Developed and published by Draw Distance, Vampire: The Masquerade - Shadows of New York is a sequel to the 2019 entry, Coteries of New York. This standalone experience follows the life of Julia, a reporter who loses it all before becoming a vampire and discovering who she really is. Though there are some moments where the story and characters begin to feel worthy of your attention, it’s ultimately a shallow experience that never really makes a case for why it needs to be a video game.
Shadows of New York quickly introduces the player to the main character and narrator, Julia Sowinksi, an investigative journalist with all the angst and self-hatred of a teenager discovering emo music for the first time.
Over the past 18 months, Julia has been hard at work digging into the shady practices and history of abuse at a major company. As luck would have it, those acting in the shadows have ensured this piece will never see the light of day, killing the project, and forcing Julia’s company to fire her.
Out of a job, behind on rent, and with no real hope, Julia suddenly finds herself accosted by a vampire, who promptly turns the mopey ex-reporter into one of the undead. From here, Julia begins to learn about dealing with her newfound hunger, discovering unique powers, and trying to navigate the complex political system of a subculture she never knew existed in New York.
As luck would have it, Julia’s investigative reporting skills come in handy when a prominent vampire meets his final death. With no option but to obey her superiors, Julia must get to work solving the murder.
Gameplay in Shadows of New York is as minimal as one would expect from a visual novel game. The vast majority of time is spent reading the conversations as well as the thoughts in Julia’s head.
Outside of casually reading the unfolding story, there are also moments where the player must choose how Julia responds. Unfortunately, there is often a disconnect between what is written and what Julia says, making it difficult to work out how she will deliver a response. However, this oftentimes does not matter, as these responses don’t shift the flow of conversation outside of a quick response-and-retort before veering back on-track.
Even when the game does offer the player dialogue options, the choices feel more like being confronted with a paragraph in a book and only getting to read a single sentence. The decision of picking one gives the illusion of picking your own adventure, but instead of turning to page 17, you’re left wondering what the other two lines could have said to help create a clearer image of Julia as the main narrative plods along.
In saying this, there are a couple of moments where the player gets to choose how an interaction will unfold by using one of Julia’s vampire abilities. A dialogue option will let you choose how to tackle the encounter: will you use your brute strength or overpower the mind of the person you’re talking to?
There are also little side stories that can be visited between the main story missions. These missions help build the world and explore how Julia is growing as a vampire. Players will need to pick carefully, as there isn’t enough time in the day-cycle to complete every side story that is made available.
The limited number of side stories you can explore in a given playthrough should encourage players that are grabbed by the story to play through it again. What's more, the game offers alternate endings based upon some decisions made throughout the narrative.
Buckle up, because we’re about to spend some time talking about writing. As the main focus of a visual novel, it’s going to be the only thing the player connects with. There’s no enemy AI, no level design, and no gameplay loops to keep a player engaged. To this end, if the writing is no good, the whole backbone of the experience slumps. Suffice it to say, the writing in Shadows of New York is passable at times, frequently cringey, and mostly a bore.
Problems arise almost immediately, as Julia is rather pathetic. She’s sad and mopey, and with no real way to alter this, the player is sort of stuck along for the ride. The dialogue options create the illusion of being able to change this personality, but it just keeps cropping up.
There are also some inconsistencies with the character. She’s supposed to be an investigative journalist, and while she is perceptive at times, other times she misses what’s going on around her. In an early scene, a group of vampires are discussing who should be sent to investigate the murder. For the player, it is immediately obvious who they are talking about, and yet this brilliant reporter somehow fails to read the room.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Shadows of New York has also got some extremely cringey dialogue. There’s needless sass and sullenness globbed onto every word Julia says. Then there are pop-culture references that just fall flat or are otherwise pointless jabs for the sake of throwing punches. Take for instances the above snippet. Yes, we all know that the Catholic Church has been steeped in child abuse allegations, but throwing it in here both manages to overstate the insult levied against Benoit while also minimizing the seriousness of the problem. The writer has managed to trivialize pedophilia in the Catholic Church, turning it into a “witty” one-liner.
There are also references to Epstein, coronavirus, and the Howard Stern 9/11 show. Instead of breathing life into the universe, it just dates the experience. It’s like the writers have written these little one-liners by spinning the Wheel of Controversial Topics.
There are also punctuation and grammar errors throughout, amounting to little more than commas and words in incorrect places, but it’s still a visual novel where the only real feature is the writing.
Unfortunately, the writing made me want to stop playing at several points. Admittedly, I did stop, grab a book off my shelf, and read something timeless as a sort of palate cleanse.
Entering a game like Shadows of New York without any prior experience or knowledge of Vampire: The Masquerade is going to be an overwhelming moment for a new player. There is just so much jargon to contend with and so much that is quickly forgotten.
The game does offer a small reprieve in that it has a dictionary written from the perspective of Julia. However, diving into the dictionary multiple times during a conversation is made problematic with the inexplicably slow load times. The dictionary animates as you open it up and close it, meaning precious seconds are wasted as you try to check what a word meant. It’s not even alphabetized.
It would have been nice for the game to include a Disco Elysium-like dictionary, whereby a word could simply be moused-over in the dialogue box to learn more about it.
A glimmer of hope does exist in the striking artwork of each scene. Areas are gorgeously designed, with a unique art style and attention to the mood and feel of the environment. The character designs are also well-drawn, with each one evoking a different aura.
Despite how nicely some of these images would look as a desktop background, there can also be a disconnect between the narrative and the artwork. At one point, Julia describes a party she’s in as loud and full of partying elites who are all dressed up as angels and demons, replete with masks, and yet, the artwork is void of such partygoers. It’s not until a character talks that the single image of said character slides into the scene, only to be replaced by whoever is talking next.
And yet, each image remains beautiful and is further heightened by a piece of music or foley specific for that scene.
Unless you’re a mad fan of Vampire: The Masquerade, and need to absorb every piece of literature about the universe, this will be a disappointing experience. While the artwork is rich and the music moody, the writing – the game’s backbone and its entire selling point – is weak. Even fans will likely find this a shallow read where decisions rarely feel like they have any significant weight. Give this one a miss.
This review is based on a Steam code provided by the publisher. Vampire The Masquerade - Shadows of New York is available on PC.
- Music is atmospheric; dark and ominous
- Artwork is visually striking
- Replay value in alternate endings and different side stories
- The writing is subpar and cringey with punctuation and grammar issues
- No real weight to decisions
- Simple gameplay systems
- Dictionary and conversation log take far too long to open and close