Swansong is an RPG that delivers all of its drama through dialogue – there’s no combat to speak of. Critical scenes between characters are resolved in conversational settings called “confrontations”. RPGs can exist without traditional battles – just look at Disco Elysium, for example – but the dialogue now center stage has to sing, or at least mesh with a deep skill system. Swansong, unfortunately, does not ship either. Its writing is pedestrian, often inconsistent, and its support 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 wizards) ends in a bath of blood, and not the good kind. The local vampire prince asks the trio to find out what happened and eventually sends them on a series of overlapping revenge missions. Missions are tailored to each vampire’s specific abilities, and you 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 the choice to pursue the scenario that interests you the most. But during the second half, a more linear approach takes over, and you find yourself transferred from character to character mission, each ending on something of a cliffhanger.
This structure allows the story to build on three simultaneous timelines, and at best, the perspectives sometimes align to allow you to view a specific event from multiple angles. While it has to be said, crossovers are sadly rare, and it’s mostly small references throughout the missions that nod to the events 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 early stages of the game.
And, boy, does the story need to be tied? I felt lost from the start. If you’re not deeply familiar with the Vampire The Masquerade setting of the World Of Darkness RPG system, prepare to have a seemingly endless litany of proper names and quixotic lore hurled at you for the first hour or so. Such terms are added to the in-game codex when they first meet, and I found myself stopping every few minutes to read whatever the last person I spoke to was talking about.
But it’s not just the unfamiliar terms that cause confusion. So many scenes throughout the game – not just at the beginning – seemingly arrive with something missing, a few crucial details or two omitted. It’s like watching a TV series where you don’t quite understand what’s going on and you’re constantly worried that you skipped an episode where something important happened. Not everything needs to be explained, of course, and some questions are best left ambiguous. But whether it’s a specific aspect of vampire society or the precise history of certain character relationships, too much detail is too lightly sketched or merely assumed. Even with the help of the codex, it’s hard to keep track of exactly what’s going on.
This kind of disjunction permeates the dialogue system, your primary mode of interacting with the world. Conversations are full of awkward sequences as characters awkwardly move from one branch of the dialogue tree to another. Everyone always says “Anyway” or “Let’s cut to the chase” when you confirm a choice, with the dead branch cut off and another sprouting awkwardly in its place. It’s shocking and the conversation never flows.
Big set pieces “Confrontations” are perhaps the worst offenders here. These are multi-step closed conversations where you must say the right thing to pass each step, with only one or two failures allowed. They’re set up to be really dramatic, but they end up feeling stretched out and weirdly circular as you jump through the hoops of each stage, ticking boxes to make sure you’ve said the right things. But you can also easily say the wrong thing, and each new stage of the confrontation plays out as if the character you’re talking to isn’t sure if you said the right or wrong thing last time; they just move forward with the next line of their script regardless. This is another strangely jarring effect.
Even without these issues, the dialogue writing doesn’t impress. Everyone is so surly and important, with fleetingly rare moments of humor or vulnerability. It may be authentic in vampire society – I may have missed the codex entry that covers more of this particular culture – but it doesn’t make the experience of hearing them pump pompously less unbearable. Some of the people you meet have been friends or at least known each other for decades, but it rarely feels like their relationship is any closer or more intimate than that of a coworker you say hello to when you meet them. cross in the corridor. .
Swansong’s writing is pedestrian, often inconsistent, and its support systems are underutilized, adding little flavor to distinguish the three playable characters.
Another significant issue with dialogue is the poor use of the base skill system. Each character has four main dialogue skills – Rhetoric, Intimidation, Persuasion, and Psychology – which unlock dialogue options if you have invested enough points in them. The idea is that they represent the ways in which an immortal being can manipulate mere mortals, but the distinction may seem arbitrary: why exactly is this line ‘rhetoric’ rather than ‘persuasion’? My three characters focused on different skills here – Galeb was more rhetorical, Emem more persuasive, Leysha more psychological – but in practice I couldn’t detect any difference in how they handled situations. Rarely have I been dazzled by the substance of Galeb’s rhetoric; instead, I only knew he hit a winning argument because the option had “Rhetoric” written next to it. As a result, the dialogue skills seem interchangeable and serve to smooth the experience between the three characters.
It doesn’t help that the opportunities to use these skills come less frequently than you might think. Some missions are simply more conversation-heavy than others. It’s frustrating to spend experience points upgrading your Persuasion skill only to find in the next mission only one instance where you can use your upgraded ability.
Where the characters are better differentiated, and the skills they can deploy become more interesting, is in their Disciplines, a sort of secondary skill tree. Galeb’s Fortitude discipline, for example, allows him to withstand all kinds of intense pain, which comes in handy when he finds himself inevitably captured. These disciplines also expand each character’s repertoire for exploring an area and inform the types of environmental puzzles they face. Emem will call upon Celerity to traverse a level with greater agility, blinking between preset points as if using some sort of mystical grappling hook. And Leysha’s ability to mimic another character’s outfit and assume her role unlocks some of Swansong’s most engaging puzzle designs.
I enjoyed Leysha’s missions the most because of her unique discipline. In his levels, impersonating NPCs allows him to infiltrate areas that would otherwise be off limits. Figuring out what outfit or identity she should adopt and how she would get it was always fun and encouraged you to think about how the level fits together and the best ways to get through it. Emem’s blink ability attempts something similar but never feels quite so creative, while Galeb’s levels tend to double down on the more annoying aspects of mission design: finding the right key to open a door. .
Swansong is oddly obsessed with all sorts of security mechanisms. Keys, swipe cards, implanted ID chips, safes, gates, lockers, drawers, passwords, keypads and sliding blocks, you name it, Swansong has almost certainly designed a puzzle around it. Outside of dialogue, you explore relatively small places: a fancy apartment, warehouses near the docks, a small research center, etc. Navigating these places usually involves getting around a bunch of lock and key type puzzles.
For a world swimming in the supernatural, you spend an awful lot of time mired in mundane realities. Search email chains for references to the location of a particular item. Read every post-it stuck on every desk and whiteboard in case someone exposed their computer password. Searching cabinets, drawers, and filing cabinets for a key that could open another cabinet, drawer, or filing cabinet.
In a mission, you realize that a document containing important information is queued in a printer that is out of ink. Your task is to replace the ink cartridge so that the document can print. In another mission, a possible puzzle solution requires you to find a particular form and complete it correctly. In yet another, an entire level revolves around updating your Security Pass so you can roam freely. Goal after goal offers endless variations on this kind of bureaucratic work.
In moderation, these types of puzzles are enjoyable. Sneaking into someone’s apartment or office, rummaging through their files, digging into their secrets; Swansong has those moments that strike the right balance between the suspense of espionage and the rigors of good procedural. But it becomes too reliant on locking things behind doors and requiring you to find the key. And, even worse, much of what you discover in those emails, post-its, and documents you’ve pulled from filing cabinets is insignificant, adding little – if anything – to your understanding of the world or the mission. to accomplish. .
Swansong ultimately has little to recommend it. Its writing is stilted, its storytelling muddled, and its puzzle design is mostly unimaginative. Unfortunately, there’s not even a valid reward if you manage to complete it. I reached a point where I thought I had reached the end of the second act, and then the game ended. Just like that.