Vampire: The Masquerade - Shadows of New York Review
Vampire narratives are hard to do. With decades upon decades of lore and tropes to fall back on, the stories end up regurgitating the same characters and struggles we’ve seen for years. That being said, I love a vampire narrative. Stories centering on vampires are a quick and easy way to get into a world that is dark and sexy with a little bit of camp. They aren’t always a good time, but they’re usually fun.
With Vampire: the Masquerade - Shadows of New York, I wasn’t sure what I was in for. As the stand-alone companion to the previously-released visual novel Coteries of New York, Shadows attempts to take years upon years of lore and make a game that’s a sequel while also being its own journey. The end result is a game that’s incredibly full while also being easy to follow. Whether Shadows of New York was fun is still hard to decide.
The writing in the game is sardonic and pessimistic that eventually gets weighed down in its attempts to sound important. The overall effect was cumbersome and large blocks of text that often felt like thesaurus translated prose. On top of that, the game is very clearly of the times. Taking place mostly in March 2020, the cultural references from Kanye to Weinstein, from 5G conspiracies and QAnon and quarantining during COVID felt...off. None of these moments had any context or depth and were instead pop culture buzzwords thrown in to remind you the game is current, and that in itself made the game feel dated. Shadows is also quick to discuss sensitive topics like mental health and disability with a maturity that still managed to just miss the mark.
Despite the writing of the game dragging on, the story still managed to be entertaining. It just took a while. The game follows Julia, an unmotivated journalist turned low rank vampire who finally gets what appears to be a chance at upward mobility. Taking place over a few nights, Julia must investigate the death of a high ranking vampire which puts her deeper and deeper into the political mess that each vampire clan is involved in. It starts slow but eventually picks up as Julia becomes less and less inclined to play the role those in charge wanted her to play.
By the final two days of the game, I was genuinely interested in the truths Julia was uncovering and the ways almost everyone was attempting to hide it. Again, I just wish the writing was less cumbersome. Unfortunately the detective work was one of the only aspects of the story that drew me in. The side story revolving Julia and her human lover Dakota had promise (I’m a firm believer that most Vampire narratives should have queerness in them somewhere) but it ends how most narratives featuring gay women end. Disappointingly.
Where Shadows of New York does excel however is in the art and sound design. The dynamic backgrounds were simple and sometimes reused, but still beautiful and simple. They resembled old paintings of vague memories and the subtle motion in them was never distracting but still there’s an option to make them static. While I know barely audible music usually isn’t a good thing in video games, I really appreciated it in this one. It was gentle but still droning and dark in a way that complimented the backgrounds without distracting me from the story. Character art was just as well done. Each character was distinct and alternative. They looked like every vampire OC I wanted to draw in highschool, minus the teenage angst and excessiveness. Shadows of New York is a beautiful game. I took screenshots constantly.
With everything else being said, my biggest gripe with Shadows of New York - and the reason I can’t quite say it’s fun - is that the lack of choice was noticeable. With only two endings, there aren’t as many impactful decisions as I wanted to make. Overall, the few choices I had in the game only changed a line or two of dialogue before the game continued to push me in the direction it wanted me to go in. Towards the end of the game, certain choices would give Julia traits which then would decide the ending you get, but it still didn’t feel like enough. Large blocks of text don’t bother me in VNs, but feeling like my choices don’t fully matter does. It not only lessens the replayability of the game, but makes the gameplay element feel inconsequential. Rather than all of these elements balancing each other out, they kind of just weigh the game down.
Vampire: the Masquerade - Shadows of New York is a good game to spend an evening with. On those Sundays where you have all day to relax or those randomly dreary days when any kind of chore feels like too much. That’s when this game will feel just right. Getting both endings doesn’t take long, so it’s easy to play and move on. The main word that comes to mind is: simple. Some parts are good, others tiring. It works as a way to get into some of the worldbuilding involved with Vampire the Masquerade games, but as a standalone visual novel I don’t think it will appeal to the masses.