A new Vampire: The Masquerade game by the creators of The Council, 2018's quite unique Narrative Adventure game, is noteworthy news in itself. The value of this news is further enhanced by the facts that this particular project clearly places more emphasis on RPG features (most other Vampire games released recently were linear visual novels, after all), and that the main, long-awaited RPG release on the franchise, Bloodlines 2, has turned more or less into a farce by now. Without exaggeration, in terms of broader presentation, Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong, which officially launches tomorrow the 19th, has unironically ended up being the closest thing we've seen so far to the legendary VtM Redemption and Bloodlines.
The above, of course, does not mean that we are dealing with a complete, "old-school", open-world RPG. The core of Swansong is still closer to The Council than to Bloodlines, with the result being more accurately described as a "Narrative RPG" in the VtM universe. What exactly does that mean? Read on and find out!
The events of Swansong take place in Boston in September 2019 (an innocent, ancient and forgotten time, without plagues, masks and antiseptics). Boston's Camarilla Prince has closed an extremely important deal with the Tremere Chantry of neighboring Hartford, with a party thrown to cap and celebrate the whole affair. Suddenly, the local Kindred receive a "Red Alert" message: hostile forces are on the move, and apparently something has gone VERY wrong at the party. It is at this exact moment that our own participation in Swansong begins, with the three main characters having arrived at the local Camarilla headquarters to see what this alarm is all about, and to receive further instructions from the Prince.
VtM fans can imagine what we'll encounter in the next three in-game days: interaction with Kindred belonging to the most well-known Clans, saturating our Hunger by "farming" humans, dealing with vampire hunters, intrigue and backstabbing between Camarilla and the Anarchs or even between seemingly allied members of the same factions... and choices that will have a decisive impact on the World State in the game's finale.
Those who've played The Council will more or less know what to expect from Swansong in terms of gameplay, although there are obviously some variations that adapt the game to the VtM background and the rules of the 5th Edition Corebook. Swansong essentially consists of a sequence of levels/scenes, through which we navigate in a 3rd-person perspective like in a typical Action-RPG (without combat, of course), and in each of which we control one of three different protagonists: a Kindred of Clan Ventrue, a Toreador and a Malkavian. Each of the above characters has its own separate Character Sheet with Skills and the unique Disciplines of its Clan, all of which we will use while navigating the world and talking to NPCs.
The use of Skills subtracts points from our Willpower pool, a stat that can be replenished mainly through consumables. Using Disciplines in the same context increases the Hunger meter, which can be reduced either by using certain rare consumables or, mainly, through the traditional "harvesting" of blood from mortals. Ideally we want to make sure that our current character's Hunger is constantly at an acceptable level, because reaching the maximum increases the chances of awakening "The Beast", which would result in our character attacking the first mortal that comes into sight.
Special mention should also be made of the Suspicion stat, which literally refers to how suspicious the wider world is of the existence of Kindred as a result of our actions. Suspicion increases if we do things that put the Masquerade at risk, such as neglecting to collect various incriminating items from the game's levels, feeding on rats, and more. As Suspicion increases, various penalties are applied to our Skill Rolls throughout the game.
The relatively linear succession of the Scenes doesn't necessarily mean that each game level is small in size (on the contrary, some of them could easily be levels in Bloodlines), and neither does it mean that navigating each Scene is equally linear. Particularly after the initial, introductory Scenes, the obstacles we encounter along the way can be overcome in more than one ways, depending on the stats we choose to raise on each character, and the overall kind of playthrough we wish to follow. There is also, depending on our skills and choices, the possibility of fulfilling optional and/or mutually exclusive objectives, which either enrich our knowledge of world events or directly affect events in the game's progression. Along with gaining XP to further enhance our skills, obviously.
Leaving aside all the vampiric stuff that come with the franchise, Swansong is a detective story at its core, and in that regard I think it does quite well. The general writing of the plot and characters isn't really something to be mentioned in the next Nobel Prize awards, and it certainly has some gameplay missteps (mainly concerning some puzzles that feel slightly off), but truth be told, the way we navigate each level and collect clues and items in order to complete our objectives actually reminded me a bit of the recent Sherlock Holmes Chapter One game. Even if we bring the vampires back into the picture though, it's still just as good in its implementation of the atmosphere and special gameplay you'd expect from a Vampire game. I wrote in the opening paragraphs that, while by no means a "full-on and traditional" RPG, Swansong might be the closest thing we've seen to Bloodlines in terms of its broader VtM atmosphere, and I fully believe that, even if it doesn't really say much as a fact in itself, given the state of the "competition" it's compared with.
If there is one area where Swansong is most lacking, this might be the technical area. In terms of graphics, in particular, I encountered a paradox in the game: while the environments and level design are from beautiful to perhaps even flawless at times, the same quality is certainly not observed in the character models, whose design and animation made me feel at times as if I was playing Obsidian's Alpha Protocol back in 2010. On the audio side, I would describe the voice-acting as... tolerable, "so-so", without being outright terrible but also not really impressing with the fidelity of the performances. Apart from that, I noticed my PC's temperatures rising to oddly high levels at random moments while playing, and I also encountered some, thankfully not game-breaking bugs and glitches (although one of them made me fall into the "void" bellow a level, forcing me to restart that particular Scene and lose 30-40 minutes of progress). It's also worth mentioning that, for some reason, I couldn't skip Dialogues and Cutscenes in the game by pressing the dedicated button that exists for this purpose, but... I'm not entirely sure if this is a bug or a feature!
As a "partial negative" one could also point out the unevenness of the Scenes in terms of how "juicy" they are. For example, there are some lengthy Scenes that offer a plethora of objectives and require a lot of thinking and time to navigate through, and others that can literally be waltzed through in 5-10 minutes. However, most of the time this serves the needs of the narrative, so I guess it's an indirect admission of the fact that... maybe deep down I simply wanted to play the game longer.
The truth is that I went into Swansong with the barest of expectations, expecting a "glorified walking simulator with RPG elements" in the world of Vampire: The Masquerade. What I ultimately saw in the 20 or so hours it took me to complete the first playthrough (surely at least one more will be required in the future) satisfied me far more. The 50 euros that Epic Store is asking for it at the moment may seem a bit too much based on what it offers, but there's no doubt that it does quite well as a Narrative RPG with real choices and significant consequences, which obviously doesn't match the depth, wit and humor of Bloodlines, but nevertheless we have to acknowledge that... it tries, in its own way.
Bloodlines 2 may never be actually released. Almost out of nowhere, Swansong comes as a "light" substitute, offering a generous portion of the almost forgotten feeling of playing a new VtM RPG. Despite its flaws, it's a solid realization of the atmosphere of mystery and supernatural horror that a Vampire title ought to have.
We would like to thank AVE Group for providing us with the review code for the game.