Platforms: PC (reviewed), Nintendo Switch
No, Coteries of New York is not the Bloodlines 2. This is a much smaller scale visual novel from Polish studio Draw Distance. But it’s still worth checking out, especially for longtime fans of the Vampire: The Masquerade tabletop game.
In the game, you play as a newly turned vampire, ripped out of your normal life and plunged into the dark vampiric underworld of New York City, where you have to make your way through a disorienting new undead society full of backstabbing, lies, and murder. Meanwhile, government vampire hunters wait in the shadows, looking to bring down the indiscrete undead.
On top of that, you have to contend with your unholy hunger for blood. If you allow yourself to become too hungry, certain dialogue options become locked off and other ones open up, reminiscent of the emotion system of the excellent cinematic indie game NeoCab.
You can choose to play as a member of the Ventrue, Brujah, or Toreador clans. Each clan has different disciplines, which help you solve problems during the game. The Ventrue is a corporate startup exec with mind control and physical resilience. The Toreador is a cranky artist with superhuman speed, senses, and charisma. The Brujah is a working stiff with activist inclinations who can hit hard and move fast.
Each one has a different sire and leaves a different life behind, which you need to attend to in-game. Also, some interactions will differ. The Brujah is more likely to lose his temper while the Ventrue tries to use her wealth as leverage. As someone who has always loved these three particular clans, it’s a nice touch.
A monstrous tête-à-tête
The game centers around recruiting a coterie, which is basically a small gang of vampires who will have your back. To recruit a vampire you undertake a series of sidequests to convince that vampire that you’re on the level. These are the highlight of the game, with quests that are by turns tragic, funny, violent, and dark.
There are too many vampires and sidequests to complete in a single playthrough; an excellent design choice that encourages you to complete multiple playthroughs as different clans.
All gameplay is handled through text and dialogue trees. Some of the dialogue is occasionally awkward, but the characters are fantastic. Major NPCs you meet are represented by single, still images, but they’re well-drawn and full of personality. My favorite was an Extremely Online Malkavian named Hope, who takes you on what can best be described as a vampiric cyberpunk political commentary on life in 2019.
Minor spoiler: The game kicks into high gear and enters its final chapter once you’ve fully recruited two vampires into your coterie. I’m not sure if you can hold off the endgame forever, but when I was playing the game the first time, I wish I had known that.
Coteries borrows some NPCs and setting material from the New York by Night sourcebook, while liberally adding original characters and setting elements from the fifth edition of the game. As an owner of an embarrassing number of books from the original TTRPG, this was catnip for me. I really enjoyed seeing metaplot NPCs like Hellene Panhard and Qadir Al-Asmai appear in-game.
While I definitely had fun with this game, there were a few missing pieces that detracted from the experience.
Coteries needs to be easier to read. You can’t set up the game so that text instantly appears; it “types” in. You can change the speed, but you can’t get rid of the effect entirely. I’m a fast reader and I found this annoying. Also, the “skip” button that forces all text to appear immediately is the same as the “advance” button, which can lead you to accidentally select dialogue choices or advance through dialogue you meant to read. I’m hoping this gets patched soon.
Minor unnamed NPCs (bartenders, doormen) are represented by drawings of men and women in shadow, but the devs used the same picture for many different people. It would’ve been nice to get a little more art for these characters.
One of the core dilemmas and sources of dramatic tension in Vampire is the struggle between your base urge to survive and your need to hang on to your waning humanity. In the TTRPG, this is represented by the Humanity stat, which isn’t included here. I killed a whole bunch of people during the course of my playthroughs, with no consequences to my character’s mental state.
Also, feeding is one of the core dilemmas of VTM, and Coteries doesn’t do it justice. I rarely went hungry since feeding had almost no consequences. You’re eating people, man. This should feel more messed up than it does. Feeding scenes are interesting (the people you feed from almost always get a decent piece of art connected to them), but without a Humanity stat or the risk of losing control, feeding loses its bite.
An eternity of possibilities
I enjoyed Coteries of New York for what it was, but also for what it could mean for games in general. Normally, IPs are licensed out one game at a time, within the same genre in order to appeal to similar audiences. But now we get Coteries as well as Bloodlines 2 - two very different games with the same gothic, unbeating heart. Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong, developed by Big Bad Wolf, makers of The Council, is also coming in 2021. While I didn’t love The Council, it showed a great deal of promise in how it added mechanical systems to the point and click adventure game formula. Humanity mechanics, please!
I like that Paradox Interactive (owners of the VTM IP) is embracing (pun intended) a different approach with the Vampire IP. TTRPG gamers, myself included, have run thousands of games over the years. There’s room in this nearly 30-year-old universe for tons of different games.
Given Paradox’s background as a grand strategy company, I’d love to see a city management simulator where vampiric Princes have to maintain the Masquerade, keep other vampires in line, and keep mortal vampire hunters off their back. A traditional isometric RPG would also be a great fit for the VTM universe. Since the IP is farmed out to other game devs, Vampire’s permutations aren’t limited by the resources of a single company.
If this strategy is successful, other IPs could follow that lead. I’d love to see a Star Wars grand strategy game or a single-player-oriented FPS (that’s not riddled with microtransactions). How about Star Trek? I’d definitely play a point and click meditation on transhumanism, war, and isolation, set in the Halo universe. The list goes on. It’d be neat to see what games could come out of our favorite IPs if IP owners were willing to farm it out to AA and indie studios.