There aren’t all that many vampire focused games, there are the odd few where they exist in that game’s world but they rarely get all the attention. The last game that really went all in on Nosferatu’s mates was Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, a game praised for its narrative and atmosphere but criticised for its technical faults. Dontnod’s latest game Vampyr was inspired by this cult classic, maybe a little too much.
Vampyr sees players take up the mantle of Dr Jonathan Reid, a renowned blood transfusion specialist who has recently been turned into a vampire. The irony of this setup isn’t lost on Vampyr with one character, in particular, making sure you’re very aware of it. Dr Reid struggles to accept his new condition, being a man of science he finds the whole situation absurd, so he makes it his mission to find the person responsible for his transformation.
His journey takes place in a gloomy post-war London where the Spanish flu is rife and potentially behind the recent Vampyr epidemic. It’s a wonderfully realised world, the cobbled streets, winding back alleys, the endless supply of smog and striking differences between poor and affluent districts really capture how horrible London was in 1918. Backed by a fantastic soundtrack that combines various stringed instruments with industrial music elements gives Vampyr a fantastic, bleak atmosphere.
It’s the perfect place to pop a newly born bloodthirsty vampire doctor with plenty of sick, innocent people to help or consume. This is done through the social system which is where Vampyr truly shines. Whilst trying to find out how he became this way, Reid will meet a whole host of characters in a variety of districts. Some are lowlife thugs who appear to have no remorse for their criminal ways whilst others are just folks trying to do their best in adverse times. You can choose to help these individuals to keep the district safe or murder them, which in turn makes the district a more dangerous place to visit and the spread of disease worsens.
As you talk to folk and learn more about them they may give you quests which can give you even more information about their character. Doing all of this not only helps you get to know them, it also increases the quality of their blood. In a delightfully evil twist helping people and getting to know them essentially means you’ll be granted more exp if you decide to chomp on them instead of simply devouring them on sight.
It all aims to create the feeling of temptation Dr Reid has to satiate his newfound hunger for blood and it works quite well. As you approach characters you’ll be provided with their name, but also how healthy they are and crucially how much exp you would get for sinking your teeth into their necks. It’s a unique way of combining a character’s desires with the player but sadly it doesn’t work as well as it might have.
The idea of the whole system is that you’ll become a stronger vampire if you succumb to your desires and that if you abstain from them the game will be much harder. You get much less experience from fighting the generic thugs and other creatures you come up against so levelling up this way takes a lot longer. The thing is, it doesn’t really matter all that much.
The combat itself is never overly difficult and I never really felt the need to kill one of the named citizens to get ahead. Sure, that 3000 exp for a simple kill was tempting but my desire to stay true to Reid’s helpful nature outweighed the need for stronger powers.
The combat itself is interesting in concept but lacklustre in execution. You can wield either a two-handed weapon such as a mace or a smaller melee weapon like a dagger in one hand and a gun in the other. Alongside this, you’ll be to unlock a few vampiric abilities such as a blood spear or shadow attacks.
All of these different options deal various types of damage that some enemies will be resistant to. This is to encourage you to mix up your approach but you’ll most often stick to battering folk with a mace. Doing so builds up a stun meter that will allow you to chow down on the enemy to get some blood for your blood attacks. So it’ll frequently become a cycle of bop till stunned, chomp, blood spear if they’re not already dead or sacrifice blood to heal if necessary. This is even the case for bosses, which just make them feel like tankier versions of normal enemies rather than a unique challenge for the most part.
It’s not dreadful by any means, but there is far more combat than there should be given how unremarkable it feels. The melee attacks, in particular, feel quite clunky and at times attacks won’t register at all. It gets the job done but there’s a lot of room for improvement. It’s also a little disappointing how much melee weapon usage there is considering you’re supposed to be a powerful vampire.
You’re much more likely to enjoy nattering with the locals as you increase their blood quality and decide if the exp they give you is worth more than their life. The characters you meet along the way all have distinct personalities so you don’t feel like you’re meeting a different NPC with an alternative name tag and getting to know them, unlocking clues to probe them further is undeniably compelling.
They’re all well-voiced with only a few characters dipping into the realms of obnoxious leaving the majority quite believable. It’s easy to empathise with those struggling and seeing the consequences of devastating the community by murdering a beloved member makes it feel like those choices really matter. Vampyr constantly autosaves too, wanting to make sure you live with that decision.
It’s not huge changes to the narrative but more those areas become dangerous to visit and disease spreads much quicker, which in many ways is a much more tangible way to see how you’ve changed so many lives rather than a few altered lines of dialogue. Plus, if you do plan on killing the rest of those citizens and want the most exp possible you’ll have to rush about administering more medicine to keep them healthy and having to do more work always makes me regretful of my actions.
But while the overall scope of Vampyr is quite ambitious it’s frequently let down by the smaller things to the point that you can’t just fully enjoy it. Though chatting with NPCs is enjoyable the world still feels fairly flat because you’ll often hear them spouting the same lines over and over and they rarely interact with each other and those that do always have the same conversation. Once you’ve heard the local debt collector threaten the shopkeeper for the fifteenth time you can’t help but think he’s all talk. It certainly starts to grate after a while.
The performance is also pretty abysmal. The loading screens are noticeably long and they seem to happen entirely on a whim. Sometimes you’ll pass through an area and the game will need to load, it can happen it the middle of a fight or when you choose to talk to someone, but not always. Then there’s general frame rate dips and the occasional crash thrown in for good measure. It’s all minor stuff in isolation but stacks up to create a massive nuisance.
The structure of quests also leaves a lot to be desired. They often feel too much like fetch quests with the last mission, in particular, sending you to three different points across the map before you can fight the last boss. While the conversations before and after them are interesting, wandering to one place to bring back an item loses its appeal very quickly.
Yet despite my better judgement screaming “you know you shouldn’t like this”, I find myself responding with “yeah but I do though”. Vampyr is one of those games where the bad definitely outweighs the good, a plethora of performance issues, cumbersome combat and tediously designed quests would normally be enough to put me off a game. However, there’s just something compelling about the social system and the bleak atmosphere they’ve created that makes you kinda love it. I sincerely hope Dontnod make another that elevates Vampyr to the game I believe it can be. Wait for it to drop in price first before you try this one though.