Vampyr is a dark, action RPG from DONTNOD – the minds behind the Telltale-esque Life is Strange (2015) – and is the studio’s first foray into the genre. Set in the early twentieth century London, the game follows the misadventures of Dr Jonathan Reid – England’s foremost blood specialist, who has ironically become the eponymous creature of the night. As the game progresses, players must unravel the mystery behind Dr Reid’s newfound immortality, whilst combating the mysterious epidemic which is running rampant in the capital.
From the off, the concept and gameplay show a lot of promise. The role of player choice vis-a-vis difficulty is fairly novel in Vampyr, as – rather than choosing between preset difficulty settings – players can instead, from time-to-time, choose to make their playthrough easier by having Jonathan succumb to his bloodlust, and feast upon the various NPCs that populate DONTNOD’s London. Whilst choosing to feed is the quickest way of levelling up, XP can of course be gained through more conventional methods – such as completing side quests and mowing down enemies
Throughout the game, Jonathan finds himself at cross purposes with each of the three warring factions at one time or another – resulting in bloody combat on the cobbled streets. The Guard Priwen – a paramilitary organisation whose raison d’être is to eradicate all of the supernatural beasties in London – is the main threat, but players also have to contend with ‘Skals’ (scabby, lesser vampires, who are slaves to their bloodlust – giving them a feral presentation) and the members of the nefarious Ascalon Club – whose ranks swell with repressed, aristocratic ‘Ekons’.
Though Vampyr is a substantial experience, with a variety of side-quests to sink your teeth into, the game world is surprisingly compact. The action is confined to a handful of labyrinthine districts of London: Pembroke Hospital, Dr Reid’s base of operations; the the Docks, home to the most foulmouthed, hackneyed NPCs; the West End, and, of course, Whitechapel. With influenza-related exclusion zones, and dead ends aplenty, you’ll want to use the map accessible via the menu – as the waypoint system leaves a lot to be desired.
Without saying too much about its plot, the narrative in Vampyr revolves around the outbreak of Spanish Influenza in 1918 – which has been interspersed with incomprehensible vampire lore of Don’t Nod’s own design, so as to present something of an alternate history. Much of the game is spent running or shifting from one part of London to another, in search of NPCs with which to interact; the goal being to unearth clues as to the cause of – and potential solutions to – the epidemic. The pacing of the game is unfortunately a little stilted as a result; it seems that inordinate amounts of time are spent engaged in dry, somewhat circular conversations, with no obvious purpose.
These interactions aren’t completely devoid of value, however, as the game undoubtedly has some well designed – if under developed – characters to offer; such as Ichabod Throgmorton, Vampire Hunter Extraordinaire; Usher Talltree, London’s answer to Lord Varys; and Thelma Howcroft, who – suffering Cotard’s Syndrome – believes herself to be a vampire, and consequently refers to all lesser-beings as ‘mortal’.
Visually and atmospherically, the environment is very well crafted. The soundtrack in particular creates a pervasive sense of dread, made all the more impressive by the game’s hostility mechanic – which shows that, superficially at least, Dr Reid’s action (and inaction) takes a toll on the world. If Jonathan feeds on NPCs indiscriminately, or fails to treat the various maladies they contract, the wellbeing of individual districts will decrease; and if the metre falls below a certain threshold, a district can become hostile, which doesn’t bode well for the NPCs that resided there – who either die or flee as the zones become overrun with Skals.
Given Vampyr’s intrinsic reliance on player choice, the interactions with NPCs could (and should) have been handled better. As it stands, the dialogue options are too restrictive, and players aren’t really given the opportunity to consistently lean one way or another; what we’ve got is a kindly, well-to-do vampiric protagonist, who will warmly greet his fellow Londoners with a hearty “good evening, sir” as he wipes the blood of his nth victim from his chin. It would have been nice to see an old school, Mass Effect style approach, with ‘renegade’ / ‘paragon’ options opening up in accordance with players’ deeds / misdeeds.
When Jonathan isn’t engaged in tedious, circular conversations with the denizens of a dismal London, or cutting through his enemies like a hot knife through butter, he busies himself by rifling through bins, cabinets, chests, etc. for odds-and-ends such as springs, glass vials, and old watches. This odd assortment of collectibles can be used to craft new weapons and upgrades for Dr Reid’s arsenal; which – comprising of such implements as scythes, stakes, and surgical saws – represents a refreshing change from standard RPG fare.
Being a supernatural badass, Jonathan also has access to a number of otherworldly abilities with which he can wreak havoc. Earned XP can be spent on skills such as ‘Abyss’, which enables Jonathan to summon tendrils of shadow to seize his opponents, and ‘Bloodspear’, which is very much as it says on the tin.
The game suffers insofar as there is no rhyme or reason for killing NPCs, other than to advance in experience level. There is no real narrative compulsion to do so, insofar as Jonathan hasn’t been written as a character in throes of a bloodlust – despite his occasional protestations, as he (optionally) snatches-up unsuspecting rats for a quick snack, that he “[has] this thirst for blood”; and, aside from Jonathan’s experience level, his supposed urges are not reflected in the gameplay.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006) had an infinitely more effective representation of vampirism, in which weaknesses and strengths developed and intensified with the number of days that passed without feeding. By building in penalties if the player did not feed, the game created a situation in which feeding was a necessary evil. The complete absence of such a system in Vampyr is regrettable to say the least, considering that vampirism is central here, whereas it was only a minor sub-plot in Oblivion.
On the character development front, too, there are a number of unforgivable transgressions. I found that some of Jonathan’s unavoidable actions – whilst questing – were entirely inconsistent with the choices I had him make; I might have had Jonathan dragging unsuspecting innocents into dark alleys one moment, only to find him – moments later – placing flowers on graves of people he had never even met, and generally playing the good Samaritan. The most egregious examples of this are the moments where Dr Reid actually has the audacity to chastise others over their criminality; when a sociopathic protagonist is allowed to lecture others on the morality of their actions, something has gone terribly wrong.
Vampyr has occasional flashes of brilliance, hinting at an enormous potential which is never fully realised. Don’t Nod’s latest has all the ingredients of a fantastic RPG, but – unfortunately – some of its most alluring concepts are only superficially explored, and yet others are applied inconsistently throughout. The protagonist never seemed to noticeably darken, despite his evil deeds – nor did the public perception of him; and, worse, though Vampyr notionally permits a high degree of player choice, its narrative neglects and ignores these choices as the lacklustre story unfolds. This – for a roleplaying game – is a cardinal sin, and results in a morass of incongruous moments. Vampyr is a game you won’t be sorry to have played, though it might leave a bitter taste in your mouth; the taste of missed opportunity.