Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
Vampire the Masquerade: Swansong is a roleplaying game based on the original tabletop RPG created by White Wolf Publishing. Like the tabletop game, the video game focuses on vampire political intrigue and investigation. Unlike many video games, Swansong features three different protagonists that intermingle throughout the story. To that end, the plot of the video game is interesting if not a little disjointed for many.
One of the first points about Vampire the Masquerade: Swansong is that the game is quite gruesome. Furthermore, the video game drops players in the middle of a story which is confusing to new players of the genre, and the hook I found to be somewhat strange.
As a player of the tabletop RPG and the Live-Action version, it’s quite apparent to me that this game is designed around players familiar with the World of Darkness. I know this because of the dialogue choices, cutscenes, political structure, and available character abilities. Characters mention clans like they themselves indicated specific traits. However, if players aren’t familiar with clan traits and backgrounds, Swansong provides a handy codex! To newer players, this is useful, but to experienced players, information is sometimes shoe-horned through dialogue.
Swansong features skills and disciplines familiar to World of Darkness fans. At the end of a scene, players gain experience based on their success rate which is where players can boost their abilities. In this way, Swansong feels very much like a tabletop game portrayed in video game format. During a tabletop or live-action game, players begin without knowing what they are walking into. It is only after certain events do players receive their experience points.
The storytelling in Swansong is done moderately well. Protagonists interconnect through their individual stories, which is fascinating. For the most part, while it seems to be disjointed at times, the character connections blend well together. That said, the beginning part of the story is what bothers me the most.
We answer the Prince’s call because Vampire society is in the middle of a ‘Code Red’. The Prince indicates to your character Emem that you can be part of the Primogen Council. For me, this is the first problem. Emem, Galeb, and Leysha are all 12th or 13th generation. Thus, are all new vampires that have NO STANDING in vampire society. Beginning at such a low level without having achieved anything significant doesn’t mean players can be on the council. I expect that vampires between the 3rd and 7th generation would be selected, not any of these three characters! It just doesn’t make any sense.
Incidentally, that isn’t the only aspect of the introduction that irks me. Players begin in a large establishment that requires a good deal of walking around. And thus, it is easy to run around in circles. Also, there is no central database for collected information! Swansong requires players to write down information or simply remember. Thankfully, players can screenshot information – oh wait Epic… *ahem* Moving on…
The dialogue in this game often bothered me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the introduction has cringe-worthy dialogue when clan names are inserted into a discussion like the names themselves are significant. My problem is often the wording. I chalk it up to the writers attempting to make significant points in a short time but they spectacularly fail at it. This aspect needs work, in my opinion.
Secondly, the voice acting felt a bit stilted due to the writing. I know that dialogue is challenging but sometimes Swansong misses the mark. Also, the pronunciation of certain words grates on my nerves. For example, I can’t stand how characters pronounce Camarilla. It is also not the only example of a different pronunciation either, just the most obvious one.
Regardless of those points, dialogue not only gives players key information but also gives them the option to use character abilities. Players can use psychology, persuasion, intimidation, or rhetoric to gain information. The more points players put into their abilities, the easier the late game becomes. I enjoy this aspect of gameplay because players are able to boost their success percentage when augmenting abilities using their willpower.
During dialogue sections, players will face a mechanic known as a confrontation. Confrontations occur frequently in real life, so including this element in dialogue not only makes information gathering interesting but makes dialogue much more dynamic. This is an element that I enjoy in Swansong since players can miss out on critical information should they fail. Even if players choose to focus on one of their abilities, there is no guarantee that players will be successful during a confrontation. As such, players must manage their willpower and blood usage at all times.
Regular readers know that I love investigation games. This one hooked its fangs into me rather quickly because I wanted to know what was happening. Having said that, I find that some of the clues to solving puzzles were too obfuscated for many gamers. Today, people rely too heavily on hints to progress a story where Swansong doesn’t hold the player’s hand as other games do. Additionally, players can’t save scum their progress. Since this direction was taken, I had hoped that there would be an in-game notebook or something to log gathered information because players are expected to solve puzzles themselves. Personally, I think the inclusion of an in-game logging system would be beneficial to Swansong. Or, you know, for Epic Games to have a screenshot function…
Unlike the tabletop RPG, the experience distribution is different. According to the 20th Anniversary Edition of Vampire the Masquerade’s rulebook (shown below), raising an ability is double the cost of what it is going up to. If going from 1 point to 2 points, it will cost 4 points in the tabletop version. However, in Swansong, using the same example would cost a total of 30 points. This may be higher because of the lack of combat which allows for a much higher ability to spend skill points. While I find that these values are quite a bit higher than they should be, it forces players to carefully spend their experience. If players try to branch out too much, gameplay will become virtually impossible later on. However, the game always gives players one path to pursue, regardless of their skill expenditures.
Swansong has some amazing graphics which span from elaborate prison cells to bloody crime scenes to large underground garages. The detail in many of the locations is breathtaking. I love the vacation area inside a building which feels like a player is in a whole other location. As such, players might forget they are inside a large apartment building. Also, the party location is quite immersive and rather gruesome because it is incredibly bloody. The developers certainly know how to create a dark atmosphere.
That said, of the main characters, Galeb is the one that is visually the best. The artists did a fantastic job of nailing a brooding and strong vampire with a piercing gaze. Emem has a fantastic rebellious nature and her outfit kicks ass. Even her expressions look great. Leysha, however, has a facial expression that just doesn’t sell the character’s emotion well. Thus, while I generally love the look of the game, there are characters and graphical aspects that I wasn’t crazy about. Apart from that, the only other glaring issue I had was the lighting. In several locations, it was simply too bright, even after adjusting the settings. Having some options to reduce the bloom or the glare would be a fantastic addition, in my opinion.
Overall, Vampire the Masquerade: Swansong is an intriguing RPG investigation game that just misses the mark. While I do love the game, some aspects need a bit of improvement to get players to sink their teeth into it.
Summary and Score
Big Bad Wolf did a great job translating a tabletop RPG into a video game format by showcasing disciplines and abilities in a way that works well in this medium. Having the ability to see what Auspex visually looks like is fantastic. Plus, the overall aesthetic of Vampire the Masquerade: Swansong is quite impressive if not different. I feel as though the investigation aspects could be fleshed out more, but they weren’t too challenging for a puzzle aficionado to play without any assistance.
Swansong doesn’t scream game of the year, but it is visually detailed and grim, set within a rich world. I love it despite the minor flaws it has.Score: 8 / 10