Consoles: Xbox One, PS4, PC (Reviewed)
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Developer: DontNod Entertainment
Vampires are one of those monsters that never got a chance to really shine. Typically cast as enemies, it’s rare for players to ever step into the shoes of these nocturnal creatures. Enter Vampyr, a love letter to Victorian horror that blends action RPG elements and choice-driven gameplay. Developed by DontNod Entertainment, this single player game is a not the best RPG on the market, but it’s a fun experience if you can invest in the story.
Set in dark streets of London during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, players assume control of newborn vampire, Doctor Jonathan Reid. Infected at the start of the game and left to die, Jonathan is saved by a human doctor who allows him to take refuge in the local hospital. Assuming the role of a medical practitioner, Jonathan is tasked with discovering who turned him into a vampire and why he was chosen. This story will lead players down a twisted path full of betrayal, supernatural forces, and ancient orders.
Vampyr’s story unfolds at a slower pace, giving players a chance to interact and fully immerse themselves in this world. While this fits with the Victorian horror theme, it can also cause certain parts of the plot to drag. This is especially true for the first few hours which see Jonathan desperately interviewing one person after another in hopes of discovering what happened to him. It can be a tedious opening if you don’t care about the main character or the numerous NPCs that inhabit London. Once the game passes the halfway mark Vampyr delivers a deliciously devious cocktail of vampiric high society, brutal decisions, and heart-wrenching twists.
It’s the former that really shines, as Vampyr isn’t afraid to let players explore and learn about the different types of cultures. From the lovely sewer-dwelling Skals to the pompous members of the Ascalon Club, there’s a surprisingly rich vampiric hierarchy to uncover. Lore can be uncovered by talking to civilians, exploring the world, and reading various notes scattered throughout. All of this helps flesh out London and makes come of Jonathan’s decisions that more impactful.
Nothing in Vampyr is black and white, with many moments in the story rippling throughout the 25+ hour campaign. DontNod does a wonderful job of never making you feel completely confident in your decision. What might appear to be a merciful choice may end up driving someone insane or ruining their life. A lot of this weight is thanks to the solid writing and wonderfully voiced characters that breath life into these people. The only place where Vampyr’s story stumbles is at the end. It’s not that the game doesn’t produce a satisfying conclusion, it just doesn’t feel like a culmination of all your interactions.
Make no mistake, choice is also at the very heart of Vampyr’s gameplay. Almost every NPC has a detailed backstory, personality, and relationship with other characters into the world. Players can feed on these people to gain a substantial boost of experience, but at the cost of killing them. Whether you choose to embrace or spare the citizen is completely up to you. The amount of experience earned is determined by how many clues you’ve uncovered about that person and how healthy they are.
Hints are unlocked by doing minor detective work such as spying on conversations or talking to locals about issues. It lends a decent amount of engagement that makes you feel as if you’re doing more than exhausting dialogue options. However, treating diseases is not terribly fun and can end up feeling more like a chore. There are 9 different types of ailments that an NPC can obtain and it’s up to you to craft the corresponding medicine for these people. To do this you’ll need to obtain specific resources and then venture out to manually treat each person.
If you ignore a citizen’s infection it will worsen and eventually lead to the district’s morale suffering. This is a tedious mechanic that doesn’t add much except putting a strain on your resources. Yes, playing doctor does work in the context of the story, but it never produces anything mechanically intriguing. Thankfully, you can ignore this portion of Vampyr if you don’t mind certain London districts falling into complete chaos.
Vampyr sports real-time combat that has players using a variety of different weapons and abilities to kill their foes. Jonathan can carry a primary and off-hand weapon along with two support items such as a firearm or a stun causing stake. Everything in his arsenal can be upgraded and enhanced with effects to swing the tide of battle. There’s a decent variety of weapons in Vampyr, but given how scarce upgrade items are you may only use one or two in a playthrough.
Blood stands in for mana which is used to cast a variety of different spells. There’s a healthy suite of offensive and defensive skills that allow you to adapt Jonathan to your playstyle. There’s no penalty for wanting to reset and try a new build, which encourages experimentation against certain foes. Being able to skewer someone with spears made of blood or summon deadly shadow spikes never gets old. All of these abilities can be upgraded via talent trees, alongside Jonathan’s health, mana, stamina, and carrying capacity.
Despite some clunky hit detection and enemies occasionally stun locking you, Vampyr has a fairly fluid combat system. You’re able to chain abilities together, allowing for some vicious and brutal kills. Enemies also have a nice variety, as Jonathan will face off against deadly monster hunters, other vampires, and fearsome bosses. Some foes can disable Jonathan’s power via a holy cross, while others have access to the same skills you do. Hunters and monsters will also attack one another, so you can occasionally cause massive fights to break out between factions.
Missions have an average amount of variety, but no single level really stood out among others. Much of this is thanks to the mixed level design as players will often fight in the same familiar streets, back alleys, and buildings. Vampyr infrequently changes up locations and when it does you’ll be subjected to the same drab color pallet. Given how many amazing locations London has to offer, the world itself feels restrictive.
Sadly, my biggest issue with Vampyr came in the form of a game-breaking bug that stopped my story progression entirely. This glitch would lock my character in place, denying me the ability to go anywhere or talk to anyone. It was so bad I needed to acquire a save from the developers so I could continue playing where my game left off. Even if this is a very rare occurrence, it’s disheartening that Vampyr is marred with such a nasty bug. The game also suffered from some minor framerate drops and the momentary freezing when entering certain areas.
Visually, Vampyr is nothing special, but the wonderful art direction for the characters helps elevate this RPG. Facial expressions are a mixed bag of quality while the effects during combat all look smooth and extremely polished. Jonathan’s physical appearance will change depending on if you fed or not, acting as a grim reminder of your lost humanity.
Your enjoyment of Vampyr will largely depend on if the story grabs you. There’s no doubt that DontNod has delivered a compelling tale, but the slow pace at which it unfolds may be too boring for some. Combat is fast and furious, supported by a strong amount of customization options. Even with some unremarkable locations to battle in, slaying monsters and humans remained engaging from start to finish.
Vampyr is a bloody good time that is marred by some tedious mechanics and some technical issues. Hitting a game-breaking bug certainly soured my experience, but the wonderfully written characters kept me going until the credits rolled. This may not be a perfect RPG, but Vampyr is still a fun time for those wanting something a bit darker in their games.