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Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong Review

Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong Review

This hasn’t come up very often in my time with GameGrin, but I am an avid player of tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, or even homebrewed campaigns cut out of whole cloth. There are many reasons to enjoy these types of games, such as getting into the nitty-gritty of their combat systems, building powerful characters, or crafting a world together with a group of friends and spending time with them in that world. While I certainly enjoy all of these elements, the main aspect of tabletop RPGs that I get excited by is the roleplaying and character work. Now, because I can’t just ask my friends to drop everything to play these games with me all the time, I’m always on the lookout for videogames that can scratch this particular itch. However, even some of my favourite roleplaying titles, like Mass Effect, lean more into combat than what I’m looking for. A lot of the Telltale-style games come pretty close, but there’s not usually the same sense of building a character in those titles.

One game that really scratched that itch for me was The Council, from developer Big Bad Wolf Studio. While it wasn’t perfect by any means, it was almost exactly the sort of thing I was looking for, with various stats and skills that could open up a variety of options in exploration and dialogue. The plot and characters were interesting, though it suffered at times from its episodic structure necessitating less divergences from the plot as time went on. So when I heard that Big Bad Wolf had another title in the making, I knew I had to try it, particularly seeing as I was already a burgeoning fan of the franchise it would be set in.

VTM Swansong Our three heroes

Enter Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong. Set in White Wolf Publishing’s World of Darkness franchise and specifically in Vampire: The Masquerade — their flagship series of tabletop RPGs — Swansong was developed by Big Bad Wolf Studio and published by Nacon. The story follows a sect of vampires — specifically referred to as a Camarilla in this context — living in Boston, Massachusetts in the continental United States of America. There are a lot of relevant terms and events that I would like to bring up to properly introduce a lot of the game — after all, this is a lore-heavy franchise that’s been going strong for decades and I am a stickler for details — but the gist is that these vampires are hiding themselves from human society to protect themselves and their way of (un)life. Swansong opens after an attack that has left many important figures in the vampire community missing or dead. It’s up to the three playable characters — Emem Louis, the owner of several clubs in the area; Galeb Bazory, the very old protector/executioner of the Boston Camarilla; and Leysha, a woman prone to visions of the future who also cares for her young daughter — to discover how the attack occurred, reveal who was behind it, stop them from doing anything like it again, and protect the vampires of Boston.

Thankfully, while I was already aware of many of the specific details that make up the world of Vampire: The Masquerade, Swansong offers a very useful Codex that provides necessary and supplementary information for its story. This is hardly new for RPGs that have a narrative focus or complex worldbuilding, but Swansong has a neat little feature that I greatly appreciated. Whenever a concept is brought up in the plot without any built-in explanation or context, Swansong will offer a prompt to “learn more” about said concept, taking the player directly to the appropriate entry. This is very nice, particularly seeing how none of the protagonists are themselves new to the setting. They don’t need an explanation for most details and the game doesn’t treat them or the player like they’re new to the whole ‘vampire’ thing. It’s there if a player needs it, but it’s never obtrusive.

VTM Swansong Dead Body Scene

The game itself is broken up into various scenes — levels where one of the three characters is able to explore a given area and work towards completing their main objective. These scenes involve a variety of urban settings, with most taking place in large homes or facilities. There are other locations, including a wide docking bay that features an interconnected sewer system alongside several smaller buildings, but even those more similar locales do an impressive job of feeling unique and lived in. In one scene, a presumed-dead man’s apartment reveals how the occupant’s life has unravelled through a variety of strong environmental details, like how the entire area is just covered in beer and boxes of half-eaten pizza.

One of Swansong’s best self-contained scenes takes place rather early in the game and really takes advantage of the more fantastical aspects of the setting. After Emem is tasked with ensuring that a deal with a rivalling faction is still viable after the attack, she finds herself lost in a magical prison that has stolen her memories. The area is large and complex, winding back in on itself here and there, and acts as a beautifully terrifying liminal space for Emem to try and rediscover herself. For one thing, the disjointed and jagged environment is a great tutorial for Emem’s ability to leap across chasms. Another great part of the scene is the fact that she can actually fail the secondary objective of recovering all of her memories while still allowing the plot to move forward. This offers the player the opportunity to explore how to work through painful experiences like that. Many of the scenes can end in partial failures like this that allow the story to continue while dealing with actual ramifications, which really helps make each playthrough feel like more of a personal experience.

There’s even a very interesting puzzle in this Emem scene that is far more complicated than I had originally assumed. It hides a second puzzle within it if she decides to stick around and keep interacting with it after solving it once. I personally brute-forced my way through this secret challenge because I forgot which symbol I was supposed to be looking for, but even then, I felt rewarded for bothering to double-check the area I was in and trying something a little weird. Of course, the actual reward for completing this extra challenge is the option to cause a major split in what the game’s narrative can provide from then on, but I wouldn’t want to spoil much along that particular path. Let me just say that it offers even more background details, several unique challenges that wouldn’t otherwise crop up, and a special ending that can turn everything on its head. It’s worth experiencing, though there’s also the option to completely ignore it, even if the player wants some of those sweet, sweet experience points for solving the hidden puzzle.

VTM Swansong Emem Taking a Bite

Those experience points can be spent on a variety of skills and vampiric powers known as Disciplines. Every character has the same skills but different sets of Disciplines. I very much appreciated that, as it helped to make all three characters feel distinct in their playstyles, even beyond my having the ability to customise their more general skills however I wished. However, Swansong doesn’t always make sure that every character build is viable. Some abilities are rarely used, and sometimes success in an unavoidable challenge requires that a character took a specific skill or Discipline up to a very high level, with absolutely no alternative. This problem is admittedly rare because many instances where one would be required to use a skill can instead be sidestepped by exploring the world in more detail and solving smaller puzzles beforehand, but when those issues do crop up, they can be rather glaring.

The most egregious of these is Galeb’s Fortitude Discipline. It allows him to endure intense physical pain and discomfort and can offer the ability to raise his chance of succeeding in conversations when someone attempts to coerce him. However, the first real moment where it can be used is halfway through the game as an alternate solution for dealing with an electrical problem. This alternate solution acts as a sort of heads-up that Fortitude is now officially in play and that players may want to invest in it, but since the player can’t level up a character’s abilities mid-gameplay, that’s hard to do when that very scene ends in a sequence where being able to use Fortitude is the only way to succeed. To add insult to injury, Fortitude doesn’t really come up again in a significant way for the remainder of the game. No other ability has this sort of laser-focus to when it can be useful, but I’ve still frequently felt the urge to reset many scenes in order to rebuild my characters around the challenges that they’ll be facing therein.

Beyond that, the point-and-click-esque gameplay of walking around, picking up useful objects, solving puzzles, and talking to people is quite engaging. When exploring, there are often multiple paths to completing objectives. Players can choose to follow specific scents around to guarantee that they find everything on an NPC’s path or figure out where they went by questioning people and investigating their environment. They can convince someone to help them through vampiric mind powers, a healthy dose of mundane manipulation, or through arguments that are built off of objects picked up and knowledge learned prior to that conversation. I found myself taking a variety of careful notes to assist me in clearing my way through puzzle after puzzle and becoming deeply engrossed in both the game and its plot.

VTM Swansong Galeb Getting Ahead

Speaking of plot, Swansong’s story was one that I found engaging and thought-provoking, with themes of legacy, memory, and loyalty featured heavily. The plot feels at times like a tragedy unveiling, even though it’s very much possible to save the Camarilla from destruction. To the very end, it feels as though the situation could still go well or poorly in equal measure. There’s never a moment where the stakes promised don’t come through. Success is no more likely than failure, and failure brings death; if not to the protagonists, then to their allies.

However, those characters were even stronger than the plot itself. Swansong’s Boston is a vast web where everyone has an angle and secrets to tell. The three protagonists are some of the most interesting people in this world, and their unique experiences and weaknesses believably place them in crucial moments and missions. All three go on their own personal journeys and can find themselves in different ways. Of the three, I personally found Emem to be the most engaging, though Leysha isn’t too far behind.

Galeb is the weakest, though that’s not really his fault. His main problem is that, while he himself has an interesting backstory and unique issues that set him apart from the cast, he is constantly surrounded by people who are more interesting — or whose character traits are more relevant to the current situation — than he is. Oftentimes, these also happen to be characters in an antagonistic role — either to the entire trio or just Galeb himself — so I don’t necessarily mind playing as Galeb instead of them. Furthermore, it’s hardly a bad thing for Swansong to feature such a wide variety of intriguing characters, even if I must hesitate to elaborate on just who these people are for the sake of avoiding spoilers. While I am still disappointed in Galeb as a character compared to Emem and Leysha, the story and characters are, on the whole, beyond excellent. Yes, there could have been a greater effort made in making Galeb’s finale hold more weight in his personal story, but his last major scenes still feature some of the game’s more entertaining segments and hold great relevance to the overall issues facing Swansong’s cast.

Of course, since the game is so very focused on its amazing cast, that means that the player is going to have to be staring at a lot of character models the whole time, and this leads to what I would call the most hit-or-miss aspect of Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong. The character models themselves generally look amazing, appearing about as close as games currently get to looking like real people — aside from the vampire fangs and pale skin typical of the franchise’s vampires, of course. In fact, the whole title looks great. I wouldn’t hesitate to call most of the settings beautiful. There’s even a view of Boston’s city streets seen from above which just looks immaculate.

At the same time, some of the character animations feel unfinished, particularly in dialogue. Action scenes are perfectly fluid and engaging, but most moments where characters stop to talk to each other feel incredibly lifeless and stiff. This works when talking to police officers or special agents because many of them are supposed to be stiff in context and there’s an acceptable limit on how characters can be posed when the player can initiate discussion from multiple locations, but many conversations don’t fall under these categories. Often, characters will clearly start to get agitated or upset, judging from the delivery of their dialogue, but their faces will remain passive and calm. It’s an odd experience to see a shouting match between two mannequins. For most of the characters, I stopped noticing this after a while because I found myself so engaged in the plot, but a few people kept taking me out of the experience.

Another thing that kept me from noticing the odd character animation after a while was the fact that the actual vocal performances were quite good. I never found it hard to believe that a given character’s emotional state was genuine and I adored every moment when I could speak to the humans and vampires around me.

VTM Swansong Leysha Talking to Halsey

The only real issue I found was that a good chunk of the dialogue is muted and almost incoherent because of an odd issue with the camera. You see, in Swansong, when the camera is far away from a sound — like a character’s voice — the sound is treated as though it is being heard at a distance. Additionally, many of the conversation scenes feature moments where the camera is on one character but a different character is speaking, as a way to offer some variety in shot composition. For some strange reason, that distance-based noise volume feature is not turned off when this happens, making every sound heard from off-camera suddenly much quieter than it should be.

There are a few other rare bugs in the gameplay itself, but most of them are either visual oddities — like one woman t-posing for her entire time on screen — or easily solved by exiting and re-entering the game; an annoyance to be sure, but not game-breaking by any means. The worst of this is how easy it is for the player to interrupt scenes that are supposed to lead to NPCs walking to different locations. Sometimes leaving too soon or initiating a nearby conversation is enough to leave two or more characters stuck in a single place until the player restarts the level. Usually, this only results in side characters having strange dialogue — like with three vampires talking about how busy they are with file gathering while they stand around doing nothing — but in more complicated moments, it can lead to certain mission objectives never triggering. The game is good enough to excuse this, but it can become very annoying if the player isn’t careful.

Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong is a truly beautiful experience that celebrates the Vampire world, puts forth its own spin, and offers an incredible first experience for anyone trying to get into the franchise. It somehow surpasses Big Bad Wolf Studio’s prior work and offers an incredibly spooky time for anyone who wishes to sink their teeth into a deep roleplaying experience. If some bugs and weird character animations are too rich for your blood, this might be one to skip, but for anyone else, Swansong is not a game to miss.

9.00/10 9

Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong (Reviewed on Windows)

Excellent. Look out for this one.

An engaging experience to sink one’s teeth into, Swansong may have its faults, but it offers a blood-curdling plot and amazing characters that simply can’t be found anywhere else.

This game was supplied by the publisher or relevant PR company for the purposes of review
Erin McAllister

Erin McAllister

Staff Writer

Erin is a massive fan of mustard, writes articles that are too long, and is a little bit sorry about the second thing.

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