I was extremely eager to check out this game when it was released. A new Vamp video game, and in the form of a "choose your own adventure"? Cool. I mean, not Bloodlines II cool, but still. Sounds like fun! Well, it was less fun than I had hoped.
The writing This is a hit or miss thing. The actual story and emotions worked decently, if awkwardly. The characters were bit overly verbose given the situations they find themselves in. But, I'm willing to forgive this. The game unfolds through a series of text messages, and you need to let the characters ramble on a bit to help the player understand what the characters are going through. So, the actual writing varies from amazingly evocative to just trite and trying too hard to sound hip and cool. It's all a bit pretentious, honestly, but Vampire has always had "unearned pretension" baked into its DNA. It's part of the enjoyment of the game.
The characters The only characters we get to know, really, are Case (the character you play) and his best friend and fellow suddenly-turned-vampire Izzy. Case is kind of a self-centered jerk. At first, I was all right with this, he's a flawed protagonist after all. But playing it more, I don't think he's supposed to be a "jerk"--I think he's supposed to a lovable rogue. I really didn't like the character I was forced to play, and generally found myself uninterested in what he was up to, or how he felt about all this. And, yes, you have one character you have to play--you get no choice on name, gender, orientation, background, or anything. Some have an issue with this, but I accept it as necessary for the game they were making.
Izzy is a bit more of a cipher. There's more going on with her than you know (at least until the end), and you never get a chance to actually be her friend and ask more about her and what she's dealing with. She's sweet enough, but a bit of a blank. Most of the other characters don't get enough time to really come through as more than two-dimensional, but it is a short game and told solidly through the point of view of the self-involved Case.
The art a lot has been said about the art of the game. You and Izzy are artists, so you constantly are sending each other sketches and paintings Some people love them, but it didn't work for me. They seemed too similar--a carefully painted picture from a vivid dream is done in the same style as a quick "I'm trapped in this room" sketch. Also, the artwork is all kind of contemporary "modern bizarre" style. Just not my thing. When I think "art of Vampire" my thought goes to Bradstreet--clean, elegant, yet emotional and vivid. Images that draw me into the world of darkness, and its lush world. These seemed like "yup, that's a bizarre image of a bus!" but did nothing to move me or enhance the game.
The choices this is where the game falters. It's an "interactive narrative," so obviously there's a strong story, and you have limited say in how it progresses. What surprised me was how LITTLE that say actually was. You have a handful of choices that actually change the narrative, and these seem mainly limited to the opening part of the game. Other than that, choices are just, well, false. Either nothing really changes, and so your choice is meaningless, or there's one "correct" path out of an encounter, and anything else results in game over.
This might be a limitation of the genre, but honestly I was hoping for a bit more "branching" in the story, as choices made earlier on directly impact later parts of the game, and so MY game would be inherently different from yours. Worse, some times the game "forgot" what choices I had made. For example, I had a choice at one point between two victims. I chose, for roleplaying reasons, option A. The game later made a comment about how I had victim B's blood running through my veins, even though I had let that one go.
So, the first play through was...ok. The story (baring death and try again, and this time do it RIGHT), was very interesting. The new world of Masquerade, while only seen in glimpses, was appropriately horrifying and exotic. The language was pretentious, but still drew me in enough. I rated it as "decent, though probably could have been done better." The second play through really soured me to it, though. I saw how many of the choices were false, and how often I died, and how those deaths were just a tool to keep me on the path. For example, I was in an apartment, and had a choice to leave or investigate. Afraid of what had happened there and worried for my safety, I decided to rabbit. As soon as I did--boom, game over. There was someone right outside waiting to kill me. But, I could stay there the rest of the night, poke around to my hearts content, and no one ever threatened me.
Um, I thought someone was outside coming to kill me? But no, the death is just a tool to make sure you get the item you need for the plot to move forward.
As a final aside, there's some controversy surrounding the author, Zak Sabbath (nee Smith). He apparently has a rep for some unsavory online comments and activities. I don't know how much, if any, of these are true, and to a certain extent, I don't care. He may be great, or a dick, or (more likely) somewhere in between, but it's not the job of an artist to be a "good person" but to create "good art." As a person, I cannot speak of him. But as an artist, I have to say that his work was disappointing.
If you're a fan of Sabbath's other work, are desperate for new Masquerade material, or love interactive fiction, pick it up. But only play through it once, and make that YOUR story. Otherwise, I'd hold off and see if they put it on sale in a few months and give it a look see then.