"Nothing is resolved because the plot never has time to thicken. Am I missing something? Did I only get half the game?"
When people think of tabletop RPGs, the first one that comes to mind is Dungeons & Dragons. However, D&D is not the only game in town. Alongside it, two of the more prominent tabletop IPs are the magic-meets-cyberpunk-themed Shadowrun and the undead-themed Vampire: The Masquerade. All three have made forays into other multimedia avenues such as books and video games, but Vampire: The Masquerade has seen fewer video game iterations than D&D and Shadowrun. The Vampire: The Masquerade video game most fondly remembered here at RPGFan is 2004's brilliant but buggy Bloodlines. A sequel, Bloodlines 2, is slated for a 2020 release. But this is not an article about Bloodlines or the upcoming Bloodlines 2. No, this is about a Vampire: The Masquerade visual novel called Coteries of New York that splits the difference between appealing to both neophytes and longtime fans.
While the Bloodlines games take place on the West Coast (in Los Angeles and Seattle), Coteries of New York is obviously set in New York City. You have a choice of three characters whose journeys you can follow: Eric, the cubicle slave with the heart of a revolutionary, Amanda, the steely corporate executive, or Lamar, the emerging gallery artist. I know Vampire: The Masquerade veterans may lament being unable to create their own characters and choose from all the clans. However, this is not an RPG but rather a story-centric visual novel that requires a focused group of fleshed out characters to work.
The eerie storyline does its best to remind us why we found vampires cool in the first place. Forget those cheesy romantic images of twinkling "emo" vampires with flowing capes. The vampires in this game are well-organized cabals of cutthroat apex predators toughing it out in the seedy underbelly of New York City. In said underbelly, nobody has the time or patience for bullcrap, fools are not suffered gladly, and retribution is severe.
The premise is that your selected character is illegally turned into a vampire, and their "sire" (the one who turned them) fled the scene. Illegally turning someone into a vampire carries a "final death" sentence for both "sire" and "childe" (the one who was bitten). Brought to tribunal, you're sentenced to a gruesome final death until a benefactor agrees to adopt you as their childe and fulfill the role of mentor and guide. Although this too goes against some of vampire society's protocols, your character is begrudgingly granted that pardon. This comes at a price, however, as your mentor has requested the right to end your existence themselves if you step too far out of line, because they now carry the weight of your transgressions.
The writing exudes a maturity I don't often see in garden-variety visual novels, particularly through the use of sophisticated vocabulary words like "inchoate." The script has its fair share of f-bombs, but the cursing doesn't feel gratuitous. The prose also does a solid job of not making expository elements feel like information dumps.
That being said, the writing is far from perfect. The text is riddled with stray technical errors, awkward phrasing and sentence structures, questionable word choices, and myriad occasions where it felt like corners were cut in dialogue tree scripting. For example, there were instances where I made a choice and the script carried on as if I'd selected a completely different choice. I also noticed several instances where snippets of dialogue were attributed to the incorrect speaker. The most jarring flaw, however, is that some of the dialogue is identical in all three paths but feels wholly out of character for at least one of the protagonists. Amanda's story suffers the most from these hiccups, showing that one size clearly does not fit all and more care could have been taken in individualizing each character's dialogue throughout the game.
Eric, Amanda, and Lamar become part of different vampiric clans, each promising altered play experiences due to various clans having unique strengths and weaknesses. I've done complete playthroughs with all three characters, and regardless of which one you choose, the experience is largely the same across the board. Each character follows the same plot beats to the same lousy ending and gets access to the same sidequests along the way. The handful of available sidequests includes a few where potential allies can be recruited into your character's coterie or squad. It's impossible to do every sidequest in a single playthrough, giving the game some replay value.
Why anyone would want to replay this game again after its sorry excuse for an ending, though, is beyond me. Yes, I did multiple playthroughs for the purpose of this review, but I tortured myself so you don't have to. Anyway, just as the action starts to ramp up in the narrative, the whole thing cuts off extremely abruptly in what feels like the middle of the story. This left me feeling completely cheated. Nothing is resolved because the plot never has time to thicken. Am I missing something? Did I only get half the game? I can understand using a cliffhanger ending to entice players to buy DLC or a sequel, but the way it is done here feels like an unscrupulous "gotcha" to coerce me into buying the hypothetical remaining parts of a largely unfinished game under the guise of additional content or a follow-up.
The rushed ending is not the only aspect that makes the game feel unfinished. In fact, Coteries of New York lacks several quality of life conveniences that visual novels have employed for decades now. For starters, there is no way to fast-forward or skip previously seen dialogue during subsequent playthroughs. Because of this oversight, I found myself clicking or tapping incessantly through content I had already viewed and sometimes wound up accidentally selecting the first choice at a juncture, even if it wasn't my preference. A visual novel without a fast-forward feature is like a BLT without the bacon. Another flaw is the clunky save system. Not only do you need to exit the game to save your progress, but you can't keep multiple save files for the same playthrough. To add insult to injury, completing the game erases your save file. That has to be one of the most boneheaded things I've ever seen in a video game. If there is hypothetical additional content or a sequel, how would I carry over my save file if it's been deleted? I simply cannot believe that a slipshod interface design riddled with such egregious flaws was greenlighted for the final product.
The meat of the gameplay lies in the standard "Choose Your Own Adventure" mechanic of the visual novel genre. There is so much potential for branching pathways and individualized dialogue choices, but the options presented in each character's route generally feel homogenous, and most of them are inconsequential filler that have zero effect on the story. Coteries of New York also features some subtle resource management. As a vampire, your character has to consume adequate amounts of blood to survive and use vampiric powers. Blood deficiency, called hunger, can send your character into a feral frenzy. A red border around the screen indicates your character's level of hunger, which can either open up or close out various decisions.
Blood consumption could have been a deep mechanic to add interactivity to the normally staid visual novel format, but its execution is inconsistent and feels like an afterthought. For starters, some of the choices blocked out due to blood hunger make little sense and feel arbitrarily selected. My second gripe involves one of my playthroughs as a character whose vampire clan's curse is a very particular and idiosyncratic taste for blood. At first, this character physically rejects practically every source of blood they feed on as they try to find preferred flavors for their finicky palate. But then, inexplicably and without any indication, they suddenly stop barfing up blood and successfully feed indiscriminately from any and all sources presented to them — including those that, according to the script, would be wholly unsuited to their picky tastes. So what is the point of having resource management in the first place when a key part of it is summarily ignored?
Coteries of New York employs the typical visual novel graphic style of character portraits over backgrounds, with aesthetics inspired by Gothic paintings. This makes the game stand apart from the more common anime and comic book styles used in most visual novels. Several backgrounds are slick, dynamic set pieces that move and give life to their scenes. Those with less powerful computers can turn off the dynamic backgrounds if desired and the scenes will still look good. I like the art style, particularly the somewhat stark color palette used to present this world of vampires as dark, foreboding, and wholly unlike the romantic fantasies of pop culture.
My biggest caveat regarding the graphics is that several backgrounds are recycled for different locations, which (again) feels like cutting corners. I also wish that there were more variations of the character portraits showing different facial expressions and postures to add more personality. If it were up to me, I would have scrapped the dynamic backgrounds and instead commissioned a greater number of static set pieces and multiple portraits for each character.
The music is difficult to describe but fits the game perfectly. Compositions make great use of minor keys and dissonant tones to highlight the game's sinister vibe. They also utilize a lot of space, allowing the game's darkly intoxicating atmosphere to breathe. Instrumentation runs the gamut from classical strings and horns to more modern instruments like electric guitars and synthesizers. I like the sound effects in this game as well. They are well chosen and add to the foreboding nature of various scenes quite effectively. The game has no voice acting, and I'm fine with that because not only do I enjoy imagining characters' voices, but potentially subpar acting would bring the entire experience down.
I simply cannot recommend Vampire: The Masquerade - Coteries of New York, because it's asking full price for what feels like half a game. I wanted to like this game because its graphics, sound, and general vibe reflect the kind of vampire story that appeals to me. Unfortunately, what I experienced was a massive heap of squandered potential that left me feeling cold and dead inside. I hate to say it, but Vampire: The Masquerade - Coteries of New York earns the dubious distinction of being my biggest disappointment from 2019.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.