Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong (PC) Review: Vampire politics was never this painful
Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong (PC) Review: Vampire politics was never this painful
When it comes to writing game reviews, I like to think that I'm quite generous with my scoring, because as a writer and "creative" myself, I have a baseline level of respect for the time and effort that the developers have poured into their games.
Of course, goodwill doesn't make a good game, and the fine print states that I'm only as nice as it deserves and allows me to be. In other words, I will be blunt when the situation calls for it, and I found Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong one of the more unfulfilling and tedious games I've ever played.
While there were some tiny bright spots here and there, they tended to be few and far between, so much so that I actually reset my playthrough halfway thinking that I simply wasn't in the right frame of mind to play games. Unfortunately, that didn't turn out to be the case. As a matter of fact, restarting the game only further convinced me that like most of the entities in this game, Swansong probably shouldn't have seen the light of day.
This isn't Morbius
At its core, Swansong's narrative revolves around politics, and thus most of the characters' wars are waged through words. With that in mind, I'd like to inform you that this game doesn't involve any real combat, so as far as the meme is concerned, there isn't going to be any "Morbin' time" here.
Narrative-wise, players will take control of three vampire protagonists - there's the seductive bar tycoon Emem, the psychologically unstable seer Leysha, and the ruthless Camarillan enforcer Galeb. In this World of Darkness lore (since it's based on a tabletop game), vampires have guided human civilisation from the shadows since time immemorial, and their existence is kept secret from the rest of the world under an agreement known as the titular Masquerade.
Let's zoom in to the Boston-based vampire faction known as the Camarilla and its leader Prince Hazel Iversen, otherwise known as the Swan. Having recently been elected to the post, she's on the verge of achieving a mutually beneficial (though fragile) truce with the Hartford Warlocks. Things toddle along just fine until the night of the celebration party, and the Camarilla goes on full alert after the Prince is tipped off about a violent shootout at the venue. Frustrated, she then calls the three protagonists in and orders them to uncover the truth using their various vampiric gifts, which is where you start out.
That one episode of C.S.I.
In terms of gameplay, Swansong is fundamentally a multi-ending RPG that tells its story through conversation and interaction. It also features a fair bit of puzzle-solving, which I admit would have been immensely fun if it wasn't for its odd habit of drawing out the hunt MUCH longer than necessary.
Now, most of your time playing will be spent analysing the levels, gathering clues, and speaking to other NPCs. I don't have any gripes with the first two tasks per se, because some puzzles do admittedly require a decent amount of brainpower to figure out, and it can be quite exciting when you discover a clue that leads to an alternative ending for the level.
Plus, keep in mind that you aren't exactly the average Joe or Mary Jane here. As you progress through levels, you'll have the chance to unlock and exploit your vampiric gifts to make the hunt for information (or blood) easier, and using more advanced ones in earlier levels can open up previously unattainable choices. Speaking of which, I do like how the game informs you about the other potential choices at the end of each mission and how the ones you picked impacted your run. Among other things, this makes it much easier for players, especially completionists to go back and revisit them later on.
However, what holds this whole "detective gig" back from actually being good is how long it often takes for you to get to the end. I often spent close to forty minutes just figuring out a single chain of clues from start to finish, and trust me, it is particularly tedious since Swansong lacks real combat to spice things up along the way. So, yes - this can (and probably will) get really, really boring. Fast. And to add salt to the wound, this is where I remind you that the game expects you to revisit levels.
In other words, I would like to offer my sincerest condolences for your patience. Whatever's left of it by the end anyway.
Talk is cheap. Skills aren't.
Conversing with other NPCs is the other half of the pie in Swansong, and unfortunately, the ball only rolls downhill from here. But in order to talk about this (no pun intended), we need to have a look at something else first.
Fundamentally, half of the issues with Swansong can be traced back to the character progression system, because even by RPG standards, it suffers from a "too many cooks" problem. The game tries to introduce so many different types of stat categories that it ends up making the entire progression system look convoluted rather than detailed. I was never really able to tell stuff like "Rhetoric" apart from "Persuasion" or "Presence" or know whether to upgrade my Attributes, Skills, or Disciplines. It is absolutely bewildering, and not only is each of them relatively expensive to upgrade, but they all utilise the same Experience resource, so you'll basically be forced to grind and repeat levels more than it's humanly worth doing.
As for the NPC interactions themselves, these are loaded with different stat rolls at every corner. Responses are often limited by the number of points you have invested in one aspect or the other, but even those that you can access might require you to gamble your Willpower or Hunger points in order to succeed. They're shown by the blue and purple gauges in the top left of your interface, and you can gain or lose them depending on what you succeed (or fail) at doing. If I'm being honest, they just make the entire experience more convoluted than it already is.
Looks are certainly not everything
Normally, I prefer to discuss aesthetics and presentation at the start, but that's because most games tend to do well there. At first glance, Swansong does have some pretty convincing visuals, and that's what I thought too. Unfortunately, my impression, specifically the part concerning the dialogue animations didn't even last a full five minutes into the game.
It all went belly-up when Emem started talking to her friend Journey in the elevator, and it was almost like I was watching an interaction between two Sims, minus the weird language. Not having the dialogue match a character's lips is already enough of a deal-breaker nowadays, but the overly basic and cliche writing effectively put me off the rest of the game.
Case in point, the conversations are really cringe-worthy, partly because the various responses tend to be out of sync with what your target says afterward. As such, the interactions come across as disjointed at times, like what you might get if a bunch of people just read off a PowerPoint slide. That goes for both regular talks and Confrontations, and it doesn't quite help that the latter, supposedly meant to be the game's "boss encounters" merely puts you through a glorified multiple-choice test.
On top of that, as any moviegoer might tell you, the one thing that's probably worse than cringe-worthy dialogue is being forced to sit through it. Although you're given the option to skip dialogue, it's weird that you can't actually use it on your first run of a level, as it seems the developers are worried you might miss out on important plot points. It's a valid reason, for sure, and it's something I probably wouldn't have minded if the game actually bothered to be clear about what's going on.
Stumbling around blind
Except it doesn't.
You see, above all other flaws that it has in terms of writing and presentation, the worst of the bunch is that Swansong assumes everyone is already an impeccably-certified expert on Vampire: The Masquerade, fangs, blood and all. Most, if not all of the conversations tend to leave out important points that would otherwise bring the context full circle, and the best example of this is when Journey explains to Emem that something awful has taken place at the celebratory party.
The natural question the player (or rather, anyone) might then ask is: what happened? And that's where the game stops short. You see, for all the urgency that Swansong tries to inject into the violent shootout that has unfolded, it doesn't actually tell you that said situation is, in fact, a violent shootout until much later.
Now, I found this particularly infuriating because this is just one of many instances where the writing was, for lack of a better word, lazy, and the game just (rather annoyingly) carries on doing its thing, blissfully unaware of all the backlog questions that players have piled up. It expects you to just "read up" on stuff in the Codex all the time when they could have saved you the effort with a quick one-liner. Pack that in with the awkward visuals, robotic dialogue, and pretty one-dimensional characters, and there you have it - a surefire recipe for experiential disaster.
You had one job
In summary, Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong simply feels half-assed, in the sense that it isn't well-thought-out. It skimps heavily in places where it should be detailed, and pads out areas that should have been kept relatively concise. It presents players with a classic case of mistaken priorities, but what is perhaps the game's most egregious fault is its poor writing and consistent failure to provide key contextual points, a crime made even more serious considering Swansong's main draw is supposed to be its narrative.
It is quite sad, really, but as I've mentioned at the start, goodwill only extends as far as the game deserves, and this one just falls short in so many departments that I'm at a loss as to where I can concede ground to it. With that being said, I highly doubt I'll be picking this one up again - it's just not worth the effort. 4/10.