The Elusive Vampire
Videogames are no strangers to Vampires. We've had small tastes and bites here and there, from digital adaptations of the Vampire: The Masquerade series, to puzzle-adventures like D, to Castlevania and Bloodrayne, and, yes, we've even had some absolutely awful movie based Blade videogames. There are several more out there, but they all share one thing in common other than their links to vampirism: they're few and far between. As long as I've been gaming I can only think of maybe ten games where vampires were either playable or the main villains of a plot. Strange isn't it? Immortal beings that feed on the blood of humans, who have supernatural abilities are just about one of the perfect starting points for a game.
DONTNOD must've felt the same way, because they've decided to pull away from their big seller Life Is Strange to try something different. Stepping away from the Tumblr-esque teen adventure, DONTNOD has decided to give gamers a dark, blood stained journey into the early 20th century as a freshly turned Dr. Jonathan Reid as he begins his struggle to figure out what has happened to him, and find a balance between embracing his newfound powers and sating his thirst for blood.
Between The Living And The Dead
Dr. Reid awakens in a mass grave, his world is a gray blur and he's overcome with an insatiable thirst that leads to him taking the life of an innocent. His control restored, but his sanity on edge, is how Vampyr sets the stage. The year is 1918, World War I is still in full swing, and London is experiencing a horrible outbreak of the Spanish Flu which is claiming victim after victim. To top it off, all the death and decay appears to have attracted the ghouls and urban legends of the night, and the good doctor just became one of them.
The main plot of Vampyr centers around Dr. Reid's struggle with vampirism, researching his condition and trying to find who converted him, and why, as both a means for understanding and vengeance. Most of the plot is pretty solid, with relationships among main cast members building over time and you really get a sense of both comradery and rivalry. The same cannot be said for the side quests.
While the side quest plots are sometimes interesting (usually the ones that are direct supplements to the main plot) most of them merely feel to be a means to an end, an excuse to go fight some monsters, get some loot and boost the blood quality of the citizens involved in that quest (more on blood quality later). The side quests themselves were fine enough to play through, but when they don't have the same tender love and care that the more memorable quests have, it breaks the immersion and you can tell you're just going to kill monster A and retrieve item B for character C.
The main gameplay in Vampyr can be broken down into three distinct elements: environment, combat and blood quality. The environment is a grim depiction of early 20th century London and it's executed very well. The soft glow of candlelight in windows, the sturdy brick buildings and dilapidated hovels. There are early model trucks, flipped over carriages, corpses both fresh and rotten littering different parts of town. London, between the Spanish Flu and the creatures that stalk the shadows, has become a hell on earth. Vampyr is a semi open world, and while some areas are pretty straight forward others play out like a maze. It's a good way to find side quests, more items and special collectibles as you go. You're also likely to accidentally stumble into areas where creatures are much more powerful than you, which, depending on your skill, can be fun or harrowing.
The combat combines a mix of supernatural powers, like claws and savage bites (and even some really unique ones like using an enemy's blood flow against them), with melee and ranged combat. The combat plays out in a similar way to The Surge and Dark Souls, where you have several different buttons for various types of combat and you have to use fancy footwork to dodge and weave your way about your enemies. In the midst of combat, you can either heal yourself with potions, or, if you've managed to critically stun an enemy by draining their stamina, you can land a quick combat bite on them and drain some of their blood.
Because of all of your extra abilities, however, you become quickly overpowered as long as you're able to maintain your fancy footwork. At level 9, I took down an alley filled with level 13, 15, and one level 18 enemies. On one hand, that's awesome. I love the thrill of knowing that I can take on enemies that powerful with ease, like I suspect a being as strong as a vampire could. On the other, I like challenges in combat. I want to run a frequent risk of being destroyed, not a now and then occurrence of it.
Finally we come to blood quality and everything that ties into it. Prior to release, DONTNOD put a heavy emphasis on the role that blood plays in the game. It's your experience points, if you want to evolve as a vampire in a reasonable manner you will need to feed on not just your direct enemies in combat, but on citizens around London. The game sports an impressive cast of characters, but it's clear several of them are placed to make sure you can still feed without perhaps having chaotic consequences. You see another aspect that ties into blood quality, is both the health of citizens and the states of the districts of London they inhabit. Feed too much on one district and you can dive it into chaos and there's no turning back. When you're someone like me who tries to play as good a character as possible (for a vampire), you start evaluating and investigating everyone deciding who deserves to live and who is just fodder for your power.
Very rarely was there not a clear cut good and evil choice of who you could feed on. Technically you can feed on all the characters, but I faced moral choices whether to pick a nurse who cut some corners to try to save a life but failed, or the local slumlord who is openly racist and keeping migrants down before and during the plague. Are you going to feed on someone who stole medicine out of desperation? Or are you going to feed on a local criminal who has caused nothing but pain and misery for others? I never felt worried about the consequences, because very rarely did feeding on villainous characters impact a district negatively.
The last ties to the blood quality mechanic varies from person to person. Some people will have ailments, and as a doctor you can help them heal to improve their blood quality. I more often found myself doing this just out of trying to play as a good character rather than on the intention of improving the quality of the drink for Dr. Reid. You can also increase the blood quality by learning everything there is to know about characters, which isn't nearly as interesting as it sounds as all it does is open up some extra chat options and get you a little extra exp in the long run.
Bare Your Fangs
Vampyr is a welcome return of vampirism in games, but it's far from perfect. The shortcomings in the way consequences are presented in feeding deal a hard blow against the game, and the number of side quests that feel like filler content rather than interesting stories is a shame. But the main plot, the smoothness of the combat, and the setting along with its cast of main characters definitely prop the game up as a good playthrough. It may not be a new Vampire: The Masquerade - Boodlines, but it's definitely a game I can sink my teeth into.
Great setting, interesting main plot, good cast of main characters, smooth combat that captures the power of a vampire.
Side quests are mostly underwhelming, impact of feeding on citizens feels too easy to have positive outcomes, often no sense of a real challenge in combat.