"Vampyr is an excellent example of why we need more AA games."
If you've found yourself tired of the horde of zombie games flooding the market as of late, it may be time to look to another monster sometimes forgotten by the industry: the vampire. Dontnod Entertainment, developer of the well-loved Life is Strange, surprised us all when they announced they were working on a period vampire RPG a few years back, and after spending a lot of time with the final product, I'm pleased to say they've by and large succeeded in creating a dark and atmospheric experience featuring everyone's favorite mythical bloodsuckers. So grab a pint, and let's go over why you might want to take a bite of Vampyr.
Set in London during the height of the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, Vampyr puts you in the shoes of Jonathan Reid, a brilliant physician who has recently been turned into a creature of the night. Through a series of tragic circumstances surrounding his rebirth as a vampire, Reid becomes determined to find a cure for his condition and to exact answers from his mysterious sire. The story gets sufficiently dark for the subject matter and time period it explores, and you will be faced with plenty of hard decisions that can directly affect the lives of London's citizens in unexpected and sometimes disastrous ways. The game ended differently than I expected, and I found myself wanting to jump back in to see how things could go if I made different choices. It's not an overly long experience from start to finish — the developers say a playthrough will take 15-30 hours, which I found to be accurate — and the nature of the decisions you have to make, and their consequences, encourages multiple playthroughs.
Along the way, Reid meets an interesting cast of characters, some pivotal to his investigation and others that serve to flesh out the city — and serve as potential sources of food, should you choose to make meals of the London citizenry. I found myself interested in the vast majority of people I met, and I loved how intertwined their stories were; talking to one character often lead to discovering information about another character, which I could in turn use to glean even juicier tidbits about my mortal companions. You can also use your vampiric senses to eavesdrop on suspicious citizens, which can give you more hints and even side quests. Every piece of information you unlock about a citizen increases the experience you gain should you choose to feed on them, and alongside decisions made in the main story quests, this moral quandary serves as a major mechanic and defining feature of the game. Feeding on citizens allows you to level up and unlock new skills faster, which can give you an advantage in combat, but killing the locals also negatively affects the health of the district where they live. Should the condition of a district deteriorate too much, it will be considered lost: all citizens will perish, any side quests will automatically fail, and the district will be overrun by ghoulish beasts.
The decision to dine on London's denizens or to abstain from human blood is also compounded by Reid's occupation as a doctor. As you collect ingredients and recipes, you can craft remedies to a variety of maladies. Giving these medicines to people improves the health of the district where they reside, but it also increases the experience you can harvest from them. Pitting Reid's inclination to heal the sick against his newfound thirst for blood is a particularly brilliant way of creating tension from a story perspective, but the game also makes sure you feel the impact of your decisions from a gameplay perspective as well. Every night when you rest to expend experience and level up, you're given an overview of each district's condition and the status of every citizen. You can quickly see how healing this person or feeding on that person affects the districts as a whole and the people living in them. For example, I chose to kill an unscrupulous individual at a hospital, and the next night I found out that his girlfriend had left the district and become a vampire hunter — I could even track her down and fight her if I felt like it. Citizens also give you side quests, so killing them may very well mean that you can no longer complete or even begin these missions. One thing I thought was particularly impressive is that surviving citizens who knew your victims will have new dialogue after their friends or family have been disposed of. In some cases, this new dialogue can be quite substantial, and it's amazing to think that this was all written and recorded for character deaths that may never occur in some or even across multiple playthroughs.
The citizens who have the most impact on their districts are called Pillars, and you will be forced to deal with all of them during the course of the main story. How you handle these influential people can mean the difference between a district remaining stable or plunging into chaos. It's not at all obvious what the best solution for each Pillar is, and the consequences can be unexpectedly brutal. What's more, the game does not allow you to make manual saves. All progress is recorded via autosaves, so once you make a decision, you are stuck with it for the remainder of your playthrough. This may disappoint those who would like to see multiple outcomes before committing to one, but it is very appropriate for a game that tells you almost from the moment you boot it up to "take responsibility for your actions." It certainly gave me pause and made the bad results I got with some decisions hit that much harder, since I knew I couldn't take them back.
When you're not hobnobbing with citizens, you explore the desolate streets of London and deal with a variety of enemies that stand between you and your objectives. There are a few different factions — such as lesser vampires known as Skals and an order of vampire hunters called the Guard of Priwen — and they all have a number of different enemy types, each with their own skills and damage resistances. You can equip a variety of weapons — all of which can be upgraded at a workbench — and can also use the various vampiric skills you unlock when leveling up, like a blade of blood that shoots through multiple enemies or a cloak of invisibility that lets you move unseen as long as you have the stamina to maintain it. Combat largely consists of staying fast on your feet — enemies will come at you in groups and can be fairly aggressive — paying attention to what types of attacks your foes are resistant to, and making judicious use of your vampiric skills, most of which cost blood to use. You can regain blood by stunning and biting enemies or by using weapons that siphon it for you, so there is a decent amount of strategy involved in how you approach your foes. Battles can be difficult, depending on your level and the kinds of enemies you're facing, but they are rarely punishing. Dark Souls or Bloodborne this isn't, and that may prove to be disappointing for some.
While combat is serviceable and, for the most part, enjoyable, it's not particularly flashy. The various vampiric skills look cool — especially the three different ultimate attacks you can unlock — but other than a few of those, you're generally hacking and slashing your way through enemies, dodging their attacks where appropriate, and stealing their blood to fuel your supernatural abilities. Sometimes the controls can feel a little sluggish too — there were occasions when I just couldn't seem to switch between locked-on targets, for example. The main menu suffers from this sluggishness as well, and combined with other small issues &mdash: such as typos in the written documents you find scattered throughout London and the occasional random loading screen when moving through a district too quickly or striking up a conversation — it feels like the game perhaps needed just a little more polish in a few areas. I want to stress, though, that none of these little quibbles significantly affected my playthrough in a negative way; they're more like small annoyances than anything game breaking.
Moving on to graphics, this is perhaps the area in which the AA nature of the game is most apparent. Character models are fairly ugly and move awkwardly in a way that reminds me of PS3-era games. The animation of characters' mouths when speaking is particularly ungainly, and when they try to emote via facial expressions, the results can be hilarious; there were scenes where a character would just scowl randomly, and while I knew they were probably trying to express concern or frustration, it really just made them look constipated. On the flip side, the atmosphere and design of the semi-open world is absolutely spot on. London is dark and oppressive, near constant rain creates a haze around lights and reflective puddles along the streets, and narrow avenues wind through the city, lined with detailed buildings in various states of neglect. You can practically feel the despair and desolation of the people of London through the city itself, and it's quite an achievement to make the city as much of a character as its citizens. Personally, I think the excellent atmosphere and world design compensates for the lackluster character models, but as always, your mileage may vary.
In the sound and music department, there's very little to disappoint. Voice acting is fantastic across the board, particularly Dr. Reid himself, and really helps to sell the characters alongside the excellent writing. The music complements the setting with brooding, melancholy strings, and the chanting that steadily gets louder and faster as you lead a citizen to a secluded spot to feed on them is bone-chillingly perfect. I wouldn't necessarily want to listen to this kind of music outside of the game, but it really does set the mood for stalking the streets of London in search of fresh blood.
In a market saturated by AAA titles, Vampyr is an excellent example of why we need more AA games. It's not the prettiest or the smoothest experience, but then again, it's really not trying to be. What Vampyr wants to do is tell the story of a newborn vampire who holds the fate of post WWI-London in his hands; the focus is on story, atmosphere, and making hard decisions that have hard consequences. Vampyr succeeds quite handily at all of this, and if that sounds like the kind of game you'd like to play, I recommend checking it out. Make sure to pace yourself, though, because every night will be long and bloody.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.