absolutely suited to the game’s setting and perfectly complements the pre-dawn environments in which you roam as you silently hunt down or stealthily avoid the bad guys.
The voice acting for the main characters is convincing, whether you’re playing as a male voiced by Zach Hoffman, or as a female, voiced by Diana Gardner. Both do a great job, and they sound appropriately grave, lifting the main character’s drama.
The sound effects, perhaps, are the weakest part of the audio. A lot of heft and weight in VR games is created by good sound design. Sure, haptics can help, as can good in-game physics, but it’s the sound that can make a gun FEEL heavy, or make a crossbow SOUND powerful. In Vampire the sound f/x work, but they feel a little underpowered.
As much as I love most of what Vampire: The Masquerade offers, and appreciate massively the undertaking (see what I did there?) that Fast Travel Games have taken upon themselves, I am almost mad at Vampire, not because it’s bad, it isn’t, but because it gets so damn close to being an exceptional game, and then fumbles in various annoying ways.
The mechanics and general polish are often clunky. Vampire tries to simulate the Half-Life: Alyx style of remote grabbing objects, but its curve is too slow, meaning you might’ve moved your hand from where an object is going when you pulled it, so it overshoots your hand then it corrects itself by snapping into your hand. It looks and feels clumsy, taking what was a great feeling mechanic from Alyx and making it feel clunky, clumsy, and janky.
The game’s visual language can also be occasionally confusing. Initially, it feels like it’s teaching the player that doors with handles can be opened, whether currently locked or unlocked, and that doors without handles are closed areas, but then around 30-35% into the game, the game starts breaking those rules, doors with handles don’t open at all.
The notes you find scattered throughout are handwritten, but then when you grab them, you have another layer floating above them that you actually read. Why not just make their original texture legible? It makes some of the game feel like it’s held together by duct tape.
Another annoying thing is the rats. Yes, I know rats are naturally annoying, but here they function as health pickups. The problem is that you can’t remotely grab them, presumably because they’re living creatures and not inanimate objects, but I’d just make the distinction between ‘large’ and ‘small’ things and let me pick up a damn rat while I’m walking and contemplating silent assassinations instead of having to chase rats, stoop, pick up rats. It slows down what could have been a far more fluid and empowering experience. Why can’t I just flick grab a rat while I’m walking, and dig into its belly while I’m contemplating my next kill? That would feel a lot more like I’m a ‘deadly creature of the night’.
The teleportation, whether to go to a ledge, or to attack an enemy is twitchy, sure, nobody’s hand is perfectly steady, but the game doesn’t allow for this, meaning that rather than aim and go, aim and go, aim and attack, you’re often carefully re-adjusting your aim, slowing things down and making you feel clumsy, destroying the illusion of a smooth stealthy killer flowing and teleporting around the levels taking out enemies.
There is a general lack of flow in the game, and I’m not saying it destroys Vampire, but it takes it from being a fantastic game to being a pretty good game that’s not all it could be. And while we’re talking about occidendum interruptus, I can’t ignore the long loading screens, honestly, they’re painful.
I usually don’t spend this much time mentioning my issues with a game, but I like so much about Vampire, it’s so close to being amazing, that I feel the need to explain why it isn’t, in the hope that Fast Travel Games can make it so.
It’s so damn close.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Justice is an ambitious game set in a beautiful environment offering plenty of gameplay possibilities. It’s a promising start to what could become a great VR franchise, but what could’ve been a sublime experience is hampered by poorly executed mechanics, long loading screens, and, at launch, a few bugs that will frustratingly waste your time.