While most people know DONTNOD from their work on Life is Strange, I first discovered this talented developer when I played the flawed, but ultimately amazing Remember Me on the PS3. Vampyr, the studio’s new action RPG has a lot more in common with DONTNOD’s older work than it does with Life is Strange, but it borrows the best of both titles.
Set in early 20th century London, you play as Doctor Jonathan Reid. Having recently been turned into a vampire, more formally known as an Ekon in the game’s lore, you must now search for answers as you decide whether you will give into your newfound lust for blood, or resist and help the citizens of the city combat the Spanish Flu that ravages them.
Does this game offer a compelling and engrossing world to explore, or does this vampire bite off more than he can chew? Read on to find out!
The Devil’s in The Details
Vampyr opens with powerful narration that sets the stage for the world you’re about to inhabit for between 20-30 hours of your life, possibly more. The low and gritty tones of the narration perfectly match the dialogue, which waxes philosophical as it paints a grim picture of London in the early 20th century.
The Spanish Flu is ravaging the population as mysterious murders and a war wages on in the east. This opening narration ends with a haunting line: “what is life, but death pending?” Needless to say, I was sold on this world right from the beginning.
Within the first few minutes of the game, Jonathan Reid awakes in a mass grave and finds himself confused and disoriented. After taking your first life in the pursuit of blood, you’re quickly beset on all sides by vampire hunters who chase you deeper into the city.
After a linear opening, the game opens up and lets you explore more of its world. The early hours are fueled by your search for answers and additional XP. While the opening is strong, the pacing does tend to bottom out in these early hours.
There’s a long stretch of time where you are introducing yourself to the members of the hospital staff where you find yourself in the early hours. Just about every NPC you come across in Vampyr is hand-crafted and designed with a specific storyline in mind.
The developers boast sixty unique NPCs that have their own personalities, multiple conversation trees, and secrets to uncover. Honestly, it feels like it’s more than that. I was overwhelmed in the opening hours as I found myself spending five minutes or more with each and every living person in the Pembroke Hospital.
This level of interaction applies to other districts as well. Your initial conversations with these people will uncover basic knowledge about them, but you’ll need to delve deeper and find out who they are connected to if you want to unlock the “hints” that reveal additional conversation paths.
The characters themselves are pretty nuanced as well. You’ll come across some archetypes, like the drunken alcoholic, or the crazy lady who thinks she’s a vampire as well, but even these characters exhibit some deeper interactions with both Jonathan and others as well.
I really enjoyed hearing about two characters and their relationship, then seeing them with one another at a later time. It made these people feel real to me. This depth of interaction and character development is something I would expect from DONTNOD, but Vampyr takes it one step further by tying it into the gameplay, which we’ll discuss momentarily.
After a few slow hours at the beginning of the game, I finally did enough side quests and conversing to comfortably progress further into the main storyline. The initial plot thread during act 1 is interesting, but it could have been a lot shorter. Once you get past this first chunk of introductions and small-time quests, things start to pick up.
Vampyr’s story is at its best when it embraces the core mystery and delves deeper into the politics of the vampire world. I leaped at every chance to absorb more of the game’s lore. You can find pieces of written documents that flesh things out, but several main characters will also indulge your questions at specific points in the story, thus offering even more insight.
For example, how are vampires made? What are they weak against? These questions are answered with a mixture of familiar and fresh lore that I really enjoyed absorbing. Furthermore, there’s a social hierarchy with vampires that ranges between the low class of Skals, and the more traditional vampires known as Ekons.
There are other types beyond these, but I won’t spoil them here. Suffice to say, there’s a caste system of sorts, where Skal are regarded as nothing but savage beasts, and Ekons are the ones pulling the strings of society. Just like real life, the truth is not so black and white, a characteristic that Vampyr embraces with successful results.
As the story begins to unfold and new revelations come to light, I am pleased to report that the rest of the game after the somewhat slow opening hours is very good. The continued drip of new information, combined with several twists, and some excellent characters, helps the game quickly recover from the awkward opening hours in the Pembroke Hospital.
Vampires, in general, are not used enough in gaming, so Vampyr gets points for tackling a neglected sub-genre of horror. While the story has some missteps, in the beginning, the overall world and lore are easily some of my favorite uses of vampires in gaming.
Combat That Rewards Your Lust For Blood
The gameplay in Vampyr is a mixture of action combat, conversation, crafting, and exploration. After the opening section, you’ll have access to a slick dodge ability that allows you to become a black smoke temporarily and dash around the battlefield.
This will be your primary method of dodging attacks, and it works well. Enemies are targeted with a click of the right stick and flicking the stick changes which enemy you’re focused on. The camera remains tight behind Jonathan as you move around, and combat feels fluid for the most part.
Weapons come in combinations of one and two-handed choices, with several choices for your off-hand weapon. You can have two weapon sets equipped at a time, with the option to switch between them using the d-pad.
My choice for the majority of the game was a hacksaw and stake combination, with a heavy two-handed weapon as my backup. The hacksaw had semi-quick attacks, while the stake offered stun damage, which allowed me to drain enemies after a few hits.
Combat begins as a pretty simple affair as you work on draining the enemy’s health and stun meters. You don’t need to drain the stun, but if you do, you can take a quick bite and refill some of your blood meter. This momentary pause also makes you invincible from other attacks and lets you stamina recharge.
You’ll start out with a single blood power of your choosing, but you can have four or more as the game goes on. They are assigned to the triggers and can be swapped out in the menu as you so choose.
Since the game’s abilities are upgradeable via skill trees that eventually branch into two different paths, I settled on a core set of abilities and focused on upgrading them, along with my health, stamina, and blood/bite abilities.
Depending on how you decide to spec your Jonathan, you may end up with a very different playstyle than the one I used. For example, after 7+ hours of gameplay, I was equipped with a blood shield that could absorb a few hits, an ultimate ability that delivered massive damage to a single target, a blood spear attack, a self-heal, and a claw ability that filled out my arsenal.
My focus was on quick attacks and stuns, with single-target damage being a priority. I didn’t touch ranged weapons like shotguns or pistols, and I didn’t have any of the stealth abilities unlocked because I didn’t see myself using or upgrading them.
If you so choose, your Jonathan could be very different. Perhaps you focus on stealth or opt for an ultimate that gives you crowd control capabilities. Maybe you specialize in two-handed weapons or simply opt for gun-focused combat.
If it sounds deep, that’s because it is, but Vampyr’s combat is a divisive topic because of a few factors. In the opening hours, it’s pretty simple and fairly repetitive. It’s not until you really start to earn XP that you see the combat’s deeper intricacies open up, but depending on your playstyle, that may never happen.
Allow me to explain. The rate at which you earn XP in Vampyr is directly tied to how you handle the health of London’s districts and the people within them. Each time you sleep in a hideout, you’ll have the chance to spend your XP, and the health of the districts will be updated.
Individual NPCs will come down with things various conditions that you can heal, being a doctor and all. Hideouts also offer a crafting table that allows you to make syringes for help in combat, a boost of blood, or healing. You can also use raw materials to make various remedies that you must deliver personally to NPCs if you wish to heal them.
The healthier they are, the healthier the district is as a whole. As you heal them and get to them better by unlocking their individual hints, you’ll notice something else: their blood quality goes up.
A character that you know very well and have healed in the past will have higher blood quality than a sick person.
If your mesmerize level is high enough (it goes up as you progress the story), you can choose to lead them off into the shadows and “embrace” them, which is vampire speak for taking them behind the building and draining every drop of their blood.
Doing this permanently removes that character from the world. It offers a massive boost in XP, but depending on who you choose to “embrace,” the consequences could be dire. I tend to play the good guy in most games, but I decided to eat my fill in Vampyr. It was both an enlightening and painful experience in equal measure.
On the one hand, devouring people really opened up the skills for me and offered a ton of new elements to combat that otherwise wouldn’t be available. On the other hand, getting too overzealous resulted in losing one of my districts, which removes all characters and turns the entire area into a hotbed of powerful enemies.
Any characters you choose to embrace will also take any remaining secrets or side quests to their grave, which is a big trade-off. That being said, the game is a lot more enjoyable when you’ve had the chance to upgrade your skills and your stamina/health.
If you can muscle through the difficulty and remain a good guy, you’ll need to do side quests and upgrade your weapons to stand any chance in combat. Weapons themselves have several levels you can craft, along with a choice for bonuses at each level.
For example, when I upgraded my saw to level 2, I could also choose if I wanted to add a boost to damage or give the weapon the ability to drain blood when I hit enemies. Since the only other way to get blood in combat is to drain the stamina meter and bite them, this was a tough choice.
The stamina, in particular, starts very low, and everything you do in combat costs stamina. Once you have more of it to work with, the game is much more enjoyable. While the combat doesn’t have the same finesse or polish as AAA titles, Vampyr is very enjoyable to play when you take a walk on the dark side and embellish your abilities with the blood of the innocent.
Given the small studio and budget, it’s an incredibly nuanced and deep combat system, far more than I expected to be honest. It’s a little rough at first, but give it some time and XP, and you’ll soon find yourself relishing in the carnage you can create.
It’s tough, though, because I want to be the good guy, but I also want to be super powerful. As Jonathan Reid himself says in the game’s trailer: “Cursed be the choice.”
A Few Cracks in The Presentation
As I mentioned previously, Vampyr is not an AAA title, so DONTNOD didn’t have the budget or the team size that a game like God of War would have. I know this doesn’t matter to some people, but it’s something I like to consider when I’m looking at a game.
While this game does cost $60 like any other major title, you’ll easily spend up to 30 hours in this world, and possibly more if you try to play through another way for different outcomes or playstyles.
Given these facts, let’s talk about the presentation. I played Vampyr on a PS4 Pro in 1080p, and I was overall very pleased with how it looked. There are some rough textures that don’t hold up to close scrutiny, but the general look and feel of London and its foggy streets is very convincing.
Characters themselves have decent facial animation and lip sync, but they’re not as expressive as they could be. This is remedied partially by the excellent voice performances across the board. Even smaller characters turn in convincing performances, and Jonathan himself is the absolute epitome of a badass English vampire.
He effortlessly switches from casual conversation to ominous and gravelly tones that make him seem like the terrifying immortal creature he truly is deep down. I loved his performance throughout.
There are some stutters in the frame rate, and I would have liked to see a 60 FPS option for Pro owners since the PC has this choice, but the general feel of the game is smooth and responsive.
It’s not going to blow you away with its graphics, but there’s a lot of charm and detail to the world and its characters. The combination of a compelling story, deep and nuanced gameplay, tough choices, and a believable atmosphere all kept me from noticing the cracks in the game’s armor.
Even with the issues considered, I kept coming back for more and more. At the end of the day, I was hooked on the game’s world and I was having a lot of fun, which is really all that matters. Much like Jonathan’s thirst for blood, my thirst for more of this game remained unquenched until I had drained it of all it has to offer.
Final Score: 8.5/10
A copy of Vampyr was provided to PS4 Experts for review purposes
Article by - Bradley Ramsey
Insert date - 6/5/18