Imagine compressing 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 popularised by Telltale’s The Walking Dead series, and finally handing it off to receive one final blood injection from the legendary puzzle game Myst.
Vampire The Masquerade – Swansong strives to live up to that legacy, but it doesn’t fully realise its own identity as a detective RPG until the very end. It’s full with choices that should feel significant in principle, but its emotional moments serve a larger tale that has no idea what to do with them. Meanwhile, many of the game’s perplexing riddles are frequently explained in clumsy ways. With everything working against you, you’d be forgiven if you left Swansong’s dark, foggy alcove before the last embrace.
Vampire The Masquerade – Swansong
Things get started when you put on a nice pair of vampire shoes and walk down to the Camarilla, a posh vampire court in the centre of Boston. It’s always a delight to play the unambiguous antagonist in a tale… but that’s not the case here. Swansong, on the other hand, swiftly establishes you as the downtrodden, misunderstood hero of its bleak underworld.
Its antagonists are a generic bunch of highly armed religious extremists dressed in police uniforms who proclaim themselves the “Second Inquisition” without irony. And if that wasn’t enough to make you roll your eyes, it’s led by Stanford, a guy whose rants are so formulaic and one-sided that he comes across as a cheesy cartoon villain.
He spouts some euphemism about eliminating the vampire dominion forever in nearly every moment he appears in, and then he resumes speaking Latin until he is dramatically transported off-screen. Wait, wasn’t the whole point of the Masquerade to keep vampires hidden from the public for precisely this reason? He’d tweet about them if he were a greater villain.
Swansong provides very nothing to get you into the world of Vampire The Masquerade if you don’t already have one. You’re bombarded with jargon-heavy conversation from the opening scene, uttered by individuals who already know what’s going on and who have a history with one another but who don’t know you. I didn’t connect with any of the three playable characters – Leysha, Emem, or Galeb – while enjoying Galeb’s general badassery.
Galeb is the Camarilla’s point man (if you’re acquainted with Vampire The Masquerade – Bloodhunt, he’s the Ventrue Enforcer class from that game). Still, he isn’t very relatable, and most of the interactions seem like you’ve walked into a party where everyone is talking to each other but no one is talking to you.
Although each of the three characters has their own backstory related to their position in the Camarilla’s hierarchy, and they’re all well-voiced, it’s still jarring to be thrust into each of their stories without first establishing the stakes of the vampire world, which are so quickly threatened by the Second Inquisition. Swansong doesn’t do anything to entice you in.
As a consequence, any emotional attachment to the cast of vampires develops only in the latter quarter of Swansong’s 20-hour plot, long after you’ve already made the majority of the decisions that influence each character’s destiny. The lore-rich codex undoubtedly helps with world building, but even after spending a large amount of time learning about the vampire underground, the first few legs of the plot are still very uninspired and dull until you’ve had enough time to mould it around your choices.
Despite the lack of combat, you must still quench your character’s bestial need particularly, you must keep their Discipline metre full, which acts as a mana bar for vampire skills. To do this, you must regularly sneak one of many specified persons into private locations and suck as much blood as possible without murdering them, which is a yawn-inducingly straightforward task.
If you murder a mortal by feeding from them twice, the Suspicion gauge for each of your three characters rises, resulting in skill penalties until you bring it back down by gathering loose pieces of information that your NPC vampire colleagues seem to have a propensity for throwing about everywhere. You must drink as much blood as possible without murdering a victim, which is ridiculously easy.
Apart from the occasions when you get to employ your vampire abilities, the majority of your time in Swansong is spent doing routine tasks that any ordinary human could do. Each assignment starts with a limited number of Willpower points to spend on hacking computers, opening locks, and demonstrating your rhetorical skills while debating the finer points of human blood.
Depending on who you’re playing as, it’s nearly always worth feeding on each person at least once to restore your Discipline, as that’s what gives you the power to dominate heated talks, expose hidden things, or even teleport to remote secret areas. Similarly, when your Discipline pool depletes, your Hunger increases, rendering you less competent during tight battles.
This might be OK if the skill point system was less harsh, but communication and conflicts are dominated by an unfair and opaque skill check system. For example, even after you’ve spent enough valuable Willpower points to make a key dialogue appear to have a 100 percent probability of success in the menu, it might still fail. That is not what 100% implies! If you fail enough interactions, Swansong will come to a halt.
Failure situations do not result in a game over screen, but they do cost you experience points that you might have used in the next mission. They also have a tendency to alter the overall plot, ostensibly making later encounters more difficult. Swansong can quickly grind to a halt if you fail enough interactions, which can happen if you choose to assign your experience points to the wrong abilities before each level, due to the scarcity of Willpower-restoring objects.
This is a major issue because you can’t adjust or re-specialize your talents once you’re trapped in front of a locked skill check unless you’re ready to repeat the level from the beginning. To make matters worse, Swansong’s maps are so poorly planned that it’s nearly difficult to predict which talents would be beneficial or not before you begin. It’s a game of chance.
It’s excellent that all people on each map have access to at least one method for moving the plot along, but the most basic option frequently includes solving a puzzle, which may be more work than it’s worth. The puzzle-solving detective work that appeared so attractive at first sight, especially in the Jefferson Library and Jason Moore’s apartment, gradually lost its lustre once I realised that the plot itself wasn’t ultimately compelling enough to urge me ahead.
Many of these puzzles, which required multiple layers of logical thinking to answer, didn’t seem to fit in with the story’s themes and hence felt like filler rather than fascinating contextual difficulties. That meant that, even if the solutions weren’t wholly nonsensical, they may feel out of left field when a problem included very inconspicuous hints unconnected to anything the characters had been talking about.
Many of them gave you very little to work with, forcing me to go in circles until I could eventually put them together. They’re not intrinsically horrible, but the speed of the tale doesn’t allow for them. Even if the solutions weren’t completely unreasonable, they may feel out of the blue.
At the very least, when played on Max settings, each of these rather vast though constrained locales looks fantastic. The lighting and fog effects are exceptionally slick, and the art direction is often bold, giving each place a distinct personality. The Camarilla is particularly interesting to explore, with its layers of contrasting black marble and vivid red tones that give the impression of being in an exotic but elegant setting.
However, you could become too accustomed to looking at certain of Swansong’s decorations for longer than you’d want. As I previously stated, its puzzles need a high degree of logical thinking, which is excellent, but some of them become a little too esoteric for their own benefit.
One problem, for example, demands you to pay particular attention to the direction a specific mythological king’s arms are pointing, but you won’t know that without some major guesswork especially because the identical hints are put next to an entirely different puzzle. One of the later puzzles requires you to track down your character’s missing daughter through a military complex.
But you’ll have to decipher a single piece of well-hidden information through several layers of logical deduction finding a code on a printed sheet, figuring out what that code is supposed to open, finding another code, and so on – before you can find the final solution and move forward once and for all.
This kind of puzzle solving can be effective in the appropriate conditions, but it clashes with Swansong’s slow-burn story’s already painfully sluggish pacing. I like to compare its storytelling technique to Disco Elysium, which arguably worked so well because you got to see the protagonist’s inner monologue as he struggled to solve problems.
In Vampire The Masquerade – Swansong, however, this degree of self-awareness simply does not present. It also implies you’re paying attention over extended lengths of mind-numbingly boring talk. These protracted discussion segments (which were unskippable) ended up looking more like a gimmick to pad out Swansong’s length than anything else, because I didn’t know what to search for until I was already in front of a particular problem.
Swansong: Vampire The Masquerade consistently promises to be a decent detective RPG, and it would have succeeded if it weren’t for the fact that it continuously gets in its own way. Its idea is intriguing, but the protagonists and antagonists are uninteresting, and as a result, the tepid plot takes much too long to reach its full potential.
Swansong has already reached its conclusion by the time you’ve been sufficiently committed in its three playable characters and their distinct struggles for survival in the politically volatile vampire underground. Even the most convoluted riddles are only difficult to bypass once, and you’ll have a good sense of the talents you should specialise in on each level; then it’s all about seeing those alternate pathways you could’ve chosen the first time around. However, getting there in the first place necessitates such a high level of patience that it may be too much to expect of any person.
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- May 24, 2022