Vampyr – Review
PC, Xbox One, PS4
Some games defy traditional genres. They may include bits from this type of game and chunks of that other title, but mostly, for better or worse, these particular games just do their own thing. There is always something refreshing, something enticing about playing these titles. The excitement of what is coming next, good or bad, is almost intoxicating. What does it get right? What does it do differently? Which direction will it go? These questions are intriguing ones and ones that I find impossible to ignore. So that brings me to Vampyr, a game that asks all of these questions, gets somethings right, gets somethings wrong and goes in unexpected directions along the way.
Vampyr is almost impossible to categorise. It is part action title, part RPG and part detective mystery. There are pieces of Telltale games, splashes of Mass Effect, a pinch of Sherlock Holmes all mixed with lashings of grand Gothic opera. All of these things combine to make something that shares similarities to other titles, but can proudly wear the title of unique. Unique doesn’t mean this is a great game, it also doesn’t mean it is a bad one, it just means there is nothing else out there like it.
Set in London in 1918 during the height of the Spanish Flu epidemic, the game starts with the title character Dr Jonathan Reid waking up from his death, a freshly born Vampire, or Ekon as the game classifies his particular species. Almost immediately he is set upon by a cult of Vampire hunters. After a quick dash and a timely rescue, Dr Reid is taken in by a charming chap who not only runs a hospital in the poor part of town, but is a member of an organisation that studies Vampires and their kin. He kindly offers Dr Reid a job which will allow him to study his condition and further investigate who made him into an Ekon. To say any more would ruin what is a highly entertaining bit of supernatural pulp. It feels like a classic Vampire tale that has quite a number of surprising twists. The voice acting by Anthony Howell, who plays Dr Reid, is pitch perfect. Each line seems to drip with drama and it suits the mood of the game perfectly.
The game can really be broken up into two main parts. The combat and the interactions. The combat is nothing special, though it isn’t off-putting either. There is a range of traditional weapons such as guns, swords and clubs that can be used along with a range of supernatural skills like blood spears, claw swipes and blood shields. Initially, combat is rather pedestrian, but once a few of the skills have been upgraded and opened up things can get quite enjoyable. The combat component never sets the world on fire but there are some nice challenges and it never feels unwelcome. One annoying part of the combat, however, is that I never got to feel like a truly badass servant of darkness because the game auto-levels enemies. No matter how tough I got, my enemies were always of a similar level and that really took away from the power fantasy this game offers. There is no denying it keeps things challenging but it would still have been nice to feel like an unstoppable blood knight on occasion.
This leads me to skills. Upgrading Vampyr skills is one of the more interesting concepts the game presents to players. During the game, I earned XP for all the traditional things. Killing bad guys, finding hidden treasure, completing missions. You know the drill. But the XP earned from these activities was a rather trifle amount. The real way to earn big chunks of XP is to feed off civilians. Draining a civilian of blood results in a huge experience boost but it does bring consequences. Kill the wrong person and you may not have a vital clue to make a mission easier. Kill someone who has an affiliation with a rough crowd and you may find yourself hunted. Kill too many people and the district will plunge into chaos, losing all side quests and filling the area with enemies in the process. It all makes choosing your victims important and one of the more satisfying parts of the game. I took great pleasure in discovering people’s backstories and using that information to decide if they deserved death or not. This can be achieved by conversations with people and discovering hints and notes that provide further information on any potential victim. What makes these choices even harder is that there are no real evil or good characters. Every person in the game is a shade of grey, making the death of a civilian an agonising choice.
The biggest problem the game suffers from is, from what I can tell, a small budget. Too often the curtain fell and the immersion was ruined by glitchy behaviour, strange occurrences and weird graphical artifacts. There is so much care shown in so many parts of this game that these occurrences speak of lack of funding and not lack of development skill. It is just a shame that it happened all too often, and while none of it was game breaking, it was impossible to ignore.
Another issue I had with the game was London its self. I know this was set during the Spanish flu epidemic and World War One, meaning London was missing a good chunk of its population, but it still shouldn’t feel this empty. In the entirety of London’s West End, there are only about 15 people, same goes for the other districts. This emptiness really makes it impossible for the city to feel alive in any meaningful way. It all just gave the appearance of areas from a video game and not a living city, which was a huge disappointment in my mind.
I want you to imagine a puppet show. The puppets are old and broken, the strings clearly visible and the sets falling to pieces but you are amazed by the talent of the puppeteer, their talent clear despite the less than perfect equipment. DontNod is a lot like that. They lack the size and budget of the big studios but they almost make up for that in vision and talent. Vampyr is a game that deserves attention, it tries something new and mostly succeeds. A beautifully told gothic tale with interesting skill systems and some fun combat is only let down by window dressing and a location that feels like a stage and not an actual city. Vampyr might not be the game of the year, but it is certainly going to be one of the most interesting titles we see in 2018 and, sales permitting, a title that will only get better in future sequels.