Vampire: The Masquerade has always been a setting that’s fascinated me. An urban fantasy take on an old myth, wrapped in a considerable dose of conspiracy and secret societies. This week I was blessed with the opportunity to jump in with the visual novel Coteries of New York, out December 11th on Steam.
Now, it should be stated this is my first experience with the setting. While I’ve known of it for a while, checking it out has always been something for when I get around to it. So, if I’m ignorant of any of the existing lore, act surprised at things that have been common knowledge for a while, et cetera, that’s why.
The Pulse of the City
Vampire: The Masquerade – Coteries of New York has you taking on the role of a newly sired vampire struggling to learn of your role in this new society. The Law says you should be killed as an unauthorized childe, but one of the seniors spares your life by taking you under her wing…at the cost of working to further her own agenda.
Between jobs for your new patron, you’ll be encouraged to develop your own “coterie,” or circle of allies, from some of the other clans around New York. In addition, a number of optional objectives pop up from time to time where you can discover more about the deeper picture.
There’s a lot of gray morality present, and regardless of how you choose to play, one cannot be entirely kind or ruthless. Well, you can, but it’s ill advised and likely to lead to an early grave. Even if you resent your new condition of seeing your fellow humans as sources of food, declining to feed will cause the Hunger to grow inside you, and when it breaks free you may find you’ve murdered someone instead of just made them feel weak the next day. You may revel in your newfound powers and seek to lord them over the weak bags of flesh, but the Masquerade is the most important rule, and vampires far older than you will not take kindly to you having all the subtlety of a brick…if the teeming masses of humanity don’t drive a stake through your heart first.
This is without even getting into the jobs you’ll be doing for your fellow vampiric allies. Folks who have survived by lying and hiding their true intentions for decades, if not centuries. You’ll have to ask yourself who’s on your side and who’s simply using you.
Props to the writers here, I really enjoyed the tone they took with it. It’s gritty, yes, but there’s a certain bit of campy fun to it as well. They’re not afraid to add a bit of levity to a scene with a reference or joke, but rather than making the game into a comedy, it’s more your character using humor to cope with their situation.
Hungry Like the Wolf
Coteries of New York is primarily a visual novel, with a number of subsystems where early choices can come back to bite you later…and for folks who’ve read my previous reviews I swear I didn’t do a repeat on purpose.
Most of the game is standard visual novel fare: you talk to people, make decisions, ask/answer questions, yada yada, but let’s get into the juicy subsystems, shall we? Perhaps the biggest one is the Hunger. This is represented by the map of New York becoming redder and bloodier, and represents your urge to simply crack open someone on the street like a packet of Capri Sun. Depending on whether it’s high or low, certain options may be locked off to you. If it gets too high, certain things may be forced for you as your will to resist it diminishes. Obviously it’s generally a good idea to keep it low, keeping your capacity for rational thought and all that, but there’s a catch: In addition to going up simply by not feeding, it will also go up whenever you use your vampiric powers, and it will REALLY go up if you get the crap beaten out of you. I went in intending to just be subtle about it, mostly be a normal human and keep up the masquerade that way…but there are a LOT of choices where using one of your powers could be REALLY handy in making sure you avoid an even worse problem down the line.
Speaking of the powers, there’s a fair amount of replay value in the game and they’re one reason why: At the start you have a choice of three vampire clans… the brutish Brujah, the political Ventrue, or the artistic Toreador. I picked the Toreador clan on my initial playthrough, and wound up with a number of “rogueish” powers like sniffing people out of a crowd or inhuman speed. Your choice of clan is also a choice of which character you’re playing as, with different backgrounds and all the plot impacts that entails.
Lastly, each day you’ll be given a choice of what available quests you wish to pursue. I’ll spoil this for you right now, you do NOT have enough time to do them all. The main quest will proceed automatically, usually eating up half a night when it does so. Of your four possible allies, you’ll need to choose which you wish to focus on (I chose the Nosferatu and Malkavian because, well…you give me an option of working with outcasts and the completely bonkers, and I’m on it), and also whether these side quests are things you’ll need to worry about or something you can safely ignore. If you wish to see each of the plotlines to their conclusion you will need to do a few playthroughs.
This is really the kind of thing I love in a visual novel. A story is defined as much by the choices we do not make as by the choices we do. I know it’s tempting to make a game that allows players to do everything on a single run, but knowing full well that there is so much I didn’t see is a big reason to pick it back up again.
Painting the Walls in Blood
In usual visual novel fasion the animation is fairly simple: Still images of characters over still or mostly still backgrounds. The art itself is lovely however, and perhaps intentionally so reminds me of the portraits you’d see in old CRPGs or in tabletop source books.
The audio is likewise impressive. I’m not usually one to praise a game’s soundtrack, but it really fits the modern urban environment. What I enjoyed most was the use of sound effects to emphasize the settings. While not uncommon in visual novels, I really felt they went above and beyond here.
A Devilish Delight
All in all, I found Coteries of New York a fine introduction to the series. At four hours it’s not too long, but considering how easy it is for early choices to have lasting changes to things near the end, this is a blessing.
There’s a bit of polish it can use here and there, but it’s certainly one of the better visual novels I’ve played this year.
Review copy provided by Draw Distance for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image sourced from official launch trailer.