Monday, March 3, 2014

VtM: Redemption

I'm almost tempted to play through Redemption again, especially since it's now an effortless GoG download. Almost. But I know I'd only be doing it out of sheer nostalgia. This was the first or second RPG I ever played, depending on whether you count Diablo's choice of hack vs. slash as role-playing. With its hefty dose of violence and low reliance on dialogue, it allowed many of us teenage gamers at the time to bypass our mortal (and well-founded) fear of being labelled "faggots" and ostracized even by other outcasts if word got out we were playing RPGs. I ran through Redemption three times all-told I think and I can safely say I still remember its few good lines and the one overpowered way to play it well enough to simply rerun it mentally.

But then, that's a backhanded compliment in itself. Despite its many weaknesses, Redemption was appropriately "dark" and as far as I can tell without playing the pen-and-paper versions stuck to most of the more memorable World of Darkness tropes. It is not forgettable and worth at least one play-through but neither can it compare to the later VtM adaptation, Bloodlines, nor to its contemporaries like Planescape:Torment or Morrowind. This is not a "flawed gem" and not an unfinished masterpiece but a quaint, mediocre introduction to vampiric roleplaying. Prepare to be... moderately entertained.

Let's start with the first impression. If you've ever heard a truly hammy half-modernized mis-quoting of Shakespearean banter, you've got the gist of the bulk of dialogue especially through the first half of Redemption. Though their speech patterns are overall quite modern, characters cast thees and thous about like firecrackers, snapping you out of whatever other immersion your surroundings might have built up. As the immortal line from History of the World Part 1 goes : "we are so poor we don't even have our own language... just this stupid accent!" Amusingly enough, the main character and some others' faux-Shakesperean scenery-chewing continues into the modern age, which prompted my mother looking over my shoulder a decade and a half ago to roll her eyes and encapsulate Redemption's dissonance with the perfect one-liner: "thine elevator is stuck."
The voice acting itself, much as in other big-budget games, runs the gamut from professional to penny-pinching paltry, though it's difficult to say where bad acting stops and bad writing starts. Christof is a ridiculously overblown Prince Charming and many other main characters follow suit. However, others like Wilhelm or Serena or minor roles like Libussa manage to retain their credibility.
The graphics were, for their time, excellent (if you had the top-of-the-line video card for them) and though the game engine has aged I daresay many of its environments, especially the towns, remain atmospheric and immersive. Character models were quite well-designed and designed for visual impact and the lumbering plate-mailed Teutonic Knights or Serena in her lavish blood-colored hooded velvet gown were as inspired as anything in other games.
However, it's sound that carried much of Redemption's immersion. Ambivalent dialogue aside, aural accompaniment was consistently expressive and what the old visuals failed to convey, sound effects did instead through the squishing, squelching, scrunching, screeching noises of various organic and inorganic materials being rent asunder. Even more impressive was the music score which perfectly embodied the grim, cynical, nihilistic abandon of a world of morally bankrupt boogeymen. If anything rescued Redemption's atmosphere from outright mediocrity, it was the work of its soundtrack's composer.

In terms of gameplay, Redemption mixed the woefully familiar RPG staple of scouring the map for every last ghoul rat in order to gain experience with a decent mix of stats and abilities. It's completely linear, with the only roleplaying choices coming from skill selection. However, it was decidedly not balanced and there is one truly overpowered way to build Christof which largely trivializes gameplay. Generally speaking, everything in the game was meant to be beatable by one specific gimmick. After playing through it once, you'll know which fights you can completely break and how and there's no true incentive to do otherwise. There's one "boss" fight you can actually defeat without ever getting hit by simply ... not entering the room and having your ranged attacker down a few vials of blood to fireball the boss to death. Since the game shares experience between active characters, at least one or two companions you should kill off as soon as you get so as not to split experience from Christof and never even bother reviving as she/he get taken away in cutscenes anyway, destroying any items in possession at the time. That in itself is not necessarily a disaster, as you can get infinite money. You can also solo most fights with one or another character, as long as you know what's coming. Generally speaking, Redemption shares the common flaw of most badly-designed games of throwing devastating, inevitable "surprises" your way which are nonetheless perfectly linearly scripted and easily bypassed if you know when to save and when to shop.

Still, this was an enjoyable game and in many ways its game-breaking flaws were what made it interesting as they brought attention to mechanics which would have been quite workable if used with greater warning, moderation and balance. It's no worse an RPG than Neverwinter Nights and has aged much better than some of its contemporaries like Icewind Dale. If you do play Redemption you'll likely do so twice: once honestly and the second time abusing all its design flaws for maximum leetness.
You need feel no shame. We've all done it.

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