This week I sunk my teeth into Vampyr from Dontnod Entertainment. This gloomy action RPG promises a semi-open world in which each NPC is unique and every decision has consequences.
Rich, Vital, Flavorful…Story
Dr. Jonathan Reid returns from the Great War to London in 1918, whereby he is promptly killed and thrown into a mass grave…only to awaken a short time later. Whilst trying to process personal tragedies and discover the identity of his “maker”, the newborn vampire finds himself in the thick of London’s descent into chaos. War has ravaged the continent, pandemic flu has engulfed the world, and secret societies of vampires, vampire hunters, and the otherwise enlightened conspire to manifest their own vision of England’s salvation.
Hunger or Hippocrates
Vampyr makes Jonathan’s internal struggle your own by entwining London’s inhabitants with experience points and the story’s outcome. This is a big part of the game’s advertising hook, so let’s really tear into it.
Roughly sixty characters are divided between four districts, each with a unique tale to tell—if you can unravel it. Fully elucidating their stories by choosing your words wisely, finding evidence around town, and eavesdropping on private moments increases the amount of experience offered for feeding on them.
Feeding on a citizen is fatal, potentially impacting the story and definitely reducing the overall health of the commuity. A district can only sustain so much degradation before it collapses, becoming hostile and threatening the safety of other characters.
Prey or Nay (or…Gray)
Therein lies the dilemma: to remain the doctor is to reject the majority of the game’s available experience, yet to become the vampire is to brave the consequences. Each district will be sorely tested through the narrative, threatening catastrophic results even before citizens vanish at the player’s hand. How much are you willing to struggle for a better outcome? How much are you willing to risk to ease the burden?
Playing the Good Doctor
I chose to rise to the challenge, refusing to feed on a single citizen. Instead, I sluggishly scraped together what pittance of experience I could amass from elucidating characters’ secrets, completing their sidequests, and keeping them in good health—exhausting all available resources towards tackling the next objective.
Appropriately, the experience can only be described as an omnipresent anemia. Enemies are ever levels ahead and will easily take you down with sufficient numbers or poor timing. Boss encounters seem to drag on forever, and missteps are harshly punished. However, there is virtually no penalty for failure save another long trip to the loading screen. What need an immortal fear lose but time?
Looting fallen enemies, trash cans, crates, and homes will provide the resources to keep weapons up to par. Frugality with experience points towards general growth and vampyric powers that complement your playstyle will keep failure at bay. Yet one is always just ahead of sustainable, just short of comfortable, right on the precipice of giving in to the thirst.
But does it hold up?
Every developer these days boasts that in their game choices matter; their game celebrates the interactive experience unique to the medium of video gaming. These promises are often revealed to be advertising bluster when a few lines of dialogue change and all the branches reconvene at the same conclusions.
Vampyr instead creates a balancing act that makes choices feel more meaningful. Poorly-chosen words can lock away a citizen’s secrets, sidequests, and experience. Being forced to choose the fate of a community pillar may have unintended consequences, leaving the district to rely on remaining citizens to keep it afloat. One ending can become another by having its foundations eroded out from under it.
Objectively, it’s not the kaleidoscope of possibilities that every game pretends to be. However, it harnesses the limitations that often lead to disappointment and puts them to work in a subjectively satisfying way. This is especially true since the “right decision” is not always the “correct decision”. Will accommodating someone only make them comfortable concealing things? Or is it pressure that will make them clam up? Sometimes the risks manifest and the benefits don’t. Sometimes trust pays off.
Bringing the War Home
Dr. Reid has seen just enough combat in France to capably defend himself. Mortal weapons—one handed, two handed, and ranged—whittle down enemies’ health, stun resistance, or both. Stunning an enemy allows you to bite them, filling your blood bar and resetting your stamina while leaving you invulnerable. The player eventually develops a playstyle around when they feel it’s best to go all out on their health, spend remaining stamina setting up a feed, or perpetuating a stun-feed rhythm for a long haul.
Vampiric powers—melee, blood, and shadow—deal direct damage and are quite powerful when used properly, but refusing to feed on civilians while keeping your health, stamina, and healing within sustainable parameters severely handicaps your vampyric budget.
Handling boss mechanics is as simple as observe and adapt. If you’ve been feeding on civilians, you’ll likely have the parameters and powers to make short work of them once you understand their behavior. If not, mistakes are going to hurt—a lot—and you’re better off playing it safe over a much longer engagement. Neither approach is challenging in the traditional sense of the word.
Overall, combat was clearly a secondary priority, but accomplishes what was asked of it (with some caveats, which we’ll get to in a moment).
Sight and Sound
Putting the Unreal 4 engine to good use, graphics are in general average-to-above-average, but a commendable attention to detail brings the environment to life—moreso than the characters themselves, with whom time is overwhelmingly spent in rigid eye contact over the ol’ conversation wheel.
Dull as those conversations can be (as many real-world conversation are), the vocal performances aren’t half bad, even if melodramatic. There’s a certain theatricality to the voiceovers, especially one scene which takes place on an actual stage.
SFX and BGM are like a good squire—knowing when they are needed, when to go away, and how best to attend. This is not a soundtrack-oriented game by any stretch, but it serves well as a complement whether making use of choir, strings, or industrial noise vaguely reminiscent of Silent Hill.
With regard to progression mechanics, Vampyr felt impressively well-balanced from the outset. From the costs and benefits of feeding upon citizens to leaps of faith in decision-making to the distribution of items for weapon upgrades and serums, everything seemed to be in order.
Mechanical performance is where the game starts to fall apart.
On the Playstation 4, loading into the open world can take quite some time, which seems forgivable until deaths or zone changes come in rapid succession. Even after loading in, sprinting—especially in a direction the game didn’t expect—will cause Jonathan to outrun the renderer. If you’re lucky, this results in texture, light, shadow, and fog popping in post-arrival. If not, the game will actually stop entirely until it catches up.
In practice, combat feels unreliable. When Jonathan and an enemy act in tandem, who will get the upper hand seems like a coin-toss. It’s not difficult to work around, but accommodating the anticipation of clunkiness into your playstyle is less than ideal.
Bug-wise, I noticed a good number of (minor) grammatical errors, and the even the serums seem to be labeled backwards on the character screen (which once snatched victory from me in the final moments of a boss battle, by the way).
I also experienced a number of crashes, which—aside from another long trip to the loading screen—were mitigated entirely by the game’s habit of auto-saving after every action so as to deny you any opportunity to take back a poor decision.
Enforcing the Intended Experience
This is purely a personal gripe, but that Vampyr declined to offer a New Game+ came as a surprise. I understand. What would be the point of meticulously balancing the game to make Jonathan’s urge to feed on citizens the players’ own if they could just drink London dry and sail through saving everyone on round two?
However, given all the time spent slogging through conversation wheels and hostile alleyways, and how many missables and collectables there are, resetting all of the metrics feels unnecessary. Following a perfected walkthrough and skipping dialogue ought to significantly speed things up, but where’s the fun in that?
Hell, lock NG+ behind the Not Even Once playthrough. Breaking a game can be just as enjoyable as savoring the intended experience, especially when you just want to clean up and send it off in style.
Vampyr can be forgiven for the flaws that rob many games of a perfect score. It won’t be remembered for pushing graphical or mechanical boundaries, and it has some issues with pacing; front-loading the possibilities only for Occam’s Razor to win out while at the same time back-loading tangential exposition the game arguably didn’t need.
It can also be forgiven for how much of the game is comprised of wooden face-to-face interrogations and slogging through gloomy hallways—if you didn’t foresee such things bundled with exploring the lives of sixty Londoners as a vampire, that’s on you.
That it delivers on a satisfying exploration of the city’s characters, factions, and threats, on the immersive and macabre setting, and on the sense that decisions matter will likely secure Vampyr’s future as a cult classic (at least).
I yearn to give this game an 8. It fulfills many of its promises and I enjoyed my time with it. However—speaking for my Playstation 4 review copy (v1.02)—when you take the above alongside grammatical errors, UI errors, crashes, continually pausing to load, combat clunk, and perhaps its narrow interpretation of replay value, what could have been minor and forgivable grievances deal some objective damage.
~ Final Score: 6/10 ~
Review copy provided by DONTNOD for the Playstation 4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.