Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is a Suprisingly Great Detective Game

Bloodlines 2 was delayed, but Swansong is a more that suitable replacement in the meantime.

by Diego Perez

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Despite their huge presence in other forms of media, video games have been sorely lacking in two things: good vampire games and good detective games. You’d think that taking control of a reclusive creature that fears the light would appeal to gamers, but outside of a handful of titles, vampire games haven’t really hit the strides that they should have in the gaming space. The same goes for detective games, a genre that is perfectly suited to video games with its emphasis on characters and puzzle solving. There have been standout hits for each of these genres, but games that do either genre well are hard to come by. Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is a rare example of a game that does both genres well, using their respective tropes to bring out the strengths of each one.

Two Underutilized Genres Come Together

Despite what many may be expecting based on previous games set in the Vampire: The Masquerade world (really just Bloodlines), Swansong is a detective game that pulls a lot of inspiration from Telltale’s titles and CRPGs. There is no real combat, and you spend the overwhelming majority of your time walking around environments and picking things up. Conversations are the game’s form of combat (more on that later), but that’s all there really is to Swansong. It absolutely nails the puzzles though, and the world is so engaging to explore. Swansong relies on its world and characters to carry the experience, and thankfully, those are the highlights of the game.

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Vampire: The Masquerade is an RPG series though, so Swansong still has that DNA running throughout it. You can choose the skills and abilities of the game’s trio of main characters, and the game doesn’t go easy with skill checks. This is not a game where everyone can do everything. You have to make choices and, in turn, sacrifices in order to be successful at things. This encourages spur-of-the-moment thinking and forces you to get creative with puzzle solving and dialogue choices. Getting access to a locked room or getting someone to open up to you feels remarkably satisfying, and that’s all because the game doesn’t hand you anything.

Because it forces you to stick to your guns and play your character the way you built them, Swansong feels restrictive in the best way. It never feels unfair that you can’t do something. Encountering a roadblock just means you have to put your powers to use elsewhere. When you pair that with timed decisions that really do affect the story, Swansong is a surprisingly engaging blend of deep CRPG customization and Telltale-style choice-driven storytelling. You feel like your input matters, regardless of whether that’s the method you use to gain access to a room or whether you choose to take a life to ensure your safety.

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A History of the Masquerade

Before diving into a deeper discussion of Swansong, it’s important to know what this game means for the series as a whole. Vampire: The Masquerade is a classic tabletop role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder, only with less of a focus on adventuring and slaying dragons. It’s set in the World of Darkness shared story setting, including other games featuring spooky creatures like werewolves, wraiths, and more. In the video game space, however, most people are familiar with the series because of 2004’s sleeper hit RPG Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, which allowed players to create an original character and explore the hidden vampire underworld of Los Angeles after being embraced and welcomed into their choice of vampire clan.

Bloodlines didn’t sell well. It didn’t sell well at all. It failed to hit 80,000 copies during the initial release window, ultimately leading to the closure of developer Troika Games. Technical flaws were cited as the main reason at the time, but in hindsight, Bloodlines was released in one of the most legendary fall seasons that gaming has ever seen. It was competing with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Halo 2, Metal Gear Solid 3, Metroid Prime 2, World of Warcraft, Ninja Gaiden, Burnout 3, The Sims 2, and the highly-anticipated Half-Life 2, which Bloodlines released on the same day as.

Over time though, Bloodlines amassed a cult following and received a huge fanmade patch that remedied most of its technical issues. Now, the game is remembered fondly by all that have played it and a sequel is in development all these years later. The history of Vampire: The Masquerade in the video game world is important to know before jumping into Swansong. Remember, this game was originally supposed to release after Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 2. With the indefinite delay of that sequel, however, this is the game that marks the franchise’s return to video games (not counting the free-to-play Blododhunt or a long list of short visual novels).

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For the Masquerade to be maintained, Swansong needs to stick the landing. Thankfully, it does. Not only does it provide an immensely enjoyable peek into the secretive vampire society of Boston, but it also paves the way for future big releases outside of the typical RPG games that fans of Bloodlines have come to expect. At a time when the biggest name in vampires is, well, Morbius, it’s nice to have something that takes advantage of its setting and world so well.

Unmasking the Mystery

The game’s story begins with a party being attacked by a group of unknown assailants for unknown reasons. The vampire Prince of Boston then tasks the game’s three protagonists with uncovering who ordered the attack and why. The game opens slow – very slow – but once you learn the intricacies of the dialogue system and spend some time with the three main characters in the opening chapter, the story picks up steam very quickly.

As mentioned above, there are three main characters that you’ll be controlling throughout the journey. Each of the three main characters comes from a different vampire clan, and they each have a unique set of powers that allow them to pick up clues hidden to untrained eyes or interrogate suspects with razor-sharp precision. . That means even if you want to build all three characters with the same strengths, the game won’t let you. You’re forced to adapt to the properties of their clans and the abilities they have available to them.

The game also doesn’t hold your hand with codes or things that other games would automatically mark for you. For example, a locked computer in the first chapter was obtained by searching the in-game codex for lore. A note on a nearby whiteboard read “PWD = Arrival” and checking the codex to see when the computer’s owner arrived in Boston revealed the password. There were no markers and there wasn’t any guidance. If you’re a puzzle fanatic, this is the game for you.

Unmasking the Masquerade

As stated above, the game has three playable vampires that you’ll swap between. Emem is the first character that you’ll meet in Swansong. She’s from clan Toreador and manages the entertainment scene in Boston. Everyone knows who she is, and her cabaret clubs scattered throughout Boston are popular among vampiric patrons because they serve as neutral zones where all vampires can interact freely without fear. Her abilities primarily focus on persuasion, helping her sweet talk her way into restricted areas and helping her gather information that people may not be willing to initially share.

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The second protagonist of Swansong is Leysha of the Malkavian clan. All Malkavian vampires have serious mental issues compared to the other clans. They’re burdened with premonitions that often forewarn them of future events. Leysha has premonitions quite often, granting players insight into what may happen in later chapters. Leysha can also mask her presence or conceal certain objects, allowing her to gain entrance to otherwise inaccessible areas. All of these things make Leysha one of the most powerful vampires on the roster, but her faults prevent things from being as smooth as possible.

Finally, Galeb rounds out the trio. He’s the oldest of the three and belongs to the aristocratic Ventrue clan. Like Emem, he can also talk his way out of a situation, but he prefers a more direct and logical approach. He doesn’t stray away from violence, and he knows the ins and outs of how vampiric politics work. Galeb is the most traditional of the trio, a cold and calculated vampire.

These characters each have their own chapters, so you won’t be collaborating with the trio during gameplay. What they uncover during their adventures is unique to them, and the information they choose to report can have ripple effects throughout the story. It’s hard enough managing little white lies for one character, maybe to save a friend or to further their own interests, so imagine having to juggle three characters simultaneously. Things can get muddy very fast.

Conversations Are Combat

One of the most interesting things about Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is that it doesn’t feature any traditional combat. Instead, conversations are the game’s form of combat, complete with health bars, stats, and other meters to manage. If you’ve played the modern Deus Ex games, imagine that series’ climactic social boss fights but taken to the next level.

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Each vampire has a Willpower and a Hunger meter that persist between chapters. Using a skill check during conversation will spend Willpower. Using a vampiric ability at any time, during conversations or exploration, will increase Hunger. Willpower is essentially your HP so you don’t want to drop it to zero, and the Hunger meter must never be filled. These skill checks and abilities are weighted against your opponent’s stats, giving you a percentage of success. It’s as tabletop as tabletop gets.

Swansong places a twist on the traditional skill check system with forces, though. You can spend additional Willpower to add points to your skill check. However, the further you push, the likelier your opponent is to do the same. It’s a delicate balance and adds nuance to every conversation. Do you force your skill check by one level to bring it from 80% to 100%? Is that even worth the risk if your opponent stands their ground and forces back, reducing your percentage of success?

Because the conversation system is so complex, talking feels meaningful. It takes effort to get someone to give up information, effort that could be spent to gather more clues yourself or gain access to certain areas. There’s a delicate economy at play here, and every decision feels meaningful. Remember, these stats persist between scenes, so you’ll eventually have to choose someone to feed on to satiate your Hunger or search for items to restore your Willpower.

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The Verdict

All in all, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is a great detective game at its core. It’s only amplified by the dense lore and history of the World of Darkness setting. However, Swansong is still very rough around the edges and the budget limitations are very apparent. Those limitations will likely turn off some people, but trust me, the actual content of the game itself is worth trudging through bad lip syncing and spotty textures.

Even though it’s technically rough (which feels standard for Vampire: The Masquerade games at this point), Swansong is carried by its stellar art direction. The high society that Boston’s vampires operate in allows the game to show off some stunning architecture and lighting. Characters wear elaborate outfits and strut through grand decorated halls. It’s gorgeous to look at from the right angles, and the game really tries with its presentation.

All the attention may be on Bloodlines and its upcoming sequel, but with a setting as deep and interesting as this, it’d be a waste to not explore it through multiple lenses and genres. This setting should not be restricted to Bloodlines sequels, and more Vampire: The Masquerade spinoffs should follow in Swansong’s footsteps. The Masquerade should be maintained, and this setting is worth saving.

Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is available now on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S. A Nintendo Switch version of the game is also in development.

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