Vampyr review code supplied by the publisher
First impressions count for a lot, and Vampyr teetered on the brink of making a rotten one during its opening ten minutes. A crash before I even saw the splash screen, questionable visuals during the opening scene, and some iffy writing/delivery left me fearing the worst.
This was a game that had caught my attention when it was first announced three years ago. The world has been screaming out for a fresh vampire RPG, and developer DONTNOD has been eager to deliver just that with this action-flavored take. To find so many stumbling blocks in such a short space of time could be enough to drag any game down.
Whilst aspects of this opening salvo were crumbling, however, one thing alone kept Vampyr intriguing enough to move past it, and from there, Vampyr stole my heart in spite of its problems.
Vampyr Review: The Devilish Doctor
As you may have noticed from the title, Vampyr has a focus on the living dead bloodsucking ghouls of legend. This particular tale of the creatures of the night takes place in a Spanish Flu-stricken London in the year 1918. The War is coming to an end, but this illness has done almost as much damage to the population. Not that you’d kow, as the government is keeping it under wraps as not to sap the already shaky morale of the capital.
Oh, and there are murmurs of foul beasts preying on those foolhardy enough to venture out onto the streets at night.
Our protagonist and avatar for this story, Dr. Jonathan Reid, is one such unlucky soul. He awakens atop a pile of bodies, unsure how he came to be there. Soon enough he discovers he has been turned, and now must fight or feed the bloodlust that runs through him. Dr. Reid juggles the duality of his role as a Doctor, caring for London’s sick at the dilapidated Pembroke Hospital (based loosely on a real military hospital) with his investigation into the evils of the night.
It’s up to the player how Dr. Reid goes about this. Do you want to seek answers into his vampirism? Or perhaps you wish to fully embrace the new life of death and destruction? Or do you simply take things as they come and react to the situation at hand? Vampyr promises choice, and it delivers in many ways. To the point where Dr. Reid can be portrayed as a tortured soul fighting for his humanity or a well-spoken murderous bastard.
This is the crux of what fuels Vampyr’s strengths. It’s deeper than it is wide, and that is to the benefit of the game as a whole. Even if smaller sacrifices had to be made to achieve it.
But that was not the what drew me into Vampyr’s dark embrace first. No, the early savior of DONTNOD’s action RPG is its atmosphere.
Vampyr Review: The Sound of Violence
This stylised version of 1918 London is dripping in a dark, delicious tone. Due to Dr. Reid’s unfortunate disposition, the game is set during the night hours. The streets are mostly empty, with lamplight and the glow of various light sources emanating from the windows of buildings providing a level of visibility best described as a dull gloom.
You can just about see into the near distance without using Dr. Reid’s vampiric sight, but you can easily hear voices, grunts, growls, and snarls before you find the source. While this cancerous version of England’s capital is far emptier than it would normally be (explained away tidily by the imposed curfew), it still feels like a lived-in place thanks to the audio design (the soundtrack by Olivier Derivere is also absolutely pitch perfect).
This sad gloom continues into many of the indoor environments as well. Many of the living spaces in these disease-ridden parts of London are depressing little hovels, barely kept from the encroaching darkness by the light of a few candles. The exception comes in places like Pembroke Hospital, where the halls are lit in almost sickly brightness by comparison. The visual design of this world represents the sickness of it superbly.
Vampyr is not always consistent with its technical quality (lip-sync and NPC faces be damned it seems), but DONTNOD does so much to set the right mood and tone for the London they’ve created. Without this tantalizingly moody atmosphere, the rest of Vampyr would undoubtedly struggle to make the same impact.
Vampyr Review: Power Over the People
The two tasks that will consume your time with Vampyr the most are talking and fighting. It’s perhaps unsurprising to find that Vampyr’s conversations are largely captivating given the developer’s success with Life is Strange. There’s certainly been a lot taken onboard from the lessons that game taught DONTNOD.
The conversational branches are similar to most. You can ask questions of the residents of London in different, relevant categories, but some lines of questioning will be hidden away unless you possess the information about that particular person, which you can glean from other conversations and through items, letters etc that you find in the environment.
As you go deeper into Vampyr’s London, you discover more and more about its inhabitants and their connections to each other. Of course, should you decide to feast on someone rather than listen to them, then you could miss out on vital clues further down the line. One of several ways Dr. Reid’s actions can affect and manipulate the world of Vampyr.
As alluded to earlier in this review, Dr. Reid can be savior or scourge to the inhabitants of London. Each person (outside regular wandering enemies) has their own importance to the game’s ecosystem, and how you deal with them can change many things. Dr. Reid can try and manufacture blood sources to quench his insatiable thirst for blood (or by having a rat sandwich for a snack), but that merely keeps him ‘alive’.
The game is far harder if you play the reluctant vampire because the populace’s blood acts as xp to be traded for inhuman power. Yes, you can gain powers by simply completing quests and investigations, but snacking on the jugular of humans carries a whopping amount of xp by comparison. Heading down that tempting path ties in nicely with the idea of Reid giving in to his new self and becoming the monster, and relenting shows the struggle he faces in trying to remain close to human.
So, whether you play the kind doctor, trying to help people with their problems, or a nefarious beast, out for blood, you can and will change the state of an entire area. For example, you can concoct cures for any common ailments people may suffer from and make them healthier, which also leads to making their blood richer in xp. They’ll be more inclined to offer up useful information and quests, but they’ve also become all the more tempting to feast upon (provided their mind is not stronger than Dr. Reid’s ability to mesmerize). There’s a strange, sick pleasure to effectively fattening up prey with kind words and deeds that fits perfectly into the mythos of the vampire.
Vampyr Review: Thems Fighting Words
The wordy side of Vampyr is strong then, but what of the combat? It’s fair to say it takes some getting used to. One on one it’s a methodical dance of death. Dr. Reid can swiftly dodge, slash, and stun enemies, but a stamina meter means you cannot go all-in on your attack and defense. One too many dodges or attacks, and you could leave yourself vulnerable. It’s familiar enough if you’ve played certain other action RPGs, but the addition of the blood meter adds a curious kink to it.
This third bar, found below Dr. Reid’s health and stamina, has several uses. You can draw from it to replenish lost health, or you could use it to amplify your vampiric power into a more devastating attack. At first, it depletes pretty rapidly, and the only ways to fill it are via serums, chomping on rats, or by stunning opponents enough to take a quick nip of their own blood supply. You’ll rarely need to utilize it in one on one encounters with Skals (feral vampires) and would-be vampire hunters, but then, rarely do you face them in in anything less than a group of three.
This is where combat gets fiddly. targeting is the main issue as it doesn’t seem to lock to the correct opponent every time. Throw in some questionable camera swings that leave you blind and your earliest brawls with groups can end in premature death quite easily. Hunters utilize torches and garlic bombs among their arsenal, which do aggressive damage to Dr. Reid and any other ne’er do well nocturnal nasties
The best course of action I found during these early encounters, especially if underpowered, was to draw a group of hunters to the Skal or the Beasts (werewolves) and let them pick each other off while you either slip by or dive in to mop up the survivors. Otherwise fleeing or using the environment are viable options as well.
The good news is that Vampyr’s combat problems dissipate the further you go. Everything becomes second nature, and you the gripes of old become background noise. The bad news is that the combat, while solid overall, never quite lives up to what the rest of the game offers. It’s never terrible, but it is very much a case of being solidly capable without much flair or thrill to it. It was a mild criticism I had of the last action-orientated DONTNOD game, Remember Me, and it’s clear where the developer’s strengths lie.
Vampyr Review: Ekonic or Beastly?
Still, that Vampyr’s flaws are forgivable and mostly rather minuscule (if a little too frequent!), just shows how well executed DONTNOD’s project is despite some obvious limitations. Yes, it’s a game that starts rough and keeps its edges scruffy throughout, but Vampyr has an alluring supernatural charm reminiscent of its protagonist. I can see where it will be off-putting (the standard, unexciting combat will be a sticking point for many I assume), but it would be criminal to ignore the gothic beauty that bleeds through.