Reviewed on: Playstation 4. Copy supplied by publisher.
Creeping up on us like its titular supernatural beings, Vampyr hails from the same studio that brought us the much-loved Life Is Strange, Dontnod. Don’t expect the same, teenage-angst fuelled story, though. This is a much more serious affair, and focuses on a dark, and unsavory depiction of a 1918 London gripped by the Spanish Flu, and supernatural forces.
The story opens with player character Dr Jonathan Reid, a famous blood transfusion specialist, seemingly dead, lying in a mass grave. Awakening, he finds a lone woman, and drains her dry thanks to his newly-found vampiric condition. She makes for a nice, energy-boosting snack, but there’s a slight hitch – she was his sister. Cue the main thrust of the game’s story, which sees Reid forced to come to terms with his new-found immortal status, and search for the being ultimately responsible for his plight and his sister’s death.
Vampyr is a dark, and very grim tale, and the first thing you notice is Dontnod’s attention to detail when creating the dark, dangerous, and grimy streets of period London. The city looks brilliantly authentic, full of darkened cobbled streets, run down houses, piles of the dead, deceased from contagion, roaming bands of vampire hunters, and all sorts of other unsavoury characters.
As you roam the streets, you’ll soon find yourself in Pembrook Hospital, your base of operations, so to speak. It offers you shelter, and from here you can embark on all sorts of quests and investigations, meeting the various denizens of London, and battling foes human and otherwise.
The game itself is a hybrid of Mass Effect and Bloodborne, or at least, that’s what it wants to be. In terms of its wish to clone the adventure and world-building of Mass Effect, Vampyr does well. That’s in part due to Dontnod’s obvious ability to create likeable and deep characters, but also in part to what is, without a doubt, the game’s strongest feature – consequence.
You see, as a vampire, you need blood to evolve, and to heal. The lore of vampires in the game follows popular culture’s understanding of the fictional blood-slupers to a degree, but there are some changes. Yes, sunlight is deadly, but so is fire and any number of other threats. Vampires, called “Ekon” in their native tongue, are capable of various super power-like feats, but you don’t really need blood in order to actually live. Instead, you have to feed on people to build EXP, which is used to evolve and raise your level.
Sounds simple, right? Well, it’s not.
The people you can gain the most experience from are the very people you’ll meet along your journey. These are the people that live in each district, and include quest givers, NPCs with whole swathes of story, and every single person you encounter has a very believable, and three-dimensional personality and back story. Even characters you meet who are obviously far from nice individuals have their own past that quickly makes them more complex than simple thugs.
The problem? Feed on these characters, and they’ll, unsurprisingly, die. Sure, you’ll gain a massive EXP boost, and your life will be made much easier, but you’ll not only face the moral weight of killing your target, but their death can greatly affect the story. The more people that die, means the district they live in will suffer and become more dangerous, and more filled with monsters. You’ll also possibly miss out on whole sections of the game that could have opened up if that same person had lived. What’s more, to improve the quality of their blood, and in turn increase the EXP they give, you need to learn about them. This means that by the time you get them to primo-blood quality levels, you’ll know them pretty well, and probably won’t want to be the monster you need to be to feed on them.
This presents a very unique and challenging gameplay mechanic. Do you take all the care in the world to be a pacifist vampire, and face a very difficult struggle where you’ll often find yourself severely under-levelled when going up against bosses and other foes? Or, do you look after number one, feed on the populace, and make your upcoming challenges easier, but end up with a city overrun by creatures and miss out on what those same people could have brought to the game?
This is a dilemma Dontnod clearly wanted players to face, and it works very well. Yes, you can level up without feeding on people, and defeating enemies and completing quests yields experience, just nowhere near the amount you’d get if you gave in to your bloodlust, and you’ll end up as only a fraction of the powerful being you could become if you abstain.
To add to this, as a doctor, Reid also has to blend in with society by doing his job, and you have to help people with their problems, health or otherwise. If too many people in a district become ill, the overall safety rating of a district will dip, and the area will become more dangerous. Keep people in good health, and London will be much more friendly.
It’s all impressive, and makes for a distinctly new and interesting mechanic, and it’s something I feel more developers will no doubt play with. Sadly, the game does let itself down in a couple of key areas.
The most noticeable of these is combat, of which there’s a lot. Clearly moulded on Bloodborne, with both melee and range attacks, quick dodges, and a very tactical, yet fast fighting style, the feel here just isn’t good. Control is laggy and unresponsive, character movement is stilted, and enemy grabs are often unavoidable and cheap. The end result is a nasty combat mechanic that just doesn’t work well, and damages the game as a whole.
I also found myself drifting quite a lot in terms of being gripped by the narrative. Although well-written, with a genuine sense of style and respect for the subject matter, I often found proceedings just dull and longed for something more elaborate and engaging. As it stands, the story is very low key. A good comparison I’d have to make, is like comparing the Avengers movies with Marvel’s Netflix series. Whilst the former is full of epic moments and wide-arching stories and larger than life characters, the TV series are more down to Earth, with smaller, less threatening plots, and a more grounded, day-to-day approach to super heroes.
Vampyr is the Netflix TV show of vampire stories, with a slower, less bombastic story, and decent, but not flamboyant characters. For that, look for the likes of Castlevania, Vampire Bloodlines, Legacy of Kain, et al.
Vampyr does deliver a good slice of vampire RPG and adventure, and if not for the tepid combat, it would be a very good game. As it stands, however, with combat being as it is, the promising focus on social sacrifice and blending of supernatural elements into 1918 London is a flawed experience.