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Review: Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong

19 May 2022
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Growing up in the 2000s has made me an expert on vampires. Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, True Blood, you name it. I was glued to my TV trying to imagine what it would be like to live in a fang-filled world and I wrote down every detail to prepare myself. Needless to say, I never got to experience it firsthand. However, the developers over at Big Bad Wolf Studio put together a game that got me pretty close as the exciting staples of my youth all came to life in the world they craftily built.

Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is a role-playing game developed by  Big Bad Wolf Studio and published by Nacon. It was released on May 19th, 2022, for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC.

The PC version was played for this review.

Fangtastic Story

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be thrust into the in-workings of vampire society? Swansong’s story focuses on exactly this. The game starts with its three protagonists – Emem Louis, Galeb Bazory, and Leysha – meeting up with the leader of Boston’s vampire world, Prince Hazel Iversen, due to an emergency alert that is shrouded in mystery. At their meeting, Hazel gives each character their own mission in connection to a party she put together meant to promote a unification treaty with other members of the supernatural community.

The story makes it clear that the party suffered an attack but doesn’t tell you much about the who or the why until you progress a few chapters in. The journey into uncovering what exactly happened is filled with intrigue, murder, and betrayal, and on top of that, the main characters themselves struggle with their own set of intrapersonal problems.

Emem, for example, wants nothing to do with the political party of the vampire world and, as she struggles to find her way out, she also races to protect a friend that was caught up in the plot surrounding the unification party. Galeb, on the other hand, contends with the existential crisis of who and what he is, while Leysha fights off her inner demons in hopes of staying with her daughter.

All of these plot points are twisted together and explored from the differing perspective of the trio and they eventually culminate in an ending that comes off as pretty incredulous if not just plain humorous.

I will say that in terms of atmosphere and environment,  Big Bad Wolf Studio did an excellent job with their world-building. Every room you explore, item you interact with, and person you come across in Swansong has so much detail attached to it that there is very little to wonder about. The sheer amount of information the game presents you with helps to make everything feel much more real and, while at times it did get a bit overwhelming, I was happy to have all of the additional knowledge by the time the gameplay portions came around.

Its narrative draws aside, Swansong also has a fantastic cast of characters. Not only were they one of the most diverse groups of people I’ve ever seen, but every person had a unique and realistic personality. The more time I spent with them the more I wanted to find out what their motives were. Some of them were also surprisingly relatable, despite the fact they were vampires. 

Overall, Swansong definitely has enough emotional impact, character development, twists, and lore to stand out in a positive way. 

Bloodless Gameplay

I have to admit that I did not like Swansong’s gameplay as much as its story. There wasn’t anything particularly complex about it, and yet it managed to feel tedious all the same. Given that it’s a narrative RPG with no combat, the bulk of what you do consists of picking the correct dialogue options during cutscenes and managing the three main characters’ stats and skills. Emem, Galeb, and Leysha all have unique traits, and playing around with these during exploration and conversations was kind of fun, but this was only the case if you actually pulled your tasks off correctly.

There were also some puzzles sprinkled around the different areas, but to be honest they were so buggy and infuriating that I would have preferred they didn’t exist at all. I will forever hate Emem’s imprisonment puzzle for as long as I live.

An additional component of Swansong’s gameplay was the hunger and skill point gauges. From a lore perspective, I appreciated the hunger gauge. Nothing made me feel more like a vampire than when I had to lure a human into a closed-off space to feed on them because I exasperated my powers. The skill point gauge wasn’t quite as fun to contend with, but it did make me think a lot more about what I was going to say and do. I just think it could have dealt with more balancing so I wasn’t literally backtracking on my choices by the end of my conversations.

To be honest, I wish Big Bad Wolf Studio had just left Swansong as an interactive story. The stats system and skill-development tree was easy to mess up, and for a game that is so dialogue and choice heavy, it can be really frustrating to reach the end of your confrontation scenes, as sometimes all of your hard work verbally sparring people would be for nothing as you’d run out of skill points or be too hungry to properly finish off an interaction.

Nopeferatu

The visuals were perhaps the most disappointing and jarring part of Swansong, which is honestly a shame because I really wanted to love everything about how this game looked. I was truly delighted by how diverse the cast was in terms of design. Unfortunately, their models were plagued by buggy walks, hair clipping, weird eye twitches, and just odd texturing, and that’s only a few of the issues I noticed during my time with this game. These issues extended to some of the locations as well, although less so since they lacked mobility. I don’t know if perhaps the end product is just missing a little polish, but I would love to see this fixed in a future patch because the enticing world presented in the plot deserves to be reflected visually.

In terms of sound, the game is in a good place. I enjoyed the voice acting and background music more so than the visuals they are attached to at times which is saying something. Some characters sounded exactly how they looked, but others were victims of dramatic voice changes that didn’t really fit. Galeb’s voice actor in particular always made me laugh because he had a lot of moments where he would go from calm and collected to harsh in the same sentence and it felt quite jarring. Still, I think overall this aspect of the game was more of a win than an issue. 

Unfortunately, the visuals weren’t the only thing that made Swansong come off as buggy. The game has a fair amount of actual bugs that were a bit of a turn-off. I encountered some of them during the puzzle sections, a misfortune that had me spending two hours spinning a circle on the ground around and around, but there were also times when I was doing something simple like exploring an area with Galeb’s special trait turned on and I couldn’t interact with objects despite that not being a side effect of the skill. Things like this really confused me because I wasn’t sure if I was doing something wrong or not, but eventually, I had to tell myself to look past it because it was souring my experience with the game.

On the bright side, none of the negative things listed here are so ground-breaking I would dissuade anyone from playing the game. The story alone makes it a worthwhile investment, so if like me you can hype yourself into looking past irritating visual and non-game-breaking bugs, go for it.

Ageless Fun

While I do think that my teenage self would have been way more hyped about getting to experience a vampire-filled adventure of Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong’s caliber, I can confidently say my adult self was also quite amused. I really liked what this game’s story had to offer, and to be honest it has been a while since I had to think so hard about the hows and whys of the choices I wanted to make in an RPG.

I could have done without the tedious and buggy gameplay and the oftentimes janky visuals, but when the credits rolled, that wasn’t at the forefront of my mind at all. Instead, I thought about how I wanted to play the game again and go back and do things differently.

The good news is that Swansong allows you to do just that with its different profile types for Emem, Galeb, and Leysha. Switching these around can make everything feel like a brand new experience. It did for me, anyway. When in doubt you can also refer to the “what did I miss/what could I have done different” screen at the end of every chapter, to mess around with your outcomes and see new parts of the story.

I think given its replay value and strong narrative foundation alone, this is an easy recommend from me. I just hope that Big Bad Wolf Studio eventually does go in and iron out the evident bugs in the game, both visual and otherwise. I also can’t wait for them to release more narrative games of this caliber. I genuinely think they are a breath of fresh air in an otherwise saturated market.


~ Final Score: 7/10 ~


Review copy provided by Big Bad Wolf Studio for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Big Bad Wolf Studio.