I remember that fine summer morning when my younger brother visited our house. He had with him a copy of Life is Strange, something which I flippantly ignored assuming it’s just a teen drama game with no action. Boy, was I so wrong! And since then I developed a new found affection for visual novels and narrative driven adventure games where your choices impact the outcome. So naturally I was drawn towards Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong, which adding to my excitement of playing a new Vampire game, was touted as an RPG. Well, I had forgotten that you shouldn’t judge a game by its box art (which is also kind of bland if I were to be honest).
Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is a narrative RPG developed by Big Bad Wolf and published by Nacon. It was released in May 2022 for PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation and Xbox.
The plot begins in the aftermath of a shootout at a Boston party held by the Camarilla (the ruling vampire sect of Boston) to seal an alliance with the vampire warlocks. However the massacre of many high-ranking vampires mandated the Code Red, a possible breach in their Masquerade from human eyes. And therefore the head of the Boston Camarilla, Hazel Iversen, dispatches a trio to get to the root of the conspiracy. It’s apparent from the start that you’re to switch among three different characters at different instances. Emem is an ambitious seductress who struggles with maintaining her authority (thanks to her petulant tantrums), Galeb is a suave henchman loyal to Hazel with a personality blander than Agent 47. Lastly, there’s Leysha who’s perhaps the interesting of the lot, with a more polite and anxious demeanor masquerading (pun unintended) a deep psychological instability, if it wasn’t for the annoying mini vampire accompanying her, the child whose story arc is basically how much she loves her doll.
Within literal seconds you’re exposed to a barrage of proper nouns and vampiric jargons that will make you pause the game and switch to the Codex to read them. You’ve no idea what’s a Primogen or a Coterie is? Nobody cares! You’re supposed to be the elite of the society; you should have had your homework before entering into the building! That said, if you are a fan of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines or at least like the raving vampires from Blade and True Blood, then I hate to break it to you but times have changed. They are now closer to those frightening individuals you find on LinkedIn who get promoted every three weeks, live every second of their lives in tailored suits and run their own company by the age of 23. Every vampire here is so surly and self-important with an obnoxious air of seriousness clouding them, that it feels the last time they might’ve had a laugh could be decades ago (vampires live longer).
What’s worse is that is you can’t even skip the dialogues and have no choice to bear their pompous droning. Some of the people your characters meet are friends or at least have known each other for decades, but in reality they are just as intimate as that of a work colleague you’ll only say hi to when you pass them in the corridor. Even without all these character development issues, the overall writing is ridiculously subpar. Not to mention the tediously slow pacing. You’ve to follow through the entire lore of the vampires’ shadowy cabals, it’s many rulers and political struggles which even for a lore junkie like me, is a complete drag. Lore elements should be given in bitesize quantity over the course of the campaign, not like a goddamn jumbo burger served for breakfast!
RPG, or is it?
Just like other narrative driven games like Life is Strange, State of Mind, conversations replace combat in Vampire: The Masquerade- Swansong. Since the franchise started as tabletop RPG, the old RPG rulebook is still at play—you spend skill points to upgrade your supernatural attributes that can help you in social engineering tricks to manipulate others or simply bypass security systems. Each character has an elaborate skill-tree that covers dialogue, environmental skills like deduction and lockpicking, and clan-specific vampire powers. The intent is to let you tailor each character in highly specific ways. But the XP needed to upgrade these abilities is tied to how well you perform in each scene and there’s only a handful of these “Confrontations” across Swansong’s 20 hour playtime! This means that one badly handled scene can severely hamper that character’s progression. This also means that the opportunities to use these skills arise less frequently than you might expect. Some missions are simply heavier with conversations than others. It’s frustrating to spend XP on upgrading your Persuasion skill only to find in the next mission that there’s only one instance where you can use your improved ability.
Furthermore, there’s Swansong’s obsession with security mechanism. Be it key cards, ID chip implants, safes, laptop passwords etc., you can always expect a puzzle designed around it because the locations you visit are almost always a fancy apartment, some warehouse, some research facility etc. For example, n one mission, you realize a document containing important information is stuck in a printer that’s out of ink. Your task is to replace the ink cartridge so the document can print. In yet another, a whole level revolves around updating your security pass so you can move about freely. Objective after objective delivers endless variations on this kind of bureaucratic busywork.
However, one good thig that Swansong delivers is portray the dilemma, concerns and motivations of the three main characters well. Emem wants to protect her friend, Galeb wants to live up to Iversen’s expectations and Leysha just wants to be a good mother to her annoying daemon kid. And all these are presented in a neat format making you question your moral choices. There’s always something at stake – your life, the masquerade, your integrity – and that does a lot to infuse some meaning into all the exploring and scouring rooms for notes and clues. Occasionally you can witness specific events from multiple viewpoints when the game switches to a different character. However, these moments are exceedingly rare to find beyond the early stage’s of the game.
A Dark World
Well, to be honest, Swansong looks nice especially in areas like the Red Salon bar….although most of the areas have a greyish brutalist design like a nondescript rich-person apartments, or concrete sewers or ventilation systems. However, aside from a couple of skyline panoramas, Swansong doesn’t do much to represent Boston as a place. The game might as well be set in New York or Los Angeles and you won’t even notice. Not to mention the terrible facial animations devoid of any expression. They don’t resonate at all with what the characters are saying which breaks the immersion.
The soundtrack is practically non-existent. Half of the time all you hear is the monotonous voice over of the characters. Even the main menu lacks any music at all despite being part of the Vampire-Bloodlines franchise
As for the performance, Swansong runs absolutely fine!
Despite all its austere demeanor, Vampire: The Masquerade- Swansong is collectively a conversation simulator, a detective game, a classically styled adventure puzzler or a discount Hitman game. Look how Disco Elysium builds its dialogues around the various perks and skills you unlock, which are used in almost every conversation with the NPCs. Swansong, sadly, delivers neither. Its writing is pedestrian, often incoherent, and its supporting systems are underutilized, adding little flavor to distinguish the three playable characters.
FINAL RATING: AVOID