DONTNOD’s reputation for creating some truly tense and atmospheric experiences is well deserved. Life is Strange went down a treat among fans and critics alike, praised for its pacing, its daring story and its generally enjoyable gameplay. However, it also raises a bar when it comes to expectations. Safe to say, there’s a lot of that riding on Vampyr. The promotional run for Vampyr has been a heavy one, one that’s done well to tease its unique setting, its interesting functionality and its intriguing risk-vs-reward concept. Does the end result pay off?
Vampyr, at its very core, is one large catch-22. The game is based in the early 1900s in which a nasty strain of Spanish Flu has heavily swept through London. Players take on the role of one Jonathan E. Reid, a well established and respected surgeon that’s recently been turned into a vampire. Immediately, Vampyr sets its foundation extremely well. Players know that their morals are going to be tested from the get-go, despite how safe or reckless their motives are. Vampyr is a game that will challenge your train of thought, nearly each and every step of the way.
In a time in which the great war is nearly at its end, you can assume that even without the backdrop of vampires and other supernatural beings, it’s going to be a dark tale. DONTNOD strikes a fine balance between its mechanics and its format, but a few lingering issues hold it back ever so slightly. The game opens with Reid in the midst of a pit of dead people, confused and not knowing how he got there. Suddenly, he feels a lust for blood and starts wandering around the nearby location until ultimately being led to his first victim; his sister.
It’s an interesting premise and one that sets up the plot quite well, if indeed slow to begin with. Gameplay consists of two forms, both of which lean on a wide range of mechanics. Players will spend a great deal of time engaging with London’s many NPCs as well as soaking up combat to break up the pace. Juggling every day life as a surgeon at the same time as feeding Reid’s lust for blood is what firmly holds the game together. It’s important to understand just how much weight your actions have throughout the entirety of play. On that front, Vampyr is deeply compelling.
Not only will you be treading carefully around your options, but you’ll be contending with vampire hunters. Though, vampires are not the only beasts that go bump in the night. There’s also other creatures such as the Skal; fully evolved and very powerful monsters that just want to kill and eat. The game does a good job at keeping your enemies on-par with you, I often found that most of the enemies that I encountered were either at the same level as me, or marginally higher. This helps to maintain a steady difficulty curve that challenges you without demanding too much.
Vampyr will constantly adapt depending on how you play the game. Believe me when I say, choice is by no means exhaustive. Do you want Jonathan E. Reid to play the “Blade” of London? You can do just that. Do you instead fancy turning Jonathan E. Reid into the next Ripper? You can do that too. Your actions will guide Reid forward through multi-branching pathways in a game that’s very much about making your bed and laying in it. There’s very little room for backtracking, which only adds to the already magnificent atmosphere that Vampyr relays.
I dare say that that aspect of the game has been implemented so that the player feels responsible for their actions, good or bad. There’s an added layer of depth when it comes to dialogue choices too, catering for a wide range of personalities based on your preference. In short, Jonathan E. Reid can be shaped to be whatever you want him to be. Due to the nature of Reid’s infliction, the game takes place at nighttime. When you’re not spending time in Pembroke Hospital healing the sick, you’ll be patrolling the streets of London doing whatever you see fit.
There’s some side-questing involved too, which usually has you investigating and gradually deducting the outcome of each. Again, choice plays a large role here and the game will often put some pretty bulky decisions in your hands. The kicker? Each NPC is essentially a bag of XP. The more you engage with each diverse NPC, the more XP you can drain from them when, or if, teeth meet throat. Keep in mind that you can off them at any given time. With Vampyr being an RPG-focused experience, these interwoven systems create a compelling tug of war-like game.
XP can be used to unlock a collection of interesting abilities, many of which aid you during combat. When it comes to combat, this tends to fall on using either melee, weaponry or supernatural abilities. Bullets are relatively scarce so it pays off to make each shot count when you feel the need to utilize firepower. The vampire abilities, on the other hand, well, they’re much more innovative. Reid’s abilities vary depending on where you chase your level-ups. It’s a huge shame, with that in mind, that combat isn’t as well refined as the rest of the game.
Don’t get me wrong, combat isn’t tedious nor does it buckle its excitement, but it’s a very basic affair to say the least. Passable for sure, but in the face of how deep Vampyr is, I was hoping for more on this front. Reid can utilize a healthy dollop of multi-level skills, such as turning invisible to outsmart vampire hunters or using a blood javelin to swiftly dispose of the opposition. There’s no shortage of interesting ways to further exploit your chosen play-style. It’s the journey to gathering enough XP and unlocking these abilities that makes Vampyr truly stand out.
Mercifully, the game rests the bulk of its weight on the aforementioned conversations with NPCs. Not too unlike The Council, specific conversation branches will be locked off unless you’re privy to the information that it encompasses. This is where the game likes to showcase its society, being that each NPC belongs to a social circle in one form or another. Need a piece of intel to dive deeper into a conversation? You’ll need to rummage through letters or chat to other NPCs until you inevitably have the intel that you need to go back and take a conversation further.
It’s a clever system that encourages engagement, which is a good thing, simply due to how well written and acted each NPC is. Vampyr will regularly tease you with the easy route, but should you decide to see an NPC meet their demise, you may be completely gating more options further in. I cant commend DONTNOD enough for their design choices here. Every system connects to one another and when you factor in that the game will alter for nearly every action (good or bad) that you make, it presents some very interesting gameplay elements throughout.
This is further bolstered by the game’s district system. Each district is upheld by reputable NPCs that do a great deal of good for their sectors. Murdering them will drastically effect their district, which can lead to an increase in difficulty per-location. Though, keeping them alive, on the other hand, can benefit Reid in more ways than one. This all feeds back into the XP system and as a result, your method of play. XP can indeed be obtained through killing enemies and completing quests, but its nowhere near as plentiful as the XP that’s dished up for offing NPCs.
During play, Reid can access safe houses dotted around London. It’s here where Reid will sleep and spend those all important points on skills. Reid can also access weapon and equipment upgrades via scavenged materials picked up from bins and corpses. Despite its ambitious scope, Vampyr doesn’t come without issues. First and foremost, there are far too many loading screens to contend with. It’s not game breaker by any means, but it does grind on one’s patience when you’re constantly forced to endure loading screen after loading screen.
My second issue, which is somewhat less invasive, draws me back to the combat. The camera angles can, at times, move in some very awkward ways. It’s not overly hard to concentrate at moments like this, but it does break immersion nevertheless. On the upside, Vampyr’s visuals and soundtrack are nothing short of excellent. There’s the odd texture issue here and there and some animation issues pop up from time to time, but Vampyr’s overall stunning and dark design, along with the brilliant audio and soundtrack, alleviates this for the most part.
When all is said and done, Vampyr achieves everything that it set out to accomplish. It’s a game of cat-and-mouse that will frequently throw you into both of those roles depending on how you play. The activities within remain well scripted and enjoyable, tied to an overarching plot that rarely loses its grip. There’s something sadistically alluring about being given the power to play and influence the game exactly how you want. Choice and consequence is something Vampyr delivers by the bucket-load. We don’t see enough of that in modern gaming. Telltale, take note.
Vampyr is an ambitious experience that’s packed with atmosphere and personality. The game’s greatest achievement, however, is how well all of its systems come together to produce constant catch-22 dilemmas. It’s a game that truly puts the narrative power into the hands of the player, which ultimately results in a deep and immersive journey through a dark and compelling plot.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.