Have you ever watched a sequel to something, unknowingly or intentionally, and not had a clue about what’s happening? Or say, decided to read the tenth Wheel of Time book and had no prior knowledge of any of the epic saga that’s unfolded thus far. Well, that’s what jumping into Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong has been like for me.
I vaguely recall playing the first Masquerade many years ago at a friend’s house. Hell, I only discovered recently that it’s borne of a tabletop series, twinned with Werewolf: The Apocalypse. I am so out of the loop I’m off the track entirely. But, curiosity got the better of me on this one.
I do like a good RPG, and I figured the vampire angle might be a fresh take on the undead for me. But this isn’t about me, per se. This is about whether Vampire: The Masquerade is worthy of your time, and if you can jump in blind to the World of Darkness-verse. Let’s see if this bites or sucks, shall we?
The Food Chain
We live in a society… where vampires coexist, under the guise of something called “the Masquerade”. This arrangement, as it were, is what allows vampires to remain hidden from scrutiny and being exposed to the world, whilst acting like a sort of undead, snobbish illuminati. There are factions, different houses, all warring to be top sucker, or something.
Swansong starts with a party gone wrong, although we don’t actually get to witness that. Instead, we start under the Code Red lockdown part at the house of the Prince of Boston’s vampires, Hazel Iversen. We learn that something hasn’t gone to plan, there could be shenanigans afoot and there may, or may not, be some underlying shadiness in the vampire world. I know, who would have thought…
This does, however, introduce us to our three playable characters: Leysha, Emem and Galeb. They are, in a roundabout way, a vampire psychic, an “Amazonian-like” seductress, and a generic-beardy-vampire, respectively.
Murdered: Soul-less Suspect
The reason for the Code Red, and yes it is always capitalised in the game, is what sets off our trio of Transylvanian transcendents. Meant as a means of strengthening bonds between the Camarilla, the head honchos you lot work for, and the rest, something goes wrong.
A shootout, signs of sabotage and basically, a narrative device to set off the events of the game. No one trusts anyone, tensions set in and in brief, the fangs are baring for throats. The motivation here is that Leysha, Emem and Galeb (who’s names come up as the acronym LEG on the loading screens) are to find out what’s going on.
And naturally, as is the wont for role-playing games, the opening is a small primer for something much, much bigger. Events unfold to reveal conspiracies, double-crosses and some very, very obvious betrayals from blatantly nefarious characters. Vampires may not like stakes in the heart, but they’ll still stab each other in the back.
Le-Stats and Character Building
Before I go into the negatives, I will praise the one aspect I did enjoy: the dedication to its roots. As mentioned in the introduction, Vampire: The Masquerade started as a tabletop role-playing game. Swansong is no different, and depending on your interest in TTRPG’s, will excite or bore you.
Each character has, surprisingly enough, their own character sheet. At the introduction to each hemoglobin-dependent hero, players can pick a style. There are four to choose from, each with ranging presets, or a “blank slate” build, allowing you to mold your creature of the night.
And as much as I’d like to tell you how in-depth it is and true to form, I can’t. For one, I have never played a tabletop RPG, let alone a World of Darkness one. Secondly, half of the character stats are so intrinsic to the Vampire lore that if you haven’t done your homework, it’s very easy to get lost in.
Which leads me nicely into the accessibility of Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong, or lack thereof.
Too Cool For Vampire School
When I say accessibility, I don’t mean in the playability sense for say, disabled gamers. What I mean is how a game treats someone new to it. Mass Effect or Dragon Age, for example, spits a whole new lore of space – or fantasy – jargon at players, but has the decency to expound on them during dialogue. Metal Gear Solid games, though thoroughly mocked for it, at least spells things out in repeated layman’s terms for gamers.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong doesn’t. Right from the go, it throws a whole new terminology at you and expects you to do the leg work via the in-game glossary. Not that I have an objection to reading, it’s just a bit insulting to not even give us the slightest framing device, instead read text scrolls yourself.
Again, this feels like a, “Well if you’d played the RPG/previous Masquerade you’d know this” vibe. Which, to me, doesn’t feel like gatekeeping per se, but a level of snobbery akin to vampirism itself. Way to keep it meta, I guess.
So, snobbery aside, let’s look at how it actually plays. Could the intense crash course into the World of Darkness be alleviated with some stellar gameplay? Err, no. Sadly not.
Walking around in Swansong feels like an absolute chore, coupled with a weird, floaty sense of character movement. What doesn’t help is having to toggle a run button, which often resets every time a player character interacts with something.
The main tenet is a grind, too. Your objective marker wants you to find someone/thing, so you pick up a trail. What feels like a lesser imitation of Batman’s vision, you’ll follow a trail and enter some dialogue with an NPC. To which, you’ll play out some conversation options that may or may not go in your favour.
A lot of which is down to both RNG (random number generation) and the skill paths that the player takes. Unfortunately, with the variety of options in dialogue, more often than not you won’t have the foresight to see which skill is needed. Maybe I just suck at it (no pun intended), but it felt like my detective skills were terrible and just fumbled my way through it all.
How Can You Tell How Good You Look With No Reflection?
The problem that I’m having with Swansong is that I really wanted to like it. Admittedly, I thought it was Bloodlines 2 we were offered and got my titles muddled up, but still, thought it’d be worth it. The trailer makes it look gorgeous, and some moments and environments do look appealing.
It’s just a shame that by contrast, the characters models and facial animations that look bloody awful. There’s uncanny valley and there’s completely over the hill into the next region. They look shocking, is my point, like terrible waxworks come to life. If there was a VampireWorld in the Westworld universe, this would be fitting.
Unfortunately, it isn’t. It’s meant to be a representation of the seedy, hidden world of vampires in Boston. And that is what isn’t making me want to keep going to find out what’s going on.
Better Off Undead
In summary, Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong doesn’t feel like a solid enough game to pass time until Bloodlines 2 comes out. There may be some interest, if you’re a fan of the originals, or even as deep as the World of Darkness lineage. For an outsider, like myself, it didn’t reel me in.
If I had to make a comparison in terms of gameplay, I’d say it’s akin to Murdered: Soul Suspect. That too had an interesting premise, based around lore, that ultimately disappointed on release with its half-baked gameplay. Ironic that games about the undead don’t have the heart to carry them through to longevity.
Sadly, there’s little incentive to want to me keep going with Swansong. If I want my vampire fix, I’ll watch an interview with one or see Wesley Snipes be all badass against them (but only the first two times). I’d only recommend this if you’re a series fan, but otherwise just stake it through the heart for its own kindness.
Whilst it may seem like an intermission before Bloodlines 2 comes out, Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong isn’t engaging enough to fill the gap. Lacklustre gameplay, unsightly character models and a sense of “You should know this already” are enough to put off the new players. Maybe for the fans, but that’s only if they’re coffin up the money for it.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is available now on PlayStation 4 & 5 (reviewed on latter), Xbox One and Series S|X, Nintendo Switch and PC.
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
If you enjoyed this article or any more of our content, please consider our Patreon.