Following the Great War, or World War I as it’s better known, the city of London became ravaged by the Spanish flu, a deadly pandemic. That much is true, but what you didn’t know is that in 1918 a plethora of ungodly creatures and ancient orders were also lurking in the shadows, preying on the weak. This is the story of Vampyr.
DONTNOD Entertainment were last seen garnering critical acclaim and awards for their episodic adventure about time manipulation and teenage drama, Life Is Strange. But now it’s time for something completely different in Vampyr, with regular teenagers replaced with vampires and the adventure becoming an action-RPG. Sold as a narrative-driven action-RPG, there’s a certain depth to be expected in the lore and plenty of moral dilemmas are set to be thrust upon you throughout. Can Vampyr deliver a succulent experience, or will it leave a bitter taste in your mouth?
Playing as Dr. Jonathan Reid, you awaken atop a mound of rotting corpses, disillusioned by your surroundings and feeling awfully peculiar. Stumbling around, you find someone willing to help and end up taking a huge chunk out of them, becoming almost instantly rejuvenated as a result. This once healing doctor, who swore to do no harm, is experiencing a bloodlust due to the very nature of the thing he has become… a vampire. He must drink to survive, but the moral compass suggests every life is precious. To drink or not to drink, that is the question, or more appropriately… whose blood should eventually quench the thirst?
First things first and it’s an intriguing tale that sees both the player and Dr. Reid discover his new-found condition simultaneously. Figuring out what’s happened to him, who did this and what powers he now possesses is the order of the day – or night given the fact that the sun will burn him. The idea of a blood specialist becoming a vampire works in the way that it provides a Jekyll and Hyde type complex, which essentially opens up two distinct ways to approach Vampyr – the healer and the predator.
The line between the two is blurry, but I’m initially focusing on the vampire aspect and the streets of London which house potential dangers of all kinds that’ll you’ll have to kill. There are vampire hunters from the Guard of Priwen, werewolf looking creatures, the lowest and most detestable form of vampires known as Skal, and quite a few other types too. Even within their own enemy class, they can have different weapons and resistances to take note of; therefore enemies must be defeated using a variety of combat methods.
In terms of standard combat, there are a few options, ranging from melee attacks with a sword to firing off a loaded weapon; up to four melee items can be held and switched to on the fly. When a selection of vampire abilities are chosen and thrown in on top of this, there’s so much choice in the heat of a conflict that it could be overwhelming, but you’ll need to utilise the lot if you’re to avoid death – and once you get the hang of it, there’s never a dull moment in a fight.
The special vampire abilities available include the coagulation of blood in the target’s veins to stop them on the spot, an explosive red mist and even the draining of Dr. Reid’s own blood to heal damage. There are a handful of others to suit the approach taken; whether that’s tactical, aggressive or defensive. An Ultimate attack is also a possible, expensive, addition to your arsenal and the choices are epic; seeing a beast take over and furiously attack enemies or watching an enemy’s blood boil until they explode is incredibly satisfying.
The fights aren’t easy though, and initially they can be disliked, mainly due to how weak the character is, as a keen eye has to be kept on managing the health, stamina and blood levels, the latter of which is needed to perform abilities. Stamina on the other hand is important for dodging attacks and launching melee attacks, with Dr. Reid basically helpless if it runs out. That’s one of the first things you’ll want to improve when given the chance to upgrade and unlock abilities using XP on a rather deep skill tree. Unfortunately, the spending of XP is only possible by sending the doc to bed for forty winks and this mere action of sleeping sees the degradation of the civilians, and the consequences of whatever choices have been made prior, come into effect.
As for earning the XP and unlike most action-RPGs where decimating enemies and bosses are the main source, in Vampyr it’s more about completing main missions and side quests given by the many NPCs located across four distinct districts – the Docks, Pembroke Hospital, Whitechapel and West End. To obtain the plethora of side quests, the quest givers must stay alive and so, as a good doctor should, it’s your duty to attempt to keep them all healthy. On a completely unrelated point, the healthier the person is, the more XP is ripe for drinking by taking a chunk out of them and sending them to an early death. You see, there’s much more value in the locals if you want to boost your skills.
And there’s the moral quandary right there – deciding if their lives are less important than your desire to grow stronger and stronger. As you get to know these people through a series of conversation trees, links will begin to emerge as to how important they are to the community. Should they be a valuable nurse, the district they are situated within could begin to collapse and not only would it lead to the loss of quests and the lack of wares sold by merchants, but the place would get overrun by the hunters and creatures of the night. The way you can actually miss out on some links and hints between characters though, by way of picking a poor dialogue option, is very annoying. For some reason, a lot of questions throw up similar responses from different people, which is fine to a degree, but Dr. Reid reacts as if it’s the first time he’s ever heard it and wants to know more. The conversations can really drag on with some characters too.
My first sacrifice was nothing to anyone, and as a result there was very little repercussion for it, but I took my time to get to know him, before mesmerising him and taking him to an unused room in a hospital in order to feast. I love that it’s not so black and white though, with every insight into a person changing your mind about the kill. The sheer amount of lore about the NPCs and the secret societies all adds to the overall experience, with collectibles scattered across London to further enhance the back-stories, whilst also filling you in on the vampire legacy.
Given that the open-world of London is quite vast, the hideouts to lay low in for a while are very much appreciated, especially if you need a kip or fancy a spot of crafting. Items gathered on your travels, from inside bins and cabinets to the possession of dead folk, can be used to upgrade weapons. But that’s not nearly as intriguing as whipping up a batch of medicine to treat migraines, fatigue, pneumonia and many more illness that the local folk tend to pick up. You will feel like a normal doctor, doing his rounds, finding out their problems and fixing them using a private stash of meds – albeit a doctor that’s merely looking after its prey.
Aestheticly and 1918 London is darn spooky looking, with smog filling up the night air and an abundance of dark alleyways and underground passages to traverse through. There’s a sense of the place being in ruins, with many houses ransacked and blood smears left in the wake of carnage. Sound-wise, and DONTNOD have done a terrific job in creating a mildly scary atmosphere with distant noises of wailing creatures and enough of a dark tone to the background music to keep you on tenterhooks. It’s easy to get totally immersed in the world that’s been designed for Vampyr, but if there was to be a criticism of the visuals, it’d be in regards the character models as some look like there’s plenty of room for improvement.
Vampyr isn’t your everyday vampire game, where you’re just a killing machine looking for the next bloodbath. It’s much more human than that and it looks to question your morals with a network of characters who, as a doctor, you feel you have a duty to care for. The inability to upgrade without advancing a day is a frustrating one, as that just sees the chaos moves a step closer. I’m not a fan of the long loading screens when moving between certain areas either. On the positive side though, the balancing act between being strong enough to fend off enemies without feeding off too many humans is a tough one, but then again, it’s not necessary to follow that path. As such there’s great replayability to trigger a few different endings related to your deadly nature, or lack thereof.
There’s no doubt it can be a bit slow going, especially getting to know the people of this world, but if you can deal with that, then Vampyr is a very good all round experience that’s to be appreciated.