It has been a while since the last time we saw a game with vampires as protagonists. Some of us may remember the hours poured into titles like Legacy of Kain or the two Vampire: The Masquerade installments. So when Dontnod’s Vampyr was announced, our hearts started pounding with excitement. Now that the credits have rolled, I can confidently say that Dontnod’s take on the material has fangs. Taking notes from classic Gothic tales while adding their own personal touch. If you take its combat, technical execution and a somehow bland start aside, this action/RPG game grips you and makes you thirsty for more.
Part-Time Doctor, Full-Time Vampire
In Vampyr, we get in the shoes of Jonathan Reid, a renowned surgeon who comes back to London after serving during WW1. Right at the beginning, we get confronted with his ultimate destiny. Someone – or something – has preyed upon him. Turning him into a lonely vampire who has to learn everything on his own if he is to survive. On top of that, London falls victim to an outbreak of Spanish Flu.
But not everything is sullen or without hope in town. For the figure of an amicable comrade in arms, Doctor Swansea, appears on the scene to offer Jon a job as a night doctor at the Pembroke Hospital, one of the last bastions in the East End that still fights the outbreak.
From this point, the plot starts as a two-fold quest. As a doctor, you must find a way to contain the outbreak with your knowledge of medicine and disease. And as a vampire you must track down the monster that created you and find out why. But along the way, there lingers a dreaded question: will you drink blood like Dracula? Or will you suffer your curse with the greatest of restraint? The fate of Jonathan is in your hands. What lies ahead is a decision-driven, branching and serious narrative that Dontnod carries with dignity throughout the whole game.
It’s a shame that the game starts off slow and drab. Jonathan’s self-transformation is not as climatic as you would expect and it feels too simplistic for the complexity and darkness of the game’s general tone. On the other hand, Vampyr invests an awful lot of time in developing a rather mundane version of London, complete with a LOT of exposition. You need to wait until the second half of the game for vampiric questions and really big moral dilemmas to start popping all around you.
Welcome to London
The biggest strength of the game comes from the cast of characters that populate the districts of London and how Jonathan relates to them. Each district has between 15-20 people whose welfare will affect the general health of that district. Feed upon one or let an illness go rampant and the health will drop to the point where walking through the streets will harbor more monsters. On the other hand, keep them happy and healthy and district fights will give you less of a headache.
The writers at Dontnod have done an awesome job at creating complex characters with their own motivations and backgrounds. Unraveling them becomes one of the most interesting activities in the whole game. Each of the conversations is finely written, going to a lot of effort to recreate the nuances of that time; their speech and inclinations. Many interesting topics are covered (from alcoholism to art, prostitution, suicide, medical experimentation, etc.), laying out different moral questions.
Dontnod’s way of luring you into the moral dilemma is by binding together citizen blood with XP. By feeding on a citizen you get XP which you can use to give yourself stronger vampire abilities, but the more you know your victim, the more of that precious XP you earn. It is by far the fastest way to becoming a full-fledged vampire. But it comes at the cost of dooming a district to disease and having the people treat you with hostility.
It makes every encounter turn into a question of who you are willing to sacrifice? A priest who keeps terrorizing his flock with visions of purging fire? A low profile assassin tied up to a feeble sweet mother with fates intertwined? Or maybe that poor sod that brings nothing to society and no one will ever miss anyway? This is the Dontnod I loved from Life is Strange so I personally enjoyed getting to know every single one of these characters. They were credible and, in a lot of cases, captivating.
But not everything is shinning over here. Vampyr is a sinister game dripping with atmosphere. However, the dark and homogenous color palette makes a lot of the environments feel bland and interchangeable. Arriving at the end though showcases the potential of Dontnod’s engine, a possibility that seems to be a miss here and could have made for an even better game. Given, it’s a vampire title and the night is their realm by definition, but it’s hard for me to avoid the feeling levels could have been improved.
A Vampyr in the Shadows
Vampyr doesn’t just have dialogue and moral dilemmas, it also has a combat system. A combat system that just doesn’t feel right. Not that it’s simple, but it feels poorly implemented. Jonathan can carry one main weapon plus an off-hand one to fight off his attackers, with additional skills and weapon types unlocked through a skill tree.
Fights happen in real time and scale up during the game. Similar to the hack-and-slash brawls seen in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The problem is that there aren’t a lot of varied enemies. The same handful of enemies, all with the same tactics and strategies. They even spawn in the same spots in the map, giving each encounter an unshakable sense of deja-vu.
It’s a shame that the combat feels so pedestrian and annoying because Vampyr excels so much as a narrative experience.
Dontnod may have reached fame with Life is Strange but their thirst for creation knows no boundaries. And so they have ventured forth and explored various ideas with abundant creative passion. Vampyr is an original game, the type of experience you don’t come across every year. With its absorbing atmosphere and interesting citizen mechanics, this game will surely delight all Gothic lovers with a weak spot for narrative titles.
Vampyr is worth your time if you forgive some of its big shortcomings and put your attention on its strengths. It seems to me like a beacon of light in a gaming era where full single-player RPG games are becoming more scarce by the minute. Dontnod does not entirely disappoint here and confirms its relevance and the potential of their ideas nest. We cannot wait to see what other aces they have up their sleeves.
Apart from Life is Strange 2, that is.