Vampyr hasn’t helped me understand the appeal of vampires. Supernatural blood-suckers with a list of powers only a child on the playground could conjure. Their source of power both spinach and kryptonite. All of the seduction of a pickup artist without the seminars and weird followers (no, wait; Vampires do have some weird followers). Perhaps a childhood spent growing up around Anne Rice and Buffy The Vampire Slayer has me seeing anything but red for vampires and their ilk.
Overrated as they might be, however, the suite of abilities at a vampire’s fangertips certainly makes for potentially exciting gameplay. Coupled with the ethical and moral quandaries that might plague a doctor with a newfound thirst for blood, and you have something akin to the main gameplay hook o the latest from Remember Me and Life Is Strange studio DONTNOD. Vampyr attempts to ask the question, “how much humanity are you willing to sacrifice for power?” by gatekeeping XP behind the various civilians you meet throughout the game. Kill them and grow more powerful, but risk plunging a district into chaos. With my review, I set my sights on putting this to the test. Could I save London while resisting the temptation to feed? During my time with Vampyr, a more important question emerged. One that strikes at the heart of the matter. The killing blow, as it were.
“Does it really matter when everybody in this town sucks?”
Vampyr Review: Dr. Acula
Vampyr begins with Dr. Jonathan Reid crawling out of a mass grave in a state of confusion, as one might do when death was all but previously certain. In an attempt to solve the greater mystery of “Who did this to you and why?” Dr. Reid takes on a convenient opening at Pembroke Hospital to further his research into this unique strain of the Spanish flu that plagues London. To say there is a correlation between this outbreak and the sudden surge in vampire-esque creatures roaming the streets at night is not a spoiler so much as it is a testament to the number of tropes on display in Vampyr.
The whole pitch behind Vampyr is compelling on paper, but fails to live up to its aspirations in two distinct ways. First, there are the characters themselves. Every district has its own unique cast of characters to meet and potentially feast upon. With every character comes a story, a story that I imagine is supposed to compel my human side to spare them. Some offer quests, others will reveal bits of info about other characters that will allow me to learn more about them. Half of the game boils down to navigating Mass Effect-inspired conversation wheels in an attempt to learn more, and subsequently gain more XP should I choose them as my victim.
The problem is, none of these characters are all that interesting. While Vampyr pitches the idea of having to follow these characters around to learn more about them, nobody moves. Literally. Civilians stay within their intended districts, and even then, night after night they follow the same basic routine of just standing in one spot. At most, they might roam for a bit, which is a tad foolish when you consider the sheer amount of death that lingers around every corner. I thought I would be confronted with a London filled with people blurring the moral lines; living shades of grey much like the fog that hangs around them. Alas, no. I could point to almost anyone and say that they are clearly good or that they would never be missed. Sure, Clay Cox was just trying to get revenge for his brother’s death by pushing another man into the river but…Clay Cox is also so annoying I’m surprised no one else pushed him in first.
Early on I was tasked with stopping a blackmailer from revealing another character’s true nature. The reason for the blackmail? They were trying to fund their own clinic to help the citizens of Whitechapel deal with the outbreak. Sparing the blackmailer while also keeping this character’s secret under wraps cost me nothing. I still gained XP for completing the quest, the health of the district maintained status quo, and nothing changed. That’s the inherent problem with Vampyr. For all its talk of affecting gameplay, the stakes are so low – pun! – that the temptation to feed becomes moot. Besides, both characters were so bland that, if I wanted to feed on either of them I probably would have just shrugged it off.
Vampyr Review: What I Did In The Shadows
The second, more damning way in which Vampyr fails to achieve its goals lies in the implementation of XP and overall combat. Vampyr posits itself as an Action-RPG; as such, combat abilities are unlocked by spending XP, and spending XP is the only way to level up. There are a few positives to this system that make Vampyr initially compelling. For example, XP can only be spent at hideouts, and spending XP will move time forward one day. Civilians treated for illnesses will recover — you may be a vampire, but damn it, you’re still a doctor — while various other illnesses will strike districts left alone for too long. As the people begin to suffer, so too do the shop prices; though, truth be told, I never spent so much as schilling during my time with the game.
Every district will have its share of enemies to fight. While most of the staff at Pembroke might chalk it up to an insomniac with crazy eyes, the various vampire hunters and other baddies know exactly what you are. A lack of stealth abilities — where’s my fog transformation? — make combat inevitable, especially if it’s your only source of XP. Even though the XP gains from combat are nowhere near what you would get for simply killing a regular, boring person, it is still enough to get through most encounters unscathed. Combat takes a Souls-like approach, rewarding patience and waiting for openings. A stamina bar keeps you from dodging your enemies into a dizzy, even if it is at the expense of vampire lore-logic. Despite the variety of weapon and ability combinations, I was able to get through most of the game using the same combination (here’s a hint: stunning an enemy is a lot more beneficial than you might first suspect). At times, this can make the combat feel dull and tedious, but the added difficulty of being an all bark, no bite kind of vampire kept it engaging for me.
Vampyr‘s insistence on resisting the urge ends up feeling empty. No matter how many characters tell Dr. Reid he will eventually succumb, I never did (apparently all of those vampire hunters I killed don’t count). And if I had, I wouldn’t have cared. Yes, I know it’s London in the middle of a war on two fronts, but everyone’s lack of humor makes me wonder if everyone is already a vampire and they’re just humoring me.
One last thing to note: Vampyr, at least on PS4, looks a bloody mess, with low resolution, choppy performance and noticeably long load times throughout. Subtitles often did not match what was being said, and the lack of proper grammar at times make the final product feel rushed.
Vampyr Review: The Nail In The Coughin’
I know it sounds like I have nothing but disdain for Vampyr, but despite its many flaws I still enjoyed my time with it. Even though I never had to “succumb to temptation”, the game did make me occasionally rethink my “No kill” policy. While I did not care for the characters, the slow unraveling of its take on vampire lore was at least compelling enough to propel me through its melodramatic tendencies. Coming off of God Of War it’s a shame the game looks as bad as it does, but it does nail the atmosphere. Each district manages to look distinct despite their similarly grimy color schemes. The music takes the less is more approach, often a single instrument carrying a melancholic melody.
Vampyr feels like a game from a different time. No, I don’t mean because it’s set in 1918 London. Vampyr feels like a dug-up PlayStation 2 game. It wears its ambition on its sleeve, even if it looks at times to be wearing a tank top. The underlying game mechanics require a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, but those that can will find an entertaining penny dreadful.