Vampyr comes to us from the folks over at Dontnod, the developers responsible for Life is Strange as well as Remember Me. It’s a massive shift in their usual design philosophy to suddenly come through with a narrative-driven RPG focused on vampires during the 1918 flu epidemic, but considering their pedigree, this game was something to keep your eye on. During the initial hours of Vampyr, I felt decidedly underwhelmed. The game felt like it was missing crucial pieces in its fundamental design with the gameplay feeling clunky and the game not looking up to snuff compared to its myriad established contemporaries.
However, I gave the game some room to breathe and after the rather chaotic introduction, something within the game flourished and I found myself with a tantalising intrigue and the want to experience more. Vampyr is something special, but it’s surrounded by a cocoon of uncertainty and flaws that cannot be ignored. There’s a lot to unravel here, so let us jump right into it.
This ain’t no Twilight
The game follows Dr. Jonathan Reid, a famous and talented surgeon focused on, you guessed it, blood transfusions. He awakes in a pile of corpses with the unbearable thirst for warm human blood and accidentally murders his sister during a hunger infused trance. Reid awoke as an Ekon or, as they are more commonly known, a vampire. A higher vampire at that, capable of intelligent reasoning and still being able to use his talents. This sudden awakening of his is a complete mystery and the game’s central premise is Reid’s search for his Maker and getting answers out of them.
During this journey, Reid gets assigned to a hospital as the head surgeon where he can have shelter as he goes on his quest for answers. The game also takes place during the Spanish Flu epidemic that happened in 1918 and this permeates throughout the entire pseudo open-world you find yourself in. People are dying in the streets, the outlook of the poverty-stricken populace is grim and optimism isn’t really a common thing in the grimy streets of London. Besides a rampaging epidemic, there’s also a shadow plague of vampires roaming the streets and feeding off the weak and the vulnerable. As retaliation, there are also ruthless radical vampire hunters around that seek to destroy anything with fangs. Things certainly aren’t rosy.
The narrative is exceedingly clever and takes you on various twists and turns throughout Reid’s tumultuous story.
It’s easy to fall into tropes when you’re dealing with a vampire-themed storyline. The immortal creatures have been a mainstay in our contemporary culture for centuries now and many of the possible avenues of storytelling have already been treaded, including the painful romance-centric teen novels that have been as much of a plague as the Spanish Flu. To come up with something new using this established theme is a challenge, but to my utter surprise, Vampyr does it with a delightful grace that I really didn’t expect.
The narrative is exceedingly clever and takes you on various twists and turns throughout Reid’s tumultuous story. It starts out as a story of revenge but quickly turns into one of humanity, intrigue, tragedy and hardship. The story isn’t afraid to go for the grand as world-changing schemes suddenly involve the good doctor while he’s also dealing with internal struggles and the trials of the people of London. It covers all the bases and the exposition is satisfyingly deep. If you spend enough time reading the lore of the world and talking to characters, everything gets a life of its own.
The good doctor
One of the most standout features of the game is the sheer amount of interactive NPCs that litter the game’s various districts. Each district has its own distinct features and individual story with the inhabitants having their own individual tales. You will be talking to people a lot in this game and each and every character has depth to them. From the pain they’ve been put through, their despicable actions and their twisting motivations, you’ll become rather acquainted with the denizens of London during your journey. There is a point to investigating the lives of people and that’s to make them juicier. No, I’m not kidding.
Vampyr has this incredibly clever mechanic where each citizen has experience points tied to them in the form of their blood. You will be able to hypnotise them and have the ability to feast off their blood in order to gain more power, but this obviously comes with the consequence of them dying and leaving the world behind. If you give in to this hunger and thirst for power, you’ll be wrecking families, destroying communities and if you’re ruthless enough, leave entire districts in ruin. Your decisions will have a butterfly effect on the district at large and if you make some significant changes, the entire house of cards can come crumbling down, leaving these districts in chaos.
If you decide to feed on someone, you’ll get a massive experience boost that you can use to level up your skills and you as well, making the combat encounters significantly easier. But if you abstain and take the vegetarian route, you’ll suffer great strife. Because of this, the game’s morality isn’t just limited to some dialogue options, it’s tied to the game’s difficulty. The desire to feed will be tremendous and being the good doctor will be massively taxing and make the game’s difficulty immense or close to impossible. I primarily played the game abstaining from murdering anyone and this made my journey almost infuriating. Enemies had levels far exceeding my own, the experience I was gaining from completing quests and combat encounters were not enough to keep up and that strong desire to kill my fellow man for power was incredible.
There are many unsavoury types in this world. Corrupt landlords, murderers, insane people and generally despicable people. Nobody will miss them if they’re gone, right? It won’t matter if that terrible person who only looked out for themselves would vanish from the community. Sure, that’s all true, but you’re still murdering someone for power. That’s when I realised how genius this game actually is with this clever system. It mirrors Reid’s thirst for blood and the challenge it is to abstain from abusing it with your actual ability to go through the game. People will start looking very tasty and if you find more out about them, they’ll wield even greater experience boosts. But then you’ll also know that they have a family or have had tragedy befall them.
Compare this with other games with morality systems in them. You will most likely pick between blue and red or try and justify your choices. However, those choices have never made the actual gameplay significantly more difficult. Being evil in other games is sometimes just for the sake of being vindictive, but in this one, it feels like a necessity. That’s something I have honestly never experienced in a game before. You can say that the game forces you into this paradigm, but it doesn’t. It just makes it very difficult for you.
Begone foul beast
Reid’s new vampiric powers are rather beneficial. He’s faster, stronger and able to use supernatural abilities. He can solidify blood into a spear or even bleed himself in order to heal. You’ll be fighting equally as much as talking in this game and those experience points I’ve mentioned earlier are the key to your efficacy in battle. You’ll be able to wield various weapons such as saws or hatchets, but also guns and stakes that allow you to stun your enemies. If an enemy is stunned, you can feed on their blood in order to fill your blood meter and use your powers.
The game’s combat is reminiscent of many third-person action games with the added spice of your vampire powers. However, the combat never really comes close to being satisfying. It’s serviceable, for sure, but there isn’t really much impact to your blows and it feels more like a tedious exercise than something to get excited about. If you go the passive and in turn more difficult route, things get painfully brutal with enemies just obliterating you if you slip up just a little bit. If you do feed and get on a comparable level, things are rather straightforward. Boss fights are a special mention as they can be these rather drawn out events with powerful enemies and defeating such powerful foes does feel satisfying.
There’s a noticeable battle between Vampyr‘s two main focus points.
Enemies litter the streets of London and because you’ll be travelling between districts a lot, combat is unavoidable. Vampire hunters are the most common enemy to face and they come in a variety of flavours, from normal soldiers to priests wielding massive crucifixes. There are also rabid vampires all over the place called Skals that will mercilessly attack you if you come near them. Stealth isn’t an option so you have to fight and because of this, traversing feels really stifled. Doing simple quests will feel like ordeals because you’ll be blocked into some tough battles just by walking around. There’s no fast travel either, so good luck getting to the other side of town.
Get down with the sickness
The game feels clunky. I mentioned this in the opening paragraph and it doesn’t get better the more you play. Movement feels stiff, the looting and crafting feels tacked-on, there’s no manual saving so you’re at the mercy of autosaving checkpoints, navigating the streets can be difficult and you’ll get easily lost, the load times between sections and reloads are painfully long. The game feels unpolished and you’ll feel the weight of that heavily throughout your playtime. It’s a constant problem that coupled with the equally clunky combat makes the whole experience feel off.
This holds back the game rather significantly and is the primary reason why the score isn’t higher. You can have an exceptional narrative with a genius mechanic, but that doesn’t necessarily compensate for less than ideal design and having the gameplay experience feel lacking. It is a tragic shame because if the game was more refined, it would have easily been something that can compete with the higher echelons of the genre. The visuals contribute to this as well, with some pretty poor texturing and animations within a world that feels rather stale. The art direction does lean into the oppressive nature of this plague-ridden city, but many locales and areas look the same. There isn’t much to look at besides cobblestone roads and torn down buildings.
A blood diamond in the rough
There’s a noticeable battle between Vampyr‘s two main focus points. The narrative and butterfly effect style situational storytelling is stellar and finds increasingly unlikely ways of surprising you with the suave Dr. Reid questioning his way to his desired revelations. The connection of game difficulty and morality is also something you cannot ignore. But the game just does not play well. There are no distinguishable features in the gameplay that make it stand out in its genre and makes the playing experience a cumbersome one.
I want to love Vampyr and in many ways I do, I heartily recommend it to anyone who enjoys ambitious storytelling, but its flaws cannot simply be forgiven. They have a noticeable effect on the game’s enjoyment and holds back an otherwise stellar vampire experience. You should pick it up, it deserves your time, but keep in mind that the ride may be a rough one.