Visual novels are something far removed from the typical gaming experience. They do not have graphics as they’re traditionally defined, instead relying on artistic stills as well as text to define the world. They also don’t have much in the way of gameplay, relying instead on the choices of the player to what are typically just social situations. However, that doesn’t mean they’re not immensely fun and immersive.
Coteries of New York and Shadows of New York are two visual novels for the immensely popular Vampire: The Masquerade Fifth Edition. Made in anticipation of Bloodlines 2, which never quite happened but may yet someday, they were creepy as well as atmospheric horror stories. You can get both of them on PS4 and Switch consoles or computer. Either separate or together. Here is my review of both.
Coteries of New York
VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE: COTERIES OF NEW YORK is a video game set in the World of Darkness and developed by Polish company Draw Distance. More precisely, it is Visual Novel which consists of a “Choose Your Own Adventure”-esque text adventure. Your character is Embraced as a vampire one evening and have a limited amount of time to make a number of allies to help you against both the Second Inquisition as well as your fellow undead.
If you’ve played either those or Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines you have a basic idea of how the game world goes: there are vampires, they live among us, they have a complicated royal court, and there’s those vampires who rebel against them. The setting has been updated for the 5th Edition of the tabletop game with vampire hunters actively scouring the city for the undead (albeit under the cover of secrecy like their prey) and any slip ups potentially alerting them.
The game is moody and atmospheric with excellent writing. From the moment you begin the game, you are under the thumb of the Camarilla and they’re ready to kill you for the slightest infraction. In my first playthrough, I got myself killed in the first ten minutes because I played the stereotypical rowdy Anarch. I played much more cautiously afterward and it proved to an interesting experience that reminded me of my own Vampire: The Masquerade tabletop gaming sessions.
I didn’t know quite what to expect from the game but I got a solid three hour experience out of the game and immediately replayed it because I only got roughly half the content of the game before the “timer” ran out with events reaching their final conclusion. So, really, you need to play the game at least twice to experience all of the content as well as meet all of the game’s characters.
You have three choices of Clan in the game with a male Asian American Brujah, a female Ventrue businesswoman, and a black gay male Toreador. This is good diversity to choose from but some fans will be annoyed that there’s no opportunities to play Malkavians or Nosferatu. The lack of customization is a mild annoyance as I really liked the designs and dialogue is mostly the same between them (with the exception of one incredibly racist Anarch Baron).
There’s no voice acting in the game but a enjoyable soundtrack, ambient noise, and lots of well-drawn art pieces to add to the text. This was a game definitely made on a budget but it is a perfectly functional visual novel experience. The price was worth it at twenty US dollars but buyers expecting something remotely similar to Bloodlines will be disappointed. They’ll have to wait for the sequel coming out in 2020.
Gameplay-wise, 99% of the game consists of you talking to various characters and making decisions based on your actions. Do you trust this person? Do you act snarky or respectful? Do you kill someone or not? Sometimes you’ll get options to use your Disciplines and they aren’t always the ones your player character should possess.
One interesting game mechanic is your character needs to regularly hunt and feed or they will become a savage wild animal who can’t interact with other characters effectively. The hungrier you get, the more your screen fills with images of blood. Frenzying is represented by an amorphous black blob covering all of your vision. I thought that was very clever and was a far better use of the Beast and Hunger than Bloodlines.
The writing for the characters was very well done and I was especially fond of Hope, D’Angelo, and Sophie. Hope, in particular, is a internet streaming riot grrrl and Malkavian that is just my kind of Gothic Punk heroine. D’Angelo, despite looking too good for a Nosferatu, is a character that I love for being “Miami Vice Noir” in his attitude. Sophie is a typical Toreador elder with smiles and claws in equal measure. The supporting cast is all vividly realized and a lot of nods to the 2001 New York By Night supplement that I and a handful of other gamers remember.
I felt the plot was very well done with a complicated double, triple, and quadruple-cross-filled web of undead intrigue. I was disappointed that the games ending seems to be somewhat predestined to have one result but I still had a lot of fun. It really manages to capture the paranoia and lies that were central to the game. I would have appreciated more opportunities to work with the Anarchs but that’s a mild disappointment.
Honestly, my biggest complaint about the game is the fact that despite being a text based adventure, it is still pretty hard on the rails. The three character paths are more or less identical with only those you know from mortal life really mattering. I wouldn’t mind this if the fact that the endings don’t allow you to affect matters much either. I felt that, if anywhere, you should be able to affect events there. Gathering a coterie also felt like it would result in a bigger effect than it did, when it actually only impacts a tiny amount of the plot in the end. I would have also appreciated the ability to save at any point rather than having your saves vanish after you finish the game.
In conclusion, I recommend Coteries of New York with caveats. It is not going to be something that breaks the mold for horror gaming everywhere but it might lead to the creation of more of these set in the World of Darkness. It was short, sweet, and a familiar setting that I loved in the 90s (and love now). Keep your expectations within reason, though, as it’s more like being at a tabletop session than anything else. It’s currently available on Steam but I understand it’s coming out for consoles early 2020. Frankly, I feel this will be better played on a computer as there’s a lot of text to read and my consoles are far away.
Shadows of New York
SHADOWS OF NEW YORK is the sequel to COTERIES OF NEW YORK that came out last year. It is a visual novel set in the World of Darkness by White Wolf Publishing. A visual novel is effectively a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book that is played on a computer and a bit different from a video game since there’s often no voice acting or much gameplay. Neither game is anything like VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE: BLOODLINES but I enjoyed the former, so I picked up the sequel when it came out last week.
The World of Darkness is an urban fantasy horror setting where the human race lives alongside monsters. Vampires live in the shadows, hiding under fake identities and preying on the marginalized of society. They have conflicts among themselves, with government assassins, and a handful of other threats. Created in the Nineties, it has a strongly conspiratorial theme to it that focuses on the injustices of society and how much of it exists to serve the interests of the super-rich (as well as undead in this setting). Think THEY LIVE if they mixed it with DRACULA and the LOST BOYS.
The premise is Julia, a young reporter working for a once-trendy magazine, finds her life destroyed by forces beyond her comprehension before she is Embraced to become a Lasomra. Lasombra are vampires with superhuman strength, the ability to bend minds, and control over shadows as well as the ability to see ghosts. Julia’s clan is considered the scum of the Camarilla and she is frequently subject to jibes as well as carrying out the worst work of Kindred society. Her only lights in the tunnel are her girlfriend Dakota, a human who loves her, and the Sheriff of New York, Qadir, that considers her a kid sister.
Julia finds a chance to improve her situation for the first time since her Embrace by being assigned to investigate the murder of Anarch Baron Callihan. No one expects Julia to actually succeed in her task and it’s all designed to placate the few followers of Callihan. Julia is smart enough to find out the truth but should she? Is it better to play the game and see if she can parlay the secrets she uncovers to personal power? Is it better to stick to what little morality she has left? The choices are ultimately yours with each decision affecting Julia’s morality meter. At the end, whether she’s a hero or monster will determine your ending.
Shadows of New York benefits from playing Coteries of New York but works as a stand-alone story. It reuses a great deal of assets from that game (mostly art) but also incorporates plenty of new artwork. The soundtrack is excellent, being a sort of pulsing 90s beat that evokes the Goth nightclub atmosphere of the original game.
Julia is a fantastic protagonist and oozes personality that makes it enjoyable to follow her adventures. I really liked her relationship with Dakota, her snarky personality, and complicated relationship with both religion as well as her sexuality. The trait system means she can be optimistic, ruthless, merciful, or pessimistic depending on your responses.
I was disappointed with the fact that we don’t get a concrete answer to what happened to the Fledgling from Coteries of New York but the game nicely alludes to the possibilities. Seeing what happened to Agathon, Hope, Tamika, and Angelo was all well done. Qadir remains a solid character and we also get a bigger role for the Primogen in the city. I also appreciated the chance to put one over Thomas Arturo.
The game deals with the larger concept of truth vs. propaganda. Some individual gamers may find its take on the subject to be politicized or preachy so let the buyer beware. Julia frequently finds that the truth of a subject is less important than the ability to convince people of your version of events. The cornavrius is also addressed in the story, though I don’t mind that since vampires are going to be affected by everyone social distancing as well as shutting down the usual hot spots where they might feed. It’s only a minor element to the story, though.
Fans of the World of Darkness will appreciate all the nods and care done to preserve the setting’s continuity as well as advance the metaplot. There are characters like Ecaterina the Wise from Vampire: The Masquerade: Redemption, New York by Night’s NPCs, and mentioning of the Lasombra defection to the Camarilla from Chicago by Night 5th Edition. I felt like the game missed the ball by not having a bigger Second Inquisition presence but you can’t have everything.
The game is based around interpersonal relationships rather than anything big or game-changing. This is less about Gehenna and more about navigating the issues of Kindred politics for personal advancement. Julia and Dakota’s relationship is one that analyzes the power differential between humans and vampires. Julia hasn’t turned Dakota into a ghoul and, thus, is technically violating the Masquerade. However, it’s also kept Dakota relatively sane even as she lives vicariously through Julia. It’s these little details that make up the majority of the game’s appeal.
I have a few complaints about the game, such as the fact that the Hunger mechanic of the previous game is now absent. Blood was always a pressing issue for the Fledgling in the previous game while Julia doesn’t have to ever bother feeding at all in the game. Still, I overall feel like this is a massive improvement over the previous game (and I didn’t dislike it). I wouldn’t mind another adventure with Julia as the star either. This isn’t a video game, though, more of a visual novel and your choices are limited. That isn’t something that bothers me, though, because the story is just that good.
In conclusion, Shadows of New York is marked down as a must buy if you’re a fan of the World of Darkness and visual novels. However, the problem of the game is that if you aren’t a huge fan of either then you won’t find what you’re looking for here. The game is appropriately priced at under twenty dollars and I picked it up as a sale. People expecting much more than a cool story you can influence the details are going to be disappointed.
Coteries and Shadows of New York is a great pair of visual novels that I suggest everyone pick up when they’re on sale, which is usually always. I’m of the mind that this is a game probably best played on your laptop or home computer instead of console, though. There’s a lot of reading involved and doing that close up is best. The requirements for running the game are also almost nonexistent too. The soundtracks are good, the storytelling, and the characters too. They’re not without flaws but this is probably the best of what has been produced for Vampire: The Masquerade Fifth Edition transmedia alongside Winter’s Teeth.