Most games often feel constrained by what has come before, limiting their gameplay to what has been tried and tested in the past. But Big Bad Wolf Studio has never really fallen into that trap, aiming to innovate with their first game, The Council, and now Vampire the Masquerade Swansong. And, with its second game, the French studio has deepened its narrative-focused gameplay to create a sprawling, choice-based story set in the enigmatic, illustrious World of Darkness universe.
As the game’s three protagonists, Galeb, Emem, and Leysha, the game throws you right into a scandal where politics, allegiances, and individual ulterior motives are all at war with one another.
The unification of the Boston Camarilla (the sect of vampires our protagonists are from) and the Hartford Chantry (a group of Warlocks) hasn’t exactly gone to plan, ending in bloodshed. As you serve the Camarilla’s prince Hazel Iverson, your job is to investigate what has happened and work out who betrayed the Camarilla, all while prowling dark alleyways and lavish skyscrapers for the secrets that are hidden in the shadows.
Like any good vampire game, Vampire the Masquerade Swansong is filled with charm, bewitching you with its twists and turns. Most of this comes down to the narrative design, which ensures all three protagonists have a role to play in the overarching story, especially considering they all have their own individual strengths and weaknesses.
Galeb, for example, has decades of experience being a vampire, which makes him more intimidating to thrall and thin-bloods (as well as mortals), Leysha’s troubled past means she can naturally connect with others better, and Emem’s blood-running business background makes her a great negotiator.
Although, it’s worth noting that while they all have their default strengths and weaknesses, each character can be moulded to your liking by tinkering with the countless Disciplines, Talents, and Traits on offer. Bulking up your technology and security stats will allow you to discover new clues, hack computers, and get into secret doors while focusing on mental traits like education and deduction will allow you to observe the environment and understand more about the mysteries in Boston.
In other words, you can be whatever type of vampire you want to be in Swansong, spending experience as you like, and you aren’t locked into archetypes based on Galeb, Emem, and Leysha’s strengths and weaknesses.
And like all good RPG games, you can also boost your base social, physical, and mental skills which you can then use in conversations to help with your ongoing quests and complete side objectives for extra clues or information about characters.
Want to fit in with a new group? Want to win someone over with wit? You can do all that and more with a few careful uses of your willpower – a limited resource each character has and can be replenished by finding items. As such, thinking through all your options is key before making a decision.
Vampire abilities can also dramatically shift the outcome of conversations and encounters. Dominate allows you to command others after taking over their mind, while Presence can prevent the person you are talking to from performing certain actions. If you use these, you might get your desired outcome, but your hunger will grow as a vampire – meaning your character will latch onto the nearest person to them and drink their blood to satiate their inner beast.
This breaks the Masquerade and puts the entire existence of vampires at risk, so you’ll have to consider when and where to use them.
That’s important, as Swansong is a huge interwoven web of dialogue mechanics that all interact, giving you countless possibilities for your playthrough. Storylines can conclude differently each time you play them based on your decisions, you can miss out on key information, and you can choose to tell others of information you have learned or not.
In other games, these options can feel overwhelming, but not once in Swansong did I feel crippled by choice. Instead, the systems felt like they worked together and helped me focus on the people I am interacted with and the overarching investigation.
The flexibility offered by these systems means that you cannot max out any character while playing. Every decision you make, whether in conversation or exploring the environment, can mean the difference between having to hunt for clues or being handed them on a plate. It’s a frustrating experience having to do things the hard way, but every action has its consequence and Swansong really makes that clear. Understanding that dynamic and accepting the paths you go down is when my love for the game reached its peak.
With a vast array of options and a sizeable – but not overly long – campaign, Swansong offers a lot of replayability, and I am keen to dive into additional playthroughs to see where things end up.
However, while Swansong’s story is strong, its current condition on PS5, technically, is not. On the PS5, in my 15 or so hours of playing, the game has suffered from a number of issues, including dialogue not playing in interactions, the cameras being locked to a fixed perspective, button prompts not working, and visual glitches that turned my entire screen black.
While Big Bad Wolf has clearly had to cut corners in the animation department, I was prepared to look past that because the gameplay, characters, and story were so good. But, the performance issues have led to multiple moments of frustration over the course of my playthrough – something I hope others won’t have to experience on launch.
So, while I can say that fans of the World of Darkness universe are finally getting a quality game to sink their teeth into with Vampire the Masquerade Swansong, it comes with a number of issues on the performance side, making it hard to recommend at launch. But with some key performance fixes it will be more than worth checking out for existing fans and newcomers to the expansive, gothic world.
Vampire the Masquerade Swansong review (PS5)
Vampire the Masquerade Swansong is a top-tier narrative-focused adventure set in the World of Darkness that offers complex characters and a fascinating world. However, performance issues on PS5 mar what could have been a sublime experience.