Vampire: the Masquerade – Coteries of New York is a “narrative experience” set in the World of Darkness. Think our real world but with vampires and other supernaturals leading secret lives beneath the surface of regular society. In Coteries of New York, players follow the story of one freshly made bloodsucker struggling to establish themselves in the undead community of the Big Apple.
The Vampire: the Masquerade franchise is enjoying a fresh blush of life after years of torpor, thanks to the new 5th edition of the tabletop RPG. Paradox Interactive is also licensing a new wave of video games in the new edition. With Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines 2 and Big Bad Wolf‘s next game still months away, Coteries of New York from Draw Distance is here as a more bite-sized treat for vamp fans to sink their fangs into.
Rather than a fully fledged RPG, Coteries of New York‘s narrative experience essentially plays out like a visual novel. The action unfolds via text, with a picture backdrop representing the location. Other characters in the scene appear as cut-out figures. At certain points, you can select how their character acts or speaks. The story reacts accordingly but within certain limitations.
Ey, I’m walking dead here!
Coteries of New York starts with the player choosing their character from one of three clans. These are different lineages of vampires that confer different abilities and weaknesses. You can pick Brujah (unruly rebels), Toreador (artistic, sophisticated), or Ventrue (power-hungry and domineering). Other vampire clans from the franchise are present in-game as NPCs.
Regardless of clan, the protagonist starts out the game in deep trouble. Each origin story is different but ends the same way — an encounter with a mysterious stranger leaves them undead, confused, and hungry atop a bloody mess. An experienced vampire appears to clean up and introduce you to the Camarilla, the society of the night.
Unfortunately, the Camarilla don’t take kindly to new vampires being made without their approval. You’re sentenced to final death, only to be saved at the last moment by Sophie, a prominent vampire who takes you under her chiropteran wing. Not out of the kindness of her heart, mind — your fledgling vampire is expected to work for their new patron.
You’re encouraged to approach other vampires and convince them to join your coterie — basically a group of vampires that help each other, even if they’re not necessarily friends. These recruitment quests are the best storylines the game has to offer, where you can forge a bond with a fellow creature of the night by reading their character.
Coteries of New York‘s visual backdrops are well done with some nice animated flourishes like raindrops, dust motes, and street lighting. They are reused a lot, however. NPCs are always the same deadpan static cardboard cut-out. I often wished there were more poses for dramatic scenes. This wasn’t a deal-breaker though; the writing matters more.
Written in blood
Vampire: the Masquerade – Coteries of New York relies on text to carry the game, and thankfully the writing is up to the task. The narration and atmosphere do a good job of setting the scene, capturing the melancholic-but-tense mood that White Wolf established for its flagship RPG back in the day. The occasional touch of cynical humor serves to lift the oppressive mood, and there are some nice lore references for long-term fans of the tabletop game. Sometimes the writing does verge on the pretentious, or try-hard edginess, but fans will know that this fits right in with the franchise.
Every vampire you meet has a distinct personality, and most are intriguing and multi-faceted. It’s a pleasure to discover more about each one by exploring their related questlines.
Your own character’s internal monologue also does a decent job of describing the emotional process of transitioning from human to monster. The plot is a fun ride through vampire unlife: Scheming, feeding, politicking; and betrayal all get their time in the moonlight. The game is just a few hours long, but by the end, you’re left with a comprehensive introduction to Vampire.
Your character doesn’t get much of a chance to execute ploys of their own. That’s a pity, since that’s one of the most fun parts of the tabletop game. But the visual novel format by necessity limits your agency.
Bound by invisible chains
So, how much do your choice really affect the story in Vampire: the Masquerade – Coteries of New York? I played the game a few times to test the limits of reactivity, and the answer is — not a whole lot. This isn’t an RPG, but rather a visual novel based on one. Most choices only affect the flavor of a scene, with some rare opportunities to determine the outcome of a questline.
Mostly, the plot chugs along a predetermined track. The most significant choices are the questlines you decide to pursue each night. Your choice of clan comes second. There aren’t enough nights to complete every quest in one playthrough, but you can in two. Given the three choices of protagonist, just one more quest would have added a lot.
After a couple of playthroughs, you’ll notice how different choices quickly lead to the same scenes. It is possible to lose, however, and to fail some quests. But you’d have to try hard.
Coteries of New York allows three save files and only saves when you exit the game. This stops you from second-guessing your decisions and helps maintain the illusion of choice but can be frustrating if you really want to check particular outcomes, since it forces you to start again from the beginning. A break-up into “chapter” save points would have been welcome.
Bugs in the night
I played Vampire: the Masquerade – Coteries of New York during the week it was delayed from the original December 4 release. As such, I appreciate that the dev team may have quashed bugs by December 11. One narrative sequence I played through was missing any background. Sometimes I saw backend script in the player-facing text. Another time, the text switched to male pronouns for a character previously referred to and depicted as female. Nothing that a quick update wouldn’t fix, and there’s been at least one since the time of writing.
Other things just seemed kind of off, but I couldn’t tell if they were mistakes. Plenty of times, my character could use a discipline that didn’t belong to their clan. Ventrue have the clan weakness of only being able to feed from certain types of people. This is enforced at the beginning of the game but seems to be forgotten later on.
At least once I encountered an error that disrupted the story. During one point I used a discipline to escape a situation and apparently skipped some scenes. My character was stuck referring to people they’d never met and events that didn’t happen for her. Thanks to the game’s unforgiving save system, there was no way to go back and avoid this bug.
Vampire: the Masquerade – Coteries of New York is enjoyable but far from an essential addition to the World of Darkness canon. The writing is solid, and I’d recommend it for committed fans waiting on tenterhooks for new single-player Masquerade content or the vamp-curious looking for a taste of what it’s all about. It can even serve as an inspiration for storytellers looking to start their own tabletop campaign.
If the franchise isn’t a big selling point for you, then Coteries of New York struggles to stand in the indie narrative game crowd. Even as a Vampire game, it feels a little like bagged blood and left me hungry for the future RPGs. Eager for “the big leagues” (in the game’s own words) that promise more opportunities for role-playing. Given the timing of the release, however, that could have been its intention all along.