Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: DontNod Entertainment
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Review code supplied free of charge by the publisher.
Vampires come in so many varieties, from the savage like in 30 Days of Night to the bloody stupid in Twilight. Sometimes they’re feral, sometimes cultured. Sometimes they’re portrayed as romantic and mysterious, and other times it’s all about ripping out throats. In games, though, vampires have been kind of under-represented, which is surprising given just how popular they are. It seems DontNod, the same people who previously developed Remember Me and Life is Strange.
As Dr. Jonathan Reid you have returned from the great war to a London caught in the deadly embrace of an epidemic, but that is the least of your concerns as you awake amidst a pile of dead bodies before discovering that you have been afflicted with the need for blood. As a newborn vampire, it’s your mission to discover who has done this to you, eventually getting tugged into the strange world of vampire society and ancient warring factions amidst a backdrop of a devastated London.
While as a vampire with a desire to turn humans into tasty juice cartons you might expect to do an awful of murdering Vampyr is a surprisingly slow game that focuses on its narrative and characters. As Dr. Reid, you are put into a role rather than allowed to create one freely, though you can still shape his personality quite a bit, including deciding just how many citizens of London will mysteriously be drained of blood. Much of your time is spent speaking to people and doing investigative work rather than lurking in the shadows.
This is mostly thanks to Dr. Reid being given a position at the local Pembroke Hospital which is on the frontlines of the epidemic. Here he works the night-shift and thus doesn’t have to explain his aversion to sunlight, although you do have to ignore how the people around Reid never comment on his red eyes, strange veins, and deathly visage. In fact, there are a number of logic holes, though arguably no more than in most vampire lore.
Tossing those aside the storyline is surprisingly strong in Vampyr. Dr. Reid himself is intelligent, well-spoken and perhaps a bit stuffy for many people, but he fits with the 1918 time-period, as does the style of dialog which can come across as heavy and overwrought but that feels authentic to the genre Vampyr wants to put itself in. There has been a lot of effort put into crafting the lore, world and its characters, taking many aspects of vampires while throwing in some new twists. As a result I found myself immediately hooked on the storyline, eagerly looking forward to each new piece of the narrative. Not everything lands perfectly, like how one enemy needed to be around more before the climactic fight, but for the most part I loved Vampyr’s tale.
The driving force behind the game is deciding whether or not to drain innocent people of their blood in the name of growing more powerful. Just as Reid is constantly tempted by the red liquid pulsing through the veins of those around him you are constantly tempted by the generous XP bars that humans display when you view them through your vampiric senses. By finding out new information about people and by treating them of any health issues they may have you can improve the quality of their blood, which makes sense in terms of healing their ailments but less so in the case of finding out new things about them, and therefore drastically increase the XP they’ll grant you when drained of blood. It’s almost sadistic when you think about it, deliberately crafting medicine to deal with headaches and other ailments so that they’ll be all the tastier when it comes time to murder them.
To encourage you to give into your vampirism the game doles out XP slowly through quests, and high-level enemies can annihilate you very quickly despite how good you actually are, thus there is always the urge to kill a human or five in order to grow stronger. You might almost find yourself drooling at the prospect of an innocent in the streets whose blood offers 3000xp, enough to significantly upgrade your abilities. Would anyone really miss the boy who attempted to commit suicide, after all?
However, the developers also went to great lengths to keep players somewhat in check. First and foremost to feed on an innocent NPC you need to be able to mesmerize them so that they can be led somewhere quiet, but some characters are harder than others to influence and thus you must wait until your mesmerize level is high enough. This ensures that developers can keep certain people around until they are no longer needed.
The other key factor in potentially stopping you from just killing everyone and fully embracing your new-found powers is that all the people you meet are surprisingly intriguing and well-written, each connecting with other folks through the social circles system and having their own little stories to be discovered through dialogue. Like I mentioned before discovering new bits of information somehow increases an NPCs blood quality, and to do that you’ll need to chat to them and other people in order to slowly uncover everything. Exploration also often rewards you with letters or other discoveries which open up new conversation options, too, which Jonathan can take advantage of using his natural vampiric ability to influence people.
However, unless you actually do plan on murdering folk there’s little reason to bother with them aside from some small XP that comes from healing them or discovering things about them. The occasional side-mission is enjoyable but tends to boil down to traveling somewhere and picking up a thing. In short, if you’re the type of person who feels the need to be rewarded for doing things, then spending time on people you aren’t going to kill might seem pointless.
I personally think that the whole thing works best if you actually roleplay as Jonathan Reid and try to uphold his desire to avoid succumbing to his bloodlust with the occasional slip-up. I found myself trying to locate humans that nobody would miss and that perhaps deserved a savage end, yet even seemingly horrible folk tend to have something that makes killing them feel wrong. A horrible woman has a rather nice sister, for example, while a depressed ambulance driver might be a jerk but you can kind of understand why he’s like that. The boy I mentioned earlier might want to die, but taking his life will affect his mother. In one instance I took a life and it affected somebody else in his social circle, and I found them later in a very different situation.
There are consequences to your actions that help give everything weight. The theory is that by draining victims of their bodily fluids (jeez, that sounds kinkier than I meant it to be) you’ll slowly ruin a district, meaning more enemies lurking in the streets. Vendors might stock fewer items or start charging more, and if things get too bad the district will be abandoned entirely, but not everything will make it so you might venture back later only to uncover clues as to what occurred. You can help manage things by doing side-missions and by keeping everyone healthy, thus as Reid I found myself targeting a specific person, then working on gathering the materials needed to keep all the other citizen’s health in order to keep the district from crashing and burning.
I really, really loved this whole gameplay cycle of treating people, discovering more about them, balancing life with my own desire for power and watching how my decisions would affect others. You may not think that the death of a patient who ironically believes herself to be a vampire would have a big impact, but it just might, and I loved that about the game.
The only time it messes up is when you deal with the “pillar” characters at key points. You’ll be given the chance to choose what happens to them via the dialog wheel, but the choices are vague at best so it feels more like pot-luck as to what actually happens. In my first pillar encounter, I chose what looked like a pretty good option only to watch in horror as Dr. Reid proceeded to forcefully wipe someone’s memories. Obviously, we should not get to know the consequences of our actions, but the actions themselves should be clearer.
The emphasis is firmly on the story and the social aspects of being a blood-thirsty monster of the night, but you’ll still do a fair amount of fighting thanks to the Guard of Priwen who patrol the streets in the hopes of killing vampires. I’ve always imagined vampires as stealthy and the game goes give you some opportunities to amble around fights, but for the most part, Dr. Reid prefers to just go in head-on, and with no formal training his fighting style is simple.
Let’s talk the basics; you’ve got a main weapon and an off-hand which, or you can take a single two-handed weapon into the fray. With these you can perform simple attacks, ranged shots if you’re using a gun, and some weapons even let you stun opponents so that you feed from them, replenishing your blood supply which is in turn used to fuel your special unlockable abilities, such as a deadly claw strike, a blood spear or even shadow tendrils that grab enemies. There’s also a dodge, and the ability to parry if using certain weapons.
The whole system comes together to form a methodical pace that can feel a bit stiff, but once you get the hang of it there’s some nice depth to be found, though there are going to be a lot of people who will likely struggle to enjoy it. You can invest in more stamina if you prefer hitting things, or upgrade your bite so that it deals more damage and draws more blood. This was my preferred style, taking a good stunning weapon so that I could sink my fangs into a neck and then power my special powers.
A few nice enemy types help keep fights feeling fun, with everyone you come across having strengths and weaknesses to exploit, like a resistance to blood-based attacks or a weakness to ranged.
I feel like the combat system is going to be a negative for a lot of people, so I’m going to go on record here as stating that it’s better than a lot of people will likely give it credit for, it just takes some getting used to.
London is a hugely atmospheric setting and DontNod have spent a lot of time on making it that way, the soft lighting, rain, and fog giving it a dark, brooding look. I often found myself walking instead of running just so I could soak it all in. There are some issues with a few low-rez textures looking like they came directly from Dishonored and the animations could do with some work, but for the most part this is a visually very nice game that runs quite well, too.
Well, it runs well except for one thing; long loading times, and too many of them. Loading screens occasionally crop up out of nowhere, and other times are there when transitioning into certain areas, and each of them can last up to a few minutes.
The audio suffers from no such problems, though. A lot of attention seems to have been paid to the ambient noises of London, and I especially liked how rain had multiple effects to mimic it hitting metal, fabric and stone, something which even triple-A titles often forget about in favor of having a single, generic rain sound. The music is also hugely effective with high strings giving certain moments just the right emotional backdrop, but it’s also used sparingly which I appreciated. Finally, the voice acting is strong throughout, a hugely important factor in a game that wants you to dedicate so much time to its many characters.
A few little problems also pop up in the form of subtitles that don’t match what’s actually being said.
I don’t think Vampyr is for everyone, and so far in its first day of sale the reviews on Steam have been mixed. But to me Vampyr was great. I was hooked on the story and world from the start, was intrigued by the social system and loved soaking in the atmosphere of London as it fell into despair. This is a very impressive title from DontNod that vampire fans will hopefully love, as well as anyone who appreciates a story-driven experience.
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