Games about quarantines, horrific viral epidemics, and people struggling to eke out a living in a crumbling, burning world kind of feel a lot less fantasy and a lot more uncomfortable these days. At least we haven’t had any vampires yet in real life.
Vampyr (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Switch, Xbox One)
Released Jun 2018 | Developed: Dontnod | Published: Focus
It is 1918. London is in the grip of the Spanish Influenza epidemic. Jonathan Reid, a doctor returning home from the front, wakes in a mass grave. He has an all-consuming thirst for blood; in his newfound bloodlust he kills and drains his sister Mary, who was searching the graves for the body of her lost, beloved brother. Overcome with grief he runs from an angry mob and wanders lost in the slums of the London docks. He happens upon Edward Swansea, the administrator of a local hospital, who recognises him; Jonathan isn’t just a doctor, but one with some notoriety for his work in the field of blood transfusions. Recognising the usefulness of having a blood specialist surgeon who is also a vampire and an ally, he offers Reid a position at his hospital. Jonathan accepts and uses his cover and haven in the hospital to begin uncovering the vampire menace in London.
Influenza isn’t the only force terrorising London however. Edward reveals himself to be a member of a secret order that is investigating a rising tide of vampiric activity under the hectic misery of the ‘flu. Rabid and bestial vampires known as skals prey on the terrified denizens of Whitechapel, while Jonathan finds himself watched by more shadowy Dracula-style vampires, haughty and aloof. Worse still, murderous vampire hunters known as the Guard of Priwen stalk the streets with stakes, crosses, and flaming torches in hand. From all corners Jonathan finds threats closing in on him as he frantically tries to find the truth behind the epidemic and why he reawakened as an immortal.
The mystery at the heart of Vampyr is brilliantly compelling. Interesting twists unfurl in each of the game’s six chapters, alongside which come new pieces of lore which flesh out the game’s world. One such aspect of this I love is the different orders of vampires which inhabit this world, some of which we see very little of; it creates a strong sense of a world wider than the confines of the game. Vampyr’s worldbuilding is one of the strongest points in its favour; notes and documents offer information to aid in this, but much of it comes from more enthralling sources such as the city itself. The London which Reid returns to seethes with a dark and twisted sense of character. Its crooked, cramped streets and looming rooftops which curl in over the alleys create a tangible claustrophobia; it feels like Vampyr owes an awful lot to Bloodborne and the tangled Gothic maze that was Yharnam.
The core mechanics naturally revolve around Jonathan’s vampirism, some of which are implemented in very interesting and unique ways. I’ve not really played a game where getting to know NPCs is such an important part of your time spent with it. Each of London’s 4 districts has a set of named NPCs wandering about, all of whom can be talked to through extensive dialogue trees. And you’ll want to talk to them because blood = experience points and the quickest way to garner exp, as the game is quick to remind us, is draining the populace. When he meets someone new Jonathan can see the quality of their blood, which correlates to how much exp he gets for embracing them. This number can be raised by becoming more well-acquainted with them; you can find hints hidden around London which open up new avenues of conversation and you can complete sidequests for characters to raise their blood quality. As a doctor, Jonathan can discern what ailments afflict his potential prey and provide them with a cure, which also betters their blood. Finally, the game invites you to extend your powers to mesmerise a victim and lead them to a secluded corner to end their lives and gain more power; alternatively you can opt to leave them alone, content in having helped improve their lives, but doing so forces you to find exp in other ways.
Vampyr makes a point of saying that the difficulty of the game is directly tied to the amount of citizens you choose to kill. Normally this might mean killing people is bad and therefore the game will be harder in order to offer a disincentive to playing the villain, but Vampyr takes the opposite approach. As the game progresses your enemies will continue to level up, and without picking out at least a few people to feed on you will quickly find that their levels far outstrip Jonathan’s. Playing the game as the good doctor is certainly a challenge; while solving quests, exploring London, and defeating enemy mooks gains you exp, it’s in a slow dribble compared to the vast rush of thousands of points you get from embracing a person.
When that exp does come in, Vampyr gives you a plethora of options to spend it on and as a result Jonathan can be built in several ways. You can choose to build a defensive character by picking up healing powers, summoning a shield made of blood and (in one of the game’s coolest applications of its blood magic) even stunning enemies by forcing their blood to coagulate in their veins. More offensive players might instead opt for being able to chuck blood spears and summon dark and spectral traps at the feet of their enemies. There’s even scope for more physical builds, with entire pathways devoted to powering up the ferocity of Jonathan’s combat bite and improving the amount of blood which he drains with each bite.
This variety and choice also applies to the weapons Jonathan can wield. I love that the weaponry Jonathan can gather are very much grounded in the setting; the first thing he comes across for example is a dock worker’s machete. The myriad melee and ranged options available to Jonathan cover a number of different playstyles; some are built around pure damage, but others are a bit more esoteric. Surgical weapons like hacksaws and scalpels drain blood with each strike, letting you recover your own as your attack, and heavier weapons stun foes and lead to more opportunities for Jonathan to bite his attackers.
I’ve seen some comparisons between the combat in Vampyr and FromSoftware’s Souls games and I think it’s clear that Vampyr has drawn a little from the omnipresent influence of these games. However, it really only draws from some very basic mechanics in the Souls games, not the spirit. Although Vampyr can be difficult – especially if one takes on a no-embrace run – it doesn’t have the same reward factor as a Souls title, and at worst can devolve into grindy repetition. On the hardest runs, it encourages lengthy sequences of kiting and slowly chipping away at health, necessitating a more cautious approach, but equally the game punishes you for taking an easier route by embracing citizens and stockpiling exp through London’s collapse and the subsequent glut of enemies that bombard you.
The combat offers perhaps the most frequent frustrations to be found in Vampyr. Though the blood magics you can use are interesting and varied, even with them I found the melee combat to be sluggish and stiff. Animations were slow and getting interrupted felt like a constant issue, and these issues were compounded by dodgy movements that saw Jonathan get caught on scenery more often than I would care to see. Hardcore defenders of the game might argue it’s designed to be deliberate and to force you to consider your attacks, but even so I tired of the fighting and ended up longing for more of the character and worldbuilding dialogue. Equally I could see some folk having an issue with the sheer amount of dialogue in Vampyr; if you’re not prepared to sit through extremely lengthy sections of downtime between fights, Vampyr might begin to grate on you. If you thought you could just skip through text, regrettably the dialogue skip option jumps through entire blocks of speech, rather than passing to the next line as many other games do, and this means you’re forced to listen to the entire speech rather than be allowed to read quickly and move on.
I was in two minds as to whether or not to talk about Vampyr’s soundtrack, but in the end I was quietly impressed by it. Olivier Deriviere’s work has crossed my blog before – the French composer was responsible for some excellent work with Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry, and I would also recommend listening to the glitch-hop masterpiece that was Remember Me’s soundtrack – and here he combines a powerful use of bass register orchestral instrumentation with industrial effects to craft a dark and brooding picture of London. Much of the score is ambient, with threatening and claustrophobic rumblings designed to unnerve, but in my opinion when the music opens up is when it shines. Bridge to London uses weird and unsettling percussion lines which overlap one another, tumbling in and out of time to build that sense of wild-eyed panic and confusion which Jonathan falls into as the game begins. The industrial post-production returns in ambient world tracks like Industrial Landscapes and its use is brilliantly effective; I absolutely the screaming high-ends emerging out of the background of this track, giving an edge to the sorrowful chords and melody. The tense edge is even present behind the otherwise relatively serene melody of Rich Neighborhoods as the underlying sense of threat from the flu and the vampiric menace pervades even the most secure and isolated part of London.
Elements of the synth production from Remember Me infuse A Friend but the melody is sombre and guarded, reflecting Reid’s reticence to open up to his new allies in the city. Even moments of comfort are tinged with a melancholy that seems apt given the situation in London, such as in the gentle gloom of New Home and emphasised by the soft vibrato of the cello echoing the desolate corridors of the Pembroke. The cello is often the centrepiece of these tracks and seems most emblematic of Jonathan’s character; contrast the previous tracks to The Lady, where the contrabass melody seems almost playful as another character in the story is introduced and delights in her secrecy and mysteries as compared to Jonathan’s more straightforward presentation.
Vampyr is very obviously a current-gen title, with all the impressive presentation and typical gameplay elements we see from major releases, and indeed that carries with it a set of expectations from players. That said, Dontnod managed to avoid having it released – and dare I say potentially messed with and sullied – by any major publisher, and so the core concept of their game seems to have been preserved. It doesn’t feel quite as polished as a AAA release; rather it seems to occupy that middle shelf where the issues and annoyances seem somehow more forgivable because it was made by a team doing their best to create something unique and honest. Dontnod appears to be in a good place; having made several good games they now can reject major publishers and create exactly what they want without the pressure that these companies force on developers. Perhaps this results in titles that are ever so slightly janky, like Vampyr, but the quality shines through past it and creates an end product that is well worth playing.
5/7 – GREAT.
Damn fine stuff, a game that doesn’t quite make the top echelon of games but sparkles regardless and holds the interest expertly. Make the time to give this a play.