Combat is mentioned, and rightly so, as one of the weakest parts of Bloodlines. It obviously wasn’t the team’s priority–which, I must say, was the right decision. From what I’ve read, the game was given a release date while the game was still super unfinished, and the team had to scramble to get it as done as they could–that it’s as playable as it is today is largely due to ten years of patching. It was absolutely the right call to put more concentration onto the atmosphere, the environment, the storyline, the quest structure than it was to focus on the action, which generally hovers around “good enough”.
I’m playing a brawler assassin–I’m more interested in sneaking up on people and biting them on the neck until they are dead as my method of fighting than I am in being a gunsmith or anything. The sneaking up is satisfying; the actual brawling consists of clicking the mouse button to throw a punch, twiddling the movement keys because the game says that’ll do different punches, and hoping for the best. Maybe throwing up your buff spell or something. I’ve got a few options for my character as far as spells go–you start off equipped with a magic bullet which, if you hang out for a second, replenishes your MP more than it costs to cast, and further spells I’m saving up for include the ability to make surrounding enemies vomit blood, explode, attack each other, etc. Partially due to the less-detailed graphics, partially due to me playing a fucking vampire, partially due to the game making a point of treating the separation of “innocents that you should not kill lest you actually turn into a monster” and “people who are trying to kill you and so you’re able to slake your predatory urges in the name of self-defense” as a theme, it comes across as, oddly enough, less horrifying.
While I am admittedly not feeling any real-world guilt for anything I’ve done in the game–it is, after all, Only A Videogame and killing a videogame character is not at all like killing someone in real life (sorry Keogh!)–there is a bit of weight to more than a few situations you find yourself in. One of the major concepts–it’s right there in the title–is the Masquerade, the agreement among supernaturals that it would be Very Bad if humans were to know the truth about what’s going on around them and therefore the need to keep predations secret. There are more than a few instances where an innocent human has Seen Too Much and you have to choose between killing them before they can convince the authorities that there’s something going on in that abandoned hospital–slaughtering them for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time–or letting them live but threatening the integrity of the Masquerade. In all cases, I have decided to uphold the Masquerade–that’s the kinda character I’m playing–and it’s nice that in certain circumstances, there’s an alternative, nonlethal solution, like telling a bum, in an extremely scary and monstrous voice, that he had better forget what he’s seen.
But when it does come down to fighting–there is a deal of fighting in this game–it’s all bop-bop-bop and hope for the best (and if I do replay, I’m going to play a gunsmith character because why not). RPGs have always had, at their core, the problem of making combat meaningful, and they more than other genres manage to make encounters have a kind of dual role. If we think about a game as simple as Dragon Warrior, the enemies serve as both obstacles and resources. That game paces its exploration by tying groups of monsters to areas of the world map, and at any point in the game there are going to be areas which the monsters are extremely easy, where they’re a fair fight, and where you’re hopelessly outclassed by them. You’d be able to walk almost anywhere in the game from the get-go if it weren’t for the enemies being too strong for you when you wander too far. This is mitigated by the fact that combat has a direct hand in making your character stronger–fighting monsters gives you both XP and gold, the former increasing your stats and giving you abilities each time you get enough, the latter allowing you to buy better equipment. You stay in an area, fighting and getting equipment until the monsters become too easy, you wander into a new area where the monsters had previously been too strong for you and you set up camp there. The germ is grinding, and while in a game with a poor battle system it becomes a slog, in a well-designed game, it’s part of the fun.
Well, Bloodlines kind of does away with leveling–in a way it cuts out the middleman. It has a fairly standard skill point system, where you can purchase levels in skills for a number of them. Most games which have this kind of a system give you skill points at level up–when you’ve got 3,000 XP, you get to level 5 and you’re given 3 skill points to do what you want. Bloodlines gives you the skill points directly for finishing quests or otherwise doing significant things. (It does still call them XP–which led to a moment at the beginning when I was given 2 XP for a quest and was almost insulted—Might and Magic gives you tens of thousands of XP every few minutes, and even Wizardry 7 was dumping hundreds and hundreds of XP on me for simple encounters–until I realized that 2 XP is actually a really good haul in this game.)
Because of its focus on storyline, you don’t get any direct reward for fighting enemies–similar to Mass Effect 2, when you complete a quest your progress is evaluated and you’re given XP based on your performance, with some quests giving a higher reward if you did a no-kill run. It’s actually kind of nice to see a game which actively discourages grinding–because there’s no advantage to fighting aimlessly, you don’t have to spend your time on that–but at the same time, there’s no advantage to fighting and yet there are a large number of situations where fighting is required. Enemies don’t even have a pacing function–while I’m not sure if any level scaling is done, I’ve never been in a situation my character couldn’t handle with a couple of reload. And so the takeaway ends up, almost, being that there’s no point in fighting. (That’s kind of my issue with Zelda, particularly with entries like Skyward Sword which were focused on inaccurate, irritating, carpal-tunnel inducing waggle–enemies drop rupees which you very quickly max out on, and hearts which you usually don’t need, and otherwise form a bunch of tedious busywork.)
So it’s weird–the game wants to take the focus off of generic combat, of having rooms full of mooks you’ve got to punch your way through, but it doesn’t quite make the leap that it could probably make a really good game with fewer, more deliberate encounters. Given its budgeting problems and its release date, I can’t necessarily fault it. I can fault all of the games that have come out in the past ten years which haven’t quite managed to figure out this lesson yet. Dishonored is one of the few that’s run with having two very different games possible–one which involves combat with a lot of enemies, and one which requires avoiding all encounters except about a half dozen major characters; and of course there’s Shadow of the Colossus, which was wonderful but whose shine dulls a tiny bit each year.