Big Bad Wolf calls his game a “narrative RPG”: let’s take the time to explain what it is. Vampire The Masquerade – The Swan Song offers players the opportunity to embody three characters, all three members of the Boston Camarilla: Galeb, Emem and Leysha. In this universe, the Camarilla is an organization that brings vampires together and makes sure they remain discreet, to prevent humans from choosing to hunt them down. However, this is exactly what happened just before the game started: the vampires were attacked and suffered heavy losses.
The fate of the Camarilla depends on the player’s choices. This is where the role-playing dimension is embodied: there are many choices at play, which influence the development of the plot and its conclusion. A large number of characters, including the main three, can live or die, depending on the choices made by the player. Note, however, that the narrative is quite linear: there are some changes depending on the choices made, but the main storyline will be the same for all players, regardless of their choices. These mainly affect the end, but it is quickly eliminated: the consequences of the player’s decisions are eliminated at best very quickly, at worst completely ignored.
Either way, these many choices undeniably make Vampire The Masquerade – Swansong an RPG. However, it differs from most other RPGs in that it doesn’t contain any combat. It is limited, in fact, to an infiltration phase – optional, failed and unpleasant -, to a series of successful puzzles – and, above all, to “clashes”, discussions whose outcome depends on the dialogue options chosen by the player.
Let’s go into more detail. A comparison is divided into several stages. The player has the right to lose some along the way (usually one or two), but he must win the last one at all costs. During each stage, several dialogue options are offered, some good, some bad. While some options cost nothing, others depend on a skill.
Let’s take a concrete example. In the image above, four dialogue possibilities are proposed. Two of them require the use of a skill. In this case we compare the score of our character with that of the opponent: if the score is lower, the battle is automatically lost. If the score is equal or higher, it is … maybe won, because it depends on a system of probabilities.
The dice table 20
This possibility is a big flaw in the game, in fact randomness rarely brings something positive in a video game, but obviously it is even worse in a role-playing game: very often the consequences of an action are determined by a die roll more than by decision of a player. It’s very frustrating, even if you quickly learn how to get around it – go back to the main menu to start the comparison again. It’s not quite a pleasant feeling, however.
Above all, this system breaks all interests of the skill system. Indeed, this system is quite profound. First, using a skill uses Willpower, available in limited quantities, but which recharges between scenes. This forces you to be thrifty: very often it is better not to take an action, because the Willpower points will be more useful later on.
Also, it is possible to focus a skill. Therefore, each skill has a level between 0 and 5. If the player has the skill at least at level 1, it is possible to “focus” it, thus increasing its score by one or two. Therefore, having a level 2 skill, it is possible for example to temporarily go up to 4. However, the use of the skill costs much more; the improvement of a skill therefore no longer has the main purpose of being stronger, but above all of reducing the cost of use.
All of this is interesting on paper. However, randomness removes all interest from the system. Better, in fact, not to concentrate your skills, or as little as possible, and hope for a favorable die roll, even at the cost of restarting the dialogue until it passes. Likewise, opponents can sometimes focus their skills, but again this is purely coincidental – the best way to react is to simply ignore it and start over if this kind of problem occurs.
Overall, the whole progression system really sucks. RPGs generally offer a super satisfying sense of progression – a character starts with no skill and ends with a fully populated skill tree. In Swansong, this never happens, for three reasons.
First of all, if the use of three characters is an excellent idea at the narrative level, here it comes into direct comparison with the game system: Swansong is in fact a rather long game; it took me 33h to get to the end, even if it means that I restarted some scenes several times because I was not satisfied with my choices. However, this playing time – and the experience gained – is divided into three. As a result, we feel a sense of progression for each character, but it’s like there’s ten or twenty hours of gameplay left to see the end. This lack is particularly visible for talents. These stem from an interesting idea: the more the player uses a skill, the more bonuses he gets for it. Let’s take a look at the talents obtained by one of my characters, Galeb, at the end of the game:
Of the nine available talents, I only reached level 1 for four of them, two of which passed level 2. However, none made it through the final stage, which stems from a fairly incomprehensible balancing problem.
Secondly, there are many, many things to drive. In addition to the skills, eight in number, the player also has three attributes – which affect the percentage of success in the event of a tie and reducing the cost of concentration – and three disciplines, which unlock very powerful contextual actions using a different resource, Hunger (we are a vampire, after all!). Unlike Willpower, Hunger doesn’t reload – in principle – between two scenes. To lower it, it is necessary to feed by drinking someone’s blood. This all takes a lot of experience. I haven’t done the math, but unlocking everything would probably require five to ten times more experience than in-game experience.
However, I hear you object: nothing forces you to want to unlock everything! An RPG is about making choices, which often means specializing. However, in effect, gambling strongly encourages – if not dictates – diversification, through various processes. First of all, the previously mentioned concentration system allows you to increase your score; having all the skills in three, you can reach the top anywhere when needed. Furthermore, the interest in raising a skill to its maximum level does little. This avoids having to concentrate, which is appreciable, but the skill still has an incompressible cost. Same thing for attributes and disciplines – it gets a little better once maxed out, some disciplinary improvements are essential, but the player will be much more punished than rewarded if they max out a skill rather than diversify.
This penalty is all the more marked by the increasingly important cost of an improvement. Upgrading a skill from level 0 to level 1 costs 10 points; going from level 4 to 5 costs 150. To give you a clear idea, 150 is also more or less what a scene brings (called “research”), each character has none in all and for all only seven (not counting the epilogue). In short, if a player decides to raise a skill or attribute to the maximum, leaving everything else at zero, a player can thus raise three or four skills in total. It is absolutely ridiculous.
Explore, expand, exploit and eradicate
Let’s summarize where we are: Vampire The Masquerade: Swansong is a non-combat RPG, based mostly on the choices offered to the player. However, if the choices have a noticeable impact, they have little effect on the course of the adventure. Likewise, the clashes, the theoretical heart of the game, suffer terribly from an omnipresent randomness and a completely failed progression system, due to a lack of balance. This all sounds like a description of a bad game, which Swansong is not.
In fact, the linear narrative is of quality: the characters are well written and their respective points of view are easy to understand. The game is built on shades of gray, which is hugely appreciable. Above all, all the scenes were really successful.
Everyone is unique. At the start of the game, Leysha must, for example, explore an area using different disguises to access different areas, such as a Sicario. In another, Galeb has to search for an apartment from top to bottom. Emem, meanwhile, is lost in a mystical world, searching for her lost memories of her … Advice, which relied on a camera, Swansong is constantly exploring new places and tackling each scene with a specific approach. The result is almost always very successful.
Almost, because three defects still affect the image. First, the use of consumables is not very thoughtful. In The Council, there were only three types, easily found and used. In Swansong they are rarer … so we never use them. Second, the Council once again offered to find coins during the exploration phases, providing experience bonuses; it was a pleasant gain. None of this here, which is a shame, especially as the experience is lacking, as previously mentioned. Finally, and most importantly, the game suffers from many bugs, including some blockers: for example I had to completely restart a scene because a dialogue refused to start. It is quite unpleasant.
A late game might be good someday
All in all, Vampire The Masquerade: Swansong has a really interesting take on the “RPG” genre, a story, well-written characters and a number of memorable scenes. However, it also suffers from bugs and a general lack of balance, which suggests that the game was released too soon and that a few more months of development would have perfected the formula.
Above all, and this is incomprehensible, Swansong does not at all exploit the qualities of its predecessor, The Council. Either way, the latter was more successful: the progression was much more thought out, the exploration better rewarded, the comparisons more interesting. I really struggle to understand why Big Bad Wolf put aside his good ideas of the time to release a less good game four years later. Too bad: the result remains satisfactory, but it could have been much better.
Tested by Alandring on PC from a version provided by the publisher.