For a game called Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong, it can be deceptively easy to forget you’re playing as a 300-year old vampire. Swansong‘s slow-burn detective thriller feels a long way from Bloodhunt‘s frantic battle royale or Bloodlines‘ gory action-RPG. After a violent attack decimates Boston’s ruling Council of vampires, your boss – Hazel Iversen, the prince of Boston – tasks you with retrieving Jason Moore, the Council’s mortal accountant, to see what he knows.
Combing through the rooms of Moore’s opulent skyscraper apartment, trawling through financial records and browsing emails, you could almost be forgiven in thinking you’d booted up the wrong game…almost. There are a few subtle hints sprinkled through Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong‘s preview. Like the decapitated body that’s the centerpiece of that apartment. Or an ever-present hunger for human blood.
That decapitated body – and the swarm of police officers buzzing around the apartment – are the first signs that someone’s beaten Galeb, one of Swansong‘s three playable characters, to the chase. Thanks to a borrowed FBI badge, your task pivots to retrieving some of Moore’s more sensitive reports to the Council, and trying to discover what exactly happened here. It’s not long before you’re pouring over every inch of the crime scene: questioning cops, nosing through diaries, and piecing together answers from the fragments of a broken life.
There’s no in-game quest log, so it’s up to the player to connect the dots strewn throughout the level. Observant players, for example, might notice the birthday of Moore’s daughter scrawled on an innocuous polaroid and can apply that knowledge to unlock a safe elsewhere in the apartment. A cop’s off-hand comment can be used to spot holes in another officer’s story, and a discarded security manual lying amid piles of books reveals the existence of a hidden panic room. For just one level, the amount of detail is fantastic – by the end of the preview, there were still so many threads that were unresolved, and plenty more time could have been spent gathering evidence and assembling the full picture of the murder.
Despite the game revolving around a secret society of vampires, Swansong is more reminiscent of Rockstar‘s ’40s detective game L.A. Noire than any of the other Vampire: The Masquerade titles. There’s immense satisfaction to be gleaned from laboriously piecing together seemingly unrelated facts to achieve a breakthrough, and the game’s UI doesn’t shoehorn every clue into your vision – you’ll have to actually get up close to something before determining if it can be interacted with, which makes it all the more fulfilling to correctly investigate something that looked relevant.
One of the most important tools in Galeb’s arsenal is his character sheet, an interface where you spend exp on a variety of different skills and talents. There are several different areas – like psychology, persuasion, deduction and intimidation – that make Galeb more effective at drawing useful knowledge out of people, but you’ll need every bit of Galeb’s social toolkit to get the answers you need. Not everyone will be susceptible to intimidation, whilst others may give much shrewder answers – meaning a higher deduction is needed to correctly call out their slip-ups.
That being said, Swansong isn’t always content to just let you meander along: even within the span of this preview, the decisions made by the player can have a major effect on the level’s outcome. Toward the level’s conclusion, the preview transformed from a careful investigation to a heart-thumping sequence that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Telltale title, with the player forced to make a series of dramatic choices with mere seconds given to decide. In the preview’s last few minutes, this involved choosing to drain a police officer of their blood or trying to talk past them, using supernatural powers or brute violence to resolve a confrontation, and plenty of other gory choices.
Like the flip of a switch, these moments snap Swansong back into Masquerade territory: Galeb’s carefully-maintained image of civility drops, and the player is reminded that there’s a cold-blooded predator under his expensive suit. In this specific playthrough, the vampire feeds on an officer as his back is turned, then proceeds to slaughter a suspicious cop immediately after. When surprised by two more police coming up the elevator, Galeb exerts his will to have one officer turn their gun on their partner and finally themselves. It’s a bloody slash of hyperviolence loaded with palpable tension, as it legitimately feels like one wrong move could put an end to the game.
However, it was slightly frustrating that this part of the preview was triggered at a point that felt too early – after discovering the big twist, this sequence of fast-paced slaughter concluded the level without any option to engage it at a later date. It’s the only real gripe to be found with this preview, but it was annoying because despite the excitement, several things – including main quest objectives – were left abandoned purely because one line of investigation had proved particularly successful before others had been explored.
As mentioned, Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong‘s preview session left the impression of a supernatural L.A. Noir. Whether that’s how the rest of Swansong will play out remains to be seen – Galeb’s just one of three playable protagonists in the game – but even if the other two storylines follow vastly different paths, the writing, worldbuilding and RPG mechanics in Swansong all feel solid enough to encourage confidence in how the overall game’s going to turn out. Swansong doesn’t release until May, but anyone looking to sink their teeth into a good narrative-focused RPG should definitely keep their eye on this.