Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong’s branching storylines are looking bloody impressive
I’m going to jerk back the curtain a little bit here, and I hope the devs will forgive me – it’ll turn out okay, I promise! You see, since the pandemic happened everyone has discovered you can do hands-on game previews using remote streaming, provided all parties have a decent enough internet connection. It usually works very well, with the added benefit that I don’t have to get on a plane anywhere. I had one of these for Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong last week, an upcoming thrillery-puzzley-investigation-RPG set in The World Of Darkness universe (aka all them vampy games), by Big Bad Wolf, who did The Council. For various reasons, however, my preview went terribly. But if it had gone well, I probably wouldn’t be as excited for Swansong as I now am.
I’m not entirely sure what happened, but the software doing the remote link seemed dead set against my attempts to play the game. I don’t think it was a problem with the game itself, or anything any human hands were doing, but in the end it was decided the best solution was to let me have another crack at it later on. The upshot was that I got to play through the level twice, giving me a broader sampler of all the different ways you can approach it.
The events of Swansong kick off with an attack at a swanky vampire Clan party in Boston, and you play as three different bloodsuckers dealing with the fallout in different ways. The preview focsued on the second scene of the game, playing the 300-year-old Galeb looking for a man named Jason Moore. Jason is a human and kind of a financial fixer and info broker for Galeb’s boss. You turn up at a locked room murder at Jason’s flat. The job is to find out what happened to Jason, retrieve five damning reports that Jason was working on, and remove any otherwise suspicious evidence of, you know, vampires before the (slightly janky) cops bag it and tag it. Excellent. Right up my street.
One of my favourite things about The World Of Darkness is that vampires come in different flavours according to their Clan (which is what accounts for, basically, your character class). You can level up each of the three player characters in Swansong with detectivey skills, social skills and vampire powers. Galeb is a
Tory Ventrue. He is haughty and has a very neat beard, and has abilities like Dominate and Presence to impose his will on humans. It’s suggested you put points in dialogue skills, because you butt up against people in talk-fights quite a lot (much like you did in The Council), and for this level I found Deduction was important in putting information together or spotting more clues. I was happy to paw through everything myself to find, for example, phone unlock codes, but if you can’t be arsed you can use a kind of vampire magic sight to highlight clues, or put points into Security and Technology to brute force things.
Just try not to kill people, because killing people is sus.
Doing so will cost you Willpower points, which you have a bunch of but can run down quickly. Using vampire powers, meanwhile, increases your hunger. Luckily you can refill Willpower by consuming certain items like old coins (presumably you look at them and are like, “Wow, lil’ penny, I too am very old. If you can keep going, so can I!”), and refill Hunger by consuming, you know, people. Just try not to kill them, because killing people is sus.
I found I only really had to use my supernatural abilities in those talk-fights. These happen with key characters or witnesses, and you have different options – you could try psychology, or threats, and each has a chance of success based on the person you’re talking to. You can increase your odds by focusing (costing you more Willpower or Hunger) but so can the NPC. Jason’s aged retainer, for example, was so distraught and guilty at the headless corpse in the hall that he rebuffed my efforts to tell him it wasn’t his fault. So in the end I just used Dominate to tell him to calm down.
There were lots of fun “I’m a vampire” asides with just the right amount of ham – Galeb’s disdain for a rookie cop yakking up at the sight of blood, for example. But most of the time I was just looking around and noticing things, without the game pointing them out with a neon sign, and without being all vampire-y about it. An evidence marker quietly highlights a bloody footprint. You can follow that trail to the bin bags in the kitchen, and then what kind of fool would you be if you didn’t open the garbage chute for a look? A text from Jason’s wife mentions changing the safe code to their daughter’s birthday, which indicates firstly that you need to find out that date, and secondly that wait, what, I haven’t seen a safe anywhere. So now you’re looking for a hidden safe.
Because there’s so much to do, and many ways to do it, Swansong has many potential outcomes. Had the streaming gods been on my side, I would have probably only seen one of these during my preview, but thanks to my aforementioned technological breakdown, I actually got to see just how dramatic the differences can be by playing it a couple of times. In my first attempt(s), I was tracking down all the missing paperwork, and in the process managed to threaten a dude into revealing his, kind of, hidden vampire meth lab. This had a lot of interesting stuff in it that had ramifications for interactions further in the future. But in my second proper go, I accidentally figured out what had happened to Jason straight away and was railroaded into escaping the apartment, leaving not only the meth lab but also all the incriminating evidence I was supposed to collect.
This is obviously going to make me very paranoid while I’m playing the game proper. But also, how cool is that? The gulf between possible endings in that one scenario is pretty huge, and I know choice-based games like this are mostly tricking you into thinking you’re making meaningful decisions, but in this preview, at least, Swansong seems to have performed the illusion very well. Apparently it has 15 different endings, and I probably wouldn’t have seen how different it can be in practise if my first preview hadn’t broken.
I’m going to confess that until I played it, I’d (very unkindly) pigeonholed Swansong as one of several B-side WoD games distracting everyone from the fact that Bloodlines 2 appears to have been pissed up the wall. But now I’m really excited for Swansong. The blood sings. If Big Bad Wolf can pull it off (and avoid the same final act pitfalls as The Council), this could be great.