The Vampire: The Masquerade renaissance got off to a rocky start, what with the whole “painting LGBTQ+ purges as a media hoax” thing in Vampire 5th Edition…and the whole “Slipping 1488 and ‘Triggered’ ‘jokes’” in the pre-alpha of Vampire 5” thing. But Paradox took back control after what we can call the “Oops, too many edgelords” incidents, and now there are Vampire: The Masquerade titles for days, except Bloodlines 2, which is even more cursed than the first one which, and this is a true story, melted multiple gaming computers at the site I wrote for back in the olden days. Heck, my tabletop group even managed to get a Vampire game going for a bit, but we’re all over 30 and scheduling is impossible. Now we settle for complaining about how all we can manage to play is Bloodhunt. But if you’re looking for Vampire: The Masquerade and you are also old and you don’t want to play a janky battle royale, Vampire: the Masquerade – Swansong is…kinda interesting.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong
Developer: Big Bad Wolf Studio
Price: $50 USD
Platform: PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X
MonsterVine was supplied with an Epic Games code for review
Set in the LONG AGO, ANCIENT WORLD of 2019, Swansong is a nice little introduction to the Vampire: the Masquerade lore. The very tldr is: Vampires and other monsters are real, but they know if too many humans find out, those humans will freak out and murder them, so they keep up a “masquerade” to pretend to be human and do vampire things and not get murdered. Frankly, What We Do In The Shadows is the best recap of what it’s like to play Vampire with your friends, so just go watch that.
Swansong actually uses the Vampire: the Masquerade systems and…in my Trek to Yomi review, I wondered how to critique a game that was really interesting to look at but not that much fun as a game. For Swansong, I want to complain that the skills and other systems are opaque and impenetrable, but that’s Vampire: the Masquerade and always has been. It is a fairly solid port of the RPG systems into a computer game, but the problem is Vampire: the Masquerade has always been a system for sitting around Denny’s with your friends smoking cloves and hitting on big titty goth girls, not actually playing. If you have to engage with the systems, you’re entering a world of pain. I daydream about gutting the 500 pages of lore, cruft, and edgelord wank in the books and cutting it down to “Here’s 20 pages for actually playing.” So, is it fair to penalize a game for its bewildering systems when it is a faithful rendition of a game so bewildering I’ve played pretty much every edition and still only vaguely know how it works?
To try and sum up: Each vampire has various Disciplines and Skills for things like being sneaky, bullshitting, socializing, fighting, and being cool as hell. However, broadly speaking, using some of your Skills and Disciplines (but only some) makes you Hungry, which means you need to Feed (drink blood!), or you go batshit psycho (WHAT THE FUCK IS UP DENNY’S?). So the tension and resource management is staying sane while trying not to let on that you’re a complete sicko. It’s like being a shitposter and engaging with people IRL, a pain I know too well. This is one of the central Vampire mechanics, along with wearing trenchcoats and hitting on big titty goth girls.
TLDR: Take Auspex and Celerity. Always do it. They’re always useful and frequently OP.
Anyway, the story: You play as three different vampires from the Boston Court trying to figure out what happened at what was supposed to be a meeting with another faction to cement an alliance. Things went to hell and you (and the Prince, who runs the city) are tasked with figuring out what happened, who is to blame, and why. Think of it as one of those detective/adventure games where you wander around talking to people and looking for clues, the kind where a guy says “DON’T YOU DARE GO IN MY OFFICE”, so you wander right into his office and ransack the place. The story itself is pretty interesting and once you figure out some of the janky systems, it’s fun to figure out how to follow a scent trail or pick a lock, then swear because you didn’t listen to me and max Auspex and Celerity.
Your antagonists are, naturally, the other vampires wildly maneuvering for their own gain, everyone that hates you or has something to gain, and, naturally, other forces in the shadows. If you haven’t played Vampire, it’s Office Politics but With Big Titty Goth Chicks, and also Dave from Accounting gets secretly murdered for stealing copy paper and building his own little fiefdom. The story is a slow starter, but once it gets going, I enjoyed it. However, the alert triggered in Vampire Land is called a “Code Red” and all the characters spend the first chunk talking about “the Code Red” and wondering who ordered the Code Red which meant I heard Jack Nicholson growling “YOU’RE GODDAMN RIGHT I DID!!”
One of the big problems is the game doesn’t really signal what kind of game it is right away, so you could invest a lot in combat skills, then wind up whiffing all your deduction challenges. Or invest to be a sneaky breeky detective and realize the other characters don’t care when you go rummaging through their underwear drawer. It’s the kind of game where your character goes “Wow I shouldn’t go into that guy’s office” and he says “Don’t you dare go into my office”, so you sneak in and loot the place and nobody cares. On the other hand, being a kleptomaniac idiot that barges into everyone’s private spaces stealing everything that’s not actually nailed down and having no idea what to do next or even what I was doing actually sounds like my usual World of Darkness/Vampire players…so it’s authentic there, too. On the other hand, I frequently got stuck and had to do the usual-for-this-genre “wander around clicking everything in every room to see what clue I’d missed”.
Like the tabletop game there’s a between-scene screen going over successes/alternatives/failures and XP gain, so you can see you could’ve done something differently and/or definitely did goof.
There’s also the choice of speed settings: Your character can walk at a slow saunter or a dainty trot, which means going anywhere takes forever. On the one hand, yes, doing wind sprints through the vampire lair is probably bad. On the other hand, I’m not entirely convinced a “I’m totally trying to run in PE class, leave me alone, Coach” is better. It’s maddening to need to get to the other side of a building and it takes 3 days at a dainty jog.
The somewhat unsettling and janky animations and facial expressions…actually suit the fact that you’re dealing with inhuman creatures desperately playacting at being human. On the other hand, they are still pretty damn janky. I mean, many of the characters are downright ugly, not just the Nosferatu, the most hideous of the vampire clans, but it is funny that the Nosferatu runs the vampire IT infrastructure. Of course, the revolting ghoul is in the server room. Likewise, the uneven voice acting can be pretty funny when a completely emotionless line is followed by an over-the-top DO IT NOW.
And then the puzzles. Of course, there are puzzles. There are kind-of-jumping puzzles, which is hilarious since you are a superpowered vampire so there’s not much risk to them, but you still have to do them. There are matching puzzles because of course there are. We gotta have that adventure game bullshit! The sad part is there are plenty of much more interesting dilemmas to be found in managing your hunger and trying to get through a scene without going berserk because your inner beast got to be too much, but what the people are crying out for is yet another puzzle where we flip levers and turn things to see what happens. BUT WITH VAMPIRES!
The game is a mixed (BLOOD!) bag. As someone who tends to be a fan of the line, if not the writers introducing edgelord Nazi references and starting international incidents, Swansong was an interesting expedition into the world and a faithful port of the mind-boggling systems. On the other hand, you can’t be a Malkavian wearing a Dr. Suess hat like in Bloodlines, so demerits for that. And please quit with the “cute vampire kid” thing. It’s hard enough moseying around and trying to solve puzzles without a child shrieking “MOMMY!” at me. I already have cats that crash onto my keyboard when they want attention. I don’t need it in games, too.
The Final Word
An interesting take on the IP if you can deal with the bullshit
– MonsterVine Rating: 3 out of 5 – Average