A WORLD OF DARKNESS
Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong has a lot weighing on its success. The Masquerade games haven’t had it easy the last few years. The most popular branch of the World of Darkness was meant to have a huge comeback with a sequel to Bloodlines. Now that title is effectively on permanent hiatus.
Then, Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Earthblood landed with all the fanfare of a snore. Save for some text-based adventure games, The Masquerade really needs a win with Swansong. Headlined by Big Bad Wolf of The Council fame, it sounded like a solid bet.
Oh, if only it were that simple.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is billed as an RPG built around social deduction like Disco Elysium and The Council. It’s all wrapped up in a higher fidelity Telltale-esque interactive movie, emphasizing storytelling above all else. Players control three different vampires: Emem the socialite, Leysha the seer, and Galeb the old guard. Sounds great, right? Yet somehow Swansong sucks all the fun out of being a vampire, leaving you with a dry plot, meandering pacing, and only Leysha turning out likable.
Of Swansong’s other leads, Emem is the least tolerable. She acts like a petulant child despite having been a vampire for over a century. Characters say she’s simply being rebellious, but it comes across as bratty adolescence that doesn’t fit the rest of the story. We’re told she’s an important figure, yet she’s practically a novice who understands nothing about the Camarilla.
This is particularly awkward given she’s the de facto protagonist; Emem headlines the game’s art and marketing. Galeb meanwhile is so incredibly dry that you’ll derive more joy from reading his backstory than playing as the man in the present.
Swansong at least has Leysha. Juggling her role as a seer and tending to her immortal Malkavian child daughter is a fascinating dynamic. Though Halsey’s voice is clearly an adult pretending to be a child, the pair have great chemistry. Some side plots offer additional intrigue, such as the Warlock Dajan’s dealings with various magic circles. Though these aspects aren’t outstanding, they at least have a pulse, unlike the main mystery.
It says something that I eventually stopped caring about the consequences to Emem and Galeb as the story rolled on. This isn’t helped by the fact that outcomes from certain decisions are incredibly inconsistent. Some will be obvious and in your face, while others barely come up.
THINKING, IN MY SOCIAL RPG? MADNESS
It doesn’t help that Swansong features what may be one of the worst attempts at emphasizing replay value I’ve ever seen. Rather than simply engaging in conversations and making inferences, your character sheet and a limited number of Willpower points typically define if you can get a point across or ask a question. Sometimes you’ll even need a vampiric power to nudge things in your favor. This would be fine if the mathematics were all we really saw, obfuscating like in Klei’s Griftlands. Except they’re not.
I understand being linear, but blatantly waving certain options in the player’s face that are only accessible on a New Game Plus playthrough is infuriating. Instead of feeling guided, it’s like Swansong wants to taunt players out of the gate. Rather than a few unique options being related to expendable Willpower, even relatively pointless dialogue decisions can cost you. It’s exceedingly easy to drain yourself in idle conversation.
Combine this with not knowing how long certain scenes are, and you’ll be constantly erring on the side of caution, not engaging with the systems at their fullest. This is a core issue Swansong never really escapes from. It’s to the point that Swanswong concludes each scene with a sheet informing you of everything you missed out in your current playthrough.
I can’t see how this presentation wouldn’t immediately leave players flustered. These aren’t dialogue trees that reward thinking the information through until you’ve at least completed the game once. Your first playthrough’s fail rate will be so high you’ll think you’re playing an early Sierra Interactive adventure game.
Now, if all of this were supported by great storytelling, it’d be a reasonable compromise. Yet Swansong has someone unironically say “Bodybags, what could that possibly mean?” At the scene of a massacre. A massacre they already know about. A massacre the character in question had a vision of. It’s like no one compared notes when writing certain scenes.
In fact, a number of lines of dialogue seem to be from different versions of the script. They either imply something obvious wasn’t clarified or respond out of sync. This contrasts with the wonderfully written backstories for the cast. These backstories are far more interesting than the main mystery at hand that it’s not even funny.
There is so little to grab you that you can barely feel like a participant. You aren’t really ‘role playing’, but instead solving a series of trial and error puzzles. Instead of enhancing the weight of your choices, the over-complication of the dialogue renders much of your opinion null and void.
I’m not asking for Swansong to be an immersive sim or anything, but there’s no reason for it to be this restrictive given even some of the pricier dialogue options typically lead to the same general outcome. It would’ve been more interesting if the exploration element leaned harder on skill trees. Instead, that half of the equation is far more forgiving outside of a handful of skill checks. Swansong’s priorities are all over the place.
The adventure game item shenanigans are simply a matter of slowly walking around the environment and interacting with all of the things. Once you find a key item or person to speak to, then you click on all of the other things. It’s repetitive but inoffensive. A handful at least convey the vibe of being a stealthy investigator.
These are the brightest moments in Swansong. Not the confrontation dialogue boss fights, nor the weirdly presented action moments – just navigating a crime scene and genuinely putting together the pieces. Don’t worry though, because in between those sections, there’s something far worse.
The developers at Big Bad Wolf put a stop to that detective work by periodically jamming in pace-shattering puzzles. Take the elevator slide puzzle, for example. It’s introduced during the same level as Emem’s ability to teleport. Yet, when she needs to get up to the top of a tower, a tower with human-sized gaps she could easily teleport through, she instead engages in a three-tier slide puzzle.
This puzzle makes up the majority of this particular level. This isn’t some experimental indie game trying for a metaphor. Swansong is a full-priced role-playing game… and a major point to a level is a slide puzzle.
These sections never feel organically included. They’re seemingly jammed in to extend your first playthrough. Why is so much of this game out to punish someone for playing Swansong for the first time? From the unfair skill checks to moments like these, it’s like a college hazing.
SWANSONG UNLEASHES A WORLD OF BOREDNESS
Tying this all together is a presentation that never evens out. The animation quality, in particular, can be startlingly impressive when biting into human prey to sate your bloodlust. Yet when you’re in key conversations, the camera angles and faces are stiffer than the corpses left in your wake.
The music is rarely memorable either. At least the vocal cast gives it their all, the majority of which shine through the uneven script. Whenever they have a chance to flex their skills, everyone more than earns their place. If anything, it’s a shame they don’t have better material to work with.
Aesthetically, environments range from gorgeous to dull, with little middle ground between them. The same can be said with how you engage with them. Every now and then, you find a clever way to solve a problem. Maybe deduce a phone number from a background detail, or parse apart a lie.
A few of the consequences that do pay off can lead to interesting conversations. These moments are sadly overshadowed by the sheer dullness that engulfs Swansong. It also doesn’t help when the vampires you’re playing suddenly appear in reflections, at times the reflections face the wrong direction for good measure.
It’s said in World of Darkness that every vampire fights a beast within. The clawing, supernatural side of each of them that drives them towards inhumanity. Swansong clearly has a beast of its own – but it’s not alluring nor terrifying. Instead, it fills you with a sense of exhaustion.
To play Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is to contend with a vampiric vortex that swallows up any enthusiasm you might’ve had when going in. Despite some intriguing ideas, there’s no way I can recommend such a dry, drawn-out experience to anyone but the most patient Masquerade fans. There are already several stronger, cheaper visual novels set in the same universe that offer more meaningful journeys than Swansong.