I went into Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong with low expectations after the mechanically enjoyable but narratively forgettable Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Earthblood. Developed by Big Bad Wolf and published by Nacon, Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong did its best to justify my cynical approach during the awkward opening hour, which keeps both the story and mechanical depth under wraps – frustrating you rather than teaching you, and highlighting the weaker elements like character models and twitchy controls. Thankfully, the more you play, the more Swansong expands in scope and proves itself a solid entry in the World of Darkness universe.
For those that need a brief refresher, the Vampire: The Masquerade games take place in a world where gothic horrors – think vampires, werewolves, and magic users – exist in the shadows alongside modern-day humanity. Vampire clans are the most closely integrated into human society, influencing politicians and businessmen, while clashing among themselves – all desperate to obtain more power and a steady blood supply. To ensure their presence remains a secret and to avoid the attention of brutal modern-day vampire hunters, the Camarilla Prince of each region strictly enforces the “Masquerade” – a highly organised and often ruthless campaign to avoid revealing their vampiric powers and limit the siring of untrustworthy humans, while still sating their unique hunger.
I don’t want to delve too deeply into story elements as there are several major revelations within the first third of the game that – fittingly for the genre – could be missed entirely. The game opens as the three playable characters – Emem (Toreador), Leysha (Malkavian), and Galeb (Ventrue) – all vampires that have lived for a century or more, are summoned to the residence of the Prince of Boston. A “code red” has been sent from a party meant to celebrate a newly forged alliance between the Camarilla and the nearby “Hartford Chantry” blood mages – a move aimed at expanding and controlling the blood trade in the region. With unverified reports of casualties and several key members of the court missing, the Prince initiates a lockdown. Unwilling to trust her “primogens” – a council meant to advise and limit the Prince’s power – the three protagonists are dispatched to follow different leads, each best suited to their abilities, to uncover the nature of the threat.
Now, starting life as a tabletop role-playing game in 1991, the Vampire: The Masquerade IP comes burdened with a ton of background lore and concepts that are used casually in dialogue. Similarly, the powerful vampires you control or interact with are often centuries-old – with complex histories that explain their current abilities and personalities. Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong deals with this smartly by working many concepts and themes into the Swansong plot, while also giving the protagonists – each with a temperament representative of their particular clan – ample opportunity for internal monologues.
Less immersive is the staggering number of codex notifications that pop up as you play, and sequences where you’re just exhausting lines of expository dialogue with no role-playing interaction. Minor gripes aside, I’d still argue Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is one of the best video game entry points if you have a passing interest in the World of Darkness universe and want to expand your knowledge.
When it comes to gameplay, Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is described as a “narrative RPG” and – if you’ve not experienced their prior episodic game, The Council – it plays like a mix of Dontnod’s Life is Strange and Frogware’s Sherlock Holmes games, with an additional layer of underlying RPG mechanics that dictate your approach and success rate. There’s no combat outside of scripted events, though there is one stealth sequence that’s more frustrating than thrilling. Thankfully, most scenes place you in large-ish environments, with a checklist of tasks, multiple ways to achieve your objectives, and the ability to uncover optional information or encounters that can influence future scenes.
This will likely be a divisive design but, despite all the RPG elements and interconnected systems on offer, Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong always offers a path forward without relying on abilities. Similarly, many choices that affect future scenes or the epilogue are just binary player decisions with no skill checks. The longer I played, the more I realised this design is somewhat essential given the structure. Individual scenes – which you can tackle in any order during major chapters – are tailored towards each protagonist and their unique vampiric abilities. However, you still have full control of developing (and therefore potentially messing up) their attributes, dialogue and investigative skills, and vampiric powers. You can even acquire temporary or permanent traits based on your dialogue preferences, and temporary “resonances” – good and bad – based on the victims you drink from. There’s a limited number of accessories to find and equip, which offer more situational bonuses with downsides, and incriminating documents to destroy to reduce a “suspicion” level. As a result, Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is an incredibly complex experience, yet engaging with many of these mechanics is entirely optional.
Experience points – which you earn from success in prior scenes – can be invested in dialogue skills like “rhetoric” or “intimidation”, essential for eeking out more information and winning verbal confrontations; while investigation-oriented skills, such as “technology” and “deduction”, allow you to piece together events and track targets based on clues in the environment. Vampiric abilities are appropriately fantastical and range from dominating targets to your will, mimicking the appearance of others to gain access to restricted areas, and short-ranged teleportation. However, balance is key as using these abilities comes with a cost. Skills consume a somewhat arbitrary “willpower” resource (restored by consuming equally arbitrary items), while using your vampiric powers increases your hunger meter that, in turn, can be restored by finding safe zones and luring select targets to feed on. You can temporarily “focus” your skills and powers to improve percentages – by consuming more willpower or increasing your hunger respectively – but so too can your targets, with a draw resolved by a classic dice roll.
The interplay of dialogue and investigative mechanics generates an enjoyable flow in each scene, as you first explore looking for obvious clues, scout for safe rooms and potential prey, and then start weighing up the use or your abilities to get the information you need. Each scene ends with an overview highlighting your choices, alternative opportunities you missed (incentivising replays), any failed objectives, and any traits you’ve obtained. Perfectionists might find it frustrating that many optional objectives are tied to specific skills or powers you can’t master simultaneously; several outcomes are mutually exclusive; and you’ll need to keep an eye out for point-of-no-return interactions that might trigger the end of a scene. However, once you accept you can’t see every story beat in one go and save-scumming dialogue checks is often fruitless, you’re encouraged to focus on role-playing rather than optimising (you can quit to the menu and reload into the start of a conversation if you were wondering). Unfortunately, the linear, tutorial-heavy opening does such a poor job of highlighting these strengths.
Unfortunately, for a game that alternates between carefully examining your surroundings and face-to-face conversations, the presentation is a mixed bag and feels distinctly last-gen throughout. The environments are incredibly detailed with great lighting, making the investigative parts of the game my favourite – especially when I realised a background detail was actually a clue; or the times I managed to piece together events before my character voiced their thoughts. There’s also a decent variety of locations on offer, with a few encounters allowing for more fantastical settings. However, interaction prompts can be hard to spot and I often found myself wriggling around the character when trying to highlight the right one when they were clustered together.
Unfortunately, dialogue interactions fare far worse when you’re up close with dated character models and their exaggerated animations – with characters of colour suffering the most. Some of the voice work can feel a little forced or unhinged, though it feels appropriate given the setting and scenarios. The music feels understated but there are some great tracks – just make sure to manually tweak the volume levels as you can barely hear them by default.
Few Vampire: The Masquerade games will ever attain the (mostly-deserved) praise heaped on Bloodlines but, despite a rough start, Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong reveals an unexpected narrative and mechanical depth, making it a great fit for the IP. So long as you’re not after an action-packed Bloodlines-style hybrid, and you’re a fan of investigation-driven narratives with a focus on player choice and skill-checks, Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong should impress despite a few flaws.
A Review code for Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong was provided to Gameblur by the Publisher.
Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong (Xbox Series) ReviewVampire: The Masquerade - Swansong (Xbox Series) Review
Story8/10 Very Good
Gameplay8/10 Very Good
- One of the better video game introductions to the long-running IP
- A complex story with optional encounters and scene variations based on your decisions
- Unexpectedly deep RPG mechanics that allow for multiple quest outcomes…
- …but you can always move forward without relying these abilities
- Linear, underwhelming opening hour
- Character models and animations look dated