Vampire: The Masquerade was originally born as a tabletop role-playing game in the early 90s before making the jump to video games. The most recent installment in the video game series, Swansong, tries to stay faithful to those roots. With a story told between three playable characters, intense puzzles and detective RPG elements, Swansong promises to deliver the most compelling game of the series. However, due to frustratingly vague objectives, a badly paced story and lackluster visuals, many players may find themselves burning out before the game is able to display its full potential.
I was excited to get my hands on this game and dive into the Vampire: The Masquerade (VTM) lore. Before playing, I watched videos explaining the Camarilla, Clans and all of the frequently used terms essential to understanding the secret lives of vampires. Despite my efforts, I still found myself pausing the game and reviewing the codex every few minutes just to understand what happened in a conversation.
I enjoy learning about fictional worlds and really immersing myself into character’s realities, but usually I’m assisted by a relatable character who is also new to this world, allowing my knowledge to grow with theirs. In VTM – Swansong, everyone is a veteran to this world, and to make matters worse, a catastrophic event has occurred even before you press start. This led to a feeling of playing catch up with the story. Despite all of my homework, I ended up replaying the first mission since I had to guess the dynamics of preexisting relationships, and my poor decisions had a drastic effect on my character’s growth.
My favorite part of the game was its role-playing elements. As a fan of tabletop RPGs such as Dungeons and Dragons and even the playtest version of the Marvel Multiverse RPG, the elements felt fresh and exciting to have in a decision-driven story game. Every character has a character sheet, and you earn experience every chapter to then unlock more abilities and stats.
I had a great time assigning abilities to characters and making them proficient in areas that I thought fit each one’s personalities. For example, I was able to make Galeb, the enforcer, very physically intimidating, and assigning Emem, a successful club owner, proficiency in rhetoric and persuasion just made sense.
These character stats could be increased during an interaction at the cost of Focus Points, which you have a finite amount of at the start of missions, and abilities could be used at the cost of incurring Hunger, which starts at zero and causes you to lose control and feed on a mortal if the max is reached. Focus Points can be regained with consumables, and Hunger can be reduced by feeding on mortals in saferooms with a frustratingly simple yet timely cutscene mechanic. The cost of Focus Points and Hunger is affected by your stats and abilities, but of course you have no idea what situation your character will enter in the next scene, so you have to use your best judgment.
Despite spending an inordinate amount of time on the proficiencies and abilities screen, I still felt I had made poor choices. Several interactions in both exploration and in conversations simply weren’t accessible due to a low ability score. This left me feeling discouraged, and to make matters worse, my bad performance was punished by making the cost of upgrading higher, cascading my original start into constant failure. And when I did ultimately restart, none of the cutscenes were skippable and there were no checkpoints or decisions to restart from.
Still, I stuck with the game. Its RPG elements were alluring, the voice acting and audible atmosphere were great, and I’m not one to shy away from difficult games. But the farther I got into Swansong, the more flaws started to show. The visuals were fine at first, but models for non-main characters appeared sloppy, with their skin showing through clothing and textures flat and uniform.
Most missions require the character to solve a puzzle, which was satisfying at first, and being rewarded for being observant in a game is always a great feeling. But as the game progressed, the puzzles became even more obscure and there was no heads-up display suggesting what you had to solve next. This led to a lot of wandering and rereading of lengthy documents.
Fortunately, the game would warn you if an interaction had “No Return,” meaning it would end the mission. This allowed me to roam the levels for hours without fear of prematurely leaving the area. Many missions, in particular Leysha’s, required deception and Hitman-style tactics of changing outfits. However, the NPCs you interact with have zero situational awareness, and were not concerned when the woman they just sent away suddenly returned with an FBI badge and started picking up evidence. Even worse is that the feeding mechanic persists in these missions, and is even required to accomplish the main objectives. This includes a disguised Leysha taking a single cop away from their colleagues to a closet, never to return. No one bats an eye unless you kill the human, shoving their corpse into a convenient wardrobe, then the only punishment is “Suspicion,” which raises for every playable character.
Overall, Swansong was disappointing despite its lore and the inherent advantages of being set within the VTM world. I entered the game with a lot of excitement and forgiveness, and still I felt let down. Eleven hours into the game, I was still hit with constant tutorial screens and situations where I had to read deep into the codex to be able to keep up with the characters. The voice acting was great, and the RPG elements were fun in the character creation screen, but the models were stiff and the story wasn’t compelling enough for me to fight through the constant failure of ability checks.
The concept of an RPG-style, decision-based story game with detective elements was a grand idea, especially within a Vampire The Masquerade world, but the execution of Swansong just falls regrettably short.