‘Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong’ review: a complex adventure occasionally too clever for its own good

It’s a wonderful night for a curse

The problem with being a few hundred years old, and an undead vampire with vast wealth and influence, is that a lot of people want to kill you. It’s a fact of daily un-life for the heroes of Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong, Big Bad Wolf’s hybrid tabletop RPG and adventure game, but their cursed misfortune is our benefit. This vast web of lies and deception is an ideal setting for Swansong’s intense, choice-driven story, and while some of those choices are less influential than you might hope, the moment-to-moment action and narrative payoff make this one of the best Vampire: The Masquerade stories and an excellent adventure game.

The night of September 9, 2019, is particularly cursed for members of the Boston Camarilla, despite beginning with raucous celebrations. The Camarilla – a large vampire sect and one of many World of Darkness terms Swansong gradually feeds you in the early hours – led by Prince Hazel Iversen, are celebrating a momentous milestone: a trade deal in blood and vessel (human) trafficking with a group of warlocks called the Hartford Chantry. Or they would be, if a clandestine group of international operatives hadn’t tried murdering everyone at the party, triggering a city-wide panic in the process.

You wade into the chaos as three vampires of different clans and generations. Emem Louis operates on the fringe of the Camarilla, a dance club owner born at the height of the jazz movement to a family that suffered severe discrimination from the same white community that flocked to their jazz club every night. Galeb Bazory is a much older, more cynical vampire born in 18th century Constantinople, initially tasked with finding the person who called the Code Red in. His investigation eventually leads to a network of corrupt Court councilors with someone uncomfortably close to him at its center.

Leysha is the only playable character whose tribe has a meaningful influence on her story. She’s a Malkavian, which means she gets stealth powers and glimpses of the future at the expense of her mental stability. Her story touches on the Inquisition, but ties it to her own story of personal growth and the struggles of raising her daughter Halsey while dealing with mental illness.

One of Swansong’s biggest strengths is balancing these three narratives with the intricacies of life in the Camarilla, vampire politics, and the broader fight against Vatican-led vampire hunts.

It feels like one of the richest and fully-realized Vampire game worlds as a result. The focus is firmly on the Boston elite, so the story naturally emphasizes the intrigue and backstabbing you’d expect from a Court tale. It frequently goes beyond this more limited scope, though dabbling in other areas from the burden of the vampiric curse and the Camarilla’s tyranny, to vampires on the edge of society and reflections on the brutal relationship between vampires and their human servants.

Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong. Credit: Big Bad Wolf

What’s even more impressive is how accessible it is even for newcomers to the World of Darkness. The world of the Masquerade has enough terms and important people to fill its own encyclopedia – which is what Bad Wolf actually compiled for Swansong. It deftly eases you into it all with its invaluable codex, feeding you new terms and character backstories at a steady pace so you always know exactly what you need for a given situation without feeling overwhelmed. Some of the codex entries are rather detailed, though, so if you don’t like having to read a lot in your games, this might not be for you.

Just don’t go in expecting anything with profound applications outside the Vampire world. Despite dealing with topics such as discrimination and the rights of those with mental illness, Swansong avoids examining any of its themes in detail outside of how they affect the main story.

Despite their unique backgrounds, the three characters draw on the same talents and mostly the same skills, such as education, deduction, and persuasion. These are what give you an advantage in key conversations, unlocking vital information or providing an alternate perspective on the events you’re investigating – unless your traits are low and your foes outwit you.

It’s an exciting setup brimming with possibilities for how you can approach situations, but the early execution is often frustrating. Many encounters, including conversations tied to side objectives, are gated behind high levels of a certain stat, which, in most cases, you can’t possibly have invested enough experience into until later playthroughs.

Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong. Credit: Big Bad Wolf

Dialogue is also where Swansong’s emphasis on context pays off. There’s little actual character development over the course of the story, with Leysha as an exception, but your knowledge of the characters makes for some uniquely meaningful moments, even if you are essentially making them yourself. Having Galeb intimidate a Ghoul into abandoning their mission seems natural for someone whose job for the past century was eliminating threats to the Masquerade. I couldn’t bring myself to risk jeopardizing Leysha’s fragile relationship with Halsey by using the same tactics, though, despite knowing it would  have no lasting effects.

How Swansong deals with the consequences of your actions is one of its weaker areas, if only because so much of it seems dependent on multiple playthroughs. The more involved process of spending willpower to influence conversations and deciding if it’s safe to risk increasing your hunger for blood by using a skill goes a long way in making up for it, though, turning every interaction into a tense and rewarding balancing act.

You might not notice how your choices influence the story but what you will notice is just how rough the character models look during cutscenes. Facial animations and gestures are stilted, sometimes to a comical extent, like you’re watching an old animatronic robot trying to process commands and express emotions. Some characters walk with fluid motions during gameplay segments, but have their legs bent at almost 45 degree angles during cutscenes, and hand and arm gestures tend to devolve into odd, jerky motions.

Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong. Credit: Big Bad Wolf

What Swansong lacks in elegant character animations, it makes up for in exquisitely rendered environments with a staggering amount of detail. Whether it’s the bloodsoaked foyer of an apartment, a hellish underground prison, or the opulent headquarters of the Prince herself, every location is dripping with atmosphere. Bad Wolf makes clever use of most areas as well, hiding solutions and key items in plain sight and rewarding you for careful investigation.

It is, admittedly, a bit too clever in some cases. More than a few puzzles are far too obtuse for their own good, and it’s frustrating to realise you spent the last 15 minutes stuck on a puzzle because you didn’t pay enough attention to a hint buried in a random book on the ground in a dead guy’s hallway. When you do figure things out, though – when you remember a code word and dial it on the phone embedded into a bathroom mirror to unlock a hidden room, for example – the feeling of satisfaction is immeasurable.

Beyond the frustrations and limited effects of your choices, Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is a finely crafted adventure with an ambitious and satisfying narrative. It could certainly do with a few more quality of life features, such as a text log and maybe even a hint system, and I’d have liked to see smoother and more realistic animations for the models. Even with the jank, though, it’s easily one of the best Vampire games and a must-play for anyone looking for a deep adventure game.

Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong releases on May 19 for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S and Nintendo Switch. We reviewed it on PC. 

The Verdict

Big Bad Wolf’s spin on the world of Vampire is a complex, enthralling adventure let down by low-quality modeling and some frustratingly vague puzzles.

Pros

  • Expansive and well-written narrative
  • Captivating main cast
  • Smart use of context to aid character development without losing sight of the main story
  • Clever environmental storytelling and puzzles

Cons

  • Janky character models
  • Some unnecessarily obtuse puzzles
  • Limited skill and talent trees
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