Vampyr, from Life is Strange dev DONTNOD, is a unique beast. It plays with some interesting, and often great, ideas, but it never quite bites down. Choosing instead to play with its food rather than embracing the sumptuous meal on offer.
It’s apt because, in Vampyr, you’ll play as a fledgeling vampire (or Ekon as per the game’s lore) trying to forge your own path, remain the man you once were and save the city you love.
Just a regular day in the life of a famous haematologist, war physician and vampire then?
As Dr Reid, will you go down the villainous path and feast on London’s civilians to power yourself up? Or will you stay true to your Hippocratic oath and work to protect London from harm? This moral quandary lies at the heart of Vampyr, informing both the narrative and gameplay.
As a freshly minted vampire, Dr Reid is rightly confused, upset and a little bit miffed at the situation. Especially when his brand-new bloodlust leads him to accidentally feed on his sister and kill her. His awakening and sororicide kicks off Vampyr’s long and bloody night, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Set in 1918 during London’s Spanish Flu epidemic, Vampyr upends the historical narrative and injects a macabre twist. What mortals assume is the Spanish Flu is in actual fact a virulent strain of a vampiric blood disorder turning regular folk into the lesser vampires known as Skal.
Vampyr throws players right into the deep end alongside Dr Reid as it quickly introduces the world, its lore and the various factions warring for London’s soul.
After the unfortunate death of his sister, Dr Reid is set upon by the Guard of Priwen, an ancient order of vampire hunters. Luckily, Reid is rescued by Dr Edgar Swansea of the Brotherhood of St Paul Stole. He’ll also be accosted by the secretive Ascalon Club and have to deal with the Sewer Dog and her loyal Sewer Skal.
Honestly, there’s a lot going on in Vampyr, but it actually works in its favour. The story is parcelled out piecemeal and for the longest time, I had only a tenuous grip on what I thought was actually going on. I’m assuming this was a conscious decision by DONTNOD in order to have the player mirror Dr Reid’s own confusion. And it works quite well.
Welcome to the West End
The further I delved into each of the factions’ backstories and motivations, the more fascinated I became with this universe DONTNOD had created. Vampire fiction isn’t anything new, but a new spin on an old classic is welcome, provided it’s done well.
Well done is how I’d describe much of Vampyr. Obviously, I’m a fan of the lore and narrative, but the setting and characters are also top notch. Exploring London’s four neighbourhoods will introduce Dr Reid to Vampyr’s 60 NPCs and his chief source of XP.
Everyone in Vampyr is in some kind of crisis, personal crossroads or just in need of some help. As a good Dr, you’ll need to decide how to deal with these needy Londoners. By completing their side-quests and uncovering hints about their personalities and motivations, you’ll net yourself some decent XP.
Your biggest XP gains though, come from feasting on these unassuming plebs. The more you help them, the more you learn about them and the healthier they are, the more XP you get if you choose to embrace them. Doing so may have dire consequences though, so you’ll need to choose wisely.
To Sever and Protect
In each of the four neighbourhoods, there is a pillar of the community along with lesser NPCs. Each of these characters has a health status which affects the overall health of the neighbourhood. If everyone is healthy, the neighbourhood is and vice versa.
When you start chomping on civilians to feed your bloodlust, you’ll do irreparable damage to the health of the neighbourhood. If the overall health falls too far, the neighbourhood is lost. You can still visit, but all side-quests will be lost and every NPC will either die or have become an enemy.
Some of the best moments in Vampyr come out of trying to do the right thing and having it backfire spectacularly. This occurs frequently and in both the main plot and your litany of sidequests. The more you try to do the right thing, the more likely it is that everything will go to hell.
It’s not always clear or obvious what the repercussions of your actions will be either. At one pivotal section, I had the option to kill or mesmerise one of my favourite NPCs. I could also opt to do nothing, but that would, in turn, damage my reputation with another group.
I Want to Suck…Your Blood
Thinking that mesmerising them would cause the least harm I opted for that. What followed was something I couldn’t have predicted and it was a real punch to the gut. After that, the next time I was presented with a similar choice with another favourite character, I opted to do nothing.
This time, things turned out even worse than the first. If there’s a running theme in Vampyr it’s that no matter what you do, things will still go wrong.
By talking to NPCs and exploring Vampyr’s London you’ll get a look at the depth of narrative tapestry DONTNOD has woven. In all honesty, exploring London’s back alleys, having conversations with the NPCs and completing side-quests while moving the plot forward is where Vampyr shines.
Trying to decide what to do, when to do it and who to kill or spare is tough. It might seem like a no-brainer to murder the insane and bigoted priest or the snake oil peddling saleswoman, but you don’t know what subplots you’ll miss out on or the greater effect of the neighbourhood will be.
Spoilers, it’s usually going to be bad.
While conversation, exploration and exposition are all excellent, Vampyr’s combat is not. For a lot of Vampyr’s runtime, you’ll be fighting against Skal, Guards of Priwen, the Ascalon Club and their various soldiers and beasts.
For a time, the combat seems fun and just tough enough to be interesting. It’s not long though before it grows stale. Taking inspiration from Dark Souls, Vampyr’s combat has neither the tactical or strategic qualities nor the sense of accomplishment.
There are three bars you’ll need to pay attention to while in combat; health, blood and stamina. Health and Stamina are self-explanatory, but Blood is Vampyr’s special move fuel. By spending XP and unlocking special moves, Reid is able to perform all manner of attacks including swiping with his claws, throwing a blood spear, instantly closing the distance to an enemy and more.
Each of these moves requires Blood to perform. When Reid’s Blood bar is empty, he’ll only be able to swing his weapons. To refill the Blood bar, he’ll either need to feed on enemies or use a weapon that absorbs Blood.
While there are plenty of different weapons to find and use, they really don’t feel all that different from one another. The firearms felt the most useless, so I avoided them altogether and stuck with an axe/dagger combo for most of the game.
Rather be talking than fighting
Reid has access to two weapon sets from which he can equip a variety of one and two-handed melee weapons and a handful of firearms. He’s also able to upgrade each weapon to do more damage, absorb blood and requires less stamina to swing.
It also suffers from having to fight palette-swapped enemies of the same types for the entire duration. Each enemy has different strengths and weaknesses which make them resistant to certain damage types, but they honestly don’t seem to make much difference when you level up and use your powers. It’s a shame because this could have given Vamypr the strategic combat it needed.
In the end, Vampyr’s combat is at best boring and at worst annoying and a time-consuming waste. Thankfully, boss fights are few and far between. That being said, they are also altogether too easy and can be completed by mashing attack until they’re over.
Vampyr has its flaws, but even with them, it’s a great game. I had a tremendous time exploring London, uncovering the mystery of its epidemic and learning about the role of vampires in society. Helping matters greatly is that Dr Reid is incredibly likeable and easy to empathise with.
Both the player and Dr Reid are mostly in the dark as to what’s going on and as he learns about his fate so too does the player. The more you learn, the more it becomes clear that even with the best intentions, being a vampire means having to choose the better of two evils. Vampyr gives players one Sophie’s Choice after another and it’s brutal.
When you finally reach the conclusion and things still don’t really go your way, you get a sense of that immortal fatalism that vampires are known for. It doesn’t matter what you do, bad things are going to happen, so why not have some fun along the way.
I really hope Vampyr is a success. There’s plenty more to be mined from DONTNOD’s newest universe and I for one am keen to take another trip there.
Vampyr was reviewed using a digital code on PS4 provided by the publisher.
Game title: Vampyr
Dark and depressing... in a good way - 8/10
Moral choices that don't feel black and white - 9/10
Bland Combat - 5/10
Excellent story and characterisations - 9/10
Vampyr is a great game. It's also a flawed game. But that's ok, Vampyr tries to teach its players that to err is human and that humanity is what Dr Jonathan Reid tries to hang on to.
Vampyr doesn't always work the way it intends to, but for the most part, it's an ambitious game with an interesting story to tell.
It's definitely worth playing and will certainly keep your attention.