Vampyr had been on the radar for a lot of folks since it took the stage at E3 2017 and Dontnod Entertainment showed off their haunted streets of plague-ridden London. The review has been a little delayed due to some technical issues moving the release date back from November last year but GReviews were quite willing to wait it out for this one.
Dontnod Entertainment began their studio career with the ironically titled Remember Me. Thankfully Life Is Strange was such a success that the studio was able to pour some considerable resources into developing Vampyr and I’m glad they did. Vampyr puts you in the shoes of Dr Jonathan Reid, an army medic who has just got back from active duty in the First World War. Unfortunately he’s attacked and the next thing Dr Reid know’s he’s waking up in a pile of corpses with a terrible thirst for human blood. Spoilers: You play as a newly turned Vampire in Vampyr. The beating heart of Vampyr‘s story is the moral dilemma of a Dr who must decide between his sworn Hippocratic oath and the insatiable desire to feast on human victims. All the while you also seek to learn more about your condition and get to grips with the master vampire who has bestowed this curse (or gift) upon you.
Vampyr is set in London during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic that was ravaging the city almost as badly as the war. The dark, Gothic and rain-slick streets are littered with reminders of the cruelty and seriousness of that particular outbreak of Influenza. There’s an ever present, threatening atmosphere that lays heavily over the city. Corpses abound for a variety of reasons well beyond that of disease and if you wander the streets of London at midnight you’ll find that there’s more than malicious men skulking in the darkness. The supernatural elements of the setting are actually quite artfully woven into a world which is wracked with fever ridden patients and a woefully poor understanding of science. The citizens of a near lawless and almost completely overridden London are perfectly willing to accept that fever madness can push a person over the edge and into violence.
The half-breed, feral monsters called ‘Skals’ are the bottom of the Vampire food chain but they still possess enough strength and fury to rip a man to shreds. These ghoulish beasts skulk around the dark corners of London, keen to avoid the fires of the brave but vicious vampire hunting gangs that stalk them every night. Images of fanatical humans waving torches and brutally eradicating the “leeches” that are cursing their Gothic city immediately evokes the image of Bloodborne and the comparisons don’t stop here. The soundtrack is delightfully macabre, the city a grim charnel house with feral beasts on the prowl and you play a character with supernatural speed and a thirst for blood. The fact that Vampyr doesn’t completely embarrass itself when put up next to Bloodborne is pretty high praise in my opinion. But when you compare yourself to the best you need to be prepared to face the music if you don’t measure up.
So when you get right down to it how does Vampyr actually play? Gameplay is a mixture of RPG character interaction and conversation with crafting, trading and questing as well as a melee combat system that mirrors Bloodborne‘s hyper-aggressive, character-action fights. Unfortunately, while the slick dodges and crows control combat work pretty well the weapon variety and intricacies of the boss battles just don’t compare. I can’t really hold that against Vampyr though because it’s not exactly the kiss of death to say ‘your boss design isn’t as good as Bloodborne.’ On the other hand Vampyr has buckets of dialogue and character interaction to offer to augment its competent combat mechanics. In addition Vampyr has a moral choice system that I think is one of the best I’ve ever seen.
Now obviously no moral choice system will ever actually come close to the crippling doubts of making a decision in real life. But Vampyr is serving up an optional fast track to upgrading your character’s skills and stats via devouring the hapless and relatively innocent citizens of London that he’s supposed to protect. The boss encounters you come across can be quite challenging if you aren’t used to this style of combat. There is one encounter quite early in the game with a Skal that is able to create a shadow version of himself which attacks you simultaneously. If a player is finding this boss too difficult to defeat with their current character level they can get a massive XP boost by murdering a citizen and draining them of their blood. This XP can then be used to boost health, stamina or even get new abilities and attacks. But beware, killing folks removes their quests and goes a ways to destabilising the district of London that they were from. The moral choices you make will define the endings that you get in Vampyr. But the most important thing for me is that this is a moral choice system that has the ‘evil’ option one that makes your challenges easier whilst resisting the temptation to feed and being the ‘good’ guy will make your experience a lot more difficult.
It’s this moral choice mechanic and the way its woven seamlessly into the narrative of the story which impresses me so much about Vampyr. Any game that can marry gameplay with narrative is worthy of praise and the grim, dark context of Vampyr just makes it even more interesting. Yes there are the odd frame rate issues here and there and yes the boss fights are relatively straightforward but the overarching themes and motifs of the game hit home extremely well. I’d recommend Vampyr in a heartbeat.