Swansong Review: Swansong is a role-playing game in which all of the conflicts are resolved through speech. Conversational set-pieces dubbed “confrontations” are used to settle pivotal events between characters. Disco Elysium, for example, shows that RPGs may flourish without traditional fights, but the dialogue that now takes centre stage needs to sing or at least harmonise with a complex skill system. Sadly, Swansong fails to deliver on either. As a result, the three playable characters lack distinct personalities, and the supporting systems are underdeveloped.
Emes, Galeb and Lisha are summoned to a crisis meeting in Boston’s vampire headquarters, after a party to mark an alliance with the Hartford Chantry ended in a bloodbath, and not the type that is good for a partnership. To find out what happened, a local vampire prince assigns the trio the task of investigating, and in the end, they are tasked with a series of revenge missions that overlap. As you progress through the game, you’ll take on the role of a different vampire each time. Because of the first half of the game’s emphasis on player agency, players have a lot of freedom to explore the plot in whatever order they choose. Second-half plotting shifts to a more linear style, with each mission ending with some kind of dramatic twist..
At its best, this format allows the tale to build across three contemporaneous timeframes, allowing you to view a specific event from various perspectives. However, crossovers are regrettably sparse, with most of the nods to the three characters’ shared experiences coming in the form of passing mentions in the course of the game’s tasks. For whatever reason, the three characters don’t appear together in the same scenario once they’ve progressed through the early stages of the game.
And wow, does the plot require some sort of tying-up at this point. From the get-go, I was disoriented. For the first hour or so, if you’re new to the Vampire The Masquerade setting from the World of Darkness role-playing game, you’ll be bombarded with a seemingly unending barrage of proper nouns and quixotic lore. In-game codex entries for these phrases are automatically generated, so I found myself stopping every few minutes to study up on whatever the last person I spoke to was babbling on about in the game’s world.
Although foreign terms might cause confusion, it isn’t the only cause of it. Throughout the course of the game, not just at the beginning, there are a number of scenarios that appear to have omitted vital information. When you don’t grasp what’s going on, it’s like watching a TV show in which you worry that you’ve missed an episode where something significant occurred. Not everything has to be explained, and certain issues are better left undefined. In any case, too many specifics are left out, whether they pertain to a particular component of vampire society or the precise history of individual character interactions. With the help of the codex, it’s still a challenge to keep up with what’s happening.
Disjointedness infuses your fundamental form of connection with the world, the discourse system. Conversations are littered with difficult transitions between branches of the dialogue tree when characters misstep. “Be that as it may” and “Let’s get to the point” are common refrains as you make a decision, with the dead branch being lopped off and a new one blooming in its place. It’s disconcerting, and no one ever seems to be able to get into a rhythm with it.
The most egregious examples of this are the massive set pieces known as “Confrontations.” They’re gated dialogues with multiple stages, and you can only fail one or two times before you’re kicked out. They’re supposed to be dramatic, but as you go through the motions of each stage, making sure you’ve checked the boxes to guarantee you’ve spoken the appropriate words, they end up feeling tedious and circular. Conversely, you can simply say the wrong thing, and the encounter will continue as if the character you’re speaking to is unsure whether you said the right or wrong thing last time; they’ll just continue with the next line of their script regardless. Another jarring sensation is created.
Even if these problems were not there, the dialogue in the film still fails to impress. Everyone is so haughty and self-important that it’s hard to find even a sliver of humour or vulnerability. Although it’s possible that this is a characteristic of vampire civilization — it’s possible that I’ve missed the codex article covering that specific cultural more — hearing them pompously drone on is no less infuriating because of it. People who have known each other for many years are often referred to as friends, but their friendships don’t feel as personal or intimate as those between a coworker and an old classmate.
The narrative in Swansong is prosaic and frequently confusing, and the supporting systems are underdeveloped, thus the three playable characters have little variety in terms of flavour.
Another problem with the dialogue is that it doesn’t use the basic skill system well. It’s up to you how much time and effort you want to put into each character’s four basic dialogue skills: Rhetoric, Intimidation, Persuasion, and Psychology. They are meant to show how an immortal entity can influence mortals, yet the divide between “rhetoric” and “persuasion” can feel arbitrary. In this case, my three characters, Galeb, Emem, and Lisha, all focused on various skills, but in practice, I couldn’t tell any difference in how they dealt with problems. For the most part, I didn’t find Galeb’s rhetoric all that impressive; instead, I was only aware of his success since the choice next to it read “Rhetoric.” As a result, the characters’ conversational abilities feel interchangeable and serve to diminish the whole experience.
There are fewer chances to put these skills to work than you would think. There are simply more discussions in certain missions than others. To invest experience points on improving your Persuasion talent just to find that you have only one opportunity to apply it in the following quest is disappointing.
Characters’ Disciplines, a sort of supplementary skill tree, are where they stand out and where the skills they can use grow more intriguing. Galeb’s Fortitude discipline, for example, gives him the ability to endure any amount of terrible agony, which comes in useful when he is captured. Each character’s ability to explore a new location and solve environmental problems is bolstered by their training in these areas. Emem will summon Celerity in order to go more quickly through a level as if she were utilising a magical grappling hook. Swansong’s most intriguing puzzles are made possible by Lisha’s ability to imitate the appearance of another character and assume their job.
Lisha’s assignments were my favourites due to her particular brand of discipline. To gain access to regions that would otherwise be off-limits, she uses NPC identities to disguise herself. Playing around with her outfits and identities, as well as figuring out how she could acquire them, was always enjoyable and made you think about how to best travel about the level. While Galeb’s levels tend to focus on the most tedious aspects of the mission design, such as finding the appropriate key for a door, Emem’s blink ability attempts something similar but never feels unique.
Swansong has a strange fascination with all kinds of security measures. When it comes to locks, keys, swipe cards, implanted ID chips, safes, lockers, and drawers, Swansong has almost likely created a puzzle around it. Outside of discussion, you’re touring a few small locations: a luxurious apartment, a few warehouses near the docks, and a modest research centre. There are usually a lot of lock-and-key problems to solve in these locations.
In a world awash in the fantastical, it’s odd that so much time is spent contemplating the banal. Using email chains to search for information on a specific item’s whereabouts. Examine all of the post-it notes on the desks and whiteboards throughout the office to see whether anyone’s computer password has been revealed. Finding a key to open another cabinet or drawer or filing cabinet in a closet or drawer or cabinet.
On one mission, you discover an essential document is waiting to be printed but the printer has run out of ink. Replace the ink cartridge so that the document can print. To solve another challenge, you may need to locate a specific form and fill it out correctly. In another, you’ll have to spend the entire level making sure your security pass is up to date in order to roam around freely. Each and every goal is a new variation on the same bureaucratic choreography.
In moderation, these puzzles might be fun to play with. There are times in Swansong that find the ideal balance between espionage and the rigours of a good procedural; skulking around someone’s apartment or office, rifling through their files, and searching into their secrets However, it becomes increasingly reliant on locking items behind doors and requiring you to locate the key in order to access them. What’s worse, much of what you find in those emails, post-its, and documents you’ve retrieved from filing cabinets is inconsequential, adding nothing to your knowledge of the world or your ability to carry out the task at hand.
When it comes down to it, Swansong is a dud. As a result of its unoriginal problem design and clunky writing (which muddles the tale), this game is unplayable. Unfortunately, even if you persevere to the end, you won’t be rewarded with anything of value. When I thought I’d reached the end of the second act, the game abruptly terminated. The same way as this.