Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Genre: Action Role-Playing
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Available On: Xbox One, Playstation 4, Microsoft Windows
Would you be willing to pull the trigger on someone in order to save your city? What about just yourself? What if you had the benefit of knowing that they were an absolute menace to society, or were irredeemably despondent? And assuming you were willing take their life, would you have any right to make that decision?
These questions and more are explored in Vampyr, an action role-playing game which revisits the themes and tone of the old penny-dreadfuls and gothic horror. The game uses its unique citizen system to tell a dark story about the nature of power. You play as the esteemed Dr. Jonathan Reid, a WWI veteran and newborn vampire, and the characters you meet in the now plague-ridden London factor into the city’s overall well-being. As a doctor, it’s Reid’s job to take care of these people, but as vampire these citizens hold the key to his evolution. Will he prey upon them, giving himself greater power to confront the evils within the city, or will he struggle along, healing and helping them to leave the city battered but whole?
Managing this upper level mechanic was key to not just the story, as a citizen’s death would affect the available quests and the other citizens in their social circle, but also to the main gameplay loop as the city’s overall health status can drop to dangerous levels. If this happens, violent beasts would begin roaming the streets in even greater numbers, even violating the so-called safe areas, making traversing the city even more a challenge. This is actually fairly significant in the game, as there is no fast-travel mechanic (a staple in many open-world games). At first, this decision seemed to be an asinine attempt to make the game more difficult, but upon reflection seems to have been an intentional design choice that forces the player to care about the health of the city.
On a more granular level, the gameplay consisted of third person combat which relies learning the enemies’ patterns, finding their weaknesses, and lots of dodging. Reid’s physical abilities rely on a stamina bar, while his various spooky vampire abilities run off of, you guessed it, blood which the player has to carefully manage. This is a pretty tried and true combat system, harkening to Dark Souls and other such games, however, it’s implemented a bit clunkily. Instead of always being rewarded for learning these patterns, your dodges will often be met with the enemies “sliding” towards you and landing the attack anyway.
Additionally, the vampiric powers don’t seem terribly effective, at least not when compared to just beating the blaggards with a large stick. This actually works against the narrative, bringing into question why you ate that nice young chap in Whitechapel if these attacks aren’t going to pay off as much tacking that bit of metal plating you picked up at a street vendor to your nightstick.
Of course, this lukewarm system only works at all if the game isn’t glitching out and causing any one of its many parts to stop functioning. It was not uncommon throughout my play for the combat functions to stop responding, the sound to cut out, or some other immersion breaking glitch to rear it’s ugly head. Additionally, the load times in this game were simply abominable. It’s 2018, and if I’m not expected to wait 3 seconds for Facebook to load, I’m definitely going to be unhappy with 3 to 5 minutes loading screen between districts (and with the fact that I have to press start through 3 different screen to even start the dang game). It was especially maddening when the game would decide at random points while walking through the open world, or even mid-combat, that it needed to stop everything and load… something. This definitely didn’t do the game’s pacing any favors.
Narratively speaking, the game is mildly cheesy. This can mostly be attributed to the stilted dialogue, the overly morose characters, and the dialogue trees which have a habit of making every conversation sound like an online chatbot spewing vaguely related subjects and predicates. Despite all of this, the writing managed to continue to suck me in with its ability to dangle interesting bits of lore or intriguing characters at me. In fact, these fascinating tidbits, and the ambience established by the gloomy design of London and the morose soundtrack, were so compelling that even its subpar combat system (and the atrocious loading screens) wasn’t enough to make me rage quit. At least after the second chapter, anyway.
The opening of Vampyr leaves a lot to be desired. Not being a veteran of such third person action games, I was turned off by the learning curve in the combat system. Ultimately, I fell into a pretty boring pattern of dodging and striking with a cudgel which lasted the course of the game. That basically kept me from exploring the full potential of the crafting system (though I’m not sure how deep it is, because there doesn’t seem to be that many weapons in the game).
Additionally, I didn’t initially understand how to interact with the citizens. Though many of them have pretty simple and boring quests (i.e. find my mum’s special hat, but more depressing because it’s interwar Britain), there are also “hints” which unlock further interaction, and ultimately make them tastier to Reid’s apparently discerning undead palate. The problem is, you’re supposed to find these clues by wandering around rummaging through random trash cans, or using a supernatural eavesdropping ability (though I don’t understand how listening at a window is supernatural) which I never quite got the hang of, but wasn’t actually required to beat the game. These issues cause the beginning of the game to absolutely slog during the most important time to get the audience hooked, as the tasty morsels of story don’t start making their appearance until you’re well into the game.
Ultimately, Dontnod tried a lot of interesting things in Vampyr, and that is to be applauded. Innovation moves this industry forward, and leads to a richer experience for the player. Unfortunately, the things they tried were in mild conflict with the core gameplay loop, and were hindered by technical issues. The game isn’t completely unentertaining to play, though, and the story and atmosphere really fight against the lack of polish. Taking all this into consideration, I believe this game is worth a playthrough, especially if you like games like Dark Souls, which also has a depressing story and third person combat, or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which used a very different combat system but also relied on interesting characters and the player’s decisions to craft a narrative.