Fans of Vampire: The Masquerade have had it plenty rough recently. The long-awaited sequel to Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines was delayed indefinitely in 2021, meaning that the gothic horror open-world RPG saga returned to its tomb far earlier than any of us hoped. There’s a silver lining here, and it’s that the much more cerebral Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong may just have enough blood and wits to sate the appetite of any RPG aficionado whose tastes are a little more nocturnal.
Instead of running around an open world, however, you’ll instead drop into the slicked Oxfords of one of three different vampire tritagonists, each wielding their supernatural abilities to uncover secrets and conduct detective work across several scenarios that span across multiple paths, depending on how you choose to play – not unlike what you may be used to in Telltale’s The Walking Dead series. But if you were turned off by the relative shallowness of Telltale’s approach, don’t worry: after playing the second quest, which took about two hours to finish, Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong seems like it’s as deep as any CRPG. It’s clear that each of the different stats, perks, and special vampire abilities play into one another in a way that gives weight to each of your decisions, especially when putting points into your character build.
It also draws heavily from lore established in the World of Darkness tabletop RPG, and as such, you can spot the long-running politics between vampire families interweaving across Swansong’s many dialogues. For instance, Galeb’s ability to detect other vampires allowed me to interrogate a certain witness during the murder investigation that’s centric to the second quest, and I wouldn’t have been able to discern that they were a lesser vampire’s thrall without Galeb’s special power and the high social standing he holds within the vampire world as a member of the Ventrue family. Doing so allowed me to find an important clue that I may not have discovered conventionally.
Unlike Bloodlines, Swansong saunters along at a pace that is comfortable for fans of CRPGs and detective games. As a fan of games like Disco Elysium, 13 Sentinels, and The Forgotten City, I felt right at home here. That said, at least in the second quest, there’s no combat to speak of. Some dialogue options require you to test your focus against an NPC, which triggers a dice roll that determines whether you “succeed” at, for instance, a persuasion or intimidation check. But the shadowed corners of Boston’s seedy underbelly are mostly littered with clues in the form of notes and unassuming objects, and it’s up to you to reconstruct the crime scene with your own senses – and just enough help from your vampire powers to make things interesting. Note-takers take note, there’s far less hand-holding here than in other RPGs. I’d unknowingly discovered a code for a locked safe, but instead of putting a marker into a quest log, Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong simply treated it as if it was a part of the world, compelling me to retrace my steps later on so I could jot the code down onto a notepad. It seemed as though whether or not a clue actually became useful or important was up to my own intuition and ability to piece information together.
Choices do seem to matter a lot here, especially since you get a limited amount of energy, called Willpower points, to use your skills, unlock doors, hack smartphones, or do basically anything that requires your non-supernatural abilities. There are “healing” items lying around, such as these old coins, which let you periodically restore your Willpower points and continue to investigate. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Vampire: The Masquerade game if you didn’t have the ability to put your supernatural skills, or Disciplines, to the test as well, but doing so increases your Hunger Gauge. Naturally, if your Hunger Gauge gets too high, you’ll need to feed on human NPCs in order to stay concealed in your human form, lest you blow your cover and forfeit the investigation. I didn’t opt to feed on anyone during my own test run, but developer Big Bad Wolf Studio tells me that it requires a degree of finesse – you’ll have to figure out how to lure NPCs into private areas before you can feast on their blood and regain those sweet, sweet Discipline points.
In all, my experience was positive, even while playing the latest Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong build over a game streaming service, based, presumably, somewhere in Bordeaux, France. One thing that may irk fans of dialogue or choice-based roleplaying games, and which may very well be fixed in time for Swansong’s May 19 release date, is that the facial and character animations in Swansong’s preview build look quite stiff and unconvincing. At least the writing and voice acting are strong enough to sell these characters. Some may also take issue with Galeb’s internal monologue, which was a bit too short-winded for a detective game that has this much background lore in the works, and it did little to inform me of what he was actually thinking; in fact, it seemed like a way to establish him as someone with a penchant for edginess, rather than someone with a lot of inner depth that would’ve otherwise helped me relate him to the world I spent two hours exploring.
Source: IGN Video Games All