Having never played any of Dontnod’s games before, I was rather curious about how well they would incorporate their usual choice-based storytelling into a gothic-themed, supernatural, action-horror role-playing game like Vampyr. The idea of playing as a newly turned vampire who must either control his thirst for blood or give into it sounded intriguing. Furthermore, the fact that your decisions and actions would have direct consequences that would affect the game world, a’ la Dishonored, was another feature that had me pretty interested in this game. Let’s see how Vampyr plays the morality game, shall we?
The year is 1918, and you are Dr. Jonathan Reid. Having returned home to London after serving in the British military in the tail end of World War I, Dr. Reid is almost immediately attacked by a vampire and then awakens in a mass grave, feeling very hungry for blood. He loses control and turns his newly formed fangs onto his first victim, who unfortunately turns out to be a cherished loved one. After escaping from a band of vampire hunters, Dr. Reid begins his journey into finding out why he was turned into a vampire and by whom, and at the same time, he joins with new allies in attempting to find a cure for the epidemic that is currently plaguing the citizens of London, which appears to be an aggressive strain of the Spanish flu. In a seemingly unrelated case, feral vampires are running around many of London’s districts and making things even more hellish for its citizens. Being a highly distinguished surgeon working in the last functioning hospital in town, as well as being a vampire with a thirst for blood and increasingly deadly abilities, Dr. Reid finds himself in a very unique position where he can drastically affect London’s future. Right off the bat, the game makes it very clear that all your actions and decisions will impact the city and those who reside in it.
Similarly to Dishonored’s Chaos system, Dr. Reid’s actions or inactions directly affect the different districts of London, sometimes in unforeseen ways. Citizens will get sick every now and then, and the more sick citizens there are in a district, the lower that district’s health status becomes. If it gets too low, then that district will be lost and fall into irreparable disrepair, with all the citizens being replaced by enemies. Obviously, any decisions you make (whether they are in main missions or not) that lead to the deaths of citizens will also negatively impact that district’s health status. So basically, the more citizens you kill or allow to die, the worse London’s situation becomes…and things can go south VERY quickly, let me tell you.
However, killing more citizens by drinking their blood also makes you more powerful more quickly. As the game itself tells you in the very beginning as you boot it up, “the game becomes easier the more you drink the blood of its citizens” (I’m paraphrasing here, but that’s basically the gist of it). That’s why there are no difficulty options with Vampyr; how easy or hard the game may be is directly tied into how many or few citizens you choose to feed on. While you do gain experience points by completing missions and defeating enemies, drinking the blood of each district’s citizens greatly increases the number of experience points you gain in seconds. For example, after completing one main mission, and possibly a couple of side-missions, you could end up with somewhere around 2,000 experience points. But, simply drinking the blood of just one citizen could net you with 3,000 experience points or more, allowing you to buy yourself more powerful abilities earlier on, which will make certain battles against high level enemies noticeably easier. In my playthrough, I am focusing on making Dr. Reid stick to his Hippocratic oath by bringing no harm upon the citizens of London (although I did feed on one citizen; he was a murderous sociopath, by the way, he had it coming), and upgrading my powers using only the experience I gain through completing missions and defeating enemies is definitely more time consuming and also limits how much I can upgrade my powers. There were a couple of somewhat early boss battles that were quite the challenge for me since I was still at a kind of low level when I battled them. Still, in Vampyr it’s certainly possible to defeat enemies that are 10 levels above you, it just isn’t much of a cakewalk, especially if you’re outnumbered.
With regards to the game’s narrative, it’s a slow burn, meaning that if you take the time to speak with all the NPCs in each district, you’ll find yourself easily spending a good hour or more just talking and talking before anything exciting happens, which tends to make the game drag a little bit. That’s not to say the dialogue with the NPCs isn’t engaging though. While some conversations with NPCs aren’t always so stimulating, taking the time to socialize with people will uncover hints that will unlock newer dialogue options, and searching for notes and other clues in the environment also accomplishes this. The more dialogue options you unlock with the citizens, the more side-missions you’ll gain access to, and in the end, that also means more experience points for you. Finding out more about the different citizens also increases their “blood quality”, which affects how much experience you gain if you choose to feed on them. Furthermore, giving medicine to sick citizens not only keeps their associated districts in good health, it also helps to improve their blood quality even further.
Let’s go over the combat next. To be perfectly blunt…it’s not bad. It’s not great, but it’s not bad either, though I’ve honestly been spoiled by games with superior combat, like Nioh, God of War, and even The Witcher 3. You definitely have to stay on your toes to keep yourself from getting destroyed by enemies after sustaining just a few hits, especially if they outlevel you. You’ll basically be fighting vampire hunters armed with guns, blades, stakes, flamethrowers, crosses, etc., as well as several breeds of vampires, such as the ghoul-like Skals, large werewolf-like beasts, and even other more human-like vampires similar to Dr. Reid. Fortunately, Dr. Reid has a plethora of upgradeable vampire abilities that make him a force to be reckoned with (assuming the enemies he fights don’t greatly outlevel him). These abilities include swiping at enemies with deadly claws, chucking bloodspears at them, running them through with shadow spikes, draining their blood by biting them or just drawing it out of them from a distance, taking on a shadowy mist form to make himself invisible to (most) enemies, etc. The majority of these abilities run on a “blood meter”, meaning you can’t just spam away with those attacks all willy-nilly; no blood, no powers. Therefore, you have to take advantage of upgradeable melee weapons and firearms in order to damage and weaken enemies so you can refill on some of that delicious, yummy blood by feeding on them. Upgrading bladed weapons, like machetes and scythes, allows you to absorb bits of blood with each successful hit, while upgrading blunt weapons, like cudgels and maces, makes it easier to stun enemies, which in turn makes them vulnerable to a quick neck nibble from Dr. Reid. Firearms can also be useful for both damaging and stunning enemies, though ammunition is very limited, so once again, you have to resist the urge to be too trigger happy.
Also, and this is probably just me, but I’m not too sure if giving Dr. Reid a stamina meter was necessary. Managing your stamina as you’re attacking and dodging during a heated battle certainly makes things a bit more intense, but it seems strange for a vampire, an undead creature, to get tired from swinging his weapon around and dodging a few times. The fact that Dr. Reid has a stamina meter while the enemies do not also seems like a strange gameplay feature. Granted, enemies can be stunned, which is something Dr. Reid doesn’t have to worry about, but I can’t help but feel that perhaps there would have been a better feeling of synergy in the combat elements if Dr. Reid and the enemies he battles had the same vulnerabilities, whether that be both sides being prone to running out of stamina or getting stunned.
On the technical side of things, Vampyr takes a couple of missteps. Firstly, I must mention that I’m certainly no “graphics snob”; to me, story and gameplay are what truly make a game. Having said that, the graphics in Vampyr aren’t all that impressive. They work, don’t get me wrong, but the character designs look a lot like something you’d see in a late last gen release. This wouldn’t be much of an issue if the characters didn’t also display some graphical glitches, like pieces of their clothing phasing in and out or the occasional static effect. And more than once when I spotted NPCs going about their business in the distance, they were walking around like stiff action figures in a poorly edited stop-motion animation video. There’s pop-in as well, mostly with the little bits of grass in certain districts and the fog that blankets most of the city’s streets. The game also froze on me once, but thankfully, it normally runs well, at least in my experience. And the hot keys for using health, stamina, and blood replenishment items are, quite frankly, messed up. Whatever items you assign to the hot keys in the character menu will end up being reversed when you actually use them in gameplay. This led to me using the wrong item more than once during tense battles, which was quite annoying and inconvenient.
And now for a couple of personal issues I have with the game. Firstly, some decent stealth elements would have been welcomed. Yes, there is an ability that lets Dr. Reid turn invisible and slip past enemies, but it has its limits, and sneaking up on enemies just lets you surprise them with a bite to the neck, there is no option for performing stealth kills. Also, while I don’t always use fast travel in games (although I do prefer if they make sense within the lore of the games they’re included in), I would have liked a fast travel option in Vampyr. Exploring London can be fun, but when you have to go from one side of town to the other while either fighting or running past all the enemies that litter the streets as you do so, then those constant trips can grow tiresome. If Dontnod preferred to have a lore-specific reason for Dr. Reid being able to fast travel, they could have granted him with the ability to turn into a bat and fly to certain points in London, or maybe even teleport up to that train that occasionally drives down the tracks above the city and ride it to another location.
Dontnod’s take on the vampire-themed, action-horror genre is worth taking a look at. It might be better to wait for a price drop for those who are only slightly interested in that type of genre since there is a noticeable level of repetition in the proceedings. But given the engaging narrative that has you make some real difficult choices that will give you pause, I’d recommend sticking with this game for the long haul if you decide to give it a whirl.
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: 5th June 2018