Vampire: The Masquerade Swansong review – “Like a vegan vampire, the game seems confused about what it wants to be”

Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is the vampire game that dares to ask why have an orgy in a hot tub full of blood when you can be making tedious small talk and hunting for lost files? That might be a harsh take on the narrative RPG spawned from the tabletop game but it’s not an inaccurate one. This is a game where blood-drinking and vampire powers play second fiddle to chitchat and basic puzzle solving.

FAST FACTS

Vampire The Masquerade - Swansong

(Image credit: Big Bad Wolf)

Release Date: May 19, 2022
Platform(s): PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X, Xbox One, PC, Nintendo Switch
Developer: Big Bad Wolf
Publisher: Nacon

At first the setup is intriguing, with lots of potential for narrative twists and turns. In the city of Boston there has been a massacre, and the ruling vampire Prince Hazel Iverson has enlisted three different subjects to help find out what happened and unpick the surrounding conspiracy theories. There’s hot hitman type Galeb, the smart and agile Emem, and the psychologically troubled (but psychic) Leysha. Often their stories will overlap, giving you new perspectives on the game’s events. You can decide how to build their skills throughout the game, starting with a preset like the balanced Jack of All Trades or ignore them all and go your own way, assigning new points after every chapter of the game. 

The skill points are important because, in the game’s only two real mechanics, dialogue and investigation, skill checks pop up at every turn. While you’re exploring that might mean having enough skill points in Technology to hack a safe, but in dialogue that might mean having enough Education points to push a character for more information about a subject. There are bigger confrontations where these conversations have bigger consequences too, and the chit-chat becomes the game’s version of combat. Say I need something from a player and want to use my Dominate skill to force them to part with it, I’ll see a pop-up with my Dominate skill level and theirs. I can choose my main resource, Focus, to up my level, but the enemy can do the same. If it’s a tie it comes down to a dice roll, in a nice nod to the game’s origins. As a mechanic it’s fine, but when luck doesn’t go your way you’ll end up feeling more frustrated than like an all-powerful creature of the night. 

Detective Dracula

Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong review

(Image credit: Nacon)

I spent the first level playing as Emem and feeling like a new kid who hadn’t done last semester’s homework, and was way behind the rest of the class. I chose the Investigator role, which automatically attributed my skills points to suitable areas, but still seemed doomed to fail all the skill checks I encountered. Still, I used her Auspex power to follow a trail to find someone, bumping into lots of characters it felt like the game expected me to memorize, and poking around people’s offices and laptops. There’s probably an amazing game to be made about the administrative side of being a supernatural being – think how many times you have to file tax returns if you’re immortal – but this isn’t it. Later things do get spicier for Emem, she gets a Blink power to teleport around a cavernous ruin but the very limited areas to explore take away the thrill of using it, and then there’s one of the most annoying concentric ring puzzles I’ve encountered in a long time. Even better, you have to complete three different versions of it. It’s enough to make you reach for a garlic smoothie. 

Luckily, later levels offer more meat to sink your teeth into. Leysha, for instance, can steal the appearance of different people – cops, forensic investigators – and uses the skill to sneak around a crime scene, uncovering secrets along the way. Galeb visits the home of a human ally of the vampires, and smart, methodical searching can uncover unexpected codes and hidden rooms. I do like the way that with each level like this you won’t really know what you missed until a summary of what you did – and the alternative choices you could have made – appear at the end. It makes it feel like you’ve really nailed the assignment, even if you weren’t really sure what it was about. I’m happy to report there is blood-drinking, in a semi-consensual, ooh try not to kill them the way, but it’s the equivalent of grabbing a snack to sate your hunger rating, rather than a lusty seduction.

High stakes

Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong review

(Image credit: Nacon)

I’ve never dived into the world of Vampire: The Masquerade before, and hoped Swansong was my chance to find out what all the fuss was about. I love lore, I would boil it in a spoon and inject it into my veins if I could, but this is more like trying to gatecrash a party for the free wine and realizing it’s a symposium for particle theorists. Everyone is talking about things that – unless you’ve done some cramming on the Masquerade world – are utterly new to you, and your only hope of keeping up is to notice the little alert to tell you something new has been added to your codex. Unless you want to pause your conversation though, that just means carrying on, pretending you know what Crimson Oaks refers to, and hoping no one catches you out. That’s the real disappointment, alongside a few characters who have the unnerving, rubbery-looking skin of cheap sex dolls and Leysha’s companion whose appearance is giving full Renesmee, and who has a lisp that will make you want to stuff your ears with bat guano

Like a vegan vampire, the game seems confused about what it wants to be. It wants you to do the extensive reading but doesn’t give you a chance to do it in a natural way, instead just flinging it all in a menu. It wants to include exploration, but then just has you wandering through sparse buildings, treading the same, very clearly fenced-off paths,  or teleporting from one very obvious platform to another. Even the investigation, which was my favorite part, relies on the same pattern every time. Find something locked or password protected, search for a clue that leads you to a key, rinse and repeat. 

It’s a game purely for existing Masquerade players, which is fine if Big Bad Wolf is happy with the sales that represent that.  I just wish it had been a more accessible portal into a universe I’d always wanted to explore, rather than a big secret no one wanted to let me in on. 

The Verdict

2.5

2.5 out of 5

Vampire: The Masquerade Swansong review – “Like a vegan vampire, the game seems confused about what it wants to be”

A bland and occasionally baffling return for the Vampire: The Masquerade series

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