The set-up for Vampire: The Masquerade - Shadows of New York, the second V:TM visual novel following last year's Coteries of New York, is irresistible. The protagonist, Julia, is a newly turned vampire whose life as a struggling freelance investigative journalist is now thankfully behind her. But instead of living a glamorous, exciting vampire existence, she essentially becomes a glorified immigration officer, overseeing vampire movement in and out of New York. It's a rather drab existence until her background as a journalist gifts her an opportunity to head up an investigation concerning the locked-room murder of a high-profile vampire, and her future within New York's vampiric society will depend on whether she's able to solve the crime.
In practice, Shadows of New York is less exciting than this premise indicates. There's a murder, yes, and Julia has to solve it. But you, the player, are barely involved. This is a five-hour visual novel that's very low on meaningful choice and consequence, and while there will be some differences and unique elements to different playthroughs, your impact on the investigation is negligible. But even though it's light on player input, Shadows of New York is an entertaining visual novel for the most part, with an interesting central character, solid script, and strong presentation.
Shadows of New York is somewhere between a self-contained spin-off and a direct sequel to Coteries of New York. Julia and a few other characters are new, but most of the main cast carries over directly from that first game, including the murder victim. The main thrust of Shadows of New York's story involves meeting with the four characters who you could choose to serve in the first game's titular coterie, all of whom have some insight into the case and what happened… kind of. In truth, the investigation into the murder never really coheres into a satisfying whodunnit--you spend most of your time reading text that's projected over animated backgrounds and character portraits, and occasionally you get to make a choice about what Julie says or does next. However, these don't lead to meaningful consequences, with most of the major reveals happening right near the end. None of them are particularly surprising either.
But while the murder plot fizzles, Shadows of New York is more successful as a story about a young vampire coming to terms with what she wants for herself. Julie's an interesting character, a young woman with commitment issues and a short fuse, and a sense of morality and spirituality that clashes awkwardly against her newly undead status. Julie is a relatively complex figure, and while the choices the player can make for her are few, getting to know her better over the course of the game is rewarding. The game's writing shines best when it's trying to unpack what is inside Julie's head, and the script does a good job of balancing Julie's personality against the choices you can make with her, so that no choice ever feels hugely out of character.
Julie's vampirism is played down compared to the protagonist in Coteries. Sometimes, the options you'll be given take her powers into account--vampires in this world have super strength, stealth abilities, and some hypnotic powers--but because the story is mostly set a few months after she's turned, you don't see Julie coming to terms with her powers in the same way the first game's protagonist did. Her powers don't affect gameplay in a meaningful way very often, either. You can make the decision to feed occasionally, but it's no longer a mechanic--in the first game, some options would be locked off if you didn't keep your appetite for blood satiated, but that isn't the case for Shadows of New York. Julia's vampirism is more important to her characterisation than it is to the choices you make, but it can still, sometimes, feel like an afterthought.
At various points, you'll get to choose which side story you go and experience next. These sections are largely inconsequential to the overall murder mystery, but can feature some nice insights into Julie's life, and the vibe of the New York she inhabits. This does mean that you can't experience everything in one playthrough, but Shadows doesn't exactly branch extensively--if you play through the game twice, you can absolutely see everything. There are exactly five choices that really matter to the game's story, dictating the "traits" Julie possesses, and the ending you get is dependent on the traits that Julie exhibits across those five two-option choices. One ending is much more satisfying than the other, but I ultimately didn't feel like I'd had any real impact on the game's events by the end.
Shadows of New York is set in early 2020, and it's clear that the real-world COVID-19 pandemic affected the game's writing--characters start referencing it midway through the game, and by the end it's directly impacting the narrative, as Julie describes empty streets and characters discuss what this means for the city. This real-world accuracy feels slightly out of place in a tale about a vampire detective, and one of the game's endings contains a brief acknowledgement of the fact that a character's plan doesn't really make sense in light of what's happening, but it's certainly interesting that the game doesn't shy away from the very real shadow that has hung over New York (and much of the rest of the world) this year.
This isn't the only element of the game that makes Shadows of New York feel like it was written over a short space of time, though. While the dialog flows well and feels true to each character, and Julie and some other characters are well-developed through the script, there are a lot of ideas and concepts that are rushed over. Strange details about characters are revealed casually and then immediately dropped, and numerous supernatural elements that are introduced don't really play out in any interesting way, as though they've been forgotten. The in-game dictionary gives you full definitions of all the vampire and lore-specific terms that the characters use in their dialog, which is appreciated, but this also means that the player is bogged down with in-game jargon that needs to be kept in mind to totally understand what's happening. Shadows of New York is obviously meant to be part of a larger Vampire: The Masquerade world and mythology, and if you're not familiar with that RPG world, it feels like you're missing out on some context.
Shadows of New York has dramatically increased the quality of its backgrounds from the first game, with more details and animated elements. They look excellent, and while there's a lot of repetition (and many returning locations from the previous game), the strong art and great, distinctive character designs help to keep the game engaging. The soundtrack, composed by Polish artist Resina, really stands out, too. It's equal parts gorgeous and menacing, and the brooding, moody tracks that play under all the game's beautiful images set the tone beautifully. The music is used to great effect, setting the tone and making it easier to picture actions that are being described in the script but not depicted. Every time I loaded the game up, I'd take a moment to enjoy the tremendous main title theme before starting.
Don't go into Shadows of New York expecting a choose-your-own-adventure mystery, no matter how much it looks like one. This is a casual dip into another world, a game with big ideas that it doesn't quite follow through on pursuing, but which remains moderately compelling thanks to some strong writing, interesting characters, and gorgeous art. It's far from the definitive Vampire: The Masquerade experience, but it's worth spending at least one long, dark night with.