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Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong review – a story with bite

Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong screenshot

Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong – careful they don’t talk you to death (pic: Nacon)

In complete contrast to Bloodhunt, the latest Vampire: The Masquerade game features almost no violence at all, in this dialogue driven RPG.

Vampire: The Masquerade started life in the early 90s as a tabletop role-playing game, before diversifying into video games. As a result, its setting and milieux have been endlessly refined and added to, giving every release in the series a wellspring of pre-defined lore and vampire jargon to draw on, starting with the masquerade itself; the veil of deception that keeps vampires hidden from mortals.

The recent Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodhunt was a frenetic free-to-play battle royale but despite sharing a common history it could scarcely have less to do with Swansong, a completely gun- and crossbow-free role-playing game that focuses on conversation rather than violence, and is resolutely single-player only.

Set in 2019, you play three different members of Boston’s vampire court as it suffers a series of deadly attacks. Leysha is a neurotic psychic investigator, Emem is a 100-year-old former jazz singer, and Galeb’s an enforcer for the Prince, the vampires’ head honcho.

Swapping control amongst the three, you need to find out what exactly is going on and then work out how to stop it. Unlike the overwhelming majority of games, the way you do that uses no weaponry whatsoever, and relies solely on looking, analysing, and talking. Naturally, conversations are heavily gamified, deploying various powers and stats-based die rolls, but it’s a refreshing change from the usual lock ’n’ load approach.

All your protagonists have character sheets, a throwback to the franchise’s tabletop roots, specifying a constellation of skills and disciplines to trigger during verbal confrontations. Using most of these powers either increases your hunger, which you must eventually sate by drinking human blood, or depletes your willpower, which you can partially refresh using consumables.

In either case, confrontations occur in a series of rounds. Lose too many and you effectively close off that character’s potential to help you, forcing you to find another way to meet your current objectives. Even winning can come at a cost if it raises your hunger or lowers your willpower so much that you’re defenceless in further encounters.

When that does happen you can of course reset the chapter, but you can usually muddle through with a bit of additional exploration to find, say, a needed PIN or password rather than having to spend willpower hacking computers or safes. Frustratingly, you’ll also find that some things you expend effort and resources breaking into end up doing little to further your aims in the level.

As well as bending people and fellow bloodsuckers to your will through talk, you’ll also need to investigate crime scenes and other areas of interest by wandering around them and making judicious use of your powers. These can enable you to follow the scent of an object or person, see past magical camouflage, and learn about the recent history of objects or corpses.

Everywhere you go there’s a huge volume of text to read, with even minor characters given complete histories and backgrounds in the codex, thanks to the game’s long lineage and fully fleshed out goth-punk alternate universe. Whether or not that interests you is another matter, because in a rather unfortunate twist of fate, for a game that’s all about dialogue, its script and voice-acting are almost universally poor.

That also extends to conversational choices that, aside from using powers, often seem to be about regurgitating questions that the dialogue has already provided answers to, or restating what seems like an identical position in different words. Combined with the phoned-in, reading-off-a-script quality of much of the voiceover work, it robs scenes of tension and excitement.

Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong screenshot

Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong – unfortunately, it sucks (pic: Nacon)

The puzzles aren’t any better, a situation typified by an especially repetitious one involving rotating circular stones to make a series of channels line up. By the third consecutive iteration of what amounts to the same puzzle, Emem says in an exasperated tone, ‘Oh come on, more?’. When even its protagonists are moaning about a game’s dully repetitive qualities, you know things have gone awry.

Sadly, that’s not the end of the problems. Since each scene is its own discrete chapter, you have to complete it to move the story forwards but will often find that thanks to missing some tiny clue or clickable area on a desk or piece of debris, you’re effectively stuck, resorting to aimless backtracking in search of the elusive missing link.

In one particularly irritating example of that, we simply gave up and closed the game. On restarting, it turned out that our 45 minutes of hapless searching were for nought, and actually a character who was meant to have walked away from a computer instead stood directly in front of it, blocking progress. The game-ending glitch felt just like a normal level where we’d simply missed something, an indication of the routine weakness of its design.

With so many good ideas, from the conversational confrontations to the supernaturally-powered CSI, and the fact that your decisions have noticeable ongoing consequences, it’s a shame Swansong’s execution gets so squarely in the way. With tedious puzzles and empty-feeling environments, with no map to guide you, there’s an overwhelming sense of the game’s reach having greatly exceeded its grasp.



Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong review summary

In Short: A complex, vampire-centric role-playing game where conversations replace violence, but whose boring puzzles and undercooked script suggest its budget didn’t stretch nearly as far as its ambitions.

Pros: Novel mechanic where verbal confrontations stand in for fights. Decisions have lasting consequences and there’s a staggering depth to its lore.

Cons: Weak script and generally poor voice-acting undermine the game’s focus on dialogue, and its gameplay loop isn’t compelling enough to sustain interest.

Score: 4/10

By Nick Gillett


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