Imagine compacting the gothic open world of 2004’s Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines into an RPG that is far slower and more deliberate in its execution, dousing it with the same variety of linear, character-driven storytelling made popular in Telltale’s The Walking Dead series, then finally handing it off to receive one last blood injection from the legendary puzzle game Myst. That’s the pedigree that Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong tries to live up to, but it struggles to piece its own identity as a detective RPG together until the very end. It’s rich with decisions that should feel meaningful in theory, but its emotional moments exist in service to a broader story with no clue what to do with them. Meanwhile, its many obtuse puzzles are often too clumsily explained. With all of that working against it, you’d be mortally forgiven for walking out of Swansong’s dark, hazy alcove before its final embrace.
Things kick off as you step into a fancy pair of vampire shoes and head on down to the Camarilla, an upscale vampire court seated in the heart of Boston. It’s always a treat when you get to play the clear villain of a story… but that sadly isn’t the case here. Instead, Swansong quickly positions you as the downtrodden, misunderstood hero of its grimdark underworld. Its villains are a generic group of heavily armed religious fanatics in police uniforms that unironically label themselves the “Second Inquisition.” And if that wasn’t enough to make your eyes roll, it’s headed by Stanford, a guy whose monologues are so predictable and one-sided that he fails to be seen as anything other than a cheesy cartoon villain. In virtually every scene he shows up in, he spouts some euphemism about ending the vampire reign forever, and then he begins speaking Latin until he gets dramatically ferried off-screen. Hold on, I thought the whole titular Masquerade was about hiding the existence of vampires from the public for this exact reason? If he were a better villain, he’d tweet about them.
If you don’t already have an emotional investment in Vampire: The Masquerade’s world, Swansong does very little to pull you in. From the first scene, you’re barraged with jargon-rich dialogue spoken between characters who already know what’s going on – and who already have a history with one another – but don’t know you. None of the three playable characters – Leysha, Emem, or Galeb – really felt like an “in” for me, though I did enjoy Galeb’s general badassery. He’s the Camarilla’s point man (if you’re familiar with Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodhunt, Galeb is the equivalent to that game’s Ventrue Enforcer class). Still, he isn’t all that relatable, and for a good chunk of time, most of the conversations feel like walking into a party where everyone talks to each other but no one talks to you. All three characters have their own unique backstory related to where they sit on the Camarilla’s hierarchy, and at least they’re each decently voice-acted, but it’s still jarring to be dropped directly into each of their stories at full speed ahead without establishing the stakes of the vampire world that are so quickly threatened by the Second Inquisition.
As a result, any emotional connection to be had with the cast of vampires only begins to form in the last quarter of Swansong’s 20-hour story – well after you’ve already made most of the decisions that would determine each character’s fate. Worldbuilding is certainly helped along by the lore-rich codex, if you take the time to read it, but even after spending significant time gaining an understanding of the vampire underworld the first few legs of the story are still rather uninspired and uninteresting until you’ve had sufficient time to shape it around your choices.
There’s no shortage of supernatural violence in Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong, but not in the way you’d normally expect for an RPG. There’s no combat here whatsoever, just cutscenes where combat takes place in scripted displays of vampiric fighting prowess. This isn’t a death knell by any means, since the best RPGs can get by without the need for constant action. Unfortunately, this is far from the best.
Despite the lack of fighting, you still need to sate your character’s bestial thirst – more specifically, you need to maintain their Discipline bar, which is like a mana bar that powers vampire abilities. To do this you have to periodically sneak one of several designated humans into private spaces and suck as much blood as you can without killing them, which is yawn-inducingly simple to do. If you do end up killing a mortal by deliberately drinking from them two times, the Suspicion gauge shared by each of your three characters goes up, which can gradually incur skill penalties until you bring it back down again by collecting loose pieces of intel that your NPC vampire comrades seem to have a knack for leaving around everywhere.
It’s almost always worth feeding on each human at least once to replenish your Discipline, since that’s what grants the ability to dominate tense conversations, reveal hidden objects, or even teleport to distant hidden locations, depending on who you’re playing as. Likewise, as your Discipline pool goes down, your Hunger goes up, gradually making you less capable during tense encounters.
Aside from the times you do get to use your vampire powers, most of your time in Swansong is spent doing the same mundane things that any regular human could’ve done. You begin each mission with a limited pool of Willpower points to spend hacking computers, picking locks, and displaying your flair for rhetoric while discussing the finer points of human blood. This would be fine enough if the skill point system were less punishing, but an unbalanced and unclear skill check system dominates dialogue and confrontations. For instance, in certain cases a critical conversation can still result in failure even after you’ve spent enough precious Willpower points that they display as having 100% chance of success in the menu. That’s not what 100% means!
Fail states don’t boot you to a game over screen, but they can cost you experience points that you would have been able to allocate in the following mission. They also tend to change the direction of the overarching story, supposedly making later encounters more challenging. And because Willpower-restoring items are so few and far between, Swansong can easily slow to a halt if you fail enough interactions, which can happen if you choose to allocate your experience points to the wrong skills before each level. That’s a big problem, since you can’t change or re-specialize your skills once you find yourself stuck in front of a locked skill check unless you’re willing to restart the level from scratch. Making matters worse, Swansong’s maps are so inconsistently designed that it’s functionally impossible to know which skills will or won’t be useful before you start. It’s a crap shoot.
It’s good that there’s always at least one solution to move the story forward that’s available to all characters on each map, but the most basic possible solution usually involves solving a puzzle, which might be more trouble than it’s worth. Despite charming my feet off for the first several levels, especially in the Jefferson Library and in Jason Moore’s apartment, the puzzle-solving detective work that seemed so appealing at first glance quickly lost its luster once I realized that the story itself wasn’t ultimately interesting enough to compel me forward. Many of these riddles, which required several layers of deductive reasoning to solve, didn’t fit in that well with the themes of the story itself and thus felt like padding rather than interesting contextual challenges. That meant that when a puzzle had especially inconspicuous clues, unrelated to anything the characters had been talking about, the solutions could feel out of left field even if they weren’t entirely illogical. Many of them give you little to work from and often forced me to run around in circles before I finally managed to piece them together. They’re not inherently bad, but it simply doesn’t gel with the pace of the storytelling.
At least each of these reasonably spacious albeit contained environments look exceptionally good when played on Max settings. Lighting and fog effects look especially sleek and the art direction is generally punchy, giving a distinct identity to each location. The Camarilla itself is especially cool to explore, layered with contrasting black marble and sharp red hues that evoke a sense of being in an otherworldly but classy space.
You might get too used to staring at some of Swansong’s decorations for a longer time than you’d have hoped, though. As I said earlier, its puzzles require a high level of deductive reasoning, which is just fine, but a few of them do get a little too esoteric for their own good. For instance, one puzzle requires you to pay very close attention to the direction a certain mythical king is pointing his arms, but you won’t know that without doing some serious guesswork – especially since the same clues are placed immediately next to a completely different puzzle. One of the later puzzles requires you to trace your character’s missing daughter through a military complex, but you’ll need to translate a single piece of well-hidden information through several layers of logical deduction – finding a code on a printed sheet, figuring out what that’s supposed to open, finding another code, and so forth – before you can find the final solution and move forward once and for all.
This type of puzzle solving can work in the right circumstances, but here it’s in conflict with the already dreadfully slow pacing set by Swansong’s slow-burn story. I love to compare its style of storytelling to Disco Elysium, which arguably worked so well because you got to explore the protagonist’s inner monologue as he himself stumbled through the problem-solving process. However, such a level of self-awareness just doesn’t exist in Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong. Likewise, it often assumes you’re paying close attention to its long stretches of mind-numbingly dull dialogue. This is where Swansong often hides clues in plain sight, but since I generally didn’t know what to look for until I was already in front of a given puzzle, these long dialogue scenes (which were unskippable) ended up feeling more like a ploy to pad out Swansong’s length than anything else.
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Author: Dan Stapleton