Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong review: mystery, intrigue, and walking about
Keep your fangs sharp and your wits sharper
From the 90s onwards, movies taught me that vampires spend all their time eating and having sex with people (often concurrently). Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong has taught me that they actually spend most of their time walking around looking at things, sometimes stopping to have tense conversations or pick up keycards. There is occasional eating.
This is probably because the three vampires you play as in Swansong aren't exactly on their down-time. Set in Boston in 2019, you begin in medias res after a sudden violent attack on a party has left the Boston vampire court reeling. The Prince, an Annie Lennox cosplayer called Hazel Iverson, has called three of her most trusted lieutenants in to firstly check on the immediate aftermath, and thereafter investigate the wider fallout and strike against whodunnit. Since developers Big Bad Wolf are the folks behind The Council, the role you take isn't an action hero but different shades of spy and/or detective. Neither leaves you much time to loaf about being all sexy, though.
Your three leads are extremely cool nightclub owner Emem Louis, reluctant soothsayer amnesiac Leysha, and quintessential vampire's vampire Galeb Bazory. They're very different, but all interesting and very well-acted, which you need in a game like this. On balance my favourite is Galeb, because he is very serious and tired and this particular combination is very funny. Each has a different level to play through at each stage of the story, and you can tackle them in any order you like because it's all taking place at roughly the same time. At first the levels are small and contained, giving you a chance to get a handle on everything; the very first place you explore is Hazel's Court, which has a couple of two-room areas to look at. Then you progress to whole apartments where murders took place, before graduating to giant secret bases with multiple areas.
For my money, Swansong is best at the mid-stage, where the levels are medium-sized but dense. In the larger levels, you do a lot of jogging up and down between areas, and it ends up becoming a bit of a chore. But the slightly smaller stages still feel like a challenge even though you never go very long without finding something. Leysha's first proper juicy level is great fun, as you try to reconstruct a large firefight and identify vampire bodies, all while trying to keep your hunger in check because of all the blood everywhere.
The eating people in Swansong is a purely utilitarian thing. Using your supernatural abilities taps into your hunger, and if you get too hungry you might fully go off on one. To replenish your hunger meter you can eat certain humans in little safe rooms you find (one human per room, another reason it pays to explore). The powers are varied. Emem's unique skill is celerity, a gotta go fast power that lets you warp across certain gaps or go at super speed. Emem can also go invisible or copy uniforms - even spoof being an actual person, if you level it up enough. Galeb can do a vampire version of a Jedi mind trick and just say "It's totally normal I'm here, dw." The most interesting is Auspex, which let's you see supernatural imprints left on a room, dispel disguises hiding secrets, or even see events or feelings associated with an object.
There are also non-supernatural skills, which can cost what I thought of as 'Talky Squares', your other ability bar. This covers stuff like persuading people, intimidation, hacking or being able to deduct things from what you find or hear in a level, and you can focus your skills at a cost of more Talky Boxes if you really want to pass an interaction. As in The Council, confrontations with NPCs are Swansong's version of combat - dialogue battles where you have to win a certain number of interactions to get the result you need. These are really fun. There's an interesting calculus to it, and a really cool thing is that you can pass Confrontations without using any abilities at all if you pick the right dialogue choices - although doing that is much tougher.
In general I wish I'd been a bit bolder using my abilities, because I never once racked up too much hunger or ran out of Talky Squares. The larger problem I ran into is that I tried to jack-of-all trades it when levelling, and this just kind of doesn't work. As you get further in the game the thresholds for being able to use skills at all get much higher, and even though it's frustrating to miss out on things because you don't have any education points, it's better in the long run to spec up. The game isn't super forgiving here, and Emem suffered because I biffed one level, meaning I didn't get much XP to level up for the next round, and thus fell into a bit of a biff loop.
I didn't find any use for tech skills because I'm willing to stare at a clue for 20 minutes to figure out the answer. You might not be, but I did appreciate that it's possible to do that at all. Swansong is one of those games that I needed a notebook on hand so I could scribble down shapes and codes, and I enjoyed how open some of the clues actually were. I got Emem out of her funk by looking at some posters for a very long time. I hacked into a computer because of a post-it saying that the password was stupid and easy. Sometimes Swansong verges into being too opaque, and you'll fail objectives that you didn't even really know you had. Overall, though, it's very satisfying to put the effort in. Swansong also relegates most of its exposition into codex entries, meaning the dialogue in-game is much more free-flowing, and can concentrate on intrigue and "Trust no one!" conversations. The tone as a whole is vampire drama rather than serious issues, and it works.
That said, it took a lot longer than I expected, not only because I was afraid of missing things, but because the game is a bit jank in places. It's one of those games where your choices add up - although sometimes you can spot the railroad tracks, particularly if you actually make a huge mistake - and so there's no quicksaving. This is all fine until you get quite far into a level only to realise you can no longer run, which on that particular level means you miss a bunch of content. On a level with Galeb, my camera locked in place so I couldn't look up, so I couldn't trigger the next stage of the level by interacting with a giant screen. And in a game without checkpointing that's a lot of time you're losing when you need to restart an entire section.
There's non-game breaking jank in some of the character movements as well - sometimes an NPC might slide across the floor instead of walking, or their lips get out of sync as if you're watching a dub. It's forgivable, if a bit annoying, and luckily the three main characters don't have that problem. I view Leysha's eight-year-old daughter Halsey as an entire problem with the game unto herself, but your mileage may vary with lisping vampire children. And Leysha - a Malkavian, the "yikes, when were these rules written?" Clan of VtM whose special trait is mental illness - has some of the most fun powers, levels and scenes, so swings and roundabouts.
As a whole, Swansong is a bit more loose and messy than I'd expected, but with some screws tightened the annoyances would be much less irritating and the game much more fun. It's almost really good as is. I had, I think, a middling run, where I got to enjoy the silly bits and interesting details, and didn't have too many tragic failures. I do want to play it again and try different choices, or make better decisions, but... I'm in the middle of a new TV show. And there's that book I've been reading, you know? And I need to put a wash on. I got attached to my three vamps, but not that attached.