When I first read about Vampyr, the newest release from DONTNOD – the developer most famous for the Life is Strange games, I was slightly interested. The setting, the plot details, and the devs reputation for quality narrative adventures all spelled out purchase, but as a guy who’s never really seen the appeal of the bloodsuckers – I wasn’t sold. As I learned more, it seemed even more compelling, as the setting of World War I London, and the timing – the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic – spelled out a rich backdrop to set a spooky narrative on. If this was narrative alone, this game would be incredible, but unfortunately one aspect of the game pulls down the total experience.
The plot is quite complex, if a little too in media res for my tastes. You, Dr. Jonathan Reid – a Great War Doctor – wake up in London in a pit of dead bodies as a recently turned vampire. The pandemic is in full swing and people are dying in horrifically large numbers, and you’ve been assumed to be a victim. Moments after clawing your way out of the corpse pile, you see what seems to be a beating heart and circulatory system glowing through the thick London fog. You move towards it, stumbling and hurt, and soon you recognize your own sister. She has been searching for you for days, to see if you’ve been added to the lists of dead and dying. As she hugs you close, you clamp onto her neck and drain her of blood, killing her. You have been given your motivation – solving how you became a vampire, but also revenge for the unwilling murder of your family.
As lore goes, this is excellent. The only weak point of this otherwise atmospheric and intense opening is that I’ve not had any time to get to know these characters. I have no sympathetic connection to either Reid or his sister, and so when the emotional beat of him discovering he’s just murdered her due to his own unstoppable blood lust drops, it sounded rather flat.
Outside of that initial misstep, the plot, setting, and overall tone of the game is excellent. London is an inspired choice, as the damp streets and fog combine to make your nightly adventures ominous and dangerous. You’re not alone out there, as even a vampire with incredible powers has to deal with various undead hunters, monsters, and other risks as you make your way across the sleeping city.
The most interesting piece of the game is the district/citizen interplay, which adds a very complex system on to the game, enhancing it in significant ways. Think of how huge of an impact the Nemesis system had on Shadow of Mordor, and you’ll get an idea of the complexity. The city is split into various districts, each with its own group of citizens. If the citizens are healthy and well taken care of, the overall health of the district is high. If they are ill and have various problems they can’t solve, the district health is low. If you let a district get too low, it can be lost completely and the various quests and citizens in that district are no longer available for Dr. Reid to interact with….and to drink from.
Yes, drink from. For Dr. Reid to level up and gain more vampric powers he must drink blood, and the citizens of London are the only ones readily available to consume. From a moral standpoint, this is a very delicate balancing act. Every citizen you interact with is human, with flaws and character traits that make them good and bad in equal measures. Due to this, you find yourself having to balance the need to upgrade your skills with the impact of killing a citizen from a district. If you improve a district’s health, and an individual member gets better, their blood actually gets more powerful. There’s some flavors of Bioshock’s moral balance of harvest vs. saving of the sisters here, and it’s used incredibly well with the vampire overtones. Grooming the various people I was planning to feast on was quite a bit of fun, and made me really feel the conflict a “good” physician vampire would have balancing their need for food with their respect for life.
The low point for me, was the combat. It’s pretty awful, and this is coming from a guy who loved the Witcher game combat systems. It’s a mix of weapons, vampire powers, and dodges, and just doesn’t seem polished enough to ever really feel like I’m a badass undead fanged killer. In small battles of one or two enemies, it was serviceable, but when facing multiple enemies or a boss battle, I found myself hammering away with melee weapons and dying far more than I would expect to. It’s a pretty signifcant part of the overall game, and as such I’m hoping they release a patch or some type of fix (hello Geralt movement style?), to salvage the only weak point in an otherwise solid game.
DONTNOD has another excellent experience on their hands with Vampyr. Avoid fights, drink the blood of the unworthy, and groom your citizens like veal. Who could ask for more?