Reinforce the Masquerade in this super sleuthing tale set in an erupting Boston.
It really does feel as though these past few weeks have all been about vampires, but that's probably down to the fact that we've recently seen the release of Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodhunt, tomorrow marks the launch of V Rising into Early Access, and Thursday will see the release of Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong. Like the fatigued husk of a drained familiar, I'm all tuckered out. On the topic of the immortal, I've been once again getting into the World of Darkness and have been playing the latter of the three, Swansong for a little while now.
This is one of the more unique Vampire: The Masquerade games because it plays more alike Rockstar's L.A. Noire than it does a Vampire title. Don't get me wrong, you're still very much a bloodthirsty creature of the night, but the premise of the storyline revolves around you leading a cast of characters as they investigate and attempt to get to the bottom of a power struggle that is undermining the new Prince of the Boston Camarilla family. You have to play as three unique vampires, each from unique clans, and use their special abilities to unmask the truth behind the swirling plot at the centre of the narrative, and this is where the similarities to L.A. Noire comes back into play, as there's no quest guide or direct path to follow when tackling the story - you simply need to keep your eyes peeled, investigate, and figure out how the clues in each level all connect to make an informed conclusion.
It's very well done and very engaging, and you'll have a blast checking every nook and cranny of a level in the hopes of picking up on just one more elusive clue that could crack open a hypothesis you've been formulating. And there are tools in place to aid in these goals, as you can use each vampire's abilities to your advantage, be that through seduction, intimidation, or stealth, or various other occasionally available options that pop up, for example using technological knowhow to crack the password of a locked laptop. The catch is that there is progression to take into account, and you'll have to determine how to specialise each of the three vampires to suit the way you want to play as them, as you might choose to have Emem as the more sociable figure, whereas Leysha excels in deduction and surveying an environment. It should be noted that you don't play as all three vampires at once, meaning there will be occasions where you can't get through a locked door as Galeb, but you may have been able to with another specialised character.
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As for how the abilities of each vampire works, this is done through a sort of strategic minigame. Each character will have a predetermined stat level for each available type of ability (seduction, intimidation etc.), which can be improved by upgrading each skill tree related to each ability. This will mean that the option to charm someone in a conversation might only be actually possible for one of your characters, else the move will fail. If you have the option to use an ability, you can improve its chances by spending some skill points, but this is where the strategy minigame side of things step into the light, as so can the NPC you're communicating with. Essentially, what might be a 100% success rate could shift drastically if the NPC decides to also make a move.
But these abilities aren't the only cool vampire moves at your disposal, as each character has their own vampiric discipline that can be used when wandering around a level freely and amassing clues. For Leysha for example, she can turn invisible and travel around prohibited locations without being spotted, that is assuming you don't get too close to other vampires. Using this power you can read notes and engage in basic interaction, but anything more physical (like unlocking a locked door) will require you to become visible once again.
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The narrative of Swansong is interesting and does do a lot to advance the lore of the world of Vampire: The Masquerade in a way that Bloodhunt in particular failed. Each character feels fleshed out and deep and you'll find great pleasure in getting to know the various NPCs and the motivations that drive them and secrets that they're keeping buried deep inside. The actual conversations can feel a little lengthy and slow, and that extends to the actual gameplay as well, which does have a very slow pacing in general, as it favours ambience over action a lot of the time. But for the most part, the narrative is pretty entertaining.
One of the areas that I find most conflicting however, are the visuals, as Swansong both looks incredibly pretty but incredibly off-putting at times. For the most part, the environments and character models look very polished and high quality, but then you get in close and see the faces and the facial expressions of a lot of the characters, and it's almost like an AI is attempting to display what emotions it thinks the characters should be conveying instead of a more real and obvious reaction. It makes for uncomfortable and jarring scenes that are truly difficult to look past, which is a shame since the rest of the game really is very visually striking.
And these facial animation issues aren't the only issues I've come across. During my time playing, I once came out of a conversation with an NPC in a place different to where I started the conversation, and it meant that I became trapped in a corner of a room with no way to escape. In an effort to reload the level/encounter, I clicked the restart button, only to discover that it would literally restart the entire game and instantly save a fresh game file over my original game file with no warning, leaving me with hours of progress lost and no way to recover it. It was... frustrating.
So, as you can see, Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong isn't perfect in any sense, in fact one could call it quite rough around the edges. But despite this being the case, it's still a rather fun and engaging deductive and explorative take on the World of Darkness, and is a game that should be right up the street of any super sleuthers out there that want to test their ability to crack a case as a bloodthirsty and immortal vampire.
7 / 10
Deductive gameplay is entertaining. Narrative has plenty of lore to unravel. Visually striking.
Facial animations are terrifying. Strange gameplay affecting bugs.