I creep through a warehouse, the pale silver light of the moon lights my path through a maze of crates as I approach my prey; a single fledgling vampire hunter, muttering to himself. Sensing the perfect moment, I select my claw ability and slash at my prey. Soon I have depleted enough of his health that I can feed on him. Thirsty, I raise his almost lifeless body to my mouth and greedily gulp down his warn blood. Refreshed I casually drop his twitching corpse and continue into the night.
All of this happened within the first twenty minutes of Vampyr, DONTNOD‘s attempt to bring the legendary vampire mythos to the PC. There have been a few excellent games that let you assume the guise of a powerful creature of the night. Most notably, Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines by the late Troika Games provided deep role playing while keeping a strong tie to the famous role playing franchise created by White Wolf. There was also the ability to become infected by the Nosferatu in Skyrim which gave you powerful bonuses but also traditional mythological weaknesses.
One element in which Vampyr has surpassed the aforementioned titles is in atmosphere. Like most great Gothic horror films or novels, Vampyr treats the atmospheric tone as being essential to the experience. The black of night, the bleached white of bone, a gloomy cobblestone street illuminated dimly by a single paraffin lamp. The developers have acknowledged that when colour needs to be used, it is to highlight the scenes of the macabre, the yellowing of a mouldering corpse , the fetid green bite of a plague victim or the bright crimson of a blob of gore. The authentic nature of the game is never so clear than in it’s carefully crafted environment. Vampyr is an ARPG experience that attempts to bury you into the roots of a great, grand Gothic horror.
The opening narrative is involving and places the player in the blood soaked shoes of Jonathan Reid, a renowned doctor who specialises in blood transfusions. He is a serving medic in the army during the Great War who is visiting London while on military leave. Ambushed by an unknown assailant, Reid is transformed into a newborn vampire. Confused and attempting to piece together what has happened to him, Reid is embroiled in a plot to find his creator and also combat a vicious plague threatening the great Victorian city. It’s an involving plot which places you in the aftermath of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, which at its height claimed millions of lives.
Within this fascinating game environment, Reid finds himself tortured by his vampirism. In an environment so rife with death, who would miss an errant shopkeeper or a young prostitute? It’s open season for vampire-kind. The central theme of the game soon presents itself. As a doctor who swore to uphold the Hippocratic oath, will you be compelled to heal or hunt? Initially Dr. Reid lashes out at the world around him, disorientated and only wanting to get back to his normal life. He starts as a confused character who is dangerously close to being consumed by anger. It is up to the player, however, to what extent Reid will succumb to his bloodlust.
This premise was one of the elements which initially interested me the most. Unfortunately, this never feels like the dramatic conflict that the game makes it out to be. NPCs provide a certain amount of XP when you bite them. But you can maximise this precious XP by healing them from illness before attacking them. You can also gain more XP by finding elements around the game environment which inform Reid about their character. There’s absolutely no skill involved in achieving this. To find most of these hints about your intended victim’s character you merely search their nearby home. Reading letters and documents lets you make decisions about their owner’s morality. I found out the most about NPCs and gained more XP by simply exhausting all the available options in the dialogue wheel. This initially intriguing aspect falls on its face due to the disappointing implementation.
So with this unique manner of gaining XP, the fewer lives that you take, the harder it is to level up. Following the more humane path and not eviscerating everyone I meet is actually playing the game on hard mode. I’m not sure how I feel about that. It’s a novel manner of dictating difficult but it also limits my choice as a player. If I find a section too difficult, do I retrace my steps and murder any hapless individual who crosses my path, or struggle on and keep my feet on the righteous path and risk frustration at the inability to progress. On reflection I feel that while it’s interesting to tie a games difficulty setting integrally to it’s narrative and a player’s moral choices, I do feel that I was unfairly punished because I attempted to craft an altruistic character.
There are also incredibly frustrating elements in Vampyr which almost ruined my game experience. It’s a very linear game but it doesn’t show you clearly where to go next. I found myself using my vampiric vision to see through walls in a desperate attempt to find parts of the level that I needed to explore. I could detect the characters that I needed to talk to in order to advance the game but didn’t know how to unlock the doors to navigate into the rooms in which they resided.
There’s also no real discernible stealth mechanic, you just wander up to your aggressor and pummel the attack button, occasionally pausing to use one of the aforementioned special attacks. I would like to have experienced creeping up behind an enemy or using the environment as a combat advantage. Everything in this manner feels so very basic, even the city of London itself. This is an open world game, but in no manner is it similar to Grand Theft Auto, either in scope or approach. You are confined to the areas which you need to be in for the story to progress, there’s no real joy in the exploration of the city, which is again, a missed opportunity.
Finally, the biggest disappointment I felt is that it brings nothing new to the genre. It discards the shining, interesting and intelligent premise for some nonsensical apocalyptic story about ancient races battling for control. We have in our protagonist, Dr Jonathan Reid, a cliche of a vampire who is tortured by having to take lives to survive. There’s also familiar and ‘borrowed’ stories and ideas from the greats of Gothic literature. The shadowy secret orders pulling strings just slightly off stage, the man desperate for a chance at immortality and the vampire hunters ruthlessly intent on destroying you without any regard to your remaining humanity. All very familiar and overused tropes which weaken the personal narrative of our main character and the potentially powerful overarching plot hinted at during the initial few hours.
There are moments of great NPC dialogue which hint at LGBT relationships, the racism of the era and female suffrage. These lead to interesting side quests but unfortunately aren’t really expanded upon.
Overall it feels like a missed opportunity. Attempting to play jack of all trades with engaging RPG dialogue and action combat has stretched this title very thin. There was an extensive media campaign leading up to launch regarding the consequences of killing or sparing life. However in this regard it seems to value combat over story, especially since embedded within the game mechanic is the need to do the former in order to gain XP. There’s also a lack of polish. Loading times are painfully long and there are framerate bugs during combat that suggest Vampyr could have spent a little longer in development.
Vampyr is available from Steam.