|Platforms||PC (reviewed), iOS, Android|
|Developer||White Wolf Entertainment|
|Publisher||White Wolf Entertainment|
|Release Date||February 16, 2017|
Review code provided
World of Darkness Preludes: Vampire and Mage are a pair of bundled choose-your-own adventure style games designed to reintroduce White Wolf’s universe to players, ahead of both the next iteration of the pen-and-paper RPG series and the upcoming video games. Both games cast players in the role of newcomers to their respective worlds and attempt to introduce the worlds of Vampire: The Masquerade and Mage: Ascension to new and old players alike.
As these games come bundled (at least on PC) then I’ll be reviewing both together, starting with the Vampire game. Vampire: The Masquerade – We Eat Blood And All Our Friends Are Dead casts you as Case, a guy who wakes up after a party one night with a wicked hangover and an alien, unquenchable hunger. It’s told entirely through text messages he sends and receives to his friends (and more) as he escapes LA to try and figure out how to adapt to his new circumstances.
The first half of the Vampire prelude is a fairly gripping experience. You’ll spend much of your time texting with your friend Izzy, who is going through the same thing as you, and a few other characters. As Case and Izzy text back and forth, trying to come to terms with, understand and ultimately embrace their newfound vampirism, the chosen format comes alive. Their texts with each other, and Case’s texts with others he comes into contact with, prove to be a great way to tell such a story.
It’s also a game that gets more aggravating as it goes on. At its halfway mark this Vampire prelude suddenly shifts gears, ditching the slow burning and engrossing story of a newly turned vampire trying to find his way through a crazy world. It becomes a story about conspiracies, paranoia and mysterious and dangerous secret organisations. Now, anyone who knows anything about Vampire: The Masquerade will know that these are core components of the setting.
But it’s just so badly mishandled here. The story ditches everything that made it compelling to focus on its weakest elements. As the action intensifies you’re presented with more and more life-or-death choices. And as you make decisions that dictate whether Case lives or dies, the “interactive” part of this interactive fiction breaks down entirely. It becomes apparent very quickly that there is only one correct path through this story, and your so-called choices are rendered completely false.
Making the wrong choice will see you killed and sent back to remake the choice to pick correctly. There are no shifting paths through this game, there’s simply the story that it wants to tell regardless of what you decide. Some of the choices don’t even make sense (how is waiting for an enemy to be off balance a worse choice than stumbling towards him?). You’ll smash your head against random chance and be sent back through paragraphs of dialogue, sometimes half a dozen times. Eventually you’ll stop caring.
The difference between the game’s first and second half are night and day. Characters introduced in the later stages of the game are practically caricatures. They merely exist to smash your face in with paragraphs of unneeded dialogue, or bring the entire story to a standstill to talk about how much they love giving out handjobs and spout political opinions that have no relevance or bearing to the story or your character’s development before disappearing from the game as fast as the entered it.
We Eat Blood finds its groove early on, telling an engaging story backed by an interesting modern art aesthetic and a pretty great soundtrack, making the best possible use of the text message storytelling format. For whatever reason the game decides to ditch all of its strengths at the halfway mark and double down on its weaknesses, essentially ruining what could have been an atmospheric, enjoyable reintroduction into the world of The Masquerade.
The Mage: Ascension portion of the bundle fares far, far worse. It doubles down on everything that went wrong in Vampire, throws in a bunch of new problems and ditches anything and everything that made that game even partially successful. It’s awful from start to finish, featuring a story that makes zero sense, badly written characters and some baffling design decisions that make for a truly unpleasant experience.
Classic World of Darkness fiction has always held a mirror up to society, deftly exploring relevant sociopolitical issues by adapting them to fit the context and weaving them into the lore and setting. This game tries to have it the other way around, taking current political issues and attempting to hammer the Mage: Ascension world to fit. It’s essentially like trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole. With a sledgehammer. That has a landmine stuck to it.
Each character in Mage is one-note, entirely defined by a single characteristic. Their motivations literally boil down to things like “immigrant” or “authoritarian” or “white” and will never once deviate. The characters in Mage aren’t people, they’re props, designed to move a hamfisted story from plot point to plot point. This game tries to pull the same trick as Vampire – tell the origin story of a young woman whose magical abilities are beginning to manifest themselves. It fails entirely.
Every single beat of the story has one character tell the protagonist that she needs to do a thing that she’s never done before. Then she does it and the story moves on. It’s thoroughly unengaging, compounded by Mage’s catastrophic attempt to tie this origin story into the European refugee crisis, which is handled with all the subtlety of cracking a walnut with a sledgehammer. That has a landmine stuck to it. The entire plot simply doesn’t fit the world that the story takes place in, so both fall apart.
Rather than approach the subject with nuance, Mage tells you that you either think one thing and are rewarded with the good ending, or think the other thing and are rewarded with the bad ending. Rather than nuance, Mage doesn’t approach the subject at all, content to simply show you two extremes and tell you which is right and which is wrong. If the characters amounted to anything more than stereotypes then there might have been a decent story here somewhere. Instead Mage isn’t a story. It’s a lecture screamed at you through a megaphone (with a landmine stuck to it).
Even the presentation doesn’t work. The one good idea Mage has is ruined by some truly terrible game design. Rather than force you to rewind and repeat sections of story, death in Mage sees you transported to a trippy otherworld where nothing makes sense. These sections of the game are intriguing and actually well written. However, someone decided that to emphasise their otherworldly nature that the text should go in and out of focus every few seconds, making for the most uncomfortable reading experience I’ve ever had.
I went into World of Darkness Preludes eager to get a taste of the new direction the IP was taking, hoping to whet my appetite while we wait on larger games and the next edition of the pen-and-paper RPG. I’ve come away worried by that direction. Vampire starts out strong, telling an intriguing story with some well drawn characters. It would have made a compelling game if it had stuck to its original story and relied less heavily on false choices. That said, if you’re craving a Vampire: The Masquerade fix there’s enough here to recommend. Mage, on the other hand, is a disaster. It’s poorly written. It’s characters are one-note stereotypes. It’s story doesn’t make any sense and has no stakes whatsoever. It’s simply a collection of events that happen and eventually you get to decide whether immigration is good or bad. If approached with even a modicum of nuance or subtlety Mage had the potential to tell a gripping story. Instead it doesn’t bother telling a story at all.
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