This certainly isn't what I expected. The troubled Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines 2, which I'd just about given up on, is now set to release next fall, over four years after its initial intended launch. Paradox Interactive has tapped The Chinese Room, developer of Dear Esther and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, as the studio to bring the fraught RPG across the finish line.
"Fraught" doesn't really begin to describe Bloodlines 2. The sequel to Troika's 2004 cult classic (and one of my very favorite games) was initially supposed to come out in March 2020. Its first major delay came with the news that lead writer Brian Mitsoda (who also had a big hand in the original game) and creative director Ka'ai Cluney had been fired. Developer Hardsuit Labs was taken off the project entirely, and the game was delayed indefinitely in 2021.
The Chinese Room was brought in shortly after that, it's now been revealed. Ahead of today's news, I had the chance to talk to Paradox Interactive VP of World of Darkness (the broader setting of Vampire: The Masquerade) Sean Greaney, as well as Alex Skidmore, creative director of Bloodlines 2. After speaking to them, I remain uncomfortably in the dark about what happened to Hardsuit Labs' version of Bloodlines 2, but I came away excited for The Chinese Room's vision for Vampire: the Masquerade.
I was initially surprised at the choice of developer—The Chinese Room has thus far been known for narrative and atmosphere-heavy, gameplay-lite projects—but the more I chewed on it, the more exciting the prospect became. One of Bloodlines 1's main appeals is its dense, textured, turn-of-the-millennium LA noir, and The Chinese Room has excelled at evoking a similar sense of place in its games.
Skidmore seemed to share my initial reaction: "This isn't what I was expecting the Chinese Room to be working on," he told me. "And really, it was a big reason why I joined, because these are the kinds of games I love working on." Skidmore brings some serious, crunchy RPG bona fides to the project—before serving as lead designer on Gears Tactics, an XCOM-like spinoff that we loved, he spent many years at Lionhead Studios working on the Fable series.
The Chinese Room has kept Bloodlines 2's initial planned setting of Seattle, and while Greaney noted that they "have been able to reuse a significant amount of art and level design" from Hardsuit's project, Skidmore was quick to clarify that The Chinese Room is using "a new code base with different gameplay mechanics and RPG systems." Bloodlines 2 is also still set at yuletide, but is now in the grips of a historic snowstorm, and Bloodlines 2's new trailer and concept art remind me of the OG Max Payne's grimy, modern NYC Ragnarök.
We're also getting a completely different sort of protagonist than Hardsuit Labs had planned. Bloodlines 2 was to originally star a recently-turned "thin blood" vampire. In World of Darkness rules, older is better, and the legendary bloodlines of Antediluvian vampire patriarchs have diluted over the millennia—they just don't make new-gen vamps like they used to.
"We don't want it to be just a sort of poor homage or pastiche of Bloodlines 1. We want it to be its own thing," Skidmore explained. "We're not doing what Bloodlines 1 did, which is a traditional RPG game start: the very first day you're a vampire. The actual character you are has been a vampire for quite a while. And that was to create something different from Bloodlines to give a different experience."
Bloodlines 2 will now star an "Elder" vampire awoken from an indeterminate torpor (read: long-ass vampire nap), and going off old Vampire: The Masquerade rules, you get Elder status after 300 years of undeath. Since Bloodlines 1's days, a joint Vatican-global intelligence "Second Inquisition" has hit the vampire underground hard, culling its ranks. An ancient, supremely powerful big boy vampire waking up in Seattle is a bit of an event.
Skidmore seems keen on striking a balance between having this ancient be an established character, and letting the player sketch out their vamp of choice: "You have enough that you can fill in the character a bit as you go and roleplay, but they're also an established thing that you understand as aspirational."
I'm interested in how The Chinese Room will balance an established background with the Masquerade's many clans, especially given Bloodlines' legacy of clan choice drastically changing gameplay and how other characters react to you. Mad oracle Malkavians, for example, got completely rewritten dialogue choices throughout the whole game in the spirit of Fallout's low intelligence playthroughs, while stinky ugly Nosferatu vampires couldn't get too close to people on the streets without them panicking.
Still, having a semi-established character for the protagonist strikes me as a bold and exciting proposition. I'm hoping for something like the Nameless One from Planescape: Torment, or Baldur's Gate 3's gloriously gruesome Dark Urge origin—a murky, unsettling past that you have to come to grips with as you play the game.
After all these years of waiting for Bloodlines 2, a release next fall (with a more detailed gameplay reveal slated for January) feels almost shockingly, impossibly close. I'd kind of resigned myself to whatever fate might bring for a true, full-fat RPG follow-up to Bloodlines, but it's once again in the realm of possibility, and after seeing and hearing what The Chinese Room has planned for the project, by god, I think I'm along for the ride again.