TEST of Vampire The Masquerade Swansong: it lacks bite

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After The Council, released in 2018, the Bordeaux studio Big Bad Wolf tries its original mix of RPG and narrative game with Vampire The Masquerade: Swansong. A proposal which this time fits into the chronology of the White Wolf Publishing board game and which comes to fill an already well-filled catalog of adaptations. Between the freshly released battle royale Bloodhunt, the visual novels Coteries of New York, Shadows of New York and Bloodlines 2 still in development at Paradox, fans already have enough to get their teeth into. Vampire The Masquerade: Does Swansong manage to pull out of the game? We admit you remain on our thirst, here is why.

50 shades of RPG

The hour is grave for the bloodthirsty creatures. Code Red has been triggered, a sign that a major incident has occurred at a Boston Camarilla reunification party. Festivities that turned into a bloodbath and ashes: several of their eminent congeners are dead or missing. This tragic incident alone jeopardizes the whole community because its existence could be revealed in broad daylight. Faced with the gravity of the situation, the new Prince, Hazel Iversen, decides to trigger the maximum alert and send three of his best elements to investigate.

In turn, we embody the faithful and implacable Galeb Bazory, the unifying Emem and the divinatory Leysha. Three characters with different clans, stories and stakes, but also with distinct skills. Narrative RPG requires, each vampire has its own Disciplines. Behind this name hide unique vampiric powers. One can detect the presence of our congeners, one can move with more agility, while the last can become invisible and even copy the appearance of others. Something to vary the situations, especially since all these Disciplines can be developed at the start of each scene via a progression tree specific to each of the Prince’s lackeys. Big Bad Wolf pushes the role-playing dimension further by assigning them a character sheet with skills (dialogue, exploration, knowledge, technology) and attributes (physical, social and mental).

Don’t expect fights or QTEs galore. Much like The Council, Vampire The Masquerade: Swansong presents itself primarily as a hard-core narrative game with an accentuated RPG underlay. An original formula very fresh on paper, since these attribute and skill points will punctuate the dialogues and the investigation phases. More concretely, investing in a given Discipline will, for example, make it possible to find a hidden door or to retrace certain events. Making your vampire a tech whiz will allow you to hack into computers and locks so you don’t waste time looking for a key or password, while betting on persuasion will get someone to reveal information they’re keeping jealously for him otherwise.

Rhetorical fights

All these skills must nevertheless be used sparingly, because they are linked either to points of willpower, or to bloodlust… which can be appeased by nibbling on humans or rats. These two gauges can quickly melt, especially since there is a small twist to the use of skills and Disciplines. During the exchanges, the NPCs also have their character sheets and, depending on their skills, they can undermine your attempts at extortion or persuasion. An attempt can therefore easily come up against failure if our character has a score in this area that is less than or equal to that of the interlocutor. It will be possible to strengthen yourself with a few additional points during the dialogue, but by drawing on your reserve of willpower or bloodlust points.

And from time to time, the Prince’s Dream Team will have to face Confrontations, more muscular verbal contests which spice up the monotony of the dialogues and which directly impact the story. More concretely, the objective is to gain the upper hand over his interlocutor by going through stages in the discussion to convince him, knowing that a maximum number of clumsiness is authorized. Sometimes there is absolutely no margin for error, which makes the game even more intense. An ultra addictive mechanism that is better exploited than in the studio’s first game, but which is unfortunately still rare.

This mixture of RPG and narrative opens the way to many possibilities and directly determines our field of action in the field and the way in which we can apprehend an investigation. This is one of the big strengths of Vampire The Masquerade Swansong: the great latitude it allows us to achieve our ends. There are always several solutions, several ways to achieve your goal or not, without having to confine your character to a defined archetype. Fans of replayability will be served, especially since the end of each scene is punctuated by a summary table which allows you to discover what we missed and the alternatives available. Enough to make you want to restart the chapter or a new part just to try new approaches. At least if we hang on to the game, and for some it will not be won.

Deep gameplay, but storytelling that lacks bite

On paper, Vampire The Masquerade Swansong brings a breath of fresh air to a narrative genre that is struggling to renew itself. Except that in the state it looks a little pale, like its cast which lacks depth. It is difficult to get attached to these characters, however interesting, the fault of a writing and a narration that blow hot and cold. And this is the whole guideline of Vampire The Masquerade: Swansong: there is never very good, nor very bad. When he does things well, he can completely absorb us into his universe and his story. Its poisonous and dark atmosphere becomes gripping, as well as some really well-crafted investigations with a good dose of challenge. Once again, when it’s done well, it charms us completely. The problem is that most of the scenes are uneven and it takes until the second half of the game for it to really start delivering on its promise and revealing its true potential.

Strong consequences to your decisions? Vampire-like action? Narrative qualities? Yes there are, but we have to wait a good ten hours before Swansong lets go of its sometimes soporific rhythm to finally offer us an interesting story, engaging scenes or characters who finally reveal themselves. The game wastes too much of its time throughout the first introductory part, which clearly deserved to be shortened to better develop the characters and their personal issues. There are some interesting scenes in the lot, but they are always offset by others less inspired, more boring, which stretch too much. Fans of the paper role-playing game will be able to bypass its long lengths as Swansong respects the lore of the original material to the letter. For the others, Novice, Light Blood, Sire and other terms will be understood quickly as Big Bad Wolf has taken care to put everyone in the bath. We would even dare to say that it would be a very good gateway for those who would like to discover this universe. But for the twenty or so hours it took us to see our first ending, we had this tedious feeling of having to hang on before the game and its mechanics finally revealed themselves.

Vampire The Masquerade Swansong’s biggest problem is that it lacks panache in its storytelling, gameplay, pacing and direction. The title often struggles to convince as its qualities are always overshadowed by a more obvious defect, often of a technical nature. The weak staging limits the impact of certain scenes, the almost non-existent facial expressions discredit sometimes half-hearted acting, audio spatialization problems spoil beautiful moments, and failed Google Trads give headaches. And then there are bugs. Those who come to get you a laugh because your character suddenly sinks into the ground or becomes off-screen during a scene, and those necessarily less funny who push you to start a whole scene again because a cutscene has bugged a power, that it is impossible to use and therefore to progress as one should. And yet, despite the hasty end, as soon as the credits end, we still find ourselves wanting to retry certain scenes, to unlock new situations, to see the consequences of certain key moments. Imperfect as it is, Vampire The Masquerade Swansong delivers on its core promise: choices, consequences, and alternatives galore. Inevitably it makes you want to try it, even if it means having to go through its less graceful moments.

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