While the wait continues for Vampire: The Masquerade fans to get their hands on the ever-so-slightly troubled Bloodlines 2, Big Bad Wolf steps into the breach with Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong, a narrative-driven RPG that returns to the World of Darkness, specifically Boston this time around, where the ancient Camarilla sect is having a night it would really rather forget.
Kicking off in the bloody aftermath of what should have been a party to celebrate a pact uniting the major vampire powers of the city, players here assume the roles of three undead protagonists as they work to figure out exactly which of their enemies has attacked the unification celebration, what their motives were and how much damage has been done, before mounting a violent clean-up operation.
For those unfamiliar with this particular franchise, the "masquerade" in the title refers to the vampiric practice of laying down strict societal rules and hierarchies in order to safely hide themselves, their operations and their networks from the gaze of the human eye. In this world vampires are highly powerful, rich and influential figures who control and manipulate earthly events from the shadows. However, the attack which kicks off the narrative here has the potential to expose all of this and bring the very existence of the undead under direct threat.
It's an immediately intriguing, if somewhat hackneyed setup that's bolstered by some decent writing and a wealth of background and historical lore for eager fans to dig their fangs into, giving you as much info as you could ever need on every major character, sect, ritual and so on in this richly detailed presentation of all things vampire.
It's detail that carries over to the game's visual design too, with a ton of effort very obviously put into each vamp's exquisite tastes in fashion - the undead here could very easily be mistaken for the cast of Mad Men - as well as in levels that occasionally manage to reach almost Hitman highs in terms of their overall presentation, there really are some truly gorgeous locales to explore here.
So far, so pretty good then. However, much of the early promise here is undone by a consistent level of clunkiness in the game's core mechanics and some uneven pacing that leaves the entire endeavour feeling decidedly B-tier. While the ideas behind this one's conversational face-offs, detective work, stealth and vampire powers are all solid on paper, in practice none of it ends up feeling particularly satisfying to bite into.
Let's start with the campaign itself and, after a slow introduction that carefully and methodically sets up the main characters and events, you'll assume control of your three protagonists; Emem, Leysha and Galeb, each of whom is charged by the current Prince of all things bloodsucky, Hazel Iversen, with setting out on a bunch of missions in order to fix the massive mess her sect now faces.
Each of your three main characters has a bunch of skill trees that govern their powers of rhetoric, intimidation, persuasion and so on, as well as exploratory abilities that allow them to hack technology, unlock doors and the like. All of these aspects can be upgraded by using XP gained during missions and you also have a separate skill web of "disciplines" that allows you to beef up each character's specific vampiric powers. Galeb can "sense the unseen", for example, a skill that enables him to zero in on ghouls and other undead creatures, whilst Emem can "blink" across environments and Leysha is capable of disappearing in a fog or disguising herself as various NPCs in order to work around obstacles in levels.
Further to all of this, you have two gauges at the top the screen at all times, one of which governs your willpower - which you'll need to succeed in conversations, hack stuff, open locks and so on - and the other for your hunger level, which increases every time you use your sexy vampire skills. In order to refill willpower you'll need to successfully navigate conversations, whereas hunger is satiated by finding an NPC with a big "Y" icon painted on them who you can take to a hidden location and suck dry in a QTE event that challenges you with getting as much blood as you need without killing your victim - an action which can, apparently, lead to heightened suspicion of your activities. We say "apparently" here because in our playthrough, one that was absolutely littered with accidental kills, we never noticed any heightened suspicion of our activities whatsoever.
All of this stuff is fine, a bunch of mechanics you'd expect to find coming into a narrative-driven RPG like this, but none of them manage to connect or hit the mark in a way that makes the core gameplay here live up to the initial promise of the game's excellent setting. The conversational showdowns feel rather clunky and random, you're often ill-equipped with enough info to make your dialogue choices feel particularly impactful, and the way in which you use your rhetorical skills, persuasion and intimidation to influence your success rate is just...well, it's unsatisfying. Simply browse through your dialogue options to find one that projects a success for your character and choose it. We ended up paying little attention to our character upgrades as a result of this, as it all feels a little inconsequential and undercooked. Entertaining in places, certainly, but just not tight or convincing enough to really hook us in fully. Fling a bunch of XP into intimidation and let's get on with it.
Increasing the base percentage chances of you defeating an adversary in a conversational battle also requires nothing more than simply pressing the right stick to raise your "focus" level as much as you can in accordance to currently available willpower, and you'll most often find yourself either failing miserably due to lack of resources or dominating. We honestly never even felt compelled to collect more willpower in order to boost our chances during these conversations either, as it all feels slapdash enough that you can just roll with the punches and march on regardless - which is a shame.
You can also activate special traits to boost your chances of winning dice rolls that result from dialogue ties, but again this requires nothing more than simply pushing a button once you've attained the option to do so and then hoping you succeed. It never felt like we were mastering anything or were really in control of conversations at any point. It's undoubtedly fun when it all comes together now and then, and watching Emem, Galeb or Leysha dominate or terrify a human NPC is often cool, but it all feels so untidy, so random, that you never get to truly feel as though you're an all-powerful vampire.
These three main character too, although they're fairly well-written and acted for the most part - and without wanting give anything away or wade into spoilers - just never really evolve or develop in any meaningful way from start to finish - apart from Leysha, who is by far the most interesting vampire in the game. Other core relationships that are given a lot of air time and seem very important in early chapters, also just fizzle out as the narrative progresses, leaving a lot of unanswered questions and unsatisfying dead ends.
Moving on from the undercooked conversational/narrative aspect of proceedings, and vampire powers turn out to be rather disappointing here too, as they can mostly only be used in tightly controlled and scripted situations. There's no blinking around levels to dispatch your foes as you see fit, you'll need to wait for a prompt and then the game will take over or funnel you through. Investigatory aspects, which seem promising early doors, are also a let-down for the most part as the game charges you with wandering around closed locations, tasking you with studying every little nook and cranny of environments for tidbits of easily missed info and clues. This stuff quickly becomes fairly tedious and it also very often requires you to work through a level in a specific way lest things begin to fall apart.
As an example of this, and without getting into spoilers, there's one specific level where you'll need to have a certain NPC speak to a main character in order to proceed in the mission, but even though the NPC in question is stood right in front you, there's no way to interact with him until you've completed another part of the level that you don't yet know about. Queue lots of infuriated head-scratching. It's all too rigid, and it lacks the fluidity and freedom to do things in any order that would truly make its levels feel alive. We continuously found ourselves having conversations with NPCs about stuff that wasn't happening yet, interacting with objects that weren't required until later and so on. It's not a complete disaster, and some of its levels are certainly fun enough to puzzle through, but it just never raises the bar enough to rid us of the feeling that everything is about to come crashing down.
This is a feeling that's then exacerbated by some frustrating bugs. Yes, Vampire: The Masquerade fans will know all about bugs, Bloodlines was famously full of them, and they're present and correct here too. We had several instances where we were unable to interact with important computer screens and phones in the game, our button presses not registering until we reloaded, and some of these issues saw us scrambling around levels for absolutely ages looking for solutions before we figured out that we needed to quit and restart. The game also has constant issues with textures loading in late and we witnessed quite a few artifacting issues on character models as well as other weird graphical glitches here and there. For a title that's so heavily focused on conversations, it's also a real shame that so much of the lip-syncing here is so noticeably out of time, it really is quite jarring in places with no connection at all between facial movement and dialogue during some sequences.
However, even with all of these shortcomings, the premise of Vampire: The Masquerade: Swansong still had us intrigued enough that we were keen to see it through, and so it's perhaps the biggest shame of all that it starts so full of promise, so willing to take its sweet time and pack its front-end with so much depth, before deciding to suddenly jam its foot on the accelerator and pepper you with quick-fire missions that funnel you through its final chapters towards a rather disappointing finale. It may not make the mistake of introducing guns into the equation - something we'll never forgive Bloodlines for - but it really does just drop all of its careful investigating and sneaking around in favour of pushing you in a straight line through its endgame, leaving us with the sinking feeling that the final third of this one was rushed.
In the end, after roughly 20hrs spent on our first playthrough - and according to the game's detailed end of mission recaps - we'd missed as many opportunities and avenues of investigation as we'd found, we'd killed off a few major characters, messed up some big conversational face-offs and let a handful of foes slip through the net, so there's undoubtedly lots of scope for replays here - you can even drop back into any level you want in order to replay it once you're done - but will you actually want to? We're guessing, unless you're a huge fan of all thing vampire, that you'll struggle to revisit much of what's here once you've seen it through a first time. As undeniably cool as some of it is, as good as it can look, and as complex as it can seem from time to time, Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong is, for the most part, a rather tedious and often janky narrative RPG adventure that fails to fully live up to its promise.
Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong is certainly a super-stylish narrative RPG, and it's one that gets off to a strong start, offering up a truly intriguing premise, before falling victim to tedious investigative gameplay, undercooked conversational aspects and a host of bugs that make progress frustrating at points. There's just too much jank here, levels are too rigid, there's not enough freedom in how you go about your investigations or use your vampiric powers to really make things sing and, as a result, we're left with a game that fails to fully live up to its early promise. It's not a bad effort, but with a little more care and polish, it could have been so much more.