Vampires secretly walk among us. They drive fast cars. God above us in the penthouse. And so refined in their taste, they gently bite our wrists while eating, hopefully keeping us alive for future snacks. Vampire: The Masquerade – SwanSong explores the Nightwalkers’ place in our world through a well-designed narrative lens that embraces the player’s choices in a deep and satisfying way.
In the opening seconds of the game, we learn that the Boston Camarilla of the Vampire is on high alert; The trouble that arose after a new prince was crowned to oversee his operations. The vampiric masquerade law, which keeps its kind hidden from mortals, may have been broken, and it’s up to you to dive into the mystery to find out what happened and who’s to blame. What comes next is about 20 hours of remarkable discoveries.
As you pick up clues and traces of blood, you’ll come across gruesome crime scenes, and have to interrogate intelligent creatures who want to bend your will. Most of the remarkable narratives pay off well with big twists and a feeling that you had a real hand in figuring out the puzzles. You feel like a skilled vampire, using a variety of black gifts to move the results in the desired directions.
This cryptic story unfolds through the eyes of three different vampire protagonists, each at least one hundred years old, with unique perspectives in their society’s hierarchy. The story flows seamlessly between all three characters, with some scenarios giving them time to breathe freely and other moments uniting them on a single hunt.
The most dynamic lead is Emme Louis. Strong in conviction and able to see clues involving the five senses, the emem is often in control of conversation and can quickly pick up trails that lead to more profound mysteries. Lesha is equally interesting but a wild card, considering how soft-spoken and forgetful she can be. Leisha may be invisible or imitate other people’s appearances during the investigation. Galeb Bajori is the weakest of the leads, struggling to grab the limelight due to his comically raunchy attitude and scenario designs that are not as dynamic as the other characters.
In most video games, vampires are monsters that use their teeth and supernatural abilities to tear living things to pieces. In this narrative RPG, we see a different side to the vampire might. The three leads solve most of their problems through negotiation and deductive reasoning. Yes, they still eat humans and rats to fill their tanks, but most of the gameplay is discussion-based. Getting into Vampire’s Mind is as wild and fun as it sounds. This unique invitation gets even better when you learn that vampires don’t always play fair and can use their unique gifts to hunt down weak-minded people.
Vampire powers come to life through a surprisingly deep RPG system used to manipulate dialogue. From the start of the game, you choose what gifts each vampire has and you can further increase these powers or add others throughout the game. As the conversation unfolds, vampires can lean into intimidation, persuasion, psychology, and rhetoric to take the story in new directions, only if their skill level is high enough.
Even after meeting the skill limit in negotiation, success is not automatic. The people you talk to (both humans and vampires) are also talented in their own way and may resist your moves. You can capitalize on valuable willpower to increase your chances of success, but so can your adversary. How aggressive you should be in these conversations is to focus on what is really at stake or what is to be achieved. If you run out of will early on in an investigation, you’ll have to play it safe for the rest or scour the environment for consumables that can help you (though they’re hard to find). Character development is largely tied to the use of vampiric power, granting you additional skill points whenever you succeed. I adore how this reward system works, as it ties directly to the heart of the gameplay.
When both characters apply the same amount of skill—both distributing +3 in intimidation, for example—the success or failure of that narrative choice comes down to a single dice roll. You actually see a die roll in the dialog box to determine if you succeeded. It’s a surprisingly intense moment that happens often and it’s one of the ways it shows how dynamic and challenging these chats can be.
The dialogue system implemented by Big Bad Wolf Studios is excellent to the point that I anticipate seeing other developers’ games moving forward. The player is consistently well rewarded by the backend RPG system as well as the narrative script, which does an excellent job of breathing unique life into each new character you meet.
A seemingly innocent chat can suddenly turn intense and turn into something like a boss fight. These moments, called confrontations, force the vampires to use their skills to achieve a certain number of successes. Each confrontation brings a different win-win situation, such as “You can only fail twice.” Failure doesn’t mean you have to start all over again; The story just spins in the other direction. I don’t know how wildly each result varies, but I noticed some dramatic changes in both setting and flow on some of the replayed missions. The game also offers a variety of endings, yet I can only speak to one of them, which I thought was good enough.
When vampires aren’t talking, they study crime scenes. These moments are enhanced by RPG features, such as the ability to pick up locks or use more sophisticated electronic devices. Deductive skills and advanced education help in making informed decisions. Unique character-specific skills also come into play. For example, Emem can teleport using a power called Celerity, and Leysha’s stealth abilities help uncover areas that others can’t explore. Big Bad Wolf does a great job of not overselling the solutions and prompts the player to read documents, dissect evidence, and follow the threads of the narrative to find clues hidden in rooms. The investigative elements aren’t as engaging as the dialogue, but still provide a lot of fun, especially when exploring blood-soaked crime scenes.
You can feed humans to replenish your appetite (another meter that controls ability use). Feeding delivers that famous vampire quality, but feels like a shoehorn with the investigative flow and at odds. And don’t expect the scenery to be dazzling. The atmosphere looks good, but most of the animations are mechanical, in particular the facial movements of the characters, which you always see.
Swansong is this year’s Forgotten City, a distinct narrative adventure that rises above the opportunities it requires. Player choices are front and center, and it’s nice to turn these decisions into smaller games that carry significant narrative weight. Rarely have I played a game where I wanted to redo a scenario to undo bad decisions as I’ve done here. Swansong pays you for your wrong moves and should be an excellent game for watercooler discussions with others who play it.