There’s been a surge of games set within the Vampire: The Masquerade’s universe in recent years, but most have been largely text based affairs (Bloodhunt’s battle royale and Werewolf: Apocalypse aside). At first glance, Swansong looks to be a departure from this trend with its third person camera perspective and fully controllable characters, but you soon discover that this isn’t the sequel to Bloodlines that we all want (and seems to be eternally delayed).
That isn’t to say that Swansong is a bad game, but it certainly owes a lot more to the table top origins of the series than the glossy trailers suggest. Whether the blend of traditional RPG and third person video game works is a slightly more complicated question.
The world of Swansong fits within the wider setting of the World of Darkness and is filled to the brim with references, lore, and assumed knowledge (with the crutch of an ever expanding glossary for new players). The various vampire types, from charismatic Tremere to maddened Malkavians are all present and correct. Interacting with each type may require different approaches which does add a welcome sense of engagement, but the reality is that you’ll often find yourself locked into a limited choice due to your character stats. It is here that the disconnect between the role playing and the dialogue driven gameplay becomes most apparent.
Swansong’s narrative has you play as three contrasting vampires who serve the new Prince of the Boston Camarilla, Hazel Iversen. Ancient protector Galeb, the conflicted Emem, and Malkavian Leysha are all recruited by Iversen to investigate the circumstances surrounding a massacre of vampires. Along the way you’ll find yourself involved variously in intrigue, diplomacy, assassinations and rudimentary puzzles. There is a certain amount of freedom in how you set up each character with stat points and abilities but once committed to a particular path you may find that optimal routes are locked off. This does ensure that your choices have consequences, though the experience feels far more restrictive and limited because of it.
Whichever skills and traits you choose, each character has a distinct ability that distinguishes them – Galeb is expert in dominating and persuading humans, Emem can blink across gaps, while Leysha is able to assume the appearance of others to infiltrate her targets. These skills provide the most game-like aspects of Swansong and are fine but, again, feel like the game is sometimes forcing you down specific paths.
These powers require Willpower points to use, points which are only replenished by quest rewards or uncommon consumables. Willpower points are also used to influence dialogue skills so you do need to strike a balance between using skills to explore and having options open to you for conversations. The other expendable system is Hunger, with certain skills and powers adding to your bloodlust. When this begins to fill you must feed (from rats or humans) in order to control your inner Beast. Feeding from rats can affect your influence on others, whilst drinking from humans requires that you find safe places away from prying eyes.
Much of the pre-release focus has been on the multiple paths and alternative storylines in Swansong, a feature which does encourage replaying the game and making different choices. These paths may result from success or failure in specific dialogues, puzzles solved or abandoned, or collectable documents being found or not. When you finish each level the mission screen will show you alternative options you could have taken – although not exactly how to achieve them. Some of these will involve specific skill builds (a particularly frustrating approach) whereas others point you towards characters or items you didn’t find. There is certainly a great deal of depth in this mechanic and I can see the process of seeking out all the alternatives appealing to those who really gel with the game and its setting.
I have to admit that I was a little underwhelmed by Swansong. Voice acting is pretty good for the most part, but the inability to skip dialogue got tedious when bugs necessitated replaying chapters. The central skill mechanics felt restrictive rather than role building, and there were some ill judged gameplay choices – one late game stealth mission really showing the limitations of the game’s controls.
In terms of bugs, these included dialogue voiceovers not triggering meaning that I had to keep subtitles on in case of this happening, a puzzle that glitched and left me having to repeat a lengthy level and all of its dialogue, and even a random case of my character falling through the floor in the middle of a conversation. This last one was particularly egregious as there are no deaths (aside from late game bad endings) so I had to restart the whole chapter and, again, sit through all of the non-skippable dialogue. These are all patchable issues, and hopefully will be fixed for the game’s release build, but they certainly soured the overall experience for me.