Vampire The Masquerade: Swansong Review – That Sinking Feeling
Swansong is a role-playing game that delivers the entirety of its drama through dialogue–there is no combat to speak of. Critical scenes between characters are resolved within conversational set-pieces called “confrontations.” RPGs can exist without traditional battles–just look at Disco Elysium, for example–but the dialogue now thrust center-stage needs to sing, or at least harmonize with a deep skill system. Swansong, sadly, delivers neither. Its writing is pedestrian, often incoherent, and its supporting systems are underutilized, adding little flavor to distinguish the three playable characters.
You play as three vampires–Emem, Galeb, and Leysha–summoned to a crisis meeting at Boston’s vampire HQ, after a party to mark an alliance with the Hartford Chantry (a sect of blood sorcerers) ends in a bloodbath, and not the good kind. The local vampire prince instructs the trio to uncover what happened and eventually sends them on a series of overlapping missions of revenge. Missions are tailored to each vampire’s specific abilities, and you’ll play as each character in turn. For the first half of the game, you’ll decide the order in which to tackle the missions, giving you some choice to pursue the storyline that’s of most interest. But over the second half, a more linear approach takes over, and you find yourself shunted from one character’s mission to the next, each ending on something of a cliffhanger.
This structure allows the story to build across three concurrent timelines, and at its best, the perspectives occasionally align to let you see a specific event from multiple angles. Though it has to be said, crossovers are disappointingly rare and it’s mostly a case of small references throughout missions that nod to events being experienced between the three characters. It feels like a missed opportunity to tie the story threads together that the three characters don’t appear in the same scene beyond the game’s early stages.
And, boy, does the story need some tying together. I felt lost right from the start. If you’re not deeply familiar with the Vampire The Masquerade setting from the World Of Darkness role-playing system, be prepared to have a seemingly endless litany of proper nouns and quixotic lore hurled at you for the first hour or so. Such terms are added to the in-game codex when first encountered, and I found myself pausing every few minutes to read up on whatever the hell the last person I spoke to was on about.
But it’s not just unfamiliar terms that result in confusion. So many scenes over the course of the game–not just in the beginning–seemingly arrive with something missing, some crucial detail or two omitted. It feels like watching a TV series where you don’t quite understand what’s going on and you’re constantly worried you’ve skipped an episode where something important happened. Not everything needs to be explained, of course, and some matters are best left ambiguous. But whether it’s a specific aspect of vampire society or the precise history of certain character relationships, too many details are too lightly sketched or simply assumed. Even with the aid of the codex, it’s a struggle to follow what exactly is going on.
This kind of disjointedness permeates the dialogue system, your primary mode of interaction with the world. Conversations are full of awkward segues as characters ineptly transition from one branch of the dialogue tree to another. Everyone is always saying “Be that as it may” or “Let’s cut to the chase” as you confirm a choice, the dead branch lopped off and another clumsily sprouting in its place. It’s jarring and conversation never flows.
The big set-piece “Confrontations” are perhaps the worst offenders here. They’re multi-stage gated conversations where you need to say the right thing in order to pass each stage, with only one or two failures allowed. They’re set up to be really dramatic, but they end up feeling drawn out and oddly circular as you jump through the hoops of each stage, checking the boxes to ensure you’ve said the right things. But you can also easily say the wrong thing and each new stage of the confrontation proceeds as if the character you’re speaking to isn’t sure whether you said the right or wrong thing last time; they’re just plowing ahead with the next line of their script regardless. It’s another weirdly jarring effect.
Even without these issues, the writing of the dialogue fails to impress. Everyone is so surly and self-important, with moments of humor or vulnerability fleetingly few and far between. Perhaps that’s authentic to vampire society–it’s possible I missed the codex entry that covers that particular cultural more–but it doesn’t make the experience of hearing them pompously drone on any less insufferable. Some of the people you meet are friends or at least have known each other for decades, but there’s rarely much sense that their relationships are closer or more intimate than that of a work colleague you’ll say hi to when you pass them in the corridor.
Swansong’s writing is pedestrian, often incoherent, and its supporting systems are underutilized, adding little flavor to distinguish the three playable characters
Another significant issue with the dialogue is how poorly it employs the core skill system. Each character has four primary dialogue skills–Rhetoric, Intimidation, Persuasion, and Psychology–which unlock dialogue options if you’ve invested enough points in them. The idea is that they represent the ways an immortal being can manipulate mere mortals, but the distinction can feel arbitrary: Why exactly is that line “rhetoric” rather than “persuasion”? My three characters focused on different skills here–Galeb was more Rhetoric, Emem more Persuasion, Leysha more Psychology–but in practice I couldn’t detect any difference in how they handled situations. I was rarely dazzled by the substance of Galeb’s rhetoric; instead, I only knew he’d hit a winning argument because the option had “Rhetoric” written next to it. As a result, the dialogue skills feel interchangeable and serve to flatten out the experience between the three characters.
It doesn’t help that opportunities to use these skills arise less frequently than you might expect. Some missions are simply heavier with conversations than others. It’s frustrating to spend experience points on upgrading your Persuasion skill only to find in the next mission no more than one instance where you can put your improved ability to use.
Where the characters better differentiate themselves, and the skills they can deploy become more interesting, is in their Disciplines, a kind of secondary skill tree. Galeb’s discipline of Fortitude, for example, enables him to withstand all kinds of intense pain, something that comes in handy when he inevitably finds himself captured. These disciplines also expand each character’s repertoire for exploring an area and inform the kinds of environmental puzzles they face. Emem will call upon Celerity to more agilely traverse a level, blinking herself between predefined points as if she’s using some sort of mystical grappling hook. And Leysha’s ability to mimic another character’s outfit and assume their role opens up some of Swansong’s most engaging puzzle design.
I enjoyed Leysha’s missions the most because of her unique discipline. In her levels, borrowing identities from NPCs allows her to infiltrate areas that would otherwise be off-limits. Working out which outfit or identity she needed to adopt, and how she’d get it, was always fun and encouraged you to think about how the level fits together and the best ways to navigate it. Emem’s blink ability attempts something similar but never feels as creative, while Galeb’s levels tend to double-down on the most boring aspects of the mission design: finding the right key to open a door.
Swansong is weirdly obsessed with all manner of security mechanisms. Keys, swipe cards, implanted ID chips, safes, gates, lockers, drawers, passwords, keypads, and sliding block contraptions, you name it, Swansong has almost certainly designed a puzzle around it. Outside of dialogue, you’re exploring some relatively small locations: a fancy apartment, some warehouses by the docks, a small research facility, and so on. Navigating these places typically involves bypassing a bunch of lock-and-key-type puzzles.
For a world swimming in the supernatural, you spend an awful lot of time bogged down in mundane realities. Scouring email chains for references to the whereabouts of a particular item. Reading every post-it note stuck to every desk and whiteboard in case someone has exposed their computer password. Searching cupboards and drawers and filing cabinets for a key that might open another cupboard or drawer or filing cabinet.
In one mission, you realize a document containing important information is queued in a printer that’s out of ink. Your task is to replace the ink cartridge so the document can print. In another mission, one possible puzzle solution requires you to find a particular form and fill it out correctly. In yet another, a whole level revolves around updating your security pass so you can move about freely. Objective after objective delivers endless variations on this kind of bureaucratic busywork.
In moderation these types of puzzles are enjoyable. Skulking around someone’s apartment or office, riffling through their files, digging through their secrets; Swansong has these moments that find the right balance between the suspense of espionage and the rigors of a good procedural. But it becomes overly reliant on locking things behind doors and forcing you to find the key. And, worse, much of what you uncover in those emails and post-its and documents you’ve dug out of filing cabinets is trivial, adding little–if anything at all–to your understanding of the world or the mission at hand.
Swansong ultimately has little to recommend it. Its writing is stilted, its storytelling muddled, and its puzzle design is mostly unimaginative. Sadly, there isn’t even any kind of worthwhile payoff if you do manage to see it through to its conclusion. I reached a point where I was thinking I’d hit the close of the second act, and then the game ended. Just like this.