From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random obscure games back into the light. This week, you know how they say technology destroys your soul? Pffft. Compared to old school methods of damnation, it's a rank amateur at best.
Even by cyberpunk standards, BloodNet may as well be It Got Worse: The Game. You're Ransom Stark, a man whose life consists of telling people his name and knowing that in their head, they're thinking "What a dick." You look like Two-Face discovered moisturiser. You're a freelancer, and the economy hasn't got much better over the years. And as if being stuck in a hellish cyberfuture of cyberalleys and cybermurderers isn't enough to cyberdeal with, you're now a vampire.
Then things really start to suck. In more ways than one. Which is a clever reference to the whole vampire thing. Sorry if that was too subtle. You see, as a vampire, you drink blood. And also, the current situation is an undesirable one, meaning... oh, you get the idea. (Vampires like to suck on necks.)
Every era has its embarrassing obsessions. In the '90s, many of them had the word 'cyber' involved. The future was going to be dark, and rainy, and miserable—and worse, The Lawnmower Man was going to get a sequel. If you wanted to make something of yourself, you had three real options: become a fugitive cyborg, become a fugitive cyborg hunter, or go into business selling umbrellas and neon tubing. What little escape there was would be virtual, and probably run at about 8 frames per second.
Looking back, it's hard to remember how much of this was built on aspiration and how much on fear. Either way, it's handily demonstrated by this video, Exhibit 512b in what's now universally referred to as "Reasons You Were Right To Buy A SNES." (They include Streets of Rage not being that good.)
BloodNet firmly sticks its fangs into that aesthetic, being one of those games from an era long before focus groups and mass appeal were deemed worth worrying about. It's an adventure/RPG hybrid that pretty clearly takes everything the designer was into at the time, throws it into a blender, then a couple of days later uses the same blender to make a strawberry milkshake and realises it really should have cleaned it at some point. That's the moral of the story here. Always wash your kitchenware.
Also, don't hook up with sexy vampires in bars. That never turns out well.
It's a game I've tried to play several times, but like a lot of adventure/RPG hybrids of the time, just never been able to get into. For the time, it's pretty. It's also notable as one of simulation-maker Microprose's many apparent attempts to not just be thought of as a simulation-maker. That was done successfully with a few games, like X-Com and Civilisation. Others, like vaguely rude adventure Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender, felt like more of a mid-life crisis than anything else.
As for BloodNet, while I'm sure the designer wasn't in fact a bearded elder designer trying to be down with the kids... it really feels like it at times. Even by 1993 standards, its RPG elements had a certain old-school nature, and the writing just tends to be a little off. It's tough to nail exactly what it is, but... well. When you quit, it pops up the message, "See you on the net, cyberpunks," like it's trying to fit in a little too hard. Or maybe look at the character creation options. The sadly little used these days personality questions decide your starting stats, with one involving a member of your former gang—perhaps in the 'hood', or cyber-'hood' as the case may be—going nuts. One possible solution:
"Talk him into participating in a series of repetitive, but strenuous tasks in an attempt to exhaust some of his seemingly unlimited energy."
Uh huh. And presumably unlock the "Daaaaaaad!" character class.
Still, plenty of it is true to form. I'm particularly fond of "Many times you have hooked up a cybergenetic-" See what I mean? The grammar is just... but I digress- "surgeon friend with potential clients. Now she owes you a favor and offers to let you borrow one of her specialities for a few weeks. You select: A cyberlimb with a retractable blade feature and knuckles that could crush steel."
Anyway. Ransom Stark isn't the kind of guy who needs titanium nose-pickers or similar grafted into his limbs. He's more a hacker type with a penchant for firearms, and a gallery of stats that scream "Oh, how you can screw this up." Skills include "Cyberclocking" and "Faith" and "Fast-Talk" and both "High-Tech" and "Bio-Tech", and the late '80s/early '90s was a time when RPGs would quite happily let you gimp your character in a thousand different ways. Before the era of GameFAQs too, it's worth noting.
Stark is quite good at screwing up without help. As the intro begins, he's checking in with a client—Melissa van Helsing—who has asked him to do some trivial task for ridiculous amounts of money. They say you shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, but they don't say that about femme fatale types in sleazy futuristic bars for one very good reason—they could well be vampires. And she is.
Melissa tells Stark "Relax. You'll get what's coming to you," and I think we all know that's code for RUN! RUN LIKE THE WIND! JUMP OUT OF THE WINDOW IF YOU HAVE TO! Instead, he smirks, "That's what I'm counting on," and leans in to kiss with tongues even when she casually mentions her plan to damn him forever. Summing up his crappy night though, that's not how Stark becomes a vampire.
No. Her beardy dad shows up and bites him instead. Poor, poor Ransom Stark.
Stark does have one small bit of luck though. Despite having been bitten, he has a slightly patronising neural implant in his neck that's powerful enough to hold back the infection. In a wonderful line, Stark wastes very little time on panic or silly questions, and just sums everything up as, "Analysis? I've become a vampire, it seems." That gives him a brief window of time to cure himself before fully transforming and coming under the van Helsing family's sinister thrall forever.
Not mentioned is that he also seems to have been shrunk to half human height.
What's cool about BloodNet is that after this point, the game is largely open-ended. You have a vague objective, but no idea how to get started, a map full of potential starting locations, and an interesting gimmick: Bite. Essentially, as you play, your bloodlust keeps rising and forcing you to snack down on NPCs. Unlike, say, Vampire: The Masquerade: Colon: Bloodlines though, pretty much anybody can be your buffet. Good. Bad. Sometimes the game will casually insist "You change your mind", and your neural implant will tut, but otherwise you can largely de-populate the city with a few mouse clicks. Nobody even particularly cares. It's possible to walk into a bar, eat everybody, take the stuff from their corpses, and just walk out without so much as a "Oh. Well, that just happened."
The catch is that like a lot of cybergames, the world lacks much immediate resonance. It's tough to know what does what, what jargon actually refers to, and how the systems work. Even if it's not mechanically difficult, it has to be made to seem more than it actually is. Case in point, decking into computers to do hacking. In console games of the time, ice levels and forced scrolling stages were the pinnacle of face-palming annoyance. On PC, we had representations of cyberspace so annoying, it's almost a shame Internet Explorer 6 didn't manage to hang on until the end of civilisation.
As is often the case, complexity is mostly there to disguise that there's relatively little actually happening. BloodNet is largely a game about stumbling around blind and trying to figure out what you're meant to be doing. Unlike many games though, it gives some odd options to do what you clearly shouldn't. Having escaped Van Helsing's penthouse at the start of the game for instance, you're quite welcome to wander back whenever you like. The vampires within don't quite greet you with a cheery "Hello, dumbass!", but they're not that far off really. And would totally have cause.
Much of the action is spent talking, and trying to avoid fights—the first to gain essential intel on what cyberballs will cyberfix your current cyberproblems, the latter because adventure/RPG hybrid combat is always awful and this is no exception. As places to poke around go though, BloodNet's city isn't a bad one. It's New York, suitably trashed for purposes of cool, and there's a lot of it. Central Park is now a toxic shantytown, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is where particularly punky cyberpunks hang out, and it never stops being funny that the people who made the backgrounds and the ones who drew the sprites forgot to compare notes to decide how tall everyone should be. It's a city of people who seem to have been smacked with Whack-A-Mole hammers as well as the ugly stick.
There are some weird twists too. In Central Park for instance, you bump into a kid called Dodger who wants to offer a quest to sell him drugs. Turn him down though, and instead of a "Oh, okay, come back later," he goes into a rant about what a dick you are for not helping a kid... then offers to join the party. Lots of others just have random bits of kit for sale, or conversations that segue into another fight. And quite likely this death screen, because this game's combat is desperately unwelcoming.
None of the cool stuff matters though, because the game is so fiddly and so tedious that its clever ideas are quickly buried under a pile of hate for simple things like walking across rooms, the clunky interface, and the way the art and background music combines to create a really... uncomfortable experience. It says something that looking around, I found several Let's Plays that had started into it, but none that had made it to the end, where Ransom Stark ends up fighting Dracula. That happens. Apparently.
Really, BloodNet isn't the shadow in the night or the fang in the neck. It's the twitch in the anus and curling of the toes, in a future that's somewhat sickly even when it's just trying to be cool. This café for instance may not be Lovecraftian levels of wrong, but it's definitely more "Eeeew" than Escher.
Like many '90s titles though, there's the reality of it, and the basic ideas that would still be cool if used today—not least the genuine race against time element, the ability to lash out at more or less anyone, and the commitment to making a world as dark and grim and dangerous as cyberpunk should be. Give or take the fact that you can walk into that café above, murder the entertainment, and be as ignored as if you'd drained everyone of their precious, precious blood. Which you can then do.
As a potential future for humanity, I think we can agree it's probably one better left to fiction than reality, if not for the ghosts in our shells, then for our web browsers. Spinny alternate dimensions and backpacks of ICEbreakers and whatever are all well and good, but sometimes you just want to read TV Tropes instead of working. That's the real horror of cyberpunk. The ratburgers may even be tasty.
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