Vampire games are few and far between, which is a little surprising when they’ve been so popular in other mediums. While there have been some standout and influential vampire games, there’s still a lot of room for a developer to enter and put its own stamp on them. In the case of Vampyr that developer is Dontnod who, while most famous for Life Is Strange, already cut its teeth in action games with Remember Me.
Set in 1918, Vampyr sees players take on the role of a famous surgeon Jonathan Reid, who has been made a vampire against his will following a time as a medic in World War One. This sets up the basis of conflict that both Jonathan and players find themselves in. London is gripped by an epidemic of the Spanish Flu at this time, which is killing thousands every day. As a doctor Jonathan Reid has a duty of care, but as a vampire he has a need to feed in order to get stronger.
In order to make feeding a difficult decision to follow through with, all of the citizens that inhabit this corner of London are unique characters. The game is split into distinct districts from the rundown docks to the upmarket West End. In each of these areas roam characters who you can talk with, complete missions for, gather valuable information, and if so inclined feed on them. There will be times when you’ll be tempted to just feed.
As a newborn vampire, Jonathan is quite weak and has the bare minimum of powers or resilience at the start. Various enemies patrol the night, like the Priwen guards that hunt vampires and the lesser vampires known as Skals that have given into baser instincts, as well as all manner of beasts and bosses that can appear at any moment. They all have different levels which scale as Reid grows stronger, so you want to get as much experience as possible to invest in different vampiric powers like more powerful bites in combat or managing to manipulate a target’s blood so they explode. You can gain this experience through combat, but that isn’t the only way.
The temptation the player has is when it comes to citizens. You may form bonds with them, but every time you look at one you can see exactly how many experience points you could get if you kill and feed on them. This number can be increased if you cure ailments they have like a cold or a headache, provided you have crafted the necessary medicines. You’ll level up a lot faster if you decide to kill, but that will have knock-on effects in the target’s home district.
Each district has its own health bar which is impacted by the health of the citizens and their deaths. Start killing people and districts will start plunging from healthy and stable to critical and hostile. The worse a district’s rating the more monsters that start prowling, some of who were once citizens. Some of them will put up incredibly tough fights, and you’ll have to be ready.
Combat in Vampyr consists of using melee weapons, ranged weapons in the form of guns, and vampiric powers. Every one of these can be improved through crafting or having enough experience. When it comes to the action though it can be a bit hit and miss. Using the vampiric powers is good fun as Reid unleashes all manner of hell, but when it comes to melee you have to watch out for stamina with most close combat coming down to just swinging away haphazardly, even when locked onto a target. Some weapons can stun enemies which allows Reid to bite and recover some blood, which is in turn used for his powers. While there is a sense of power, you never quite feel unstoppable, and it does get a little tedious running into the same spawning enemies in the same areas when you just want to get to the next mission.
The world map isn’t huge, but each district is distinctive. You will need to consult the map a few times as you hit dead ends or areas that cannot be passed for a myriad of reasons, the main one being locked gates. This brings me to travel and logic in general in the game. As a vampire Reid can teleport short distances in a mist form. You’ll come across this when dodging enemy attacks or in pre-determined areas where it is allowed, and that breaks the immersion somewhat. If Reid becomes a mist while teleporting, why is a locked gate with gaps in it an obstacle to him? Why can’t Reid mist teleport to the top of a wall and just jump over? He can teleport from the ground to quite high balconies in certain areas, but a seven foot wall becomes insurmountable.
Then we have the story. After Dontnod’s success with Life Is Strange, the expectations for Vampyr have understandably been very high, but they’re expectations that are never really met. There’s no kind way to say it, so I’ll just say it: Vampyr’s story just comes across as pretty boring. The main mission is to find Reid’s maker and the reason why he was turned, but it is bogged down throughout the game with dull dialogue. I’m a fan of RPGs and always listen to the dialogue, but in Vampyr there were points where I was skipping through it because some of the lines being delivered just added to the air of dullness.
There are some story threads where you would expect characters to have an important role to play, only for them to be discarded after one or two scenes. One is even supposed to be quite close to Reid, but instead of using this to explore his character and add some great scenes of conflict, they’re given barely any time before they’re put to one side. This happens with other characters too, who make grand entrances only to be taken away a mission or so later.
The side missions, or investigations as they’re known in Vampyr, generally follow a similar pattern of having to fetch something and fighting whatever is guarding the item. I can think of only two investigations that deviated from that pathway, and I completed quite a few of them.
As you wander about town, the NPCs just recite the same lines over and over no matter how many nights pass, with these lines triggering as you walk past them. You can only hear a man lamenting his injury and the death of his wife so many times in the exact same way before empathy is replaced with annoyance. The music appears haphazardly and while it tries to evoke a horror or mournful vibe, it doesn’t feel like it fits together with any scene as well as it could. It loses any impact it could have had through repetition.
Much like its early 20th century setting, Vampyr feels like a bit of a throwback to a past age of action RPGs. In a time where the genre is evolving Vampyr holds on to past ideas for much of its tenure, and it doesn’t have a story strong enough to overcome that fact. The world itself is ripe for lots of stories to be told within, with Dontnod having done a good job with world building, but while Vampyr isn’t a bad game, nor is it as great as it could be.
Version tested: PlayStation 4 – Also available on Xbox One & PC