In a market flooded with wartime shooters and medieval RPGs, it’s nice to get a fresh take on a genre every now and then, and the Vampire mythology is certainly fresh. Developer Dontnod Entertainment of Life is Strange fame, tries their hands in a very different type of game this time around. Throwing us into the gritty underworld of 1900s London, Vampyr is about, you guessed it; Vampires. But it also promises to be so much more. Claiming a massively woven social mechanic and player choices echoing throughout your game, did they bring us not only a great action RPG, but also a deep narrative experience?
You take the role of the recently-made-vampiric Dr. Jonathan Reid, a well respected and accomplished medical doctor conveniently specializing in blood. Finding yourself as a new night feeder, it’s your job to find a cure and some answers, all while attempting to save London from an epidemic level of the Spanish flu. Facing occult groups, monstrous beasts, and vampire hunters, you’ll walk a narrow path balancing the vampire and the doctor.
While the visuals aren’t on par with some of the other AAA titles as of late, the art design and lighting create a perfect macabre and foreboding 1900s London. Stalking the streets at night looking for fresh victims to drain of blood feels incredibly atmospheric. Dark tones mixed with gritty and worn down streets filled with fog and rain really immerse you in the world. What the game lacks in texture resolution and poly-count, it more than makes up for with overall artistry and design.
Sound design is also wonderfully executed. Muffled cries, gunfire, and crackling fires fill the world with a sense of unease. The score works only to compliment the ambient noises to create what almost feels like a living world. Voice acting is also well done, with all actors giving a convincing performance that adds to the already interesting and well told story.
The gameplay is what you would expect from an action RPG. One melee weapon per hand; left for main damage melee and right for stun weapons, such as a stake or firearm. As with most games in this genre, you can also wield two-handed weapons; swapping stuns for raw force. Oddly, the game seems to lack a basic blocking ability. There is a unlockable “barrier” super power, but that is the only way of blocking the game makes available to you. While you can argue you don’t need a block mechanic in some action RPGs, this game feels like it’s designed to have one. I usually don’t do much blocking during combat in games, but I found myself trying to, over and over, while playing this title. It just seems like a strange choice to exclude it.
Now I know it’s the cool thing these days to compare basically every game to the Dark Souls series, and even though the combat in Vampyr is very similar to the Souls series, I will not be comparing the two. I will however be comparing it to Bloodborne. Other than the obvious Victorian-era horror elements, the game uses the same firearm stun mechanics as Bloodborne. While everything is still very much playable, and even enjoyable, it just feels loose. Movement feels clunky and less fluid than in BB and it lacks the depth of any sort of parry or visceral attack.
What the game does offer however, is vampire power abilities. You unlock these using experience points earned primarily through combat and feeding on the population. The powers use a sort of “blood mana” that you can refill by stunning enemies in combat and feeding on them mid-fight. This is achieved by chipping away at their stamina/stun bar with stun attacks until they are left vunerable and a feeding prompt appears. As expected, you can level-up how much blood is regenerated and used by these powers.
Vampire abilities range from leap attacks, minion spawns, and even transformations. While these are all interesting and useful, the best ability is health regeneration. Using that power with a “needle” stun weapon that automatically absorbs small amounts of blood on each hit makes you more or less invincible. Was this intentional? I’m not sure. But after I leveled a bit of my stamina and upgraded my needle, I found myself spamming the stun attack, claw ability, and health regeneration when hurt until I won every battle with relative ease. Keep in mind all of these abilities and weapons are given to you within the first ten minutes of playing.
The social aspect of the game is where it begins to become clear of the developer’s previous work with Life is Strange. London is populated with over sixty unique characters all with a staggering amount of dialogue, back story, and connected social circles. Talking to everyone within these circles will unlock more and more information and effectively raise the “quality” of their blood. This can also be raised by treating people’s various ailments with crafted medicine, you are a doctor after all. The higher quality the blood, the more experience you’ll receive when and if you feed on them.
While the dialogue and back stories are very deep, this might end up being a problem for some. While I very much love the lore in the Souls series, what makes it great is the fact that it’s completely optional. If you just want to play, you can. But if you’d like to dive into the world’s narrative, you can do that too. Vampyr forces you to chat away with what seems like endless dialogue in order to progress the story and even side quests. While it’s not bad by any means, it’s just something to consider if vampire myths aren’t your thing.
The game very much pushes that the player will face consequences for killing the citizens of London, but they are very shallow at best. While killing too many will change the stability of the region leading to more or less vampire hunter enemies, other lesser vampires, etc., it really doesn’t change much in terms of story. Don’t expect changes like you’ll experience in The Witcher series, such as losing entire quest lines, but it is something new in the genre, and I’ll appreciate the effort. There has been countless games that claim player choices matter and hardly any deliver, so I’m happy for what I got with Vampyr.
Much like the Little Sisters in BioShock, feeding on citizens will make you stronger, and allegedly also make the game easier at the cost of killing innocent people. It works in BioShock because you can still eventually get all the various powers and are very much rewarded for sparing the Sisters. In Vampyr, you want to try all the vampire abilities, but without feeding, it feels like climbing Mount Everest to earn experience points. Mix that with the fact I don’t really care about nearly any of the citizens, I just don’t see the advantage to not feeding. The characters do say one final thought as they die, which tends to be something extremely depressing, but it didn’t bother me much, since I knew I’d be turning into a sweet bat or shooting blood lasers or something soon after I fed.
In the end Vampyr proves that developers Dontnod can create a gameplay heavy title filled with action and a well written story. While the controls and combat are a bit rough around the edges, it still provides the player with a challenge that feels rewarding. Absolutely nailing the atmosphere and theme, you’ll feel completely immersed in the gritty and otherworldly underbelly of 1900s London.