Coming off the back of Life is Strange, the new semi-open world action-adventure RPG Vampyr by Dontnod Entertainment might seem like an unorthodox direction for the studio to go in. But back in 2013, the company released their first game, an action game called Remember Me. Let’s just say it was not as well received as their following episodic series. I really loved Life is Strange but Remember Me was, ironically, not very memorable. So, I guess you could say my expectations for Vampyr were mixed. Fortunately, Dontnod has made something really fascinating that made me hungry to keep playing.
Vampyr is set in 1918 London, during the Spanish Flu epidemic. You play as Dr Jonathan Reid, who just after becoming a vampire, unwittingly murders his sister. While struggling with the guilt for what he has done he comes across a friendly doctor with an interest in all things vampiric. He gives Reid a job at Pembroke Hospital, and in between helping (or killing) patients, he attempts to find the person that transformed him into a blood-sucking monster.
Although Reid is another brooding main character the game’s story was interesting enough to keep me engaged and curious to see what happens next. A hidden world with feuding factions is established and a lot of care is taken to help the player understand who is who and how they are significant in the plot.
As the game is set in 1918 flu-ridden London the general tone is, understandably, rather depressing. Most characters face poverty, sickness, are typically unhappy and have tragic backstories. It is harsh world and your presence as a vampire does not necessarily help things. Despite all this bleakness, I was never deterred from playing, simply because it makes complete sense for the world to be like this at this time. The world itself is going through a crisis, so I could forgive the broodiness displayed by some of the characters.
The game’s combat is, for the most part, really fun and challenging. You have a selection of weapons that you will find throughout the world and special vampiric powers you can unlock with XP. You can choose whether you want a two-handed weapon or if you want a main hand weapon and an off-hand weapon. Off-hand weapons, however, perform a slightly different function. They are used to stun enemies which gives you the opportunity to suck some of their blood. This grants you the ability to use your vampire powers. These powers are nicely varied, from aggressive damage dealing, to more defensive abilities and passives. You cannot equip all powers at once, so some customisation is involved in tailoring the playable character to your style of play.
At first, I found the combat a bit stiff. Things did not move as fast as they felt they should but as I spent more time with the game, my tempo adjusted and I got into the flow of the combat much better. Also, I have noticed some framerate drops on PS4 during combat when a lot is happening on screen. The game is quick to recover and stabilise but hopefully, the issue will be patched soon after release.
The thing that most impressed me about Vampyr was its incredibly intricate systems. They are layered and they tie into multiple aspects of the game like narrative, gameplay, level progression and player choice.
There are a lot of NPCs in the game – you can talk to them, find out more about their individual backstories and do side quests for them. However, you also have the option to hypnotise them, take them to a quiet spot in the shadows and drain them of their blood. You gain a large XP boost when you do this, but what is particularly interesting (and a little bit darkly humorous) is that you gain even more XP if you have unlocked more information about the character’s backstory. The game does a lot in trying to humanise these characters, making the decision on whether or not to kill them even more difficult.
The game becomes more difficult the less you kill.
If you do not want to kill any of these characters it is not so simple to just avoid killing. The game becomes more difficult the less you kill. You will start to become under-leveled when fighting the enemies. This sounds like it would be frustrating, but it isn’t. You have the option to make the game easier on yourself, you just have to make the tough choice of which citizen you are going to kill to get that XP. You can refuse to do this if you wish, just know that the game is going to become a lot harder to play because of it. And there are no manual saves at all – whatever decision you make is final.
These choices become even more challenging when you discover that these actions will have consequences, not only for people that are directly linked to the character you killed but also for the entire community. There are four discrete sections of the map each with their own community of character and each community has a health bar. As the deadly 1918 Spanish Flu prevails throughout London, individual characters can fall ill, and as a doctor you have the choice to heal them by crafting the appropriate medicine. If you decide to kill everyone in that region or decide not to cure them of their ailment, then that whole section’s health bar will plummet and the section will fall into chaos. If you do want to save these people, then you have to have to be a dedicated physician tending to the sick and attempt to keep the region stable. But there are certain NPCs that are particularly influential, and their death may have disastrous results for everyone else.
I found these systems absolutely genius. The choices that were presented to me were difficult and I found myself carefully considering what to do. I tried to gather as much information as possible and thought about the potential aftermath if a certain character were to disappear. It is a really clever set of systems that made me think from a moral and ethical perspective. Would it be ok if I killed this gang leader? He is a criminal after all. But what would happen to his employees? Would the gang crumble? They wouldn’t have any money then. Would I be condemning many more people who are not necessarily bad, but who are just trying to survive this hard world?
The systems perfectly reflect the narrative and Reid’s struggle as a new vampire. He is a doctor so he wishes to help people but his vampiric side hungers for blood. As a player, I too felt conflicted and battled with myself to make the choices I made.
The game’s open world is by no means the largest we have ever seen, but it would not benefit from being any bigger. Things are efficiently dense and compact. The London streets can feel claustrophobic and the hub sections where you meet different characters begin to feel reassuringly safe when you come out a tough battle. That said, there is no fast travel in the game, which made some of my longer journeys feel a bit tedious to get through.
Vampyr is quite a unique experience. The game’s story and combat support the game but its intersecting systems of moral dilemmas and level progression make it a really special game. Many games have player choice but a lot of them are quite simple, binary, good outcome/bad outcome decisions. Vampyr’s choices have effects on not just the story but how you level up, the state of the world, the other characters in the game and more. This makes you really feel like your actions have meaning and consequences, for better or for worse.