Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

Bloodline (PC, 2004/5, Czech): Brain Surgery, Here I Come
March 25, 2012, 4:43 am
Filed under: Bloodline (PC, 2004/5, Czech)

So, you thought I was finally hit by a bus and there went the crappy videogames blog, did ya? Meh, you should be so lucky. It’s just that at certain times of the year (like when I am supposed to be doing “teacherly” work as an English professor) my gameplaying slows to a trickle. If tuition wasn’t so high, I’d tell all those students to go and teach themselves while I take a nap in some zombie filled cornfield in Fiddler’s Green.

Still, even when things are crazy busy, I manage to fit some virtual skullcrushing in. And to that end, how a title like Zima Software’s survival horror “Bloodline” (2004/5, Czech) flew under my radar is beyond me. It took a reader of this blog, Hombre de Incógnito, to tantalizingly wave it under my nose (calling it a “rare, Czech horror”). After all, at this point in my life I’m pretty damn sure I’ve either played, purchased, “acquired,” or turned said nose up at every single title that even remotely falls within my field of interest. Me? Wrong? Also known as “Bloodline: Линия крови” (Russian) and “Bloodline: Uśpione zło” (Polish), somehow this one remained stubbornly crouched in the dark corner…until now. Wondering what the hell this is? Well, the official genre tagline for the game sums it up perfectly: “Action/Adventure Survival Horror.” In that vein, this eastern European oddity haltingly plays like Penumbra-meets-Silent-Hill-meets-Fiddler’s-Green…I guess? (Although this comparison is highly suspect since Frictional’s “Penumbra” wouldn’t appear until two years later, give or take, and “Dawn of the Dead: Fiddler’s Green” may or may not have yet hit the market—but it’s still thematically accurate for several key reasons.) And I call myself an underdog gamer. For shame, for shame.

Of course, there were many in-the-know gamers (unlike me) who actually followed the rather long development cycle of this title and waited eagerly to get their hands on the finished product. The brief story goes thusly: 10-year-old Zima, a very successful (but provincial and small) developer of mostly kiddie-like humorous point-and-click games, undertook a dark, serious, straight-up FPS horror title, looking to films like Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser” and Peter Jackson’s “Braindead” for inspiration. That got some people’s attention. Missing the projected release date of 2001 by three years, in 2004 a demo was finally released. Then things went sour. People complained about the long load times (although the developer claimed the tech “allowed calculations to run in higher-level spaces, including the hypercomplex ones”), the average visuals (although the developer claimed the tech “goes further” than any of their previous “BPS, PVS, and portal” graphics engines), and the crowded maps lacking in any kind of draw distance (although the developer claimed the tech allowed for “more advanced visibility settings for single scene elements”). Can you spot the trend here? All of it was somewhere on the low side of mediocre. Cenega published the game on its own European turf, but the website for the title disappeared shortly thereafter, and Zima washed its hands of it (returning to more profitable kiddie fare, I imagine) before a proper English localization happened. To this day, English reviews of the game are nearly impossible to find. Of course, if you read Russian or Polish, you can still find a handful of merciless eastern European reviews that shredded it. And into the dark corner it crept, rocking back and forth like an autistic child.

That is until some superfans (or maybe just some bored people without jobs, I’m looking at you, Trey, from 3DSL) cobbled together a rather solid English translation, including all on screen text, menus, and subtitles. And then, miraculously, just like in the movies, there was an explosion of underground interest in the west, and people by the thousands began downloading the game and raving about it on forums everywhere…

I’m not a very good liar, am I? Okay, so my guess is maybe several hundred folks in the west have bothered playing this all the way through. My informant, Hombre de Incognito, is one of them. I’m another. And as someone who is positioned to champion this shadowy title, let me be the first to tell you that you should…well, you could play it. Or you could skip it, honestly. Either way, there are some real gem-elements here on display, and there’s some real dung here too. The bottom line is that if you are a completionist survival horror nut (“Fiddler’s Green” aficionados especially need apply), then by all means. Besides getting a chuckle and seeing some references to the kingpin titles in action, you might get a little creeped out…if you aren’t too jaded. But the game stumbles around on weak legs most of the time, and unless you’ve got a steel constitution and a reason to forge ahead (for example, if you want to write about it on your crappy videogame blog), you might not survive the experience. Oh, but I’ve played worse. Way worse. Please read the “Evil Resistance” post here for more information.

The lengthy story (the game clocked in at a leisurely 20 hours easy) is one of those elements that, for me, worked (though I am, admittedly, rather easily pleased in this category). To the rest of you, on the surface the narrative may seem so clichéd as to be a joke. But it is actually carried out with utter seriousness, and in so doing, it strikes the right tone for survival horror. In the game, you play as Jim Card, though you don’t know that right away. You simply wake up in a seemingly abandoned mental asylum with a blinding headache on an operating table that is crawling with sick. What’s my name? A few maps later, after dodging some zombified nurses, noticing a duty roster plastered on the wall for the “Black Hill Sanatorium,” and finding Jim Card’s medical file carelessly tossed in an opened drawer, your memory is properly jogged and a few elements fall into place. However, why you are skulking around this decrepit hospital with dead folks lurching about is not one of them.

Eventually, you stumble across the head honcho Dr. Brown (who, looking sort of like a zombie himself, is hanging out nonchalantly in the basement morgue). When you confront him about the undead staff littering his facility, he says they are only figments of your criminal imagination—shadows of your guilty conscience, since you are, after all, criminally insane. “That’s why you’re here,” he says, “to pay for your horrible crimes.” But things are not quite what they seem. Besides not remembering any of your criminal past, a previous investigation of Brown’s office revealed some film footage of a Nazi-era operating room with some nasty experiments taking place. Telling him you watched these makes Brown uncomfortable, and he exits stage left—after conveniently opening up some of the corpse drawers to release some dearly departed friends. Seems like Jim has to continue his attempt to escape the asylum…and maybe figure out who the hell Dr. Brown actually is (hint: he’s an amateur archaeologist as well as a shrink) and what’s happened (hint: he’s excavated something very ancient and powerful, and everyone’s paying for it). Along the way, you find clues supposedly left behind by your father—an engraved watch, and a hastily scribbled note—and you slowly recall exactly what you are doing in this location. You meet only a few actually living folks along the way (one of them is a barkeep), who usually give you “news flashes” you already know (like ghouls are walking about)! Other times, though, they have some relevant information to add. The barkeep is a case in point: After you lubricate him with some of his favorite cognac, he gives you the key to his motorcycle and also tells you that Dr. Brown over at the sanatorium has been burying empty coffins for a while now. Weird. After traipsing through a surprisingly large variety of locations (the multi-level asylum, a graveyard, gravedigger’s house, underground tunnels, a church, a marina and lighthouse, caves, sewers, and other sundry clichés), the finale of the game has an appropriate neck-snapping (and rather depressing, yay!) “Twilight Zone” twist—which of course is shorthand for “You’ll figure it all out way ahead of time.” But that’s how it’s supposed to be.

But even more than the story, what really catches the eye are the interior environments, which are frankly quite superb—the game’s strongest asset to be sure, considering its age and origins (as usual). The graphics are crisp and sharp but with appropriately muted colors, and all of it works especially for 2004-era eastern European tech. All of the interiors are finely detailed—from the padded, blood-soaked walls of the isolation rooms to the hissing pipes in the dank, cobwebbed basement. Darkness shrouds everything in the mid-distance; though there is no flashlight in the game, you can always see just as much as you need to in order to proceed. Dusty (and sometimes blood-spattered) bric-a-brac and books litter the place. Turn the corner to find an aquarium with dead fish floating in it, or a busted chair sitting underneath a solitary light next to a disemboweled teddy bear in front of a mildewed concrete wall. It’s nothing new, but it works to create at least some minimal dread.

And now to completely contradict everything I just said, there are a few instances in the game where you must hop out a window or backdoor, and you get to run about in an isolated outdoor area, like a side yard, which is fenced in or gated. Later in the game, these outdoor sequences expand considerably to include the aforementioned shipyard and small island with a lighthouse on it. In one of the first outdoor areas encountered, you must hop out of a window into a yard (where you are attacked), and hop back into another window in order to access a closed room. While this provides the chance to escape the confines of the (admittedly claustrophobic) interior spaces and also gives you a chance to actually see at least a little bit of the exterior wall of the building in which you are imprisoned, these outdoor areas look rather poor, especially the vegetation and the draw distance (which basically dissolves into blackness about 20 feet in front of you). In all of these sequences, while you are supposed to be outside, it doesn’t at all feel like you are outside. I gather this is evidence that the engine being used is clearly designed to build nice interiors with a limited draw distance, but is ill-equipped to render realistic exteriors. Other than some ugliness, another problem that crops up when playing in the larger exteriors later on is some real choppy framerates—more evidence the engine is probably insufficient. Nevertheless, nice try.

And to contradict myself again: In an effort to make it feel like you aren’t stuck in the same building the entire game, the developers ingeniously have you burrowing through some of the most claustrophobic, rough-hewn underground passageways I’ve ever seen in a game. Doing so lands you in the wine cellar of a pub that is somewhere adjacent to the asylum (complete with aforementioned barkeep cowering in the corner from the monstrosities lurking about). Granted, tunnel-crawling is far from ingenious, but in this case, I think this choice was probably an acknowledgement that the outdoor spaces just weren’t cutting it. (Later in the game, when you traverse a highway between the asylum and some adjacent buildings, it is severely hemmed in on both sides with mountains, and everything is dark more than a few feet in front of you.) Clearly, these kinds of artistic choices play to the strengths of this engine, rather than displaying its weaknesses. But the game shines most when you are stuck pixel-hunting in a room somewhere. All-in-all, there is enough variety in the environments that I got that familiar, immersive “I want to know what’s behind that next door” feeling, which usually means a game is “clicking” with me enough that I don’t feel like I’m wasting my time. Know what I mean?

Regardless of how right (most of) the settings are, there is an odd design decision regarding the layouts (one that smacks of a technological limitation): Early in “Bloodline,” each map is composed of maybe four or five rooms and a connecting hallway, and that’s it. Every map is roughly the same size. Walking through a door triggers a lengthy load to the next (or previous) area. Later in the game, the maps appear to be larger (especially some of the weaker-looking outdoor areas), but ultimately you still have a lot of loading screens to stare at. While for me this did not destroy the overall consistent feel of the game (it still feels like you are in one consistent location), waiting around for a game to load (or crash) is never particularly fun (and I even fell asleep at one point, errr). And the load times are exceptionally long, even for a rig that outpowers the game by years. The game also has some trouble offloading when exiting. I usually had to start up the task manager to manually quit the game’s process.

What about the gameplay itself? This is where the anachronistic “Penumbra” reference earlier comes into relevance. “Bloodline” is an ambitious game after all, folks! This isn’t only a “Fiddler’s Green”-inspired first-person zombie-masher. The game also includes inventory-based puzzle solving—you can combine elements in your possession to accomplish certain goals, though none of it is particularly complex. And borrowing from a variety of adventure games, “Bloodline” incorporates a smart cursor/reticule which will change from a targeting bullseye into a hand (indicating that you may open a drawer or cabinet, or pick up an item to add to your inventory), or to an eye (indicating that you can more closely read or examine an item, like a book or wall poster, for more information). On this last point, one of my most recent laugh-out-loud moments in gaming occurred when the “eye cursor” appeared as I swung the camera past a dead cat on the floor. Not sure what I was going to find when I activated it, the perspective zoomed in suddenly onto the rotting feline…and then zoomed back out. Yup that was it. Zoom in…zoom out. SCARY! The same trick is used several times in the game, and it never works…or maybe it does if the point is to make you wince and chuckle simultaneously.

And now for a string of unrelated observations: The game has some purposeful dead-ends, which I really liked. I know, that sounds weird, but let me explain. These red-herrings add to the realism of the game—or at least they make the game a little more quirky than it would otherwise be. SOME MINOR SPOILERS HERE (but nothing that wrecks the storyline): For example, you enter one room that has an ambulance sitting in it—a garage! A means of escape! But the garage door is closed. There’s a crank-box near the door to raise it, but it is missing a lever/handle. Scouting about, you find the handle, but it is bent and unusable. Ah! Taking it over to a workbench and fastening it into the vice, you bend the handle back into shape. This is going to work! Putting it into the crank and using it, the garage door begins to lift—success!–but no so fast, bucko. The newly bent handle has been weakened and it suddenly breaks, falling to the floor in pieces! The garage door comes crashing back down! Is there any other way to get the door open? Nope. Is there anything else in the garage that can help you? Nope. After your little failed experiment, your only choice is to simply saunter into the next room to find a means of escape, wallowing in your dashed hopes. I loved this for obvious reasons. There are so many games that almost ensure your success when you undertake a task like this, it is refreshing to attempt something that from the get-go was never going to work…though you can always hope.

And on that note, as an old-school-survival-horror-wannabe, most of the time the game gives you no clear direction or clue as to what you should be doing next. Either you like this, or you hate this, but “Bloodline” proceeds thusly. There is, however, a tiny red exclamation mark that appears in the upper-left screen when you enter a room, which indicates that there is something important there you need to discover (like a key, a puzzle piece, some flotsam). If you leave the room prematurely without finding it, then okay. But if you enter that same room again, the exclamation point will appear again, letting you know you are not quite done. Similarly, you will be prohibited from leaving some levels (“I think there is something else I must discover here,” says Jim when trying to open the exit door) to make sure you have everything required for the next area. I guess for some old-school-survivalists, even this kind of hint is too much. For me, however, it was just right. It doesn’t destroy the need to nose around, yet it also doesn’t lead to aimless wandering…or worse, tiresome backtracking (although the game does include some minimal backtracking).

And for a game of such modest means, there is actually a variety of weapons—everything from a standard magnum to a flintlock pistol (which takes an appropriate eternity to load for a single shot), a shotgun, a revolver, and an M1903 rifle. There’s a fire extinguisher that can both take down enemies (sort of) and also…put out fires! Imagine! There are Molotov cocktails (which you can even make from the inventory menu), and a (circular, powered) bonesaw, of all things. Melee weapons include a kitchen knife, a scythe, a sickle, bricks (for throwing), among others. They all pretty much do the same kinds of damage, and the enemies don’t react differently when attacked by different means. (In fact, enemies generally can’t seem to get out of their own way most of the time, as they are likely to get snagged on the environment often.) In other words, don’t get too excited over combat, but you have some choices of tools just for fun. Hit detection is…oh, whatever…the entire game is not exacting enough for me to discuss hit detection. (Frankly, there were parts of the game where I thought Jim himself wasn’t even going to make it up a simple set of stairs.) Once you get used to the generally wonky combat and taking zombies and monsters down becomes a little easier, the game somehow feels even more like an adventure game than an action game (with all the pixel-hunting and puzzle-solving involved), if that makes any sense. Considering Zima’s adventure game pedigree, this is not surprising. That’s not a criticism, by the way.

Another uninteresting fact: While you can of course open doors, you can’t close them. Senseless? Yes. But as means to tease out tension, it’s ingenious. (Okay, I’m granting Zima Software a margin of doubt about the width of a superhighway—this was all intentional on their part, I’m sure…especially since this “mechanic” in the first part of the game seems to fix itself about halfway through). Anyway, for the first few chapters, there’s no escaping these monsters by kicking that door shut. And don’t underestimate the power of not being able to close a door behind you. In addition to letting all that drafty air in, you enter a room, and the urge to glance behind you (to see exactly what mess followed you in from the hallway to corner you) is palpable. What was probably lazy or careless development turns out to be a terror-boon.

If you can tell I had fun playing the game, but I am far from gushing over it, you are very perceptive. There are always problems. So, let’s start here: Oh, the music. At least half the time, it’s over the top. “Psycho”-like violins, or a pounding tympani, is often screaming at you to RUN, lacking any kind of subtlty. Actually, the music loops do inspire some tension—the slamming violins-or-whatever fade in louder and louder, and you simply know this means another infinitely-spawning-chomping-zombie-nurse is right around the corner or down the hallway. While it all sounds appropriate, there’s one small problem. IT’S A REPEATING LOOP, AND IT CANNOT BE TURNED OFF OR TURNED DOWN! OH, YOU CAN CHANGE IT TO MONO, STEREO, OR EVEN SOME VERSION OF SURROUND SOUND, BUT YOU CANNOT KILL IT! This is like a nightmare inside of a nightmare for me—let’s call it a meta-nightmare. Since there is no audio option to disable the deafening Janet Leigh Theme Song, I spent a few minutes trying to find the sound file and delete it, but facing a folder of over 150 wavs to sift through, I gave up and chose to grit my teeth instead, chalking it up as “part of the hair-raising experience.” Oh, what we gamers will endure. And oh, what incredibly awful design decisions developers can make. (Thankfully, as the game continues, the music settles down and becomes a bit less nervewracking…I think…or maybe I was just brainwashed by it all. Also, listening to the sound files outside of the game, I swear they just sound like low-quality snippets lifted from various movies, like some chase sequence from one of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies or whatever. I’m speculating.) On the contrary, the voice acting (though it is Czech) sounds quite good, and the main character, Jim Card, was voiced by Zdeněk Mahdal, apparently a professional actor, though I wouldn’t know. His delivery sounds solid to me, as well as all the other voice acting.

As perfectly crafted as the interior environments are, being accosted by the stiffly animated, cartoon zombies and monsters here will require you to gird your loins—in a bad way. The character models fall somewhere around “Half-Life” circa 2000 (yeah, about five years late for the 2004/5 release date of “Bloodline,” give or take)…but I’m being generous. They look bad, and this is a shame since they are supposed to inspire fear. Yeah, they inspire tears instead. According to the developers themselves, “The engine supports body animations based on motion-capture data systems that use nonlinear interpolations in hypercomplex space.” For eastern Europe in 2004, that sounds mighty fancy, and if that means the baddies are supposed to move like mannequins on wheels, with jointless arms and unblinking eyes, then they accomplished their goal. Erm. Exactly how close these zombie caricatures need to be in order to inflict damage is absolutely unclear, since they never actually make contact (even though the developer claimed that “the combat system is so developed that fighting with the enemy is more realistic than usual”). If that means the baddies are supposed to inexplicably stop advancing from time to time to roll their heads around in some attempt to make headshot targeting tricky—then Zima once again hit their own target. Erm. And there’s one cute little animation when one of them gets close enough to take a bite—the zombie will mechanically tilt its head to the side and CHOMP! The entire screen goes red, and your health decreases. While your character does have a pretty decent run function when moving forward, the same cannot be said for moving backwards. Probably to even the odds with the advancing scarecrow-like zombies, if you walk backwards and shoot, you move crushingly slowly. It’s frustrating. The zombies will always catch up to you if you cannot take them down in time. I guess that’s how it’s all supposed to work though. It’s supposed to be scary after all, folks.

As I alluded to, the game does employ one of my least favorite shticks—constantly respawning baddies (which are triggered not at random, but every time you visit a certain part of a map—so you can memorize these “hotspots” and avoid them if possible). Besides being irritating, it’s terribly old school even for 2004. But again, it’s all in the spirit of keeping you on the move as you search about for this or that missing item you need to advance to the next area. And anyway, the unavoidable, blaring music always alerts you that a new enemy has arrived somewhere…ugh. There’s a little time to look around, admire the moldy furniture and cobwebs, and snap some screenies, but not much.

Besides the requisite falling through walls and floors in some places, I found some glitches that were inexplicable (and inexplicably funny). In one case, while crawling through the tunnels and meeting some tougher corpses, I thought I had an ingenious plan. I could toss down a small gas can I had found, back away (at super slow speed), plug it with a bullet, and have it explode in the zombie’s face! So, when I chucked the gas can down at the zombie’s feet as I backed away in slo-mo, I found that the zombie had gotten stuck on it. He continued to struggle forward to get to me. But as it turned out, each time he bumped against the small gas can on the ground, he was losing health—and eventually, he just keeled over dead (again). Yay! Magical gas can! No gunshots required! I used this trick half a dozen times, as you can imagine. Another glitch involved forced resolutions that would change from rig to rig, even though the computers and operating systems were identical. Huh? It’s like the game was itching to look poor at the lowest resolution possible, and it would refuse to change even though my monitor could display it at 3x the default. I suspect part of the problem came from the fact that the game had trouble understanding the resolution information being supplied by my flat screen TV and would happily default to 1024×768, or some rot. After much huffing about, I gave up and finally dragged out my monster-sized, 22-inch, widescreen VGA monitor (this baby weighs about 110 pounds, I kid you not), which can show resolutions so high that it will literally burn your eyeballs out of your head (this is precisely why I’ve kept it around—that, and it’s a fabulous doorstop). I finally got the game to run at a mighty 1920×1440, and it was totally worth the pulled muscle in my back. Woot!

On my patent-pending “Is This a Gem or Not?” ratings scale, the answer is ultimately a yes (maybe not a blazing yes, but a yes nevertheless). The lengthy campaign with varied locations that feels like a journey, the clichéd-but-still-interesting story, together with the well-rendered and atmospheric settings and its “adventure game” tendencies, the game is worth a creepy Czechoslovakian night out, as long as you check your expectations at the “unclose-able” door. (Hmmmm, where have I heard that caveat before?). Of course, “Fiddler’s Green” fanboys looking for a decidedly slower-paced, more deliberate iteration of that game (with bonus puzzle solving!) need look no further.

PS: Yet More Uninteresting Real Life Stories! So about three hours into the campaign, I suddenly found myself transported into the middle of a Jim Card-like situation…locked away in a medical facility, being experimented upon, wires protruding from my skull. I guess the only difference in my case was that the shambling figures in the hallway were just old folks close to death, not actually dead. Oh, that and, unlike poor Jim, I got to sit in my cell and play “Bloodline,” instead of having to live it—controller and laptop in the background as evidence….

….So, to completely destroy the illusion—I was just having a doctor-prescribed “sleep study” done to determine whether or not I was suffering with sleep apnea, and I thought playing a level of “Bloodline” would be a surefire way to put me to sleep in the strange surroundings…and as it turns out, the only thing I am actually suffering with is a brain tumor from playing too many bad games. JK.