Some licensed IPs are more strict about their usage than others. For example, Marvel and James Bond have been very careful in selecting who can use their names and create entertainment products associated with the brands. On the other hand, Warhammer 40K and Vampire: The Masquerade are more relaxed, seemingly approving almost anyone who wants to use their worlds for a project. Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is the latest, but not even the first this year, to use the license in the video game space. It’s a narrative adventure from Big Bad Wolf Studio, who previously developed the episodic story game The Counsel. While the foundations are here, Swansong’s lacklustre presentation, undercooked mechanics and forgettable story make it tough to recommend.
This third person adventure takes place over a few days in 2019, in the city of Boston. Swansong tries to quickly lay the groundwork for the world via a few text screens – The Masquerade refers to the balancing act of vampires living among humans, concealing their identity. However, their secret and the balance of power between different vampire clans is in trouble after a series of deadly attacks. A Code Red is called, summoning the most important vampires in Boston to a meeting, where the three protagonists meet up – Emem, a business woman; Galeb, an enforcer that focuses on his brutality; and Leysha, a sort of psychic investigator. Each of the three characters come from different clans within Boston, and have a different perspective on the events. The story continuously swaps between these three perspectives as players control each of them over the course of the adventure, as you try to investigate the attacks and uncover a conspiracy.
Swansong’s narrative is rather underwhelming. It seems interesting initially, but then it takes a while for the events to unravel and turn up the tension. Swapping between three character perspectives is no easy feat, and the game often stumbles to connect them in any meaningful way. It certainly would have helped to have a deeper introduction into the world – getting a surface level overview is barely enough. On the other hand, you will continuously come across pages upon pages of optional logs, emails, and stories in the game’s codex, which is way too much of an info dump to be effective.
So for the most part, you’ll be playing it by ear and participating in many conversations with other characters. Once again, the game is a bit of a letdown here too. The visuals are decidedly dated, though the art style is at least preserved for fans of this universe. The texture work and animations are very basic – particularly, the lip syncing is very poor, which is an important aspect of any story focused game. Further to that, the voice acting ranges wildly in quality, with most of the dialogue falling on the poor end of the spectrum. There are moments when conversations can overlap each other, and the sound design overall is fairly subdued. This is not a full priced game, but it’s up there at $50, and the presentation certainly doesn’t feel up to par.
As with similar games, you will be having conversations with other characters via sometimes lengthy cutscenes, and picking dialogue choices. However in between that, players will have to explore a few different small levels in order to collect clues, make decisions, and interact with objects. There are a number of mechanics that come into play here, harking back to Vampire: The Masquerade originally being a tabletop RPG. Before each chapter you get an overview of a character sheet, where you can spend previously earned experience on improving your stats. There are three main attributes – physical, social, and mental – as well as a variety of passive skills that can be improved. Next, there is also a Disciplines sheet, which is more like a skill tree, where again you can spend points. All of these elements provide you with buffs that can be used in future actions – everything from improving your hacking, being able to decipher ancient books, and convincing or lying to other characters. While these RPG elements seem decently implemented, it is unnecessarily overbuilt. There are just far too many skills and abilities, and in a game where the story and characters are supposed to take center stage, you sure could spend a long time just looking at where to distribute skill points – across three characters, no less.
Your skill levels are important, as there are constant skill-checks that occur in conversations and during your exploration. When talking to other characters, you can see when it’s possible to perform an interaction that is beyond a basic chat – when you can change someone’s mind or convince them to do something. The game displays the level of skill for both you and the other character, so you can tell if you will be successful, which sort of eliminates any sense of tension. But even further here, there is a “focus” mechanic that lets you temporarily boost your stats to win, and if your skills are at the same level, a dice is rolled to see who wins the dialogue.
Last but not least, yet another conversation mechanic is the Confrontation that occurs at key parts of the story, and can lead to consequences down the line. You have a critical chat with another character, trying to sway their opinion, and you pick the responses that you think will get them there. Picking a wrong option too many times will lead to failure and an outcome that you did not want. Confrontations are sort of like boss fights, and probably have the most impact on the story. If there’s one thing that Swansong does well, it’s offering some worthwhile choices to the players and carrying their impact, which lends to a bit of replay value.
Whenever you are trying to influence other characters in conversation, your attempts are not free – they require one of two energy types. The Willpower meter drains whenever you choose to try and beat a conversation skill check, and if you have none left, you can’t make any more challenges for the rest of the chapter – though you can find items in the level that help you recover a little of this blue meter. Deciding when to use this power is important to your progress, as having none to use may lock you out of certain paths. The other meter is red, called Hunger, which works the other way. Each time you choose to use a skill or ability, in conversation or out when exploring the level, it increases your desire for blood. Letting this meter max out leads to some bad consequences as the characters lose control – so you have to find a secluded spot in the level, and lure a human target there in order to feed on them. It’s a sort of minigame, where you must not be seen luring the target, and then when feeding you have to leave them alive by not pressing the button for too long. Both Willpower and Hunger are decent basic mechanics that pile on the RPG elements of this adventure.
When not chatting, the characters will explore the medium sized levels and interact with items to progress the investigation or solve puzzles. The third person controls are decent, and work fine with either controller or keyboard/mouse. You can interact with a variety of items in order to get more lore, discover clues, or get Willpower refills. As mentioned, many interactions have a skill check – such as reading an old book (need to have high enough Knowledge level), or hacking into someone’s computer to read their emails. It’s off-putting that other characters don’t really react to your actions – you can snoop into everything in an office of a character that clearly dislikes you, including pushing them over to read their emails.
You’ll have to be thorough, as interactive objects only display their UI prompt when directly nearby. This leads to many frustrating moments where you feel that you’ve explored everything and talked to everyone, and yet the next step does not reveal itself. This is often because you missed an item somewhere, leaving you stranded and backtracking. The quest tracking system is rather basic and doesn’t offer enough hints as to the next course of action. Even the more stereotypical puzzles that crop up, like pulling levers in a specific order, prove to be an annoyance more than anything. There are also special powers that each of the three heroes possess, and using these can be key to progress – but again, it can be unintuitive. For example, early in the game Emem’s power lets her track someone’s perfume, so you follow it like a trail. You find a book, read it, and see that pages are missing. You set out to find the pages, and spend an hour scouring the level, only to realize there is a new, small prompt on the book that lets you switch the tracking target, and you cannot progress without doing so. There are other examples all across the game where the design is just too unintuitive, whether in the UI or the puzzle design itself. Another moment of concern is when you discover a clue – players should wait for the character to finish their internal monologue, or risk the clue not being counted as discovered, again leaving you stuck.
As such, depending on whether or not you get stuck, the adventure can last anywhere from 9 to 12 hours. While it has its share of issues, at least the game performs well on PC – though given its disappointing visuals, that’s perhaps expected. There are moments of occasional texture flickering, but on the whole the game runs okay and without crashes. As mentioned, the controls are also acceptable.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is a narrative adventure that is unable to get the key elements right – well voiced and interesting characters, strong dialogue, good presentation and an engaging story – so it instead layers on a variety of RPG elements and puzzles, which also mostly underwhelm. Diehard fans of the lore and the tabletop license may get something out of this, but even they will be disappointed with the presentation, voice acting, and puzzle design. As for newcomers, there’s both too much lore delivered by the truck load, and too little of it presented in an easily digestible format. The adventure game elements are underwhelming, and layered with too many skill trees and needless point systems. Swansong is not the first, and possibly not the last Vampire game to release in 2022, and sadly it’s just as forgettable.