Vampire: The Masquerade – Shadows of New York weaves a familiar tale. Yet it is not a tale familiar out of triteness, but rather in its bleak and despairing contemporaneity. Shadows of New York artfully depicts our 2020 hell-scape, holds it up as a mirror and doesn’t so much ask whether or not we’re fucked as yell it in our faces.
It is a tale of a debauched, grotesquely wealthy elite presiding over a city of broken, desperate people, haunted by an impending apocalypse—climate-induced, technological, viral, pick your horror—precious few seem inclined to curtail, let alone prevent.
And this apocalypse cares not a whit for whether you’re human or vampire; after all, Kindred were once human themselves, and its ruling body, the Camarilla—so intent on maintaining the status quo at all costs—a potent metaphor for a global system that refuses to change, adapt, or evolve.
Even when everything is at stake (soz).
Shadows of New York is a game about politics and the way politics is infused into every facet of our beings. The boldness of its narrative impressed and enthralled me, and I want more of it in my games in these oh-so-urgent times of ours.
That being said, it’s a difficult prospect writing a story of ‘now’, and one I’ve always been inclined to stay clear of. It runs the risk of trying to capture those defining moments, those shocking turning-points in the historical narrative unfolding in real-time, and rendering them shallow, even cringe-inducing, as some level of distance is always necessary to properly understand it.
Somehow Shadows of New York avoids these pitfalls, managing to feel at one with both the lore of the vast world it takes place in and our own fraught, ruptured reality.
Sadly, that’s all just texture for the most part. Whilst the writing is solid, demonstrating a strong understanding of the culture wars currently being fought across the digital landscape and gratifyingly skewing towards the inclusive and progressive, it’s the narrative itself that struggles to assert itself.
Polish developer Draw Distance’s Shadows of New York is billed a “stand-alone expansion” to their Coteries of New York, which was released last year. It’s a visual novel, meaning the story is told purely through text and the captivating backdrops each character scene provides.
The expansion takes you back to the Big Apple, but this time you’re playing as a newly-inaugurated member of the Lasombra Clan, one Julia Sowinski. The Lasombra, an aristocratic clan that derive pleasure in exerting power over others, are known for casting no reflections—they are visible only to the naked eye. In an increasingly digital world, that’s quite an interesting wrinkle, especially for someone so self-absorbed as Julia.
When a local vampire bigwig is found dead—the ‘Final Death’, as it’s known—Julia is cast into the unenviable role of investigator. Given the deceased was the leader of a rival faction to the ruling elite, well, the investigation is going to be a tricky one. A chain-smoking nobody afflicted with a deeply vampiric form of ennui, Julia isn’t exactly thrilled with the role, but it’s an opportunity to climb the ladder—providing no one kicks it down, first.
And you just know they will.
As a visual novel, the narrative-driven Shadows of New York offers choices throughout the story, leaving interactions with the city’s inhabitants in your hands, at least to an extent. I don’t feel like there were nearly enough possible routes to take, with conversations mostly being moulded by decisions you had made earlier. That’s fine in the sense that it shows your (sparse) choices are shaping Julia’s traits, but a lot of the time it felt like it was out of my control and the path thoroughly predetermined. The game’s well-written enough to coast on by, but more input would’ve been welcome.
See, Julia isn’t a blank slate. It’s about how you want to take Julia forward from where she’s at at the beginning of the game; how will you use those base materials to crack the case?
She starts out as a down-on-her luck freelance copywriter barely able to pay rent, her entire life going to shit around her. She’s bitter and jaded, tired of seeing the powerful thrive and everyone else rot in the gutter. Social mobility? Forget about it. You’re a cog in a machine, Julia thinks. Hard to disagree with her there.
The tragedy is that once she’s inaugurated into vampire society, she finds it’s no different from the world she’d grown to hate, if only because it decided from the outset to hate her. The same hypocrisies, the same greed, and the same self-interested power-brokers. Only with a taste for blood, and lots of it. The game’s about how you choose to navigate this quagmire, but it’s only half successful in its aims. I never felt like I had much of a grip on the Julia I was shaping, which led to the credits rolling without my even realising we’d come to the end of the story.
The murder mystery itself is underwhelming and unfulfilling, even if that’s the very point (and I suspect it is). There’s a potent point there and one I will not spoil, but it’s simply not enough to justify itself, which left me feeling pretty disappointed by the whole affair. It may be that’s just a consequence of the path I had taken, but I have my doubts about that: there weren’t enough divergent options to take me to a truly shocking place, as the case is clear from its earliest stages.
The journey itself is visually enchanting, at least.
The World of Darkness is where the Masquerade stories take place, but for all its thematic gloom whenever it takes shape in the video game medium it is rich in colour, mood and texture. Troika Games’ beloved Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines was a murky, humid, noirish L.A, and next year’s follow-up—forget it, I ain’t typing the title—looks to accomplish something similar with its wet and dreary Seattle.
Shadows of New York, on the other hand, is an enticing mix of pink and blue neon hues—the night illumined by technological interfaces that won’t ever register Julia’s face again. And, every so often, the golden glare of an Upper East Side mansion where she’s never really going to be welcome, not now, and perhaps not ever.
A most vampiric form of ennui indeed.
Vampirism has seen many critical interpretations over the decades, one of which being infection, disease, something that’s eating away inside of you. Shadows of New York acknowledges this, but at its most audacious it compares it to the growing existential dread that permeates all of us in our divided, fragile twenty-first century. If only it had gone even further with it.
I wanted to love Shadows of New York. Its atmosphere is intoxicating, its imagery gorgeously seductive, and the writing sharp. I’ve even been listening to the soundtrack by Resina, with its dangerous, moody tunes that bring the imagery to life. The ingredients are all present and accounted for, but it just isn’t able to bring itself to a cohesive statement, which is so frustrating when it’s so, so close to taking hold of something more.
Maybe next time.
The Verdict – On Target
Platforms Available – PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 & Xbox One
Platform Reviewed – PC
Review based on Steam media account copy. Please read this post for more on our scoring policy.