Dontnod are mostly known for their impressive storytelling in the recent Life Is Strange series, but if you look back a console generation you’ll find an intriguing but underrated third person adventure called Remember Me that played with the idea of manipulating people’s memories. I liked the third person adventure game because it offered some original game play, an imaginative world, and some interesting combat. When they revealed they were making a game set in Victorian London where you would be challenged with balancing the needs of a vampire with those of the city, to say I was interested was an understatement. Now that Vampyr is with us, is it a something that I’m still thirsting after, or has it sucked all the life out of me?
Vampyr puts you in the shoes of Jonathan Reid, a doctor returning from the frontlines of the Great War to resume the life he left behind. There’s no chance of that though because he’s bitten and turned into a vampire as soon as he sets foot in the capital. To compound matters, he wakes with an insane thirst for blood and feasts on the first human he tracks down with his newly acquired blood senses… his sister. Wracked with guilt but plagued with the need to feed, Jonathan finds himself alone, confused and hunted by his fellow man. Help arrives in the form of a local doctor that runs a hospital and knows of the undead’s plight. He offers up a job, a place to stay, and most importantly, answers to some of what’s happening. Here begins a journey through tormented boroughs of London to uncover what’s causing sickness and death everywhere.
Based in a semi open world, Vampyr’s game play revolves around two main mechanics – conversations and combat. Everyone encountered is either talked to or taken down. Engaging with the non-violent NPCs means learning more about the world and investigating the blight that’s affecting the inhabitants. Dialogue options can guide you down investigation routes or uncover clues to enable you to talk in more depth with other citizens. It’s fairly standard and provides the illusion of a branching narrative in the early stages, though in most cases it feels like you’re never really locked out of any options. The interesting part when engaging with the populous is whether you want to help them or eat them.
Balancing Jonathan’s development against the status of the current district is key to making it through the game in one piece. Each area you visit has a health level determined by how sick the people are and what events have happened recently. Use your doctoring skills to identify what ails an individual and you might be able to provide a cure and improve the district health. This reduces the toughness of the monsters and human guards that roam the infected areas, manages trading prices, and builds towards your ultimate ending of the game. It also increases the amount of XP earned from embracing humans. See, the way to level up is earn XP and then select powers before you have a snooze (honestly, you sleep to evolve). XP comes at a steady rate in combat and through completing missions, but it isn’t exactly fast, so you find yourself under-powered and vulnerable in combat. Feast on a healthy living being though and you’re able to afford to buy new abilities and upgrade further. This reduces the districts health and adds harder foes though, so you’ve really got to think about how you want to play.
Each region’s health is also affected by a core individual who acts as both reason for visiting the area and district boss as well. How you interact with them and what fate you decide to bestow upon them significantly affects all the other denizens, as well as your own future. This network of people element is interesting to look through as it shows you how each person is linked to others, and suggests that dealing with one may have a unique impact on another. Even if you can’t see consequence, you can use it to figure out who’s going to provide the biggest evolution boost. Definitely noticeable though is if you decide to kill someone you encounter to feed the beast – their grave appears in the local cemetery and you’re treated to local news snippets about the incident, it acts as a harsh reminder for Jonathan that he’s abusing his Hippocratic oath. Whatever choice you make, chances are it won’t end well further down the line, which makes some of the morality decisions particularly poignant.
A key decision in play style will be whether you get on with the combat or not. It’s fairly basic, no combos or branching attacks – it simply has a primary attack, secondary attack then a selection of powers to draw on. Primary and secondary attacks are weapon based (which are found and upgraded throughout the game) and mainly restricted by ammo or stamina; and the vampire skills are managed through the blood meter which is topped up by biting humans or finding rats if you’re being altruistic. The systems work, but they’re a bit clumsy and in the early sections of the game you can find yourself overwhelmed by some of the bosses if you’re trying to avoid eating people. There are additional major power moves which don’t cost any blood or stamina but have a lengthy cooldown, and once they’re in play it makes some of the more tedious encounters a little better… it’s just the XP needed to get them open that takes time. Once a decent tactic is found it ends up being the main way of managing encounters, and this can lead to a lot of repetition, especially when moving from district to district.
Each “story” area is linked by a warren of roads, barricades and locked doors so that you have to navigate the back streets and houses to find a way through. It’s in these areas that the combat fodder lurk, and whilst there are ways of slipping past unseen, they’re not particularly effective so it’s either stand and fight or run for you life. Navigating isn’t exactly straightforward even with a map and objective marker on the compass because neither show up the barriers to your path, and with the gloomy, gas-lit world of Victorian London, it can feel a bit oppressive and obtuse. Finding a hideout along the path where you can rest and recover health as well as upgrade is pretty much essential. When you finally reach a “safe” area, the pace of the game changes and you can explore, find side quests or just continue with the main story. Credit to the team in the art direction and detailing of the environments, there’s a lot going on to make the era believable. It’s a shame the game engine can’t keep up with the ambition at times.
Vampyr is semi-open world because it has to load some sections or interiors in separately, and it also streams the change in districts as you run from one to another. I know this because of the amount of black screen pauses with a giant loading logo that appeared during my play time, and mainly whilst running around districts in the final missions. The decision on loading interiors for some houses and not others seems weird too because there’s no discernible size difference on some, and the loading time is hefty. Out in the world fog, lighting and textures tend to flicker in and out as rendering struggles, and it’s not like there’s loads going on. Fortunately audio and voice acting are good, and the NPCs and main players have character and a bit of depth. Jonathan’s portrayal is believable most of the time, even when the story seems to miss things out (like a developing love interest that I must have totally overlooked but it brought into the finale anyway). There’s a reasonable pay off to seeing the tale through to the end especially as there are elements of your behaviour throughout the 12 or so hours preceding that determine what fate you have in store.
On the whole there’s a decent set of ideas in Vampyr that make it an interesting game to wrestle with… and wrestle is probably the right word. There aren’t many chapters and a couple in the middle really seem to drag. Pacing is an issue, as is the balance between levelling up and protecting the districts, and that affects the motivation to keep plugging away. All the elements are there to provide a really unique gaming experience, but it just doesn’t quite pull it all together into a coherent package. It feels like playing two different games at times – a Sherlock Holmes-lite investigation and a third person brawler. Atmospherically it’s hard to fault, and the ambition is there, it’s such a shame it can’t quite get the flow right. That said, for those that can put up with the flaws there’s a dark and detailed world to embrace.
A PS4 review copy of Vampyr was provided by the Dontnod PR team and the game is available now on PC, PS4 and Xbox One for around £45.