When I first hear about Vampire: The Masquerade —Swansong, and saw its first trailer, I think I may have been anticipating something more like Bloodlines than Coteries of New York, but the reality is that though Swansong is a bit of a mix of those two, it tends to lean more towards the narrative-driven visual novel approach than the much older, more combat oriented Bloodlines. In fact, Swansong does away with what many might consider more traditional role-playing game elements in favor of abilities that would benefit a vampire wading its way through a cutthroat society of secretive creatures.
Vampire: The Masquerade—Swansong is a narrative-focused role-playing game. In it, you take control of three different vampires as they are thrust into a mystery with deep implications for the vampire societies of Boston. If you’re not familiar with the World of Darkness style of vampires and their lore, the basic idea is that vampires try to stay out of sight or otherwise blend in with regular humanity—hence, “the masquerade.” However, if you’re not already familiar with the lore around Vampire: The Masquerade, you might find Swansong to be a rough entry point.
Swansong doesn’t do a good job priming you for the world of Vampire: The Masquerade. Even someone like myself who has casual knowledge through several video games and browsing through the tabletop rules felt completely lost. An in-game lore reference would have worked wonders to making me feel like I knew what the hell was even going on. The lack of context really destroyed any sense of suspense I had for these inhuman characters and the strange rituals and situations you have to navigate them through. It would help if the gameplay was fun or compelling, but it just isn’t.
One of the biggest disappointments of Swansong is how unfinished it feels. It looks gorgeous in screenshots or short videos, but any amount of time watching the game in action shows how stiff its animations are. Its movement feels similarly clunky, which is a trend that permeates through Swansong. Even trying to figure out where to go feels like a chore. I spent far more time navigating Swansong’s environments in hopes of finding the right item or dialogue option to move forward. That isn’t fun, which is too bad because it takes away from some interesting and unique gameplay.
When there is gameplay, it’s not strictly like anything I’ve played before. I can’t say that Swansong is strictly a role-playing game in the usual sense. Instead, it’s more of a hybrid of adventure game, role-playing game, and visual novel. There are exploration and investigative elements that require use of a specific character’s abilities, and skill checks to pass. However (and somewhat appropriately) Swansong resembles more of a pen and paper tabletop game than what might be considered a traditional video game style role-playing game. Swansong earnestly attempts to gets into the nitty gritty of the dealings of vampire society, and manages to showcase some of that darkness that gives the World of Darkness its namesake. And although Swansong just isn’t very polished, it’s sometimes fun.
A lot of the gameplay in Swansong relies on skill checks, which you can manipulate using different skills. If a conversation isn’t going your way, you might have the chance to bend your conversation partner to your will using vampiric abilities. But just because the percentage shows success doesn’t mean that any vampire rival won’t use their abilities to counteract yours. Conflict in Swansong isn’t resolved through violence of action, but clever words and deduction. That doesn’t mean the three vampire leads of Swansong don’t have any teeth—you’ll still need to feed on victims (discreetly) to fuel your supernatural powers. Success (and failure) in Swansong stays with your character, and is reflected through traits that develop your characters as you make your way through Swansong’s story.
Each of the three vampire characters you can control have their own strengths and weaknesses. They also have their own opinions on the vampire society and the goings on in Boston, where Swansong takes place. Each of these characters bring unique skills and perspectives to conversations, but also to exploration. Use each to their full potential, as some characters can get to locations or detect objects where others can’t.
While developer Big Bad Wolf obviously took some risks with Vampire: The Masquerade—Swansong, I’m not entirely convinced that it has lived up to its potential. While I definitely think that the conversation system is excellent, and even adds a layer of stress that sometimes exceeds action games—most of the exploration elements felt like a chore, and I struggled in some cases to even want to keep playing. Also, Swansong would have benefitted heavily from some sort of in-game lore reference because even with a familiarity with the World of Darkness and having played a few Vampire: The Masquerade games, I felt overwhelmed.
An Epic Game Store key was provided to us for this review.