An atmospheric blend of brawling combat action game and conversation based adventure game, Vampyr is the latest title from Dontnod Entertainment and Focus Home Interactive. Not a perfect game, but one worth your time even if you’re not fascinated by the gothic.
Dr Jonathan Reid has had a bad few
days. He’s just gotten back from the Western Front of WW1. He’s come back to an embattled London ravaged by a resurgent Spanish Influenza outbreak. And he’s just woken up in a mass grave with an unstoppable thirst for Blood.
Now newly inducted into the Vampiric tradition, Jonathan must navigate his dual identities as a Vampire and a Doctor. Vampyr is built around this struggle. As a doctor attempting to keep the citizens of London alive, Jonathan will learn their needs and roles, gather medical supplies and administer that medicine to keep them healthy and alive. As a Vampire, he must resist, or succumb to, the urge to drain those same citizens like a Capri sun.
Jonathan is an Ekon, one of the more lucid vampires, and will be primarily battling against the Skal, bestial vampiric offspring that now plague the city and it’s inhabitants. This mission will put Jonathan in direct competition with the orders of Vampire Hunters who make no distinction between genteel vampires like Jonathan and the Skals on the street.
He’ll be doing this while attempting to learn about the nuances of vampire society, and uncovering the identity of his mysterious maker.
Mostly this means a significant amount of brawling. Fighting is typically a case of Jonathan challenging the forces of the Vampire hunting order of Priwen or feral vampire skals. Jonathan was in the War, so he’s no stranger to combat.
What this translates to for the player is a combat system based around stamina and stunning opponents.
When the player strikes with their main hand weapon, this will consume stamina. So will dodging the strikes of the opponent. Managing your stamina keeps the player engaged, and encourages learning the patterns of your opponents to avoid attacks. In Jonathan’s off hand is a secondary weapon like a pistol or stake. These will do less health damage, but will inflict much more stun damage on an opponent.
Doing stun damage is essential to the flow of combat, as by stunning an opponent, Jonathan will get a chance to use his Vampiric Bite on the opponent. This will give the player a previous few seconds to think, and Jonathan a few moments to recover stamina and refill his Blood meter.
Blood is what Jonathan uses to perform special Vampire based attacks. There’s a wide variety of these that he can unlock during the course of the game, including throwing spears made of blood, full body shields or lunges which stun the enemy on impact. At any time, the player can have four of these abilities available to use, so there’s a degree of customisation in the fighting styles of different players.
In terms of what you’ll be fighting, there’s Vampire Hunters and Vampires.
The Vampires have similar special moves as Jonathan himself. They dodge attacks by ethereally shifting, they bite and use blood based special attacks. The Hunters use fire, gas and holy objects to inflict damage on Jonathan; as well as limiting his health from regenerating. Combat typically turns into a case of dodging opponents and managing their stun meters as a means of having a source of blood available. In general, this works rather well as a strategic combat system.
What works slightly less well is the level scaling throughout the game, and the boss fights. Because of the open world nature, plus the very specific way in which Vampyr handles levelling, enemies are required to match the player throughout the game. In narrative terms, this excellently reflects the growing strength of the vampire plague. In game terms this results in fights staying drawn out and slow for the entire game, regardless of how powerful the player gets. The boss fight issue is slightly more structural. The fights themselves are excellent. The problem comes in that they often have two or three hit kills, and on top of that they’re a significant distance from any ability to craft recovery items.
Items can be crafted at discoverable hideouts in each region, generally nearby to the main groups of characters. This is handy, as Jonathan’s Doctor Duties require him to keep track of all the citizens, and provide them with remedies for their maladies.
These hideouts are also where you level. Levelling is where Vampyr’s ambitious combined systems come into play.
Experience is gained through all the usual means. Completing quests and defeating enemies and bosses. But Vampyr is quick to inform you that there is another, much easier way to gain experience in vast quantities.
Drain Citizens of London. The more they trust you, the more you know about them, the more they’re worth.
This creates a very well realised incentivisation to keep on top of side quests and the health of the citizenry. Ultimately they can make the game significantly easier for you.
What I found particularly interesting was that it also meant weighing up the moral choices of what killing these citizens would mean.
This little old lady is worth a lot of experience. Enough for a lot of upgrades. No one would miss her, she’s alone. There would be no consequences, but the city would be saved by her sacrifice.
It’s very fascinating, in the sense of deciding how what kind of person your Jonathan is in the dark.
The systems within the game interact in several ways to reinforce this struggle between the citizens of the Boroughs of London and the dual outbreaks of vampirism and Influenza.
At any time, Jonathan can consult a list of the Citizens of the City by their borough. From here he can see any afflictions that they may be dealing with, as well as note any missions they’ve mentioned for him to deal with.
These citizens are wide and varied. To Dontnod’s credit, they have done an excellent job of creating a diverse and interesting cast of characters.
In particular, the split between class conflicts, and the surprisingly large focus on Immigrants to London provide a backstory to many of the characters and their various social circles.
Obviously, in a genre like this, some characters are slightly tropey. For the most part though, there’s at least one or two foibles to every character that make them much more interesting as the player progresses through conversations with them. Finding conversational clues and letters in the world almost always provides something new to go back and investigate in any dialogue.
Fans of Dontnod’s previous work will probably be aware that they have some issues in their games with dialogue and voice acting. Due to the archaic and formal nature of some of the dialogue in the game, there are situations that feel a little stilted, even by Dontnod’s standards. There’s also a lot of dialogue that is more than a little cliched. It took maybe an hour or so for someone to tell Jonathan that maybe “Man is the real monster”. In addition, there are often verbal hiccups or pauses in the voiceover that seem out of place.
In spite of that criticism, and the sheer melodrama, there’s a lot to enjoy about the dialogue. There’s novelty in the fact that the range of accents on display span the British Isles and Beyond, including citizens of all social standing. The writing itself does still have that odd turn of phrase that is practically the studio’s signature at this point however – it’s backed up by a sense of earnestness and exploration of setting and theme in the writing that goes beyond the expected cliches of the genre.
Some of these side stories, like a story of two men who found love in the trenches, or the mother who’s been looking out for her murderous son are fascinating in spite of odd dialogue issues. These side stories make the world of Vampyr seem authentic and meaningful, even while the pacing of the main narrative has some problems. The primary story of the game, concerning the vampire plague, and the vampire society around it, suffers somewhat from it’s open world nature.
While the side stories offer glimpses into the citizens and city of London, the grand mysteries at the heart of Vampyr’s main story feel a little unearned. It’s hard to take Jonathan seriously as he wanders from person giving orders to person giving orders. He’s the connective tissue between the game’s factions, generally making some moral choices about how certain characters will be treated. The game doesn’t always make the consequences of these actions clear though. Not in an “unintended consequences of your actions, you should be more thoughtful” kind of way. More “we’re going to offer the player three game impacting choices, without really explaining what they’re actually going to do”. It’s rather frustrating, as in one case, I caused the death of a character I was trying to spare. This then had a knock on effect on the world that took quite a while to rectify.
I do appreciate that all of the choices eventually have an impact on the people and the city. It would just be nice if it was a little clearer as to what was causing them.
The final, and in my mind, most important character in Vampyr is the city of London itself. Dontnod Excel at atmosphere building. Warren-like alleyways snake their way between stepped plazas filled with Vampire hunters. Buildings bearing stylised signage sit next to burned out husks. Planks and boards mark the homes cleared out by the plague, as harsh white graffiti spells out that former residences are now filled with corpses. The buildings in the bwealthy West End are tall painted brick. The Docks are hazy from the mist of the Thames. Whitechapel is filled with construction work and the signs of low quality boarding houses. The whole city feels consistent, but each area has a distinct architecture and tone, which makes them stand out.
The game takes place solely at night, so man-made light is the only way to see. Light within this city is either the dull yellow fuzz of gaslight where affordable, the glowing flicker of barrel fires in the less well off areas.
Rubble and barrels create impediments to travel, while locked gates lead the players to loop through the streets to find new routes.
The streets of London are mostly Curfew bound, which pairs neatly with Jonathan’s new nightly lifestyle. The choice of the city locale would imply the hustle and bustle of the crowd usually. Instead, the abandoned and lonely streets increase the feeling of unease and unnaturalness that permeates the game.
Vampyr is flawed. It has issues with narrative pacing, combat that can be frustrating at higher levels, and odd technical issues with dialogue. But none of that really outshines the genuinely interesting world building and characters or the fun combat. At it’s heart, Vampyr is a mesmerising take on a period in history not often covered. That it does so while weaving a tale of gothic mystery with very human characters is impressive.
Vampyr is available now on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.