First of all, I must confess: I love visual novels and treat them as “real” games. They are perfect for bookworms like me and rely solely on the story and very little gameplay. Visual novels are not a new word in the video game industry: titles like Zero Escape: The Nonary Games and Clannad have set a very high bar.
Gladly, the world of Vampire: The Masquerade is huge and vivid and has big potential for storytelling. While a lot of us are disappointed by the latest news concerning Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 2, I’m really delighted that independent studios are keeping up with telling us compelling stories set in The World of Darkness. The popularity of the franchise is getting pretty big as we can see a whole bunch of titles released this year: from the upcoming Werewolf: The Apocalypse to three totally different Vampire: The Masquerade titles. Meanwhile, the Polish studio Draw Distance has brought us their newest narrative treat – Vampire: The Masquerade – Shadows of New York based on the fifth edition of the tabletop role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade.
The Story – Back Room Politics
Vampire: The Masquerade – Shadows of New York tells us a familiar story of a fledgling vampire seeking to take its rightful place in a very complicated hierarchy of the upper strata of The Masquerade. However, there is a massive contrast with its predecessor Vampire: The Masquerade – Coteries of New York: you are no longer in the middle of elders’ intrigues but an introverted journalist named Julia, who turned into a vampire not long after her resignation from her dying news publication.
Even though the current events are unfolding several months after The Coteries of New York, you still have the chance to get a sense of who the players are. For newcomers, the game is a standalone expansion, or a so-called indirect sequel, which means that the story is set within the same timeframe and universe. Unlike in other Masquerade games, Shadows of New York forces you to play as a single protagonist.
So it turns out that Julia was the chosen one in some way – while she was alive, she was charged with investigating the dirty work of the Double Spiral, a huge corporation run by vampires. After losing her job and her life, the newly embraced Julia begins to figure out that all was planned by a powerful clan called Lasombra. Think of it as a test task. After passing it, trying to cope with a kind of PTSD, she finds her feet and enters the vampire society as the sole representative of the Lasombra clan, which is best known for its aversion to technology.
As for the second hour of the game, it’s been a couple of months already and Julia works as the Sheriff’s assistant, controlling the never-ending flow of vampire newcomers, headquartered in some sort of Burger King. She just sits here, nice and quiet, doing her routine job, in front of an untouched cup of coffee. That is, until one day, a rival Anarch vampire leader is murdered and the higher-ups decide to use Julia’s old talents and send her to review the suspect list.
The ones who played Coteries of New York would be glad to see some old faces. The central intrigue revolves around Camarilla, the largest vampire sect, and there is no end to possible suspects who could have brought the Anarch leader to its Final Death. Unfortunately, I cannot reveal the major plot twist nor the identity of the killer, but I immediately figured it out. Maybe it’s because I’m a huge fan of detectives and have an analytical mind but I was quite disappointed in how the answer had been in front of me all along.
Gameplay – You’ve Got No Choice
The game gives us a concise and small view of two strong New York vampire factions – the Camarilla and Anarchs. Vampire: The Masquerade – Shadows of New York entirely plays as a visual novel, where you are expected to keep your eyes open and read dialogue in each situation and decide the best way to answer. The choices that must be made are simple dialogue options, which really don’t make much of a difference as the story seems to be played in only one way. Unfortunately, unlike its predecessor, Coteries of New York, the game fails to provide a meaningful survival system. If you are seeking life-and-death decisions, you got the wrong number.
The game prefers to drive around the story without asking further permission in terms of scenario. The only place where your choice really matters is on the overview map – you have the opportunity to pick and choose your nocturnal activities. They are presented in colourful circles and are accompanied by flavour text explaining what Julia should expect. You have one choice to make until the narrative moves forward. Personally, I would prefer at least two choices, or even three – to sit down and figure out which one is the best among them and weigh the pros and cons here. But unfortunately, in Shadows of New York I didn’t feel like playing a game at all – just eventually tapping the relevant notes to progress in the story.
In Coteries of New York, hunger was one of the main gameplay elements and an essential part of the story. Here, it is still present but it’s more a staging thing – it hardly ever influences how the story unfolds. Even if Julia completely loses her humanity or is on her last legs, the narrative would carry on. Still, I like the fact that Julia has a mind of her own and tends to pay visits to people nobody is aware of. Or she can take on some small side activities like saving some poor fellows from being murdered in dark crannies. These are fun little quests, which are completely optional but adds some colour to Julia’s personality.
Graphics and Audio – Nocturnal Masterpiece
A lack of gameplay is fully offset by visuals – the game is simply gorgeous. Whenever a character is speaking, a highly detailed portrait is shown set to the oil painted type hand drawn backgrounds, most of which has moving elements in.
All these characters differ from each other and their personalities are masterfully underlined. Some locations from The Coteries made their comeback and apparently received an upgrade. The art can seem a bit stylised, but drawn with love, and paired with beautifully mastered ambietic tunes offer an immersive experience.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Shadows of New York was reviewed for PC via Steam, with a review code provided by Draw Distance.