In a round about way I’ve been aware of Vampire: The Masquerade for a while… though to be fair that’s mostly down to Outside Xbox’s love of the Bloodlines game than the original tabletop RPG source material. With the action-focused Bloodlines 2 in development and the Battle Royale of Bloodhunt recently releasing under the free-to-play banner, you might think that the market place is a little crowded when it comes to fanged undead gracing our gaming machines. NACON don’t think so and have released Swansong by Big Bad Wolf to fill the RPG void that the other two titles leave. What might surprise is that this isn’t a blood soaked gore fest with vampires running amok, it’s more like a detective adventure with dice roll determined conversations being the main focus of progression. This slower paced title might be just the ticket for series fanatics, but will it provide enough content to enthral newcomers? Or does it run the risk of being drained of life with a heavy reliance on its own lore?
Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong (a mouthful of a title if there ever was one) is set over a three day period in Boston during September 2019, and sees you take the parts of a trio of Kindred – a formal name for the vampires – as they investigate an attack on their clans. A code red incident at a party sends the group into disarray, and with no clear perpetrator or motive, suspicion is rife both inside and outside the sect, and the Prince wants answers fast. In come our characters, each from a different clan and with varied capabilities, to start tracking down what’s actually happened and who is to blame. Emem, Galeb and Leysha are tasked individually to follow the clues and dig up the facts, and sent on their merry way in the hope of uncovering the truth. Whilst none of the three interact with each other, you as the player act as a consistent thread across each story and piece together what went down. Using observational traits, vampire abilities and good old fashioned detective work, you’ll spend the next few in-game days with each of the Kindred and pull together a twisted tale that allows for multiple different endings depending on your choices throughout.
Your main starting point is up to you, and each of the vampires begins with a base set of stats and innate abilities that they’ll use across the 10+ “levels” in the game. The majority of gameplay is investigation work, whether that’s exploring crime scenes or sneaking around enemy locations, and mostly revolves around reading information that uncover clues and figuring out light puzzles to open doors/safes/secret rooms. Supporting this is each character being able to use Auspex which acts like a vampire-vision key clue finder, though that’s really oversimplifying it. It gives the chance (when suitably levelled) to show premonitions, past events and uncover secrets tied to objects, and is a very useful investigative tool to get more in-depth information or lead things in a new direction. Punctuating the strolling around you’ll be doing are dialogue events and confrontations where your knowledge, skills and undead abilities come to the fore. Speaking to an NPC will sometimes initiate a conversation and offer up options where your character’s vampiric strengths can force answers or push for a different action; and at key points you’ll have a “boss battle” which is a confrontation that can be won or lost depending on the choices made during it and how convincing your arguments are. This is the crux of the RPG side where skills and stats are matched up and ties result in dice rolls to determine the winner.
There is the ability to influence which way the discussion will go, and that’s by using the willpower of the character. Depending on the dialogue selected, there might be the chance to focus on a response and push a point of view strongly, or just plain dominate the other person. Your opponent can do the same though, and if they’re equal or higher level then victory is less certain. Knowing when to use willpower and focus becomes essential to making progress because Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong can be a little impenetrable at times. Additional skills are available that can see the use of the hunger meter come into effect, and typically these are more reliable for getting things going, yet will run the risk of one of our trio flipping out and drinking anything that moves. Breaking the convention that the Masquerade embodies sees your suspicion gauge rise, and that in turn can make some of the infiltration and dialogue elements harder. There’s quite a lot to balance than it first appears, and even exploring a level can see you continually using the abilities like Auspex or Celerity (not a salad vegetable, think more like Blink from Dishonored), which in turn increase your hunger. Reducing that thirst is only possible by drinking from vessels – the polite way of saying humans – and picking a target and a quiet place is needed more often than you’d probably like.
Keeping with the Masquerades accords, it’s bad form to drain a human fully and kill them, ideally they need to have some blood left and remain in a stupor until you’ve exited the area. Swansong manages this by having a drinking gauge on hand when feeding, where you hold a trigger button to start and have to release to stop. The longer the trigger is held, the more blood you’ll get to reduce the hunger, but the closer to killing the vessel you’ll be. Dead bodies can be hidden, though they’ll be found eventually and that brings increased suspicion. It’s sometimes best to stick within the sect’s rules and play it safe because extending your investigation and uncovering more detail is critical to upgrading each vamp. Every conversational trait, hacking ability, and perceptive skill can be improved through experience points awarded at the end of each mission, though the points are low and the cost of upgrades high, so decisions need to be made carefully. All the characters can have different base stat builds, and then increase in specific areas as you see fit keeping in line with how you want them to be. However, none of the vampires are able to see the future clearly enough to say what skills will need upgrading for the next mission, so you need to be prepared that sometimes you’ll be a bit short on what’s actually needed to be successful.
It’s unfortunately here that Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong begins to lose some of its sheen. Definitely, but not limited to, the early stages seem unbalanced and you head into unwinnable situations simply because you’ve not earned enough experience points to pump into the right parts of the dialogue tree. Sometimes you can work around this with good detective work (assuming the right level of security is on hand for lockpicking or hacking), yet more often than not you’re left with a niggling feeling that it’s been done on purpose to make you fail. Getting it wrong isn’t the end – well, not until the end that is – though it really doesn’t help uncover the full conspiracy happening around the Kindred’s world. Likewise with the abilities, there are options in the beginning levels that are shown, but can’t be used, or worse… gives you the use of the higher level powers temporarily yet doesn’t tell you how it works and leaves you to mess it all up on your own. All outcomes point somewhere down the road and have consequences later on, which is good to have, though there’s no getting around that sometimes you can feel like your 100+ year old killing machine is being outwitted by a parking attendant and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
Compounding the feeling of failure that no one wants persistently in a game is the fact that some of the later levels move more towards action that doesn’t feature anywhere else. Most heinous is an enforced stealth mission where getting it wrong results in permadeath, and has to be tackled with a game engine that’s designed for considered exploration and verbal battles. Creeping around boxes and running for your life isn’t something Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong does well at all, and why the devs thought it sensible to leave it in the shape they did is a bit baffling. The only bright side is that it’s possible to bypass this particular section altogether, though you won’t know that at the time. Given the pacing and gameplay that exists for 80% of the game, the way it goes for that one section really stands out, and is even more at odds given the character you’re playing as for it has the power to become invisible and undetectable on a whim, though mysteriously can’t when it would be the most use. It’s a nonsense that is completely unnecessary. By this point you’ll have put up with manual game reloads because some of the mechanics will get stuck or don’t work properly, and they put up a barrier to progression; distracting graphical glitches on NPCs faces and outfits; and a lighting solution that hides interaction points, or makes inanimate objects appear like interaction points. It’s generally a good looking game with decent sound design as well as top notch voice acting, though that doesn’t cover all the rough edges.
As an experiment on what it’s possible to do in this universe by producing a game that focuses on finding evidence, deductive reasoning, and heavy interaction with other characters, Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is as interesting as it is frustrating. Dropping you into a world that requires multiple codex entries to understand for the uninitiated is brave, and it just about manages to pull that off without you losing the threads of the plot. Likewise, the initial investigations and confrontations are interesting and deliver a different experience than most other RPGs. However, spread across 15+ hours and multiple playthroughs the only way to uncover the full truth, the premise wears a bit thin, and especially after a couple of knocks here and there with failures that are only linked to the slow XP upgrades. Fans of the series are bound to find loads of hidden links to the other media, and will get a kick out of visiting Boston in this form, though the Masquerade adventure they’re probably really after is a while away yet. Those fresh into the lore can still enjoy the overall tale, yet might feel their patience being drained through some of the strange design decisions contained within.
A PS5 review copy of Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong was provided by Big Bad Wolf’s PR team, and the game is available now on PlayStation, Xbox, PC and Switch for around £50 depending on platform and version.