While the anticipation grows for Bloodlines 2, the Vampire: The Masquerade series continues to fill the gaps with new releases. Just recently, we got the battle royale-esque Bloodhunt and now, a detective RPG in Swansong. However, unlike the high-octane blood-rush of Bloodhunt, Swansong delivers a slower paced mystery that stumbles into an identity crisis far too often to wholly recommend to anyone other than long-time fans of the universe.
At face value, Swansong seems like a strange Frankenstein monster of concepts haphazardly stitched together to form a divisive experience. It’s neither fulfilling nor well-executed, despite having some great ideas. The detective element of the story plays out like something out of Detroit: Become Human mixed with Life is Strange, though with none of those games’ ingenuity.
Set in Boston, players assume the role of three different high-ranking members of the Camarilla throughout the lengthy 15-20 hour campaign: Emem, a rebellious vampire who struggles with authority; Galeb, a loyal Camarilla henchman; and Leysha, the most interesting out of the bunch thanks to a compelling set-up for her backstory. The story alternates between these vampires at various points of the narrative as they attempt to uncover a plot surrounding vampire warlocks and mysterious assailants.
Instead of doing cool vampiric things, most of the game is spent interacting with and interrogating various characters as you attempt to uncover one mystery after the next, occasionally solving puzzles and stealthily making your way through labyrinths of locations. The ability to also feed on unsuspecting people is a cool option that keeps in check with the lore, albeit not the focus of the gameplay which is odd for a game all about vampires.
The puzzles range from deceivingly simple to confusing and convoluted. The best comparison I can draw some of these head-scratchers to is Myst, which doesn’t hold your hand on its brutally challenging puzzles at times. Sometimes the answers aren’t so obvious, with a few requiring excellent memory if you haven’t scribbled down codes or subtle clues five hours ago. It’s hardly the hook for some fun detective work, but you do feel quite satisfied once all the pieces come together.
Unfortunately, the subpar writing doesn’t exactly elevate the dialogue. Swansong is a dreary game, both in its atmosphere and conversations. This wouldn’t be a problem if it managed to add some exciting action-based gameplay to break the mundanity, but the crux of Swansong‘s gameplay almost entirely revolves around dialogue. In the hands of a more capable developer, the dialogue-driven gameplay could’ve worked and made for a terrific selling point, but Swansong squanders so much of its potential that it becomes frustrating.
Thankfully there are some notable redeeming qualities about Swansong. Most of the XP earned in the game is invested into each main character’s abilities to successfully pass dialogue-heavy encounters, including improving their environmental skills like lockpicking and deduction. Since each character also hails from a specific vampire clan, points can be poured into boosting their clan-specific powers (like one character’s ability to morph into the appearance of others, Agent 47 style).
For the most part, I enjoyed the flexibility of these skill trees as they allowed me to hone the talents of each vampire to my liking. If this meant that Galeb was relegated to a socially inept lad who couldn’t pass a single dialogue check, so be it. The game gives you ample opportunity to experiment with “builds”, so to speak, though they aren’t exactly intricate or deep. However, the way XP is earned is a double-edged sword too.
The amount of XP you receive depends on how well you handle each scene and encounter. This means that if you fumbled a previous scene, it could rather nastily slow the progression of your character. In the late game, it became increasingly difficult to really max out specific skills since the game became bizarrely unforgiving in some situations. I can confidently say that none of my vampires were honed to their full potential, though I found it difficult to return to the game for another crack at it afterwards.
Key dialogue exchanges in Swansong are called Confrontations, where you’ll need to defeat opponents through a game of verbal badminton. It sounds great on paper, and they do make up some of the more exciting sequences in the game, but they’re so frequently used that it overstays its welcome and dilutes the novelty. There are only so many times you can verbally flex on random NPCs in a convincing manner before it becomes tiresome.
The level design is one of Swansong‘s saving graces. It’s tragic that most of Boston’s landmarks and scenery weren’t used to drive home the setting that much, but chapters involving characters exploring underground areas and the gorgeous interiors of high-profile buildings were enjoyable. The visuals also deserve some credit as character designs are well-thought-out and there was clearly effort put into the game’s presentation, including its unique art style.
There’s also a great sense of urgency and suspense to each scene as the story progresses and you unravel the characters’ true motivations. That might just be my inner detective fan speaking, but I got invested in the many story threads leading to some excellent twists and pay-offs, even if they are wildly inconsistent at times. It’s not gonna blow your mind, but there’s enough here to almost satiate your thirst for some old-fashioned detective drama spiced up with supernatural themes.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is ultimately a confusing experience, not in its narrative but in what exactly it wants to be. I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy breaking the spirits of others by carefully picking my words and actions, deducing crimes through supernatural means and taking the time to explore the world along with its fascinating lore. It’s unfortunate that Swansong doesn’t hit its stride because it struggles to really find one. The result is a “jack of all trades but master of none” game that only die-hard fans of the universe will kind of appreciate. Otherwise, we’d rather have Bloodlines 2.
Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong Review
Story - 6/10
Gameplay - 5.5/10
Presentation - 7.5/10
Value - 5/10
Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong has fascinating lore and some great ideas, but it struggles to really find its own identity and feels too disjointed to fully recommend to anyone other than die-hard fans.
Flexible dialogue choices
Tries to do too much and confuses itself
A mission to upgrade skills
It’s a bit dreary and humourless