Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong attempts to be a narrative-led detective RPG but its many shortcomings hold the game's positives back from being properly enjoyable.
What you need to know
- What is it? Narrative-led game in the Vampire universe
- Reviewed on: PC - Ryzen 5 3600, Radeon RX 5700 XT, 16 GB RAM
- Developer: Big Bad Wolf
- Publisher: Nacon
- Release date: May 19, 2022
- Available on: PC, PS4, Xbox One
Big Bad Wolf set out to deliver another story-driven title, this time with Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong . The attempts to portray it as an RPG are evidently there along with the pursuit of being a detective game but all these endeavours eventually fall short. As such, Swansong only manages to be a mediocre game at the best of times and a frustratingly incoherent mess at worst.
Swansong puts a massive emphasis on its subtitle. The meaning of the word, if you're not familiar with it, is the final performance of one's career and the game shoves its subtlety right out the window in the opening scenes as you see a premonition of doomed vampires.
If that wasn't enough, the characters you immediately meet will shove the impending doom down your throat so frequently you would think it was tonsilitis medicine, with the fears of what happened in London being the main driver behind the Boston Prince's paranoia.
Unless you're invested in the world of Vampire, you will have no clue what's going on or what London has to do with events in Boston, which makes the already convoluted plot even harder to comprehend. Don't get me wrong, I'm always up for a good story about solving a conspiracy but this is not it.
Swansong only keeps throwing layers upon layers of complication, to the point that can easily drive players to give up trying to understand it, which then leads to apathy and the loss of the point of having a story that is meant to get the said player invested in this world.
Once, and if, the plot starts unfolding and making sense to the player, they will already have reached the last hours of the game which obviously goes against coherent storytelling.
Exposition is immediately thrown at the player where all the characters understand the world's background and some of them understand what is going on currently so this can be overwhelming for a newcomer.
Then I found I spent most of the time after the exposition just playing through what eventually felt like filler, without getting to properly experience rising action, climax and falling action. Instead, these three parts of storytelling were crammed in the last portion of the game, which made it even more incoherent as the story clumsily attempted to reach the resolution.
Such a composition was a red flag I never got to wrap my head around as it failed to get me invested in the first place and then just proceeded to get worse.
Unfortunately, this was not even the worst part - slogging through terribly boring dialogue was. Remember the filler I mentioned before? Having to interact with dull NPCs and engage them in some of the most boring discourse I've experienced in a video game makes up a good chunk of the slog.
To make matters worse, many characters have sub-par voice acting, which is a further disconnect from any semblance of immersion that may have existed in Swansong up to this point. This problem is then amplified by stone-like, and often silly, facial animations that just take away from the experience.
Gathering clues and ways to progress the game through dialogue will mostly hinge on using disciplines and special interactions because you can't rely on body language, facial expressions or even the tone of characters' voices to give you any hints.
If Swansong had an MVP, it would be environmental storytelling. Unlike the game's attempts to convey the dull plot in a convoluted manner, the smaller stories you go through in the meantime are told by inanimate objects and I don't mean the NPCs by that. I mean the actual objects in the environment.
During the investigations the trio of vampires is tasked with, keeping an eye out for subtle clues can lead to the player piecing together self-contained stories that are, unfortunately, not the main focus. They are undoubtedly more fleshed out than the main plot and could have been a beacon of light for the dark tunnel Swansong found itself in.
For example, while one of the characters is investigating the apartment of a wounded individual, you will come across bloodstains everywhere he went, letting you piece together what he did when he returned home by retracing his steps. There is no unnecessary exposition and the extent of your understanding of this small story will depend on your powers of observation and analysis.
That is not even the only small story told in this one map. Exploring it enough can paint a pretty clear picture of this individual's life and his relations with other characters that may or may not only be mentioned. This will lead you to further dialogue and puzzles, one of which is regrettable and the other is sometimes enjoyable.
There isn't much gameplay to speak of in Swansong and just like storytelling, most of it is just bland and dull. It mostly consists of exploring maps while attempting to find the aforementioned self-contained stories to prevent you from uninstalling out of boredom.
By "exploring" I mean you will mostly spend time hugging walls, desks and other objects in hopes that a small circle will appear, signalling that you can interact with something that may or may not make sense at the time.
Trying to logically follow an investigation might be possible if you're some sort of super detective that can notice ridiculously inconspicuous details on the fly but for most of us, it will be about hugging random things because there is no logical way to figure out what we can interact with otherwise.
Each of the characters has a Discipline that can highlight interactable spots from a distance but these are very limited and you will actually spend most time looking for things the way a normal, clueless human would. This game clearly forgets you are a superpowered being quite often.
Swansong also attempts to pass its "conflicts" off as the game's "combat" but that angle just doesn't fly. There is absolutely no combat involved here - these are debates or heated arguments at most. You will attempt to choose the correct dialogue option or alternatively, use a Discipline to win a phase of the dialogue.
Given the boring nature of these interactions that I mentioned in the Story section, the gameplay portion of it doesn't stand much chance either. If anything, the gameplay part is made worse by the clumsy progression system where the player has to choose a character's Disciplines upfront, without having the slightest clue about what they might run into.
This means you have to spec your points ahead of a mission and there is no way to re-spec at any point. If you specced your stoic Galeb to have points in Intimidation but not Rhetoric, you will often run out of luck where your investment will be useless as the dialogue is not offering the Intimidate option.
Normally, this is not an issue in RPGs but those games tend to have several layers of fun and immersive content to compensate, which is just not the case in Swansong. You are either blessed with precognition or you run into frustration with Swansong's character progression.
To put the cherry on top, there is no violence outside of cutscenes which is just weird for a Vampire game and not in a good way. We are in a world where Telltale managed to incorporate action into their narrative-led games, even successfully featuring the caped, skull-cracking enthusiast from Gotham but a Vampire game only gets a little bit of action in the occasional cinematic event.
Graphics and performance
This is probably the only part of Swansong where I don't have major complaints as it captures the intended feeling. We are moving among the vampiric elite in Boston and the visual representation lets us know from the very beginning. Everywhere the player turns, they will witness beautiful architecture.
There no breathtaking vistas in unspoiled nature because this is not that type of game. Vampires are very limited by sunlight which confines them to places with plentiful protection from daylight and those are cities, where they eventually got to the top of the food chain through secretive means - that's literally the theme of the Masquerade.
As such, we are presented with views of a different type of beauty, one that was made by humans and vampires. Exploring the aforementioned apartment will provide a fantastic view of the city but even being stuck in a Tremere trap has its "wow" moments.
If there is a complaint to be made here, it would be about characters feeling too much like Barbie dolls at times but for the most part, we are treated to pretty places with plentiful darkness.
Additionally, the game is well optimised as it never put too much strain on my PC. The fans kept quiet for the most part and I never experienced any frame rate drops.
Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong is a storytelling experience that forgot the fun parts of roleplaying a vampire and completely leaned into the politics that are entangled with Kindred. While that sounds bad, it's not what is dragging the game down as the player needs to slog through a bunch of unfulfilling dialogue and exploration with only the environmental storytelling to keep the boredom at bay.
It does manage to do it in short intervals but the game is overall marred by mediocrity and dullness.