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Saturday, May 21, 2022

In this game, vampires aren’t feral beasts – they’re the global elite | Games

How do you make vampires feel menacing again? For game developer Big Bad Wolf, the answer was to make the living dead responsible for everything wrong with our world. In an age where the lines between conspiracy and reality are increasingly blurred, Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong makes things reassuringly explicable. Despite all our species’ posturing, it turns out, an ancient council of vampires has been quietly pulling the strings for millennia. Slavery? A vampiric plan. Genocide? Vampires have profited from it, time and time again. In other words, what’s truly terrifying about these vampires is that they aren’t feral beasts, they’re the world’s elite – and you’re utterly powerless to stop them.

This refreshingly grownup vampire game uses this murky world of conspiracy and politics as its basis. Unlike the hugely male-dominated Dungeons and Dragons scene, Vampire: The Masquerade’s dicey adventures attracts players in their 30s and 40s, of whom 40% are women. Handed the keys to the cult classic tabletop game, this French developer’s upcoming adaptation feels suave, sophisticated and slightly erotic, set in a darkly glamorous fictional Boston.

“In the pen and paper role playing game you were a powerful being, but it’s not just about fighting – you can be powerful through dialogue, through cleverness,” explains the game’s writer, Laure Delmas. “For us, the question was always: how can we give players the agency and freedom to do what they want?”

Investigating a murder… Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong
Investigating a murder… Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong Photograph: PR

In the mission I play, I’m thrust into the leather shoes of an ancient vampire posing as an FBI agent. Tasked with solving a grisly murder in a Manhattan apartment, I find our decapitated victim slumped across the marble floor. How did this ally of the vampire council meet his end? I’m tasked with questioning vampires and humans alike, forcing me to jot down notes in an actual real world notepad in order to get my facts in order.

You’ll need to have your story straight, because your opponents won’t give you a second chance. A highlight of my demo are the game’s intriguing confrontations, which feel ripped straight from the tattered pages of a pen and paper session. When you find yourself needing to extract some vital information from a target, you will trigger an intense conversational duel. In order to assert your unholy power over your prey you’ll need to choose your answers carefully, rolling a virtual die in order to see whether you’re persuasive enough for your quarry to succumb to your will. It’s hungry work. The clock is always ticking, and making important decisions without feeding will make you sloppy – so you must lure tasty humans away from the crowd and drain them dry before diving back into interrogations.

As it turns out, I’m not a particularly persuasive vampire – I lost all of my confrontations, causing a newly turned daywalking vampire to flee into a cloud of smog. Interestingly I’m told that the information you do or don’t find will affect what the vampiric council knows, and how your next missions pan out.

Vampire: The Masquerade - Swansong’s three player characters: Emem, Galeb and Leysha
Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong’s three player characters: Emem, Galeb and Leysha Photograph: PR

“Hitman and Deus Ex were a big influence, in the way you interact with the world and the choices you have,” explains lead quest designer, Eliott Hipeau. “You’re going to have to respect the masquerade, you’re going to hide yourself in the shadows and not be seen. And you have to learn how to live in the lion’s den.”

You will play as three different vampires on different legs of their vampiric journeys. One of them, Leysha, a newly turned member of the troubled Malkavian clan, finds herself still struggling with that most human of ailments: lapsing mental health. As you attempt to navigate the world through her eyes, Leysha will sometimes prove an unreliable narrator. “This is something I feel very proud of,” explains Laure, who has a background in neuropsychology, “first just to depict mental illness, which is not something we see in a lot of video games, and then to tackle it in a way that feels true and honest. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to portray how vampires see mental illness, which is something that is typically human, and how weird that can feel to powerful beings that don’t have such problems.”

Playing like a mix of LA Noire, Deus Ex and a vampiric Hitman, Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong offers up a disarmingly unique take on the blood-sucking fantasy. It’s about quietly maintaining the status quo of the vampiric masquerade by quietly and ruthlessly manipulating your prey. And it certainly won’t give you unwelcome Twilight flashbacks.

  • Vampire: The Masquerade – Swansong is released on 19 May on PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4/5 and Xbox One/Series X/S.

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