Overall - 65%
Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong tells an incredible story, one the player can truly influence, but it falls short in many of the efforts to translate the World of Darkness into video game form. A must-play for fans of the universe, but fans of the narrative-driven RPG may find more frustration than enjoyment.
Developed by Big Bad Wolf and published by Nacon, Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is a narrative-driven RPG built within the Vampire: The Masquerade world, in the wider universe of the World of Darkness IP. It’s a standalone experience that doesn’t require previous experience in the World of Darkness franchise, but there’s a lot more depth and lore for those familiar with the setting.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong Review
Forgoing any sort of action-orientated elements of the RPG genre, Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is nearly entirely dialogue-based with a heavy emphasis on puzzle-solving and player choice and consequence.
Players take on the role of three unique characters – Galeb, Leysha, and Emem – each a powerful vampire in their own right, and each with their own ambitions and drives. The setting of the Vampire: The Masquerade universe sees vampires living in secret alongside mankind, pulling the political and social strings from the shadows, manipulating those they cannot replace or remove.
The story takes place after a mysterious murder, an event that threatens to reveal that which the vampires have spent centuries keeping secret. The Prince of the Camarilla, Hazel Iversen, recruits Galeb, Leysha, and Emem, giving each a vital role in exposing those that threaten to smash the mask of the masquerade. The narrative follows each of these characters as they explore the wider story and their own motivations and dark secrets.
Gameplay focuses on a central loop of dialogue and exploration, with many of the scenes being more akin to playing the role of a detective than a vampire. Each character sets out on various missions as each hopes to find pieces of a much wider puzzle. The story itself – and the way it comes together – is fantastic, but it’s often overshadowed by incredibly frustrating design and lackluster execution.
The game takes place in scenes, making it feel more like a well constructed book or movie than a video game. Scenes can be played in different orders, revealing more about each character and the secrets they discover. There are a lot of choices, both dialogue and event based, and more potential outcomes than I can count. If it was just based on the story itself, Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong would be a must-play, but it falls very short in many areas.
The dialogue-driven gameplay is supported by a character development system that allows you to invest in different areas of a characters abilities and personality. You can make Emem a skilled hacker, able to penetrate even the most secure systems to gather intel and expose secrets. Galeb, already quite a rough and ready figure, could specialize in intimidation, rattling even the most steadfast of foes. While it sounds great on paper, it’s often nothing more than complete luck whether a characters abilities prove to be valuable.
All too often I found myself in dialogue confrontations that I couldn’t win. Clues I could not find. Areas I could not explore. This would add a lot to the replay value, which there is already an abundance of, if not for the complete lack of user awareness. Many times I spent hours running through different rooms, speaking with various characters, trying to find a way to unlock a particular door or reveal part of another puzzle, only to figure out hours later that it’s tied to a different section of the story.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is both incredibly satisfying and massively frustrating. Intricately designed puzzles work fantastic when the player is able to string together the clues, piecing things together as they go. However, push too hard in either direction and the puzzles either become so mundane as to be pointless, or so convoluted to be completing alienating. I truly feel the game is guilty of the latter throughout.
It’s not always the complexities of the puzzles that breaks it all apart, but rather the delivery. Not being able to solve a puzzle because you missed a microscopic collectible that wasn’t highlighted because you weren’t close enough when you explored one of a dozen rooms. You have an objective to speak with an NPC; you find the NPC, but because another development “trigger” wasn’t flipped, you’re left searching yet again; it feels outdated. It’s a very challenging feat, balancing difficult puzzles and giving players just the right amount to work with, but when Vampire The Masquerade – Swansong gets it wrong, it often means lots of running around trying to find the last piece of an unclear puzzle.
Very early on in my adventure, I ran into a puzzle where you need to move stone circles to form a particular path so that blood can run through from A to B. Simple enough on the surface and a fun puzzle, but despite finding the solution, it didn’t work. I spent nearly two hours exploring the area, trying alternative solutions, only to restart the level and the exact same solution worked perfectly fine. This created a level of distrust with the game that I struggled to shake throughout. Had I missed a clue, or was something else not working?
I had to restart the entire level because that is the only save option available. The game automatically saves, you cannot save the game of your own accord, and you either load your current point or restart the level. This feels like nothing more than an attempt to force players to play through the game additional times to reveal more aspects of the story, and this can be frustrating.
I very much enjoy exploring the different paths in these sort of games, and Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is probably one of the best examples of a true choice and consequence system in recent memory. All too often today games promise consequence, but merely give the illusion of choice, with the outcomes rarely altered or influenced. However, that’s seldom the case in Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong. After completing the game the first time, I played through a second, and it felt like an entirely different game.
No longer frustrated by missing tiny collectibles or puzzles I thought could be bugged, I was free to explore the games narrative and characters. I could develop characters specifically for the challenges I knew they would face, opening up far more exciting dialogue and story options than I experienced previously. I wasn’t forced down particular paths because a character lacked the abilities to win a dialogue confrontation. If I were to review Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong on my second playthrough alone, it would be a very different experience, but I’m not sure most folk will be willing to dive in again.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong tells an incredible story, one the player can truly influence, but it falls short in many of the efforts to translate the World of Darkness into video game form. A must-play for fans of the universe, but fans of the narrative-driven RPG may find more frustration than enjoyment.
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