Supernatural sleuthing, bloody frustrations in 'Vampire: The Masquerade — Swansong'
New video game Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong puts you in the blood-soaked shoes of three vampiric investigators uncovering a conspiracy in modern Boston. It's the latest in a drip-feed of smaller franchise titles while we await the huge Bloodlines 2, a long-delayed sequel to the 2004 cult classic. But while Swansong offers more dynamic play than the previous Coteries of New York, it's unlikely to whet a fan's appetite for long.
Swansong immediately throws you into the heady factional politics of a vampire elite that rule over Boston from the shadows. Once a new leader becomes targeted for assassination, you have to deduce the person (or persons) behind the attacks from the perspective of three different characters, each sporting fangs and supernatural powers.
Those hoping for the lively open world of Bloodlines should look elsewhere. Swansong is a largely linear experience that plays out much like developer Big Bad Wolf's The Council. It's branded as a roleplaying game, but behind the character stats and skill checks, it's more of an adventure title.
The best example of what the game has to offer plays from the viewpoint of Galeb Bazory as he impersonates a FBI agent. His quest has led him to investigate the death of a man who had information on the ruling vampire council. Galeb must find out why the man was killed and obtain five documents he kept concerning members of Boston's most bloodthirsty clique. This leads you to question the man's fellow tenants, interrogate police on the scene, and sniff out clues, all without blowing your cover as an FBI agent.
Your detective work will often run into roadblocks. The NPCs in Swansong can be incredibly obstinate, and not everyone will fall prey to your wiles. However, you're a vampire, so you don't always have to be charming. If your Presence stat doesn't impress a NPC into spilling the beans, you can use powers like Dominate to force it out of them.
There's a catch to this, though. Using your vampiric traits will increase your hunger, and eventually, you'll have to suck some blood to recharge your batteries. In the apartment building, you can bewitch investigating police officers into secluded areas to feast. However, if you get too greedy, you'll end up killing them, which can have repercussions for the story.
You see, you're always acting within the game's central conceit — the Masquerade. Though vampires can easily overpower a single human, they fear detection by the human population that vastly outnumbers them. To avoid exposure, they maintain rigid rules that preclude them from flaunting their powers. Breaking the Masquerade won't result in a game over for the player, but it won't be consequence-free and it will influence which of the game's multiple endings you get.
This tension underpins the game's approach to problem-solving. For example, Galeb can stealthily and thoroughly examine the apartment building, acquire the documents, and slip out without being discovered. Or if you're feeling reckless or impatient, you can intimidate the weak-willed and kill everyone else — Masquerade be damned. Guess which option I chose?
The game's reliance on random die rolls can tax your enjoyment of its story. Each vampire has stats and a skill tree, which all influence your ability navigate tough conversations. NPCs have stats of their own to counter you, and the ensuing give-and-take can hamper your ability to get into character. I found myself wishing that each of the three protagonists had preset stats and skills that fit their personalities. Instead, I found myself defaulting to the option with the highest chance of success rather than the option that seemed most natural for the character.
There's not a lot of flash and high-speed gameplay to Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong, so I'm a little disappointed that the visuals aren't better. I wasn't expecting it to compete with big-budget games like Horizon Forbidden West, but the stiff animations certainly don't sell the drama. When so much of the game focuses on minute character interactions and the nuanced conversations, convincing movement and expressions are absolutely essential, and that's not what I found here.
The immersion isn't helped by pedantic internal monologues. I'm always annoyed when developers feel the need to fill every silence with a player character's commentary. These insights make more sense in Swansong than they do in Horizon Forbidden West, where Aloy ruins almost every puzzle by stating the solution out loud. But it's nonetheless a weak narrative device that has little justification outside of literature, where you must sometimes tell instead of show.
All that said, I enjoyed Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong much more than recent visual novels in the franchise. If you like whodunits, you'll like this. However, those hoping to sink their teeth into a true gothic epic won't find what they're looking for here.
Brittany Vincent has been writing about games for 14 years and loves collecting retro gaming and consoles. Follow her on Twitter: @MolotovCupcake.
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