If I had to count all the concepts severely underused in the video game industry, Vampire games would be around the top of my list. Sure we have classics like Legacy of Kain, Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines and Bloodrayne. Then again, most of them seem so far fetched from reality with supernatural powers and largeer than life characters running rampant. This is where Dontnod‘s Vampyr comes in. Vampyr, like the name suggests puts you in the shoes of a vampire in a 1918 London raveged by the Spanish flu. From the get-go, Vampyr promises a supernatural story grounded in reality set in the backdrop of science. Hell, the game even begins with a message about the game’s fictional depiction of medical knowledge from the 20th century (It also tells you not to try the recipes shown in the game to cure real life illness, so better get that idea out of your mind). With that out of the way, let’s see what the game is about.
Vampyr is an action RPG developed by Dontnod Entertainment and published by Focus Home interactive for PC, PS4 and Xbox One, and was released on 5 June 2018.
Story and Narrative
The story of Vampyr is set in post-war London during the 1918 Spanish flu. You play as Dr. Jonathan Reid, a British surgeon renowned for his blood transfusion technique who is returning home after serving in World War I. The game opens with Jonathan mysteriously waking up amidst the dead in a mass grave full of flu victims. Driven by a ghoulish hunger for blood, he flees the scene after commiting a gruesome murder. Reed finds himself hunted by vampire hunters and is given sanctuary in Pembroke hospital as a surgeon. The rest of the game deals with Jonathan coming to terms with him being a vampire, finding out who made him so, and finding a cure for the Spanish flu. Torn between his duty as a doctor and the never-ending ravenous hunger, it’s upto the players to shape the fate of Reid and of those around him.
The major mistake Vampyr commits from the get-go is that the way it introduces the player into the world is not a satisfying one. You’re just pushed into the world with no explanation or context whatsover. It can take hours until one is properly engaged in Dr.Reid’s plight, that too by means of constant exposition dumps. The first 10 hours of the game can feel less like the clan chess from Bloodlines and more like a season of Grey’s Anatomy, with the good doctor dealing with one hospital crisis after the other. While the writing isn’t going to win anyone over, there are a decent amount of twists and turns along the way which keeps the story engaging. It’s a slow burner for sure, but it’s a story that definitely gets more interesting the more you progress.
While Reid himself has the charisma and charm of a wet towel, it’s the various NPCs who populate the world that steals the show. Almost all the side characters in Vampyr are fully three dimensional, complete with their backstories and motivations and fit right in with the oppressive setting. Desperation and hopelessness decimate their will to live and fight, so much so that you genuinely feel sympathetic towards many of them. The mother of a serial killer who is torn between the love for her son and justice, the broke poet who romanticizes the death and desolation around him, the soldier disguises his embarassing injury as a war injury. It’s meeting and interacting with characters like these that makes the story of Vampyr worth completing. Sadly it’s hard to talk further about them without venturing into spoiler territory.
Gameplay & Mechanics
Vampyr plays somewhat similar to The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. You explore a semi-open London to meet NPCS, accept side-quests (which are mostly fetch quests), combat enemies, gather XP and level up. There are a 5 boroughs of London available to explore, some which are locked until you progress further into the story. Each borough is interconnected to one another and you can unlock several shortcuts to reach places faster. Traveling between various boroughs is a seamless process and there are only a handful of areas with loading screens (mostly buildings related to the main quest). Do note that there is no fast traveling as the map is not that big and is not spread apart. I’m glad to say that the world is not filled with open world busywork and pointless collectibles (there are several lore notes to collect, if you choose to).
Vampyr’s biggest drawback is the bland and uninspired combat system. It’s similar to the one used in Mars: War Logs, Bound By Flame and Technomancer with a pinch of Bloodborne. You can equip either a single handed weapon or an off-hand weapon (such as guns) together, or equip a two handed weapon. You can use a dodge manouver to avoid getting hit. Atatcks and dodges are limited by a recharging stamina meter. There’s a plenty of vampiric abilities to unlock, if you have the XP that is (we’ll come back to this later). While it all sounds good on paper, it really doesn’t translate well into the gameplay. The shallowness of the combat really shows when facing more than one enemy. You’ll be frantically sidestepping around enemies constantly to avoid getting hit all the time. Since the vampiric powers and weapons feel really underpowered in their initial levels, you’ll be repeating the same dodge and attack pattern over and over again. Especially against bullet sponge enemies and bosses. This is accompanied by the clunky keyboard and mouse controls, dump AI, a rudimentary crafting system and an unreliable camera that has a tendency to place Jonathan at awkward angles.
The combat does get serviceable at higher levels as you unlock powerful versions of the abilities and has more health than the average Borderlands raid boss. If that doesn’t work, you can always run past enemy grunts roaming the streets of London (you’re not scared, they’re just not worth your time).
What Vampyr does well however is NPC interaction and imposing a sense of morality to your actions. Like mentioned earlier, Vampyr has plenty of well written side characters roaming the world. They are an incomplete puzzle when you first meet them. You can find clues that unlock additional conversation options and reveal more information about a particular character. By doing so, you improve the quality of their blood (whoosh, video game logic!), and when feasted on such a fine specimen, you get substantially more XP than you normally would, but at the cost of their lives. More XP means you level up faster and unlock more powerful skills, thereby making your playthrough a breeze. You will be often tempted to feed on that one guy you just met since the amount of experience you get from combat and quests is very minimal. But don’t think that your actions goes unchecked. Each NPC you decide to remove from the equation affects the stability of the particular borough. The more you feed, the more powerful you become, but the stability of the area goes down hard. This results in widespread diseases, more enemy patrols, inflated prices, NPCs going missing and overall chaos in the area (think the chaos system from Dishonored, but more pronounced).
Aside from the gameplay and role playing perspective, this system can seriously question your moral compass. You meet people who are so annoying that you may want to rip open their throat and feed on them right there, right now. But the more you learn about them, the more evident it becomes that they are complex characters with a story to tell, and makes you think twice about ’embracing’ them. It plays on your conscience hard. There have been instances where I’ve let several potential victims go after learning more about them. Once you kill a NPC, you’ll have to live with it (they even judge you as you suck the life out of their body). You can’t revert to an older save if you feel guilty afterwards. I often thought about wanting to embrace a few working class people and aristrocrats of London when I was getting my butt handed to me during tough fights just so I could level up and become more powerful. I’m glad I stayed my hand though, for I can sleep better. It’s sad that unlocking all their dialogue options doesn’t do anything other than providing an XP boost when you drink their blood.
Will you stand by your oath and save as many as you can, or will you embrace this newfound life and sacrifice the life of others in the name of power? It’s this sense of morality and the chance to ‘play god’ that makes Vampyr unique and worth experiencing.
Graphics, Performance & Sound
Vampyr isn’t the most impressive looking game on the market. Textures are low res (cleverly masked by the oil painting like aesthetics on objects), the animations look weird and the character models look outated. It is clear that the game was made on a moderate budget. Yet despite the unpolished graphics, Vampyr oozes atmosphere even from its nether regions. The gloomy and oppressive backdrop of London covered in fog somehow manages to bring a lived-in feel even to the most desolate of streets and alleyways, thanks to the pretty visual direction.
I’ve seen many-a discussion regarding the performance of the game on high end PCs. Yet in my i5 7500 and dinosaur GTX 750 the game ran above 30 fps at low in 1080p, and above 35 fps in medium-high settings at 900p. Other than the game freezing a couple of times, there was no other crashes, fps drops, bugs or anything like that.
If it’s not apparent already, Vampyr is a story driven RPG with A LOT of talking going on and that demands decent voice acting. In the case of Vampyr, voice acting is pretty good overall (There are some sore thumbs here and there). It’s just that the terrible facial expressions of the characters doesn’t do justice to the voice actors’ works.
Vampyr scores a home run with its soundtrack. Whether it’s the melancholic string quartet melodies or tensed fast paced beats, the soundtrack fits right in, improving the immersion factor.
Vampyr belongs to the club of RPGs that are rough around the edges, but one that pulls you in if you decide to give it a chance. I would even dare to say that people who enjoyed Gothic, Mars: War Logs, The Witcher and Drakensang will appreciate Vampyr. But when it comes down to brass tacks, whether or not you enjoy Vampyr ultimately depends on your taste as a gamer. Are you willing to look past the bland combat and lack of polish in favor of atmosphere, a dialogue-heavy narrative and an organic moral compass? If so, then Vampyr is the game for you.