Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: June 5, 2018
ESRB: M for Mature
Note: This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game
Playing Vampyr feels a lot like cracking open a three-quarters full piñata.
The exterior is attractive and inviting, so you grab the nearest baseball bat and go to town. The candy spills out and you quickly devour it all before realizing something’s amiss. There’s less candy inside than what the tag on the piñata promised. The candy you’ve consumed then begins to turn a bit sour, and you’re left wanting something a bit more satisfying. Vampyr comes really close to being something awesome but falls prey to its own ambition.
Vampyr’s anti-hero, Dr. Jonathan Reid, is dead. Or, at least, he was dead before being mysteriously resurrected amidst a pile of corpses. Reid wakes up with one heck of a hangover and a sudden craving for blood, along with some creepy narration from an unknown party. He’s immediately pursued by vampire hunters through the seedy underbelly of London, taking refuge at the local Pembroke Hospital under the auspices of a former medical colleague. Reid’s mission is to locate the person that brought him back from the dead and added his vampiric tastes. Whether he does so by curing or burning London to the ground is your choice.
The first thing you’ll notice is how oppressive post-World War I London feels. The city is gripped by the plague of Spanish flu, and people are dying by the bucketfuls. Mass graves are everywhere, and crimson liquid coats the streets. Amidst this carnage, a darker power calls to Reid and his compatriots. Something is turning ordinary people into feral, bloodthirsty beasts. You can feel that fear and tension in the constant darkness and sheets of fog that swirl around London’s dirty back-alleys.
The developers at Dontnod certainly nailed the look and feel of an early 20th-century city embroiled in chaos.
Reid begins his search through the various districts of London, each with its own cast of characters and issues to deal with. The good (or bad) doctor can choose to pursue side-quests or rescue people in need, working to stabilize the health of the district. Characters with ailments can also be treated with medicinal elixirs created through the game’s simple crafting system. Interacting with and healing patients around each district will improve the overall health of the region. More importantly, Reid’s knowledge and treatment of each patient adds to the experience pool gained from Vampyr’s central gameplay conceit, “embracing”.
Almost every named character Reid meets can be drained of blood for valuable experience, which players use to level up Reid’s combat abilities. Special abilities, health buffs, and combat techniques can only be accessed through large quantities of blood, so “embracing” offers a tantalizing path towards rapidly making the game’s combat easier. Unfortunately, killing an NPC badly damages the overall health of a district and will block off any quests related to that character. Your choices may also alter certain plot beats as you go along, in addition to any major decisions you make outside of killing characters. The point of the mechanic is to make you feel like a predator profiling its hapless prey, and the game greatly succeeds at this portrayal of villainy.
Vampyr’s structure of choice is fascinating, but once you start digging around, you quickly discover it’s not nearly as developed as it looks.
For one thing, I found certain decisions were a bit too vague in description, so I ended up screwing over half a district because the choice text wasn’t explicit. I don’t mind ambiguity or anything, but losing quest or “embracing” options feels a bit punishing. It’s also not clear why killing off someone like a gang member or a hustler would actually harm a district’s health, but such is the case in Vampyr.
London is also prone to being a bit lifeless. I know the game’s plot suggests that citizens clear the streets due to the plague, but the game should then find other ways to reward exploration. Instead, I often ran into unproductive dead-ends or hollow building fronts that looked interesting from the outside, but only served as window dressing. The somewhat open-world often struggled with this, lacking ways to fill the play-space with engaging content. The well-acted dialogue with citizens provided some interesting tidbits of lore and hints for other characters, but it didn’t feel deep enough to mask the lack of things to do.
Vampyr’s combat system also has a few issues. It’s a simpler version of Bloodborne or Dark Souls, with a lock-on targeting system, punishing damage, a slower, more methodical approach. Unfortunately, the targeting system is a bit wonky and often locks on to guys who aren’t the central threats. Reid’s attacks also require a good deal of close range combat, and the hit detection was occasionally spotty. Fights against tougher enemies and bosses often felt very similar to one another, requiring lots of dodging, healing, and quick strikes before dancing away. The action looks great but feels repetitive in practice. If you choose not to kill anyone like I did, the difficulty of combat noticeably increases, but not enough to lead to more than a few extra deaths here and there.
I reviewed Vampyr on the Xbox One X, and despite the console’s added horsepower, the game did not run particularly well. It looked to be locked at 30 frames per second, with significant slowdown and framerate drops at random intervals. Vampyr isn’t exactly a technical marvel, so I was a bit surprised at the lesser optimization. The dialogue, as indicated previously, is generally well-acted. The music also suits the ambiance well and adds to the darkened atmosphere of London.
The general feeling I came away with was that Vampyr was a neat experiment that came short of accomplishing its objective.
There’s a strong framework for a fantastic action-RPG here, but technical limitations and a lack of content variety hamstrings the game. With further development and polish, the Vampyr franchise could be a cult classic. As it is, however, we’re left with an interesting but deeply flawed title that will probably resonate with a limited audience.
- Strong, oppressive ambiance
- A great concept of choice that really emphasizes your predatory nature
- Lots of engaging dialogue to dig through
Combat is relatively lackluster
Quite a few technical issues throughout
Game world lacks development
Overall Score: 6.5 (out of 10)
Vampyr is a great concept with middling execution. The skeleton of the game provides hope for a brighter future, but the appeal of this particular title is likely limited to a select few.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable code provided by the publisher