LOTRO: Golden Woods blues

What motivates you to log on and play an MMO? We all have various answers to that which depend on the time and situation, but typically the answers are (1) the social connections, (2) the experience of story, (3) achieving personal goals, or (4) obtaining rewards such as levels, gear, and useful items. The more motivation, the more compelled I am to jump into a game. The less, then it depends if I want to play or not.

I’ve been thinking about this lately in my LOTRO adventures. I feel stalled out right now, with nothing new to do at the endgame until the next update comes out and nothing new to achieve on my progression server character until the next unlock happens. Both should be early/mid summer. And with the anniversary content done earlier than expected, I’m left puttering around Lothlorien on my goat, doing quests not for rewards, not for XP, but merely for the experience of doing them. And while it is a pleasant enough zone, the Elf fetch-and-do quests are the epitome of fluff. Go pick flowers. Go pick mushrooms. Go pick berries. Go meditate. Go light candles. We’re too lazy, we’re Elves, you do all the hard work you Hobbitsy thing.

Whenever I get into a situation like this in an MMO, it calls for various solutions to stave off burnout. Playing less is certainly an option (and one I’ll be pursuing this month as I branch off into other online games). Setting other goals is another one, as is simply exploring the world and paying more attention to detail.

For example, whilst going around Bree doing anniversary content, I took a look through this gate into a section of town that none of us have ever — or will ever — go into. Makes me really want to see what might be back there in this rich section, but alas, I’m a mere dirty adventurer.

Or I was reminded of this little Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle easter egg in the turtle house — you can see the nunchuck next to one turtle and a rat up on the rock. LOTRO doesn’t have that many of these pop culture references, especially in comparison to other MMOs, and the ones it does boast are usually pretty low-key like this.

At least this prodded me in the direction of Bingo Boffin, whom I had last left in Rivendell. I spent a few nights catching up on his questline throughout Eregion and Moria — oh Willem Whisker, where are you off to now? As always, these were a refreshing break from the more serious LOTRO epic story. My only regret is that there isn’t some way to farm Bingo Badges so that I’d have enough currency to buy everything I wanted from Bert.

Vampire The Masquerade Bloodlines: Blood dolls and bounty hunters

(This is part of my journey going playing through 2004’s Vampire The Masquerade Bloodlines. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

And welcome back to the freakshow that is Bloodlines! I really like how this game excels in starting you at the very bottom of the ladder in this new-to-you and mysterious society and then encourages you to work your way up. So while the opening area isn’t as high stakes nor too difficult, the quests and characters still manage to be pretty interesting. Honestly, it reminds me a LOT of The Secret World’s approach.

The centerpiece of Santa Monica is the Asylum, a club for vampires and their lackeys. It’s a nice safe zone with a couple of “blood dolls” who don’t mind being fed upon and filling up your blood meter, which takes a lot of the pressure off of having to maintain this. Plus, I met Jeanette, one of the twin sister owner/operators of the establishment. She’s easily the most recognizable character from the game, having been featured on the box and promotional art. My character calls her a “two-faced daughter of Janus,” which is a lot more shrewd than you’d think for a crazy Malkavian.

Among my humble origin quests include working for a local bounty hunter to track down a few people, which is well and fine with me. I also help out E, a “thin blood” vampire who wants to find his sire, who turns out to be captured my the local blood bank for forceable extraction. She gets hers, though, by going totally feral on a nurse when you release her from the chair.

Going back to the bounty hunter, one of his quests sends me looking for a guy who vanished — right into the basement of a very suspicious prosthetics dealer. So yeah, the guy not only sells prosthetic limbs, but he kidnaps and amputates from others for some reason. Maybe to drive up sales? You’d think that people would be a little reluctant to return. Anyway, he’s dead now, so don’t worry on that front.

There are a lot of side quests to do (which I attempt, because I need the XP to level up my skills), as well as a main storyline to follow. This begins with a beat-up ghoul named Mercurio, who asks me to recover some stolen explosives from a local drug den.

Much like Deus Ex, Bloodlines offers many approaches to level objectives based on your play type and skills. For example, the drug den level can be cleared out by force (the obvious choice) or by social skills (seduction/intimidation) or by stealth. I was going to stealth, but I got spotted and decided to see how many I could take out with just a knife.

All of them, it turns out.

Next on the main storyline is a quest to make peace between a local Nosferatu (super ugly vampires) and Theresa, the other owner of the Asylum. She’s willing to forgive and forget if I’m able to help her secure a spoooooooooky haunted house that she wants to renovate and flip on the market.

OK, so spoilers in this last paragraph, but this whole series is spoilers so oh well. The big reveal that will happen later is that Jeanette and Theresa are, in fact, the same person. I forgot this until I got to this room and heard the arguing through the door, then saw the one room split into two for each personality. Then recall happened, and I have to say that when you know this fact, talking with either one or listening to them “argue” takes on a whole different subtext.

Dear Syp, please stop trying to make FFXIV happen

Dearest Syp,

When you read this, it’s probably been three to six months since you wrote this. The MMO world is alight with buzz over FFXIV: Shadowbringers and about half of your friends are playing it. You’ve probably forgotten — weak as your mind is — the last time you played, and so you’ve decided to comb back through your blog post history on this game to refresh your mind.

That’s why I’m writing this. That’s why I’m here to remind you that, just as much as you’re not a fan of feta cheese on salads, you just don’t like Final Fantasy XIV — and you need to stop trying to make it happen.

Trust me, I know what you’re thinking. I’m you, after all, just the you of your past. I know that, on paper, FFXIV checks off many of the boxes of “must haves” for an MMO. It’s got a strong story emphasis, a thriving population, a tab-targeting combat scheme, a robust housing system, the ability to switch classes, and a community that’s kind of crazy about fashion.

And so since enough time has gone by, you’re probably thinking that you just haven’t given it the fair shot you should. Maybe, just maybe, you can crack that code if you can approach the game with a fresh perspective or a different way to play.

The problem, dear Syp, is that you simply don’t like this game. Be honest with yourself — you really have given it more than a fair shot over, what, three years and 300 days of subscription time. You had some fun, met some great friends, and enjoyed it for a spell. But ultimately, every single time you came to the same conclusion as I am right now, that it’s just not the game for you.

Maybe it’s the aesthetics or the ploddingly slow story and combat. It definitely doesn’t help that despite that out of a dozen or so classes, you like pretty much none of them. The pieces may be good, but the combination doesn’t please you. And so every time you end up subbing for a month or so, only to become disillusioned with the taste of this game and wander away, out $12 and several hours that could’ve been spent better in other games.

It’s time to call it quits with FFXIV. It’s perfectly OK for others to like it, bashing it is not why I’m writing this. I’m just trying to remind you that your MMO gaming path going forward probably shouldn’t include this game, even if it does end up being the last title standing. Branch out. Try something new. Check out some older proven favorites. But your time here is done.

Sincerely,

Syp of May 2019

City of Heroes: DDDelightful return

Ever since City of Heroes came back via the emulation scene, I’ve been waiting for an opportune time to jump back into this old favorite MMO. There’s still a very real possibility that NCsoft is willing to deal or make some sort of legal concession to legitimize these servers, so I was holding off to see if that would develop and if there’d be one more stable server in the end than the others.

But as we continue to wait on that front, it does appear that the Homecoming emulator is doing an admirable job gathering together the community and being the focal point of new and returning heroes. Every time I check, there’s around 6,000 people jumping into this game on the various servers, and that’s not insignificant. So why not me? Why not me indeed.

I figured that until whatever happens in the future happens, I’d limit myself for now to just one character played casually to get my footing. There wasn’t even a question of what that character would be, as I was a huge fan of the Dark/Dark Defender back in the day. So please give a warm Bio Break welcome to Lights Out!

After setting up my options and getting the controls and chat windows the way I liked them, then came the question of… what to do next? You see, the last time I seriously played City of Heroes, it was probably 2006. Or 2007? In any case, I hadn’t been around much for the free-to-play/Paragon Studios era for various reasons, and so this more new incarnation of the game is a little bit unknown to me. Plus, given the distance of time between when I had last regularly played, I had a lot of catching up to do.

For example, City of Heroes doesn’t throw exclamation points and obvious quest chains at you from the get-go. I wandered around aimlessly for a while, beating up random street thugs before vaguely recalling the idea of contacts and door missions. I rung up a contact — free teleport right to him, that was nice — and ran a pretty standard solo instance.

But City of Heroes was never about being by yourself — the game was always more fun in groups. So I turned to the Looking for Group channel, and saw that pretty much everyone was gathering together for DFB, or Death from Below. I guess this is an Issue 21 sewer mission that offers a very good rate of XP gain for minimal risk, which is why the community has flocked to it. Never underestimate MMO players from taking the easiest road possible for power leveling.

It was the only group game in town, and really, if DFB was the only functional combat part of the game, I’d still be obscenely happy to be playing COH again. So this past weekend I ran this repeatedly with several groups, getting to know the rhythms of my class and group combat all over again. I also had mild PTSD flashbacks to the barrage of sound and light that vomits all over the place during these fights.

Inspirations? Enhancements? I remember those! Inventions? Er… I think they started to come out when I played? Badges, temporary powers… ahh, this is the good stuff.

DFB did rocket me up from level 3 to 16 within a few runs, and I appreciated that I could grab flight and some other essential grouping powers quickly. Instead of fighting, I spent my time in groups tossing out debuffs on the enemies and heals and buffs on our team. That’s the Defender playstyle that I liked.

However, it did make me crave a more varied experience, because I don’t think I could run this one trial forever without eventually losing interest in this game. I’m starting a search for supergroups that are devoted to more traditional door mission experiences, so hopefully I’ll find a more permanent home among likeminded players. And then?

And then, the alts begin.

Battle Bards Episode 144: Colors of the rainbow

Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet: Combined, these forces create the awesome power of Roy G. Biv — otherwise known as the rainbow! In today’s experimental episode of the Battle Bards, Steff, Syl, and Syp attempt to find MMORPG music tracks to go with each of the seven colors that shine over a rainstorm or in a particularly oily puddle. It’s a daunting mission, but these three are just crazy enough to finish it!

Episode 144 show notes (show pagedirect download)

  • Intro (feat. “Greenwood Camp” from Free Realms, “Red Menace” from Stargate Worlds,” and “Purple Trip” from Glitch)
  • “Drinking from Red Wine” from WildStar
  • “Celestial Crab March” from Wizard101
  • “Hello Yellow!” from Club Penguin
  • “Green Valley” from Ys Online
  • “Flying in a Blue Dream” from MapleStory
  • “Purple Snow” from Grenado Espada
  • “Wild Violet” from Tree of Savior
  • Which one did we like best?
  • Listener mail from Sylkesh, George Wilson III, and Katriana
  • Jukebox picks: “End Credits” from Hello, Neighbor!, “Onward” from Diablo III: Reaper of Souls, and “Dulles Airport” from Die Hard Trilogy
  • Outro (feat. “Blue World” from MapleStory)

Fallout 76: Giving the end of the world another shot

It’s probably safe to say that Fallout 76 was a disappointment to many when it came out last year due to a combination of poor decisions. The biggest of these were bugs, trying to create a weird MMO hybrid design that failed to be social in the least, a lack of a true VATS combat system, and cumbersome PC controls. Bethesda barely gives PC players a second thought, and it shows in the questionable keybinds and inventory UI in its games.

Anyway, while I was disappointed with a game that I had hoped would fill that post-apocalyptic MMO hunger I had, I never thought it was a complete wash — and I was encouraged by hearing the odd report of players who had stuck with it and found a lot of good among the bad. So it was on my radar to return to when it got a few bolstering patches under its hood, and, well, here I am.

Since I never got very far into the game, I had no problems starting over and trying to take this game at face value as a survival-model RPG. This meant slowly progressing through areas, picking up everything not nailed down, scrapping junk, and building up a base of operations. I love the *idea* of a base more than how Fallout 76 institutes it, mainly due (again) to Bethesda’s horrible interface. It’s workable, just not very user friendly. At least this time around I’m sort of getting it and finding that crafting stuff isn’t as difficult as I had made out in my mind.

I’ve also been relying on a melee weapon for these early hours, since it’s usually more than enough for the enemies that I encounter and it saves ammo for a more needed later date. The first play session that I had in the game, another player emoted at me and then left a nice baseball bat for me in an Overseer’s Cache. That’s come in real handy, and I’ve had some fun knocking robots around with it.

Shown: An awesome player base made by Not Me. Not shown: My base, which is a sad, pathetic wooden platform with a couple of things on it.

The more I play, the more the absence of both other players in any large number and the absence of NPCs creates an odd, isolating feel. I’m not a fan. I don’t need tons of either people or friendly mobs, but it’s bizarre how the game bends itself into knots to never show people (you’re usually Too Late to save the humans in any given area) and I don’t get why there aren’t zone chat windows, better grouping tools, or guilds. Any of those would’ve brought the community together, but as it is, I just forget that this is a multiplayer game at all. And that is sad.

The redeeming nature of the game is in that classic Fallout exploration loop. It’s just fun to explore these different thematic areas, such as a wilderness camp that included a ropes and obstacle course and several cabins. I almost made it to the end of the ropes course but kept falling due to the terrible platforming controls.

Looking at the map, I’ve only explored a very small area in total, mostly because I have to keep returning to base camp to offload materials as I get weighed down. I did rejoice the day I found an actual (robot) vendor to buy some of this stuff I’d been saving, as caps are hard to come by in this version of the game.

Another fun activity is playing dress up. In addition to armor pieces, there are certain outfits that can be acquired and equipped. Here I am wearing priest’s vestments (with a Bible tucked in the back, natch). Figured that would be somewhat appropriate!

Guest Post: DDO Mists of Ravenloft review (part 3)

Today’s guest post is from DDOCentral’s Matt, who wanted to give Bio Break’s readership a deeper look into Dungeons and Dragons Online’s newest expansion. Thanks Matt!

Dungeons and Dragons Online (DDO) released its third paid expansion on December 6th, 2017 titled Mists of Ravenloft. The two previous paid expansions for DDO are Shadowfell Conspiracy, released on August 19th, 2013, and Menace of the Underdark, released on June 25th, 2012. These earlier expansions are placed in tabletop Dungeons and Dragons’ most famous campaign setting, Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms.

Mists of Ravenloft explores the popular Gothic horror-themed Ravenloft D&D campaign world created by Tracy and Laura Hickman and the vampire Count Strahd von Zarovich’s domain Barovia on the Demiplane of Dread within that world.

This article is the third in a series of three articles on Mists of Ravenloft, the most recent addition to DDO’s growing multiverse. The article reviews the two Legendary-level raids, the first raid placing the party against Strahd von Zarovich’s surrogate “mother” Baba Lysaga, and the second raid pitting the party against Strahd himself at Castle Ravenloft.

Old Baba’s Hut

Adrian Martikov at the Blue Water Inn in the Town of Vallaki is the quest-giver for the ‘Old Baba’s Hut’ raid. Unlike the second Ravenloft raid, ‘The Curse of Strahd,’ this raid requires no flagging quest completion before being attempted by the party.

The party has already visited the witch Baba Lysaga’s magical Hut during the story arc quest ‘Ravens’ Bane’ which takes place deep in the swamps surrounding the Ruins of Berez. Baba Lysaga’s Hut is in its own pocket dimension, being much larger and more expansive within its rudimentary walls than the Hut appears from the outside. The Hut is also “alive” and can attack hostile intruders such as the party.

The bramble growth that once surrounded the Hut as a protective barrier was dispelled by the party upon the completion of the Ravens’ Bane quest, so the party is now free to enter the Hut and deal with the second most dangerous character in the Land of Barovia as a prelude to the final assault on Castle Ravenloft. Baba Lysaga still holds the last of the three charmed gems taken from the Wizard of Wines vineyard, two of which were recovered by the party during the Mists of Ravenloft quest story arc.

Once the party again enters the Ruins of Berez’s marshy enclave and locates the Hut, Baba Lysaga appears before them floating upon the enchanted skull of a Giant. Baba Lysaga cackles, and addresses the party in her thick Barovian accent, “I knew it! I knew you’d come running after the gem if I dangled it in front of you. Just like a fly to a dungheap. Now I just need something to swat you with.” With that, the Hut stands on the spidery legs folded beneath its foundation and attacks the party at Baba Lysaga’s behest, aided by Baba Lysaga. The defeat of the Hut only returns the animated object to its resting place in the swamp, allowing the party to enter the Hut’s front doorway and search for the missing gem. The party must enter the Hut quickly as the droning hum of a gathering swarm of insects can be heard close by…

The party finds a veritable labyrinth within the interior of the Hut and must bypass a series of bone-constructed gates, glowing rune puzzles, Scarecrow guardians, and thaumaturgical force fields to reach the blood-purple gem’s resting place at the center of the Hut. The hallways and rooms of the Hut are actually an elaborate trap, intended to lure the party to their deaths. Baba Lysaga’s speech enters the minds of the party members and she says, “You won’t just hand this gem over to those poxy ravens. I’ve protected it, yes I have, with a good strong spell!” As soon as the magical shield encircling the pulsating gem begins to buckle under the party’s sustained blows, Baba Lysaga suddenly teleports the party back into the swampy grounds at the Hut’s periphery.

Now the party must engage in a second battle with the Hut, but this time with Scarecrow minions, Will-o’-Wisps, and a vast, buzzing insect swarm added to the fray. A second defeat of Baba Lysaga’s assembled forces will teleport the party yet again into the interior of the Hut, now with the opportunity to bring down the blood gem’s shielding and seize the article of the raid’s intent.

With the gem in hand, the party is teleported back outside one last time to face Baba Lysaga, more Scarecrow minions and Will-o’-Wisps, as well as two massive Shambling Mounds. As the party wears her down, the witch cries, “Mother Night, give me strength. I will pay any price!” Once Baba Lysaga is dropped from her floating skull perch and defeated, the raid ends, leaving Count Strahd von Zarovich as the party’s only nemesis.

The Curse of Strahd

The entire Mists of Ravenloft story arc encompassing eleven quests in three acts – In the Shadow of the Castle, The Vampire Hunters, and The Light of the Land – must be completed to attempt ‘The Curse of Strahd’ raid. The party meets the vampire hunter Rudolph Van Richten from earlier in the Ravenloft story at the Blood on the Vine Tavern in the Village of Barovia. Van Richten tells them, “Quickly, my friend. We must return to the Crypts of Castle Ravenloft and put an end to Strahd!”

The party has a rendezvous with Van Richten in the Castle Ravenloft crypts, where he disburses the Icon of Ravenloft, the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind, and the Sunsword – all artifacts obtained during the Ravenloft story arc – among the party members to be used against Strahd. Madam Eva is also waiting nearby, ready to tell the fortune of the party and determine the ultimate fate of those who would oppose Strahd’s eternal rule over the Land of Barovia.

The party enters the Crypts and is greeted by Strahd’s chamberlain, the malicious dusk elf Rahadin. Rahadin bows low and growls, “Welcome once again to Ravenloft. We have some unfinished business between us, I believe. And Lord Strahd says I need not spare your lives this time. For his power now grows…while your time comes to an end.” Rahadin and his Greater Shadow summons must be beaten before the party moves forward, deeper into the Crypts and closer to Strahd, the essence of evil permeating the very air.

The party comes upon Count Strahd at the bottom of a long flight of descending stairs, standing over a tomb of dark stone. Strahd murmurs to himself, mentioning the name of his murdered brother, Sergei Von Zarovich. The vampire lord then notices the party, breaking from his reverie, “There you are. But surely you did not think you could defeat me here?

Perhaps I have vastly overestimated you. Do you not know that I hold true power here? That as long as the Heart beats in this castle, I shall never know defeat?” With that, Strahd disappears in a cloud of mist.

The party returns to Van Richten and he councils them: “So, Strahd mentioned the Heart as a protective ward, yes? I suspect it guards both him and many other aspects of the castle…I believe I may be able to get you close to it, but then you’ll be on your own to destroy the Heart. Are you prepared?” The party then steps through a Dimension Door portal conjured by Van Richten, emerging into the tallest tower of Castle Ravenloft. High above is a great, glowing crystal Heart.

The party must transverse many obstacles on the winding path upward the obsidian steps, included animated guardian suits of armor, Greater Shadows, clustered spikes, gusts of wind, and deadly spell wards. At the top, the party member with Sunsword must interact with the Heart to proceed to the next phase. Strahd is there waiting for the party, prepared to fight! The might of the Sunsword shatters the Heart during this altercation, its unholy blood raining down on the tower.

Strahd hisses loudly and disappears. The portal out of the Heart leads the party back to the haunted Crypts and to Strahd once more. Here the party must light the Crypt’s five bracketed torches in the correct sequence, which then dispels the magical wards protecting Strahd’s tomb. Strahd awaits the party in his final resting place, attended by three decaying, elegant figures.

Strahd’s undead brides will fight by their master’s side and must be felled with him. When all three brides are defeated, the wards enringing Strahd’s coffin dissipate. A party member must hastily plunge the Sunsword through Strahd’s chest while he lies vulnerable in this sarcophagus. Strahd’s centuries-long grip on the Land of Barovia has come to an end.

Castle Ravenloft shakes with fury, debris falling from its ancient walls and vaulted ceiling. Strahd’s inert body decays before the very eyes of the party, returning to dust and his soul going to its everlasting rest.

More Expansions to Come

The Mists of Ravenloft expansion was an unqualified success, both financial and artistic, for Dungeons and Dragons Online. The community’s response to the Ravenloft campaign setting merited yet another paid expansion soon after, so Standing Stone Games went to work almost immediately producing a fourth expansion 7for DDO.

Masterminds of Sharn will be released on Tuesday, May 14th, 2019 and will be DDO’s first expansion featured for the Eberron campaign setting. Sharn is the most populous city on the continent of Khorvaire in the world of Eberron, and is a place of high adventure and intrigue. The noble Dragonmarked Houses vie for power here, along with Sharn’s rulers and more shadowy actors behind the scenes. But that is an article for another day…

10 of my favorite pick-up-and-play mobile games

While I certainly don’t acquire or purchase mobile games as much as I used to, there are several staples that have remained on my phone and tablet far longer than expected to give me brief bits of gaming pleasure when I need it. For today’s short Top 10 list, I’m going to share my go-to games for short sessions — not the longer RPGs or adventure games that I might have played and since deleted. Let’s go!

  1. Bloons 6: Probably my favorite tower defense game to play while on my exercise bike in the morning, as the popping of balloons is cathartic and each session clocks in at around 20-25 minutes. Has a great balance of fun to tricky.
  2. Clash Royale: While I don’t usually go for PvP games, this one has amused me for many years now and I’ve gotten good enough to muscle my way up into the double digit arenas without buying anything from the store. My kids also love this, even if they are far worse at it. C’mon, kids!
  3. Knights of Pen and Paper 1 & 2: Really excellent pocket RPGs with humor, a D&D tabletop theme, and lots of strategy. The first game is probably more simplistic with battles while the second one was awesome before the free-to-play update came along to ruin it.
  4. Dungeon Warfare 1 & 2: An addictive mix of tower defense and Dungeon Keeper-like gameplay. I’ve replayed the first game countless times and am only now starting to get into the sequel.
  5. Polytopia: Civilization stripped down into a sleek, engaging format that can be played in about 15 minutes. I’m so impressed at how this game handles empire building — and in portrait mode, no less!
  6. Tiny Tower: I used to be huge into this game and related sequels and spin-offs, and my wife still plays the Vegas version years later. Something fun about setting up businesses in your own tiny building.
  7. Pixel People: I’m glad to hear that a remake/improved version of this is coming out soon, because I really adored this bizarre city builder – slash – cloning simulator.
  8. Fallout Shelter: I play this one in spurts, but when I’m into it, I’m really into it. One of my favorite Fallout games of all time, actually. Wish they’d develop more for it — or a sequel!
  9. Card Crawl: A really underrated solitaire card game that has you trying to beat a dungeon with a set of cards. I’m still slowly unlocking new ability cards and looking forward to the day I can build my own decks.
  10. Battleheart series: All three of these RPG battlers are excellent, although I like Legacy the most because it’s the easiest to play (no toggling between characters). It’s like popcorn RPG, just fight and loot and level.

What are your go-to mobile games? I’d love to hear about them!

Vampire The Masquerade Bloodlines: I’ve gone batty in the head

(This is part of my journey going playing through 2004’s Vampire The Masquerade Bloodlines. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

With the recent announcement of Vampire The Masquerade Bloodlines 2’s development and personally coming off of a streak of adventure games in this series, I thought it would be the perfect time to open the crypt back up for one of the more unique CRPGs I’ve ever played. Now, you know that I’m not much of a vampire fan — I am in the camp that thinks that they’re kind of gross, oversexualized, and overrated — but the late, great Troika Games managed to create a genuine cult classic with its 2004 vision of urban vampires waging a power struggle in a gloomy city.

While it’s been many years (a decade? more?) since I played this game, I actually did fully complete it and found that it was one of the more unique RPG experiences. So why not do it again? Let’s go!

So what really sets this game apart (other than genuinely good quests and setting) are three factors: the fact that you play AS the monster in a horror game, the selection of a specific vampire clan to play as (which lends itself to different playstyles), and the effort to keep “The Masquerade” going (basically, no killing in plain sight or revealing your vampire nature to the normals).

I’d always regretted not rolling a Malkavian when I played this last, because it seemed like the most interesting clan, so I’m doing it this time. Malkavians are stealthy insane lunatics that hear voices in their heads and have bizarre dialogue options. Like being a blogger, really.

My only complaint with the character creator is that you have no option for how your character looks — or is dressed, for that matter. I’d prefer not to be a goth cheerleader, but that’s the hand I’ve been dealt.

The game opens with a vampire transforming me into one of his own (the Embrace, it’s called), shortly before a bunch of goons barge in, stake us (which doesn’t kill us, apparently), and then take us to a meeting of the clans. There, the Prince Whatever says that my sire never got permission to make a new vampire, and so while he’s sentenced to death, I get clemency if I prove myself. Me? I just want a pair of pants. Getting cold outside and I’m not going to any Halloween parties here.

At least I get some whacked-out dialogue options from the get go! And the font even suggests insanity, although it’s probably going to be a little tough on the eyes after a while.

Now I get to do what vampires do best: act like giant mosquitoes. The key here is not to fully drain victims and thereby risking breaking the Masquerade and losing humanity points (which is important to keep high in order not to fall into an uncontrollable frenzy).

As I go through the tutorial, I have to say that for a game from 15 years ago, it doesn’t look half-bad. Oh, the character models are a little more chunky than I’d prefer, but there’s decent lip-syncing and the environments are moody and immersive. It really reminds me of the look and feel of Max Payne from around the same era.

A way that Bloodlines really gets you into the roleplay spirit is that it pays a lot of attention to constructing a believable world-within-a-world and having the player live within it. For example, right from the start I get an apartment (a cruddy one, but still) and can use emails, get mail, and start living my new un-life as I explore the nighttime streets.

These zones are well-crafted areas that feel much bigger than they are due to the number of interactive locations. This is the starting area:

Not huge, but hey, 16 notable locales, plus a sewer system, plus other transportation options. It’s a lot to explore at the start, but it doesn’t let you get too lost or out of bounds. I like that.

So in my wanderings as a fledgling vampire, I learn more about this world and what it entails. There’s lots of politicking and rules, but among some of the early discoveries I made are that there are confused semi-vampires (with “thin blood” who are abandoned by their sires) and then ghouls (who drink the blood of a vampire and gain some measure of power without becoming a Kindred). In the health clinic, I keep a girl named Heather from dying by offering up some of my blood, thereby turning her into my pet ghoul. Does this make her my… ghoulfriend?

I’ll be here all night, folks, because I’m a vampire!

Soloing Disneyland

Last week I got to fulfill a personal dream of mine, which was to be able to go solo to a Disney park. I know that sounds like a slightly weird and/or pathetic dream, but you have to realize that every time I’ve gone to one of these theme parks, I’ve always been with family (and, more often than not, been tasked with herding kids around). So when I had a few days’ vacation time coming up and my wife asked me what I wanted to do by myself, this is what I chose.

I regret nothing.

It was a whirlwind trip, flying out to California on a Sunday, doing Disneyland for three days afterward, and then taking a redeye home on Wednesday night. I had never been to Disneyland before (always gone to Florida) and I wanted to check it out before the Star Wars land came in and that park maxed out capacity for the next couple of years. Being solo meant that I could take it at my own pace, traveling light and fast and indulging in whatever rides or experiences that I wanted. Don’t feel too badly for my kids, by the way; they were very supportive of me going and knew that I was going to take them to a local amusement park the week after I got back.

Physically, it was an exhausting trip — I stayed at the parks for 12-14 hours each day, walking or standing almost non-stop — but mentally it was a wonderful break from responsibilities, parenting, and working. While the crowds were fierce (moreso than expected), the weather was almost as perfect as could be and I simply enjoyed my time without stressing out as to where to go or what to do. In fact, while I brought a Kindle to read in lines, I rarely used it — instead, I would just talk with others or people watch or soak in a little inner quiet.

I definitely hit a ton of rides while there, and my brother-in-law Bill came to join me for the second day. I did a lot of comparing to Disney World, noting both the positives (a much higher ride density, some better versions of the rides, better weather) and negatives (some worse versions of the rides, higher crowds). I had anticipated going on Haunted Mansion dozens of times — it being my favorite theme park ride ever — but I was let down by how it felt like a smaller and lesser version than Florida’s.

Instead, the highlight rides turned out to be Pirates of the Caribbean (wayyyy better than Florida’s), Jungle Cruise (I never got tired of the puns), Tiki Room (the full, real show!), Space Mountain (with the in-car soundtrack, which Florida doesn’t have), and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Actually, that last one brought me great joy, because I remember riding it a lot when I was a kid at Disney World, and then they took it out in the late 90s. So to get to ride it again felt like reclaiming a small precious memory.

A strange theme that emerged was getting stuck on rides. We had to get evacuated off Pirates after a 15-minute breakdown, Haunted Mansion stalled for a good 10 minutes while I was in the attic, and even Jungle Cruise had to stop for a problem with a boat in front of us. It was all fine, I wasn’t in a rush to go anywhere or do anything in particular, and I always had enough to do.

By the end of the three days, however, I felt like I had gotten it all out of my system. I was really ready to go home and see my family, and there wasn’t any urge to stick around for much longer. I didn’t expect that; usually when I leave Disney World, I’m left wanting more. But I guess when you go solo, you can zip through rides way faster and get more done in a less amount of time.