There Will Be Bloodsucker

HIGH A detailed, thoughtful translation of Vampire: The Masquerade to a non-combat RPG format…

LOW …that’s bogged down by technical hiccups and development missteps.

WTF Animation jank adds much-needed levity to the hard life of a vampire.

Vampires are probably best known for being evil creatures of the night and drinking blood, but another key factor in their mythology is that they live forever. However, exploring the concept of immortality can sometimes be tough to do in a videogame, and that holds true here in Big Bad Wolf’s new narrative RPG Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong.

Swansong offers three playable characters, all vampires making their home in Boston. Emem Louis looks like a socialite in her 20s, but has been around since World War I. Galeb Bazory, the city’s oldest vampire, once resided in Constantinople, centuries before it became Istanbul. Leysha is a Malkavian with a penchant for prophetic vision and may not be altogether there, mentally, but she and her vampiric “daughter” Halsey have lived in Boston longer than any humans.

Virtually every named vampire in the game has a lengthy, detailed, and evocatively-written biography — some stemming back centuries. It’s intriguing to read, but constant allusions to past events in the dialogue can make the story hard to break into for mere mortals.

More offputting is the barrage of new and unfamiliar jargon players are subjected to from the outset. Unless they’re already steeped in the lore of White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade pen-and-paper RPG, they’ll likely find themselves referring constantly to the detailed in-game glossary just to make sense of a character’s lines.

That said, the crisis that kicks off the story proper is interesting enough to keep players’ attention despite these initially-alienating circumstances. An unknown someone has attacked a party planned by Boston’s Prince (a vampire ruler) to cement an alliance between the locals and a circle of vampiric warlocks. The Prince has drafted her three best agents, Galeb, Emem, and Leysha, into an impromptu investigation team. Their task is to find out what happened, assess the damage, and if necessary, punish those who’d dare attack one of the most powerful vampiric strongholds in North America.

Players control each of the three protagonists in turn, taking on their individual missions and encountering challenges suited to their characters’ past and personalities. This intertwining structure is one of Swansong‘s strongest points, as it weaves a picture of Boston’s supernatural underground as so sprawling and complex that not even a creature as powerful as a vampire can navigate it unchallenged.

This plays out in some interesting ways, as players might view an event from the perspective of one character, then revisit the same event from a different angle as another. For example, early on Emem has a tense conversation with a friend in crisis, and then later on, players have a choice to overhear that same conversation as Leysha.

Unlike most other RPGs and even some other Vampire: The Masquerade games, Swansong reflects its source material’s commitment to narrative-based gameplay. Just like the pen-and-paper game, much of Big Bad Wolf’s design focus is on investigation, exploration, and dialogue. In fact, the game doesn’t even have a combat system — its acts of violence play out in the form of gory cutscenes showing vampiric prowess.

In lieu of combat skills and traits, players allocate their stats across a number of different narratively-driven categories. These are split between Skills and Disciplines. Skills unlock interactions in dialog and investigation sequences. For example, leveling Persuasion helps in conversation, while upping Computer Hacking lets players glean new info from electronic devices. Meanwhile, Disciplines are basically vampire magic. The vamps have unique sets of Disciplines, ranging from detective vision-like Auspex, to powers that make each character’s segment feel and play uniquely.

Emem can call on Celerity to teleport from point to point, making many of her stages about agile traversal, environmental puzzle-solving, and ninja-like exploration. Galeb’s Fortitude and Dominate lets him play the vampiric overlord, controlling mortal minds with a word or taking unholy amounts of damage. Leysha can make herself invisible and trick humans into seeing her as other individuals. Her stages are the most unique, as they’re full of subterfuge and deception which allow her to navigate tight areas crawling with hostiles.

All of these abilities are regulated by Willpower and Hunger. Willpower is limited and can be spent to boost skills. It’s also key to Swansong‘s closest mechanic to actual combat — The Confrontation. These are basically battles in the form of dialogue trees. Emem might use willpower to boost her Persuasion skill to give her the upper hand in a tough negotiation, or Galeb might boost his Intimidate skill to force a suspicious cop not to challenge his authority. Even Disciplines can come into play, as they can block an opponent from boosting their own skills in a Confrontation.

Of course, hungry vampires are hard to control and they can even undermine their own success in their desire for fresh blood. Essentially, overusing one’s Disciplines can cause future attempts to use skills to fail because the vampire is simply too hungry to function effectively.

All these systems coalesce into a novel foundation for an investigation- and narrative-based title that still holds to the statistic- and skills-driven conventions of popular RPGs. If only the narrative and characters built on that foundation really held up…

Frankly, Swansong is a game better admired for what it tries to do than for what it does, and it’s painfully easy to see what Big Bad Wolf was aiming for. In an ideal world, Swansong would be a blockbuster-level cinematic statement that proves a certain vision of what RPGs can be. Instead, it feels stymied by unfulfilled ambition and technical shortcomings.

For example, awkward character and facial animations drain the impact from what should be riveting cinematics. I knew vampires were immortal, but I didn’t expect them to move and talk like zombies in the throes of rigor mortis.

The voice acting also suffers. The cast does what it can, but the delivery lacks direction. It’s as if the actors were reading the lines free of context, which were then rearranged later on. They alternate between yelling and whispering in the same line, in ways wholly inappropriate to the scene being staged. Further, it’s also noticeable that the lines were recorded under varying circumstances, some even sounding like they were pulled from a Zoom call.

I can’t bring myself to be too hard on Big Bad Wolf for these deficiencies since we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic and other crises that surely affected development. That said, it’s impossible not to mention the issues and their effect on the experience.

Further, this lack of quality spills into the campaign itself and its execution on the challenges characters face. Not every line of logic holds up, characters don’t always react convincingly to the choices players make, and there’s also an issue of balance thanks to Swansong‘s miserly distribution of skill points and resources. Each character faces different challenges in their respective path, and not in equal measure. It’s normal that Swansong wouldn’t give a player all the points they’d need to max everything out in order to promote careful choices and build-planning, but without adequate signaling as to the nature of future challenges, leveling up and allocating points feels like a series of blind guesses, which the game then punishes with failure.

These failures don’t mean a “game over”, though — Swansong isn’t that crass, and it’s clear that Big Bad Wolf likes the idea of letting players live with the consequences of their choices (or attempts). The story continues even when one botches a ton of critical skill checks. Even when I got major characters killed outright, and the show went on.

That reactiveness can be impressive, but given that it’s so easy to fail outright, I feel like Swansong could’ve been better about letting players feel like they’ve succeeded, rather than letting them just muddle through. Part of the fantasy of being a vampire is a sense of supernatural power and the gift of experience spanning multiple mortal lifetimes. At the lowest points, my vampires often came across as as feeble and incompetent as I am in real life. It took a full playthrough before I outright “aced” a challenge, and even then it was largely due to foreknowledge of what the game was going to throw at me.

It’s also a big issue that Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong‘s plot feels unfinished. Things hint towards a larger and more persistent threat past the immediate crisis faced by the trio, and then things suddenly accelerate, barreling through a number of concluding sequences and then cutting to text about the aftermath of the incident. While this sudden conclusion wraps the game up at a comfortable 20 hours or so, it feels unsatisfying and unresolved, like cutting things off in the second act of a trilogy. I was surprised there wasn’t a huge “To Be Continued” end card.

And yet, like a ghoul bound by blood to its vampire master, I can’t quite bring myself to condemn Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong. Despite the various flaws and stumbles, it does something few, if any, RPGs even attempt in its ambitious stab at creating a combat-free RPG. Its embrace of the deliciously edgy lore of the Vampire setting also lends an inimitable sense of flavor and style, even if the graphics don’t always do it justice. In the end, while the final experience is two courses short of being a banquet, it’s good eating for fans who are starving for vampire videogames.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Big Bad Wolf and published by Nacon. It is currently available for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S. This copy of the game is based on a retail build provided by the publisher and reviewed on PC. Approximately 33 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode. There is no multiplayer mode. The game was completed.

Parents: This game is rated M by the ESRB, with content descriptors for Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Sexual Content, and Strong Language. The description is as follows: “This is a narrative role-playing game in which players follow the story of three vampires from different clans. From a third-person perspective, players progress through each character’s storyline, interacting with characters and making action choices. Some selections can result in acts of intense violence: a bound character tortured by a man using various tools (e.g., hot poker, flame torch, hammer); a character’s throat ripped open by a werewolf; characters shot in the head at close range; a mind-controlled character slicing his own throat. Large blood-splatter effects occur as characters are injured and killed; some environments depict mutilated corpses (e.g., exposed entrails, decapitated) and large blood stains on the ground. In some environments, players can view framed photos on the wall, a handful of which depict nude woman with exposed breasts. During one sequence, a character is shown walking through a dreamscape, watching translucent figures engaging in obscured sexual acts (e.g., a figure with its face on a woman’s crotch)—sexual moaning is sometimes heard. Characters sometimes reference drugs in the dialogue (e.g., “He’s totally high”; “Traces of cocaine…I guess it was that kind of party.”). The words “f*k” and “sht” are heard in the game.

Colorblind Modes: The game has no colorblind modes.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All voiced dialogue is accompanied by subtitles. (See examples above.) There are no text size or presentation options. Some audio cues do not have a visual indicator and can occur behind the player, but these are not essential for gameplay. This title is not fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: This game’s button controls are fully remappable.

Josh Tolentino
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