Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is a deliciously suave and glamorous vampire murder mystery that succeeds in navigating easy blood-thirsty predator tropes to deliver a decidedly mature and cerebral role-playing experience. It’s one of the most surprising games of the year – so far – that unshackles itself from being billed as a timely RPG-heavy VTM top-up while Paradox Interactive sorts out the Bloodlines 2 mess.
And, what a premise to start us off. Step aside, Mr. Icke: shape-shifting reptilian monarchs and heads of state don’t rule the world. Instead, a cabal of vampires shapes civilizations from the shadows. These aren’t feral fang-bearers but puppet masters operating in a codified world with chains of command, protocols, traditions, and underhand politics to extend their influence and safeguard the masquerade.
Their reach extends far. Take veganism: a dietary fad promoted by vampires to improve the quality of human blood. Wars? Climate change? The vamps are somehow involved. Then there are blood bars serving up expensive vintages, concocted from a blend of experimental drugs fed to not-so-willing mortals. It’s such a compelling and cohesive world that it’s tough not to be entirely sucked in, even for those indifferent to the cult tabletop game.
Three’s a Crowd
Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong throws you into this world in the role of three vampires bound to the Boston court, tasked with solving a gruesome massacre through detective work and hard-fought conversational skirmishes to extract vital information from reluctant or downright dangerous characters.
We have the stone-cold and persuasive elder court henchman Galeb; Emem, a bright and likable go-between for the city’s many rival factions; and Leysha, a mother afflicted by premonitions and fragile mental health often manipulated by the Council. They feel real and nuanced, each with personal motivations, allegiances, dubious morals, and preoccupations that shape and propel Swansong forward with a credible human touch.
It’s a genuine pleasure to explore and guide their individual stories as the murder mystery premise rapidly unravels into an existential threat that concerns all of Boston’s invisible vamps. Leysha’s story, in particular, shines through for its depiction of abuse and mental illness, tackling it in a way that highlights the oft-difficult task of separating the fabrications of a lapsing mind from reality.
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions
Each character comes with their own set of abilities to explore Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong’s diverse chapters, which is where the more numbers-based RPG aspects play out.
Depending on how well you navigate its interactions and secrets, each completed chapter nets you a stock of points that you can dish out into skills and disciplines. These range from physical attributes that allow you to blink across vertiginous gaps to mental aptitudes such as rhetoric and psychology. There are also more functional skills, such as the ability to hack technology and locks.
Agency is a key theme here. You build up and shape these characters’ skill-sets as you see fit. Much of your time is spent putting these into play as you decrypt murder scenes and sift through documents for precious clues, all in preparation for Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong’s show-stealing word duels. How you go about doing this is up to you.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong’s Word Dueling
Every decision feels weighty and impactful, often leaving you questioning whether you made the right call. Killing off a character has effects that ripple throughout the rest of a play-through. Upgrading a particular skill over another simplifies an environmental puzzle but may complicate a tough conversation. Missing a crucial piece of information cranks up the difficulty of the next chapter. You get the idea.
Unlike many other branching path games, your choices don’t calcify into an immovable narrative end, nor does each scenario need to play out based on a defined set of steps. It’s ripe for multiple play-throughs and having completed the game once, there’s a sense Swansong has plenty more to offer.
The mental sparring offered by Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong’s conversational confrontations are a delight. They are a test of wits where the wrong answer or a botched virtual dice roll can have your vampire fumbling in the face of an NPC’s mental might. You’ll also need to manage sparse focus and hunger points, feeding on unwitting mortals away from prying eyes to replenish your stocks but not draining these blood vessels so much as to raise suspicion. It’s beautifully intense and rewarding.
Pen and Paper
When you’re not fielding sharp barbs and toiling over hefty decisions, Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong puts you face to face with some tricky old puzzles. Whereas dialogue operates within a well-defined interface, the game’s puzzling and problem-solving are far more open.
You’re free to comb through apartments, offices, and rival hideouts to amass a blend of information drip-fed through reports, Polaroids, paintings, audio logs, and sticky notes. These all carry clues to revealing concealed rooms, deciphering passwords, and tracking down narrative-important NPCs. One, in particular, has you glaring at a four-piece spread of Oedipus-inspired paintings, jotting down the directions the mother-wedding Greek lad’s pointing towards to best a bookcase puzzle.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong throws a lot of information your way in that sense and is best played alongside a notebook to jot down potentially valuable details. It’s a game for the patient, for those who enjoy immersing themselves in lore, and those who like the gratification of wielding logic and curiosity to progress.
Aside from the odd quick time event and a thrilling late-game encounter with a certain feral beast, Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is largely free of combat and heart-rate raising action. It’s violent, bleak, and grisly, though most of this doesn’t come from a flurry of deft button combos but simple interactions and cut-scenes.
While Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong environments and settings are lavishly detailed, the same can’t be said for the character models and animations. Many drag themselves around with an unmistakably artificial gait, bearing stiff, at times, gormless facial animations. Though these initially detract from the hard work on Big Bad Wolf’s part to present a stylish and believable world, they’re quickly forgotten and excused as an endearing quirk thanks to the quality of the voice acting performances and strong writing.
Though you’re unlikely to encounter any performance issues during a play-through of Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong, we did stumble on the occasional challenging progression block. For example, doors failing to open after short cutscenes and narrative-crucial NPCs missing interaction prompts. These usually disappeared with a reload or, at worst, restarting the chapter, but we’d like to see Big Bad Wolf patch these up in time for release.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong Conclusion
Feeling like a blend of Disco Elysium, Deus Ex, LA Noire, and Detroit: Become Human with a good dose of Telltale’s narrative-driven design, Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong adds an oddly human depth to a vampiric power trip through the World of Darkness. It convincingly ports the gothic intrigue and freedom of an engrossing late-night pen-and-paper session.
Each chapter is a rich showdown of wits and sleuthing skills, successfully granting players a level of agency that few other games do. It won’t be to everyone’s taste. But for those happy to slide into the shoes of a gang of conflicted bloodsuckers and experience a gripping story punctuated with twists and turns, Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is something really rather special.