Awakening as an unknowing beast, an adept and undying predatory soon-to-be sleuth unleashed within his native London serves as an unwilling and infuriating rebirth for Doctor Jonathan Reid. Killed by an ancient being (Myrddin Wyllt) in service to the Red Queen, an embodiment of pure hatred that survives in the blood of men, Reid spends much of Vampyr learning of the supernatural underground of 1918 London as he unravels the mystery of his creator. Jonathon is a doctor and an upper-class West End kind of guy who’d returned from service as a military doctor before being attacked and dumped into a mass grave. He’d achieved fame and reputation as an experimental surgeon in what I assume were the British and French territorial disputes in Eastern Africa of the late 1890’s. There is a plague of course, presumed to be the Spanish Flu, and Reid being a specialist in matters of blood is given both immortality and a residency at a hospital investigating the cause and the cure of the outbreak. A very mild and only slightly unnerving supernatural thriller unfolds in the tradition of modern British detective mysteries throughout Vampyr but to see it through to the end is to stare far too long at the game’s rough edges.
Joyous as a cult entry and sure to disgust the general video gaming population, the key points of interest in describing Vampyr are less interesting than the actual ‘loop’ of the gameplay. So, I’ve felt some conflict in introducing the game because it is characterized by a duality of systems that is not seamless. An adventure/action RPG hybrid created by Dontnod Entertainment a French studio come with cones without serious expectations as they’d first achieved notoriety with Remember Me (2013), a modern but wonky third person action/adventure game. They would then move on to their hit adventure game Life is Strange (2015) and from that point of success it appeared they were able to expand into multiple teams where roughly half of their ~200 employees would focus on Vampyr while the rest would make a sequel to Life is Strange and some additional adventure games. With this pedigree of third person action and adventure titles informing this third game from Dontnod, Vampyr is a mix of competent third person action similar to Bloodborne‘s combat and series of The Walking Dead: Season One style weighted dialogue (minus the small ‘mini-game’ sequences).
Despite this description the actual experience of playing Vampyr feels like a well-trimmed summation of an early The Witcher game minus the complex character growth and with dialogue options that heavily influence the outcome of the game. You speak with NPCs within four small neutral burroughs, receive quests and venture out into the streets and sewers of London in search of answers, beasts, blood, weapons, and some moderately satisfying exploration. In this sense Vampyr is an action RPG that ties character combat progression (experience points) most often to dialogue rather than success in combat, yet all experience will be spent on upgrades for combat. This is inherently a great problem for selling this style of game because it doesn’t allow the binary ‘good vs evil’ choices of Mass Effect. You will soon enough be backed into a corner with a community’s pillar and you’ve learned two things up until that point: Killing (embracing and devouring) NPCs lowers the health rating of each community and blocks side-quest lines. Embrace a pillar of any community and leave them in sickness long enough and the district will become lost! Not inaccessible but hostile with higher scaling enemies and no real hope of redemption in terms of story development tied to that region or extra experience from side-quests or conversations. Of course you will get fairly high sums of experience for killing NPCs but I found that I did very well through exploration, side-quests, and found enough XP through investigations to hold my own in combat. It helps to specialize in a good combination of abilities and not try to learn every possible skill.
There is no consequence for death in Vampyr, at least beyond losing whatever consumable item was used prior along with some of your blood meter. The game doesn’t bother you with this detail, only a quip about how hard you are to kill and that knowing death’s sweet kiss will soon be your greatest longing. Do not fear your own death but instead embrace the chance to redo that section of difficult combat because you’ll undoubtedly re-fight enemies and gain additional experience for them, it all stacks up and you lose nothing. The combat is where Vampyr kept me engaged for the duration of my 20+ hour semi-completionist playthrough. Depending how you spend your experience points Jonathon Reid has a set of options comparable to those of your average Dishonored or more recent Deus Ex games. Critical damage from stealth attacks, major stuns, damage modifiers, teleports, spears of blood, invisibility, the list goes on and includes passive abilities as well as ‘super attacks’. These attacks fall into different damage categories and enemies generally have randomly generated resistances to certain types of attacks. That means certain enemy types are more likely to take less damage from your gun, or your blood powers, but they’ll take heavy physical damage from your main weapon.
Instead of parrying enemies with your sidearm as in Bloodborne, Reid uses his secondary weapons to either gain blood meter (which is used for certain active skills, or to self-heal) or other types do heavy ‘stun’ damage that renders enemies incapacitated and vulnerable. The skill involved in choosing abilities and weapons creates a necessary balance between your ability to stun powerful enemies and your need to drain blood during combat so that you can heal (or use strong attacks) in a pinch. When you find the right combination of damage types and modifiers that allow for the blood to flow and your enemies to stun-lock, Vampyr is amazing fun. You can easily be overwhelmed and the game often throws in excess of 2-3 enemies at once with certain areas of the game continually updating their level scaling as the seven chapters of the game’s main story progress. I found the use of a ‘blood shield’ (see: The Witcher III‘s Quen Skills) along with strong physical attack skills made quick work of most enemies and those that were resistant to blood/physical attacks would go down quickly under fire from my revolver. Each weapon you pick up is upgradeable provided you have crafting parts and a nearby safehouse with a workbench; Certain weapons come with two choices of modification, the saw that I chose to upgrade over more powerful cutlasses was preferable because it hit faster, generated blood meter, and had additional options for damage modification whereas a club or axe would have upgradeable stun effect instead of blood meter generation. I had a great time finding combinations of skills, powers, weapons, and although the potential for ‘builds’ isn’t as vast as any From Software game I could see this getting at least two playthroughs a la any Dishonored game.
As with Kingdom Come: Deliverance earlier this year I found myself resorting to combat and exploration instead of the main story because the dialogue and consequence of the world around me became uninteresting. Yes, this studio creates memorable and satisfying adventure game dialogue that is natural and often compelling but for Vampyr they break into a couple of unnecessary cliches depending on how you play the game. The love affair with a mysterious woman happens too quickly without any seeming reason, the pursuit of your sister’s funeral and abomination is so anticlimactic as a plot point, and the discovery of your maker is oddly vague for uh, you know one of two major goals of the plot. Where I did see genius in this dialogue was in the video game aspects of sleuthing and figuring the right responses to weighed questions. You’re prompted with three choices to respond to critical questions and there is often a ‘right’ answer that will open more dialogue options which the game calls hints. 2-4 hints are available for all NPCs that aren’t vampires (sorry, Ekons or lowly Skals) and when you’ve fully exhausted the dialogue options for a character they’re worth a peak amount of experience if you choose to embrace them; If you choose to do so they die, the health of the district is lowered permanently, and you will often miss out on dialogue and side quests with anyone socially connected to them.
If you choose to not embrace and kill any NPCs you will need to explore the map, kill enemies, and analyze blood you collect in the hopes of formulating cures for a list of nine ailments ranging from headaches, the common cold, and fatigue up to more dangerous sickness such as pneumonia. The more times you ‘rest’ (level up using XP gained) at a safehouse the more sick citizens pop up in each district. So, exploration and combat allow you to gather resources and treatments for those illnesses. You gain experience for curing them and in some isolated cases extra dialogue options will open. This is an entertaining loop that calls for a lot of backtracking where you’ll feel like you know the map from memory by the time the game completes. I ended up challenging myself to cure everyone in the city of their illness and then go far as I could into side-quests and exploration without hitting a wall of difficulty that would make it necessary to level up. As such I both improved within the combat mechanics but also avoided constantly curing every migraine or bout of fatigue experienced by the games many NPCs. You can easily create a powerful enough build that will allow you to beat level 30+ enemies while you are still around level 20, granted you’ll need a lot of stamina invested to manage to dodge the myriad difficulties a few of the bosses present.
Around the halfway point in the game the night time setting began to wear thin. Grays, yellows, browns and splashes of red lend a dreary glow to Vampyr but the game is neither remarkably striking in the slight claustrophobia of street-and-sewer combat nor in the occasionally buggy dialogue with NPCs, which features a standard dialogue wheel and a zoomed in look at some very ugly and awkward character models. The voice acting performances vary so wildly that you’ll feel as though you’ve gone from Cumberbatch‘s Sherlock to frickin’ Dickensian parody depending which character you’re talking to. Thankfully most of the performances are suitably dark, honest, and reveal realistic people who are typically being affected by supernatural forces. If you don’t mind my spoiling what is a very thin and largely weightless plot Dr. Reid discovers the pandemic flu is actually tied to unethical medical practices at the hospital where he’d been working. Experiments to use vampire blood to cure illness created mutated forms of unsuccessful vampire progeny, Skals which spread illness and an aggressive zombie-like affectation. There are classes of immortals and Reid is an Ekon, essentially the upper-middle class of vampirism borne from ancient blood. The cure comes from a secret Ekon society and a secret anti-vampire extermination squad, both of whom harbor halves (two sacred bloods) of the solution to the abominations created through experimentation.
Throughout the game Jonathon is visited by a blood spirit, Myrddin, who is taken from a Welsh warrior legend who went mad with the blood of his enemies. Myrddin merely represents a ‘son’ of the Red Queen who turned Dr. Reid as one of his progeny in believing him a vital warrior in ending the Red Queen’s menace. This supernatural element of the game is presented as a sort of eternal struggle that pops up in times of great duress among mankind, the Red Queen is the embodiment of hatred within blood. Depending on how much dark fiction, horror, or supernatural thriller you read (or watch) on a regular basis this part of the story is completely rote. I wouldn’t say that nature’s spiritual manifestations of the unnatural wrongs that mankind commits is the worst reason to have vampires in London but it at least gives a moralistic grey area to work with in reaching the point of pandemic. Without the unethical, but well intentioned (?), experimentation of Dr. Swansea at the hospital the game’s central investigation wouldn’t have much to go on. This plot crumbled in front of me as I played and I was incredibly bored by it. The possibilities for where the story could have gone coming from the conversations of who your maker might be were far more interesting in mystery than in practice. When you’re visited by your first beast (a Vulkod) that serves the Ascalon club, there is some wonder of what powerful Ekons and beings you might encounter in grand boss fights. The last few chapters instead have you simply fighting a couple of Vulkods and a few mutated Skals before the final Skal/Red Queen boss fight. The entire story feels like it was missing its true second act and instead you’re funneled quickly towards the conclusion, along with an awkward romance that intensifies seemingly overnight.
Challenging boss fights, clusters of difficult enemies, fun exploration, reasonable action RPG systems, and some initially compelling story dialogue make for a very fun-but-flawed game that will definitely appeal to folks who gravitate away from the stupid gloss of high-budget video game productions. It isn’t as darkly comedic and viscerally challenging as say, The Witcher II but there is that same sense of a conceptual PC action RPG blending with consequence focused adventure titles. There are many pros and cons that come with Dontnod trying to do those two things at once: The controls are satisfying but combat is stiff and enemies rarely fight fair if given the chance to fuck you up. The load times are incredibly long on the Playstation 4 and this makes reloading boss encounters very annoying. Missing dialogue options is frustrating as all hell thanks to auto-save integration; The ‘right’ answer to open more dialogue options is often not intuitive to the point that I found myself occasionally looking up the consequences of my actions. To be a completionist means that you’ll do things that seem incongruous with the character you’re playing as. I felt the achievement for letting an area collapse into ‘hostile’ status shows the need to force folks into a mechanic that they will naturally avoid, and the option to basically ‘fuck up’ your playthrough and lose much of the smaller storytelling moments only highlights how much of the side-quest interactions are in fact pointless distraction from a thin plot.
In trying to do two things at once Dontnod Entertainment have done two things moderately well that they’ve otherwise found greatness in previous. That said the capsular nature of this game betrays the potential of a meaningful sequel in the future and as a one-off experience I found Vampyr both compelling in narrative and mechanically satisfying. Though the entrance to Pembroke Hospital serves the player with about an hour of dialogue and investigation this represents the greatest selling point of the game as you head to the morgue (a ‘dungeon’ of sorts) and around the city to help the people you are willed to serve and collaborate with. Though you’ll have to keep in mind I’m not only the type to put 100+ hours into most any Dark Souls clone, I’m also prone to enjoy even a slightly broken PC RPG like Two Worlds II or Elex. Vampyr is not broken like those games but it does leave some of its rough edges exposed in terms of presentation and combat design. I did have fun with this game and I would just as well play it again and eventually gain whatever completionist trophies necessary because once I was in the loop of combat and investigation it all felt ‘right’. Highly recommended, but in the sense that I might suggest you watch a movie like Daybreakers (2010), it won’t change your life or leave you blown away but the ride is great fun.
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