In the face… IN THE FAAAAAAAAACE!
Best known for its work on Square-Enix’s episodic Life is Strange, developer Dontnod is heading in a dramatically different direction with its latest work, Vampyr. Armed with an interesting premise and unique setting, Vampyr has some tantalizing potential. Let’s see if it delivers.
Although we wouldn’t consider Vampyr to be heavy on action, there’s a fair amount of combat to be found. As the freshly turned bloodsucker Dr. Jonathan Reid, you’ll have access to a number of unique abilities to pair with more traditional attacks. You’ll wield a weapon in each hand (unless, of course, you grab something of the two-handed variety) from a pretty broad selection that includes blades, blunt objects and even firearms.
Some weapons deal straight damage, whether melee or ranged, while others can stun enemies, leaving them susceptible to your fangs for a draining bite. The blood you draw from them is then used to power your supernatural abilities, such as self healing, a violent claw attack and more. It isn’t the most exhilarating combat we’ve ever seen, but it’s entirely competent and offers enough potential variety to keep things from getting too dull.
Where things can feel sloppy is when engaging multiple enemies. The game allows you to target lock, but we found it more approachable when keeping the camera control in our own hands as the quick teleporting dodge can be disorienting — especially if you’re not guiding the view. Still, rather than continuous encounters we often seemed to be running away to essentially reset the spacing lest we take damage from the enemies we weren’t actively engaging.
Early 20th-century London is the location for Vampyr, using an ongoing epidemic as a backdrop amid an even more dangerous breakout of vampires. With everything taking place at night, London is a pretty bleak place, and the lack of visibility along with ample graininess helps to conceal some of the game’s graphical shortcomings. That being said, this looks like it could’ve been made for last-gen consoles, even running on the PS4 Pro.
That isn’t limited to the backgrounds, either, with some underwhelming animations in combat as well as during conversations. The worst offender with the latter is lip syncing, which seems to be almost nonexistent at times. Given how big a role those interactions play in the overall experience it’s a problem you’re likely to notice again and again.
Thankfully, the actual delivery is typically good. Sure, the occasional smallish role might take on a wooden or stereotypical feel, but for the most part it’s a solid cast. We never quite sorted out the odd change in tone when pursuing newly unlocked dialogue paths, however; was he supposed to be using some type of power to extract the truth? Meanwhile, the soundtrack is quite good.
Set in a sickness-ridden London in the aftermath of World War I, Vampyr casts you as Dr. Reid, who earned a reputation during WWI for his work (conveniently enough) with blood transfusions. He awakes in a grave, reborn as a vampire, and immediately kills his sister in a fit of blood lust. In the aftermath of that incident, Reid vows to track down the one that turned him and make them answer for it.
Before that search can begin in earnest, however, you’re recruited by Dr. Swansea, who knows of your affliction but feels your skills to be valuable given all the ills that plague the city. It’s here that Vampyr starts implementing its most unique and interesting element as you’re given the option to feed on London’s various citizens, growing more powerful in the process, or let them live and retain your humanity.
On a more practical level it works like this: each citizen has a number of experience points that can be earned by feeding on them. It goes up if you talk to them or perform tasks that unlock new avenues of discussion, and it goes down if they become ill (you have the ability to craft medicine to help them). So no matter which path you decide to go down, it behooves you to explore their story as much as you can.
Although feeding on citizens helps level you up, it comes at a cost in the stability of the region, as random killings will hurt an area’s morale and eventually descend it into chaos with vicious creatures suddenly roaming the streets and people going missing. In a way, the system is reminiscent of Knights of the Old Republic, where the darker you go the easier things are, and in that way Dontnod allows you to control how difficult the journey will be.
Where Vampyr stumbles is that combat isn’t tough enough to create the moral gray area it’s shooting for. We never felt pressured to eat anyone to advance, which makes it much more of a choice rather than something you’re forced into.
Beyond that, the game also implements a number of RPG elements in which you’ll spend experience to learn new skills, improve existing ones and beef up your health, stamina and more. You’ll also collect weapons that can be upgraded via a fairly straightforward crafting system, which plays into the citizen system since they’ll fall sick and need the medicine you can make with found ingredients to treat them.
As we looked over the totality of Vampyr there’s no one element that stood out as exceptional, but outside of lengthy load times and some performance hiccups nothing really drags it down, either. There’s a lot of good ideas here along with a story that’s compelling enough to drive you forward to experience them. We just wonder what could’ve been done with a bigger budget to flesh out some of those ideas a little more.
Vampyr is very much a jack of all trades, master of none title. It tries a lot of things with varying degrees of success, but its best ideas fall short of their potential. Despite that, we still enjoyed the ride.