Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong review – a thriller to get your teeth into

·3 min read

Hand on heart: is anyone truly afraid of Edward Cullen? Pop culture has defanged vampires in modern times, but the undead of Swansong – an RPG-meets-detective-thriller, in which conversations replace combat – are truly fearsome. They’re not Harryhausen monsters or twinkly eyed teen idols. They’re something closer to those frightening people on LinkedIn who get promoted every three weeks, live every second of their lives in tailored suits and run their own consultancy by age 23. They’re the pallid overachievers who run our society with no concern for the rest of us, other than what we can offer them. In this case, of course, what we can offer them is blood.

It’s lucky the premise is as strong as it is, because Swansong inducts you into this world with a barrage of information. While dust gathers on your controller, you’re introduced to a shadow covenant of vampires, its many rules and political power struggles, a trio of protagonists, and a code-red event that threatens the order and secrecy you only just learned about, all in swift succession.

Should you still be standing after that tidal wave of exposition, there’s a thriller on the other side with real tension. The perspective shifts between Emem, Leysha and Galeb, three of the vampire prince’s inner circle with wildly different concerns and motivations, and you really feel the weight on their shoulders. You want to protect their friends. You want to be a good mother to your daemon child. You want to live up to the prince’s expectations. And this being a game that doesn’t present its dilemmas with neat, satisfying moral clarity, you never quite know whether you’re succeeding.

Essentially you’re playing as three nocturnal detectives digging around after an attack. Vampire: The Masquerade began as a tabletop RPG and there’s still some of the old rulebook in here – you have action points to spend on anything from hacking a laptop to conversational techniques, while feeding on humans replenishes your unholy abilities. Beyond the more prosaic walking, talking and sweeping rooms for clues like files and photos, you impress yourself upon the plot in confrontations. These work like conversational boss battles, in which you use a variety of supernatural social engineering tricks to persuade, intimidate or dominate your foils into seeing things your way.

The outcomes of those confrontations offer some diverging narrative paths, but the real forks in the road happen when you’re thrown more binary dilemmas. Do you sell out your friend to the prince or help them escape to live with other vampires who refuse to live by the code? If that seems like the kind of quandary that’d play on your mind afterwards, consider that it happens within the opening half-hour.

Moral murkiness helps preserve the tension across Swansong’s duration. There’s always something at stake – your life, the masquerade, your integrity – and that does a lot to infuse some meaning into all the talking and scouring rooms for notes. I doubt that Swansong is set to become a vampire RPG of legend, like 2004’s Bloodlines, but it nonetheless makes vampires scary again.

  • Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is out now; £34.99

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