Dontnod has made a name for itself over the last several years as a publisher willing to try new things and take risks. Mixed reactions to their debut effort Remember Me grew into acclaim for Life Is Strange. Three years have passed since Life Is Strange captivated players; Dontnod used that time to not only craft a sequel, due out this year, but also something completely different. Unlike anything the developer has tackled before, Vampyr takes players into a dark and dirty vision of early 1900s London; a world of death, disease, and vampires.
Doctor Jonathan Reid, a field medic returning from the battlefields of World War I, awakens in the corpse pits of a London under siege by the Spanish flu, a brutal virus that swept through the real world shortly after the turn of the century. Maddened by a profound hunger and the echoing words of an ethereal entity, Dr. Reid stumbles through the carnage, happening upon a woman looking through the dead. She knows him, embraces him, and in a fit of insanity, he digs his fangs deep into her neck. He drinks, she dies, and he is reborn - sane and in agony at the realization of his crime.
This opening scene strives to capture the unsettling horror of Vampyr on a small scale, giving players a textual stake (har har) in the consequences of their actions. You see, Mary, the woman murdered in the opening minutes of Vampyr happens to be Mary Reid, Dr. Reid's sister. This death haunts Jonathan throughout the game in a way that can profoundly alter the course of events, depending on how players choose to develop the doctor as a character.
Vampyr tempts players with blood at every opportunity. Completing quests rewards players with nice chunks of experience that can be used on a variety of vampyric and scientific abilities. However, players can take shortcuts to power by manipulating the citizens of London, mesmerizing and taking them to dark corners for a taste of their blood. This kills them, of course, but grants thousands of experience points, more than can be gained by completing quests. The system encourages players to take care of the people they meet, treating their illnesses with appropriate remedies and learning their secrets by interacting with the people in their social circle. The healthy blood of someone more intimately known provides quite a bit more experience than someone almost totally unknown who has been struck with the plague.
As the primary vampire of Vampyr, players have to be careful how they exercise their newfound power. Some parts of London's communities are more necessary than others. The pillars of each community hold those around them together by their presence and tireless efforts. Killing those people could bring the entire district they live in crashing down under the weight of the epidemic. Not all parts of the community can claim to be aligned with those constructive forces, however. Some proudly declare themselves criminals while others hide dark secrets of murder and abuse. Of course, no matter who Jonathan chooses to feed upon, the community will react. It could leave it a better place, but that act of murder could also plunge everything into chaos, leaving openings for the plague to seep in among the bodies.
Players who seek to walk a nobler path will be pleased to know that the life of bloodsucking innocents can be avoided almost entirely. However, those who opt out of this staple activity of vampirism will find themselves at a definite disadvantage, making do with fewer and less powerful blood and shadow based powers. The difficulty will definitely have some players looking longingly at the NPC they know to be a murderer, contemplating murder for their extra experience. The point of the difficult path is to tempt the righteous to fall, and the developers certainly play into that aspect of their game.
Dontnod cleverly leaves the player with the ultimate decision to give Mary Reid's death meaning. Will Jonathan steer the hardest path and make his first steps as a newborn vampire without sacrificing others along the way? Will he pursue power at all costs, slaughtering as many people as London can bare? Or will he walk a middle path, turning himself into the judge, jury, and executioner of London's wickedest denizens? Those are interesting questions to explore over the course of Vampyr and answer for yourself. The system that enables this, the complex net of relationships and dependencies of each section of London that shift with each death, must have taken an incredible amount of effort to create, and stands out as one of Vampyr's best features.
It's strange, then, that Vampyr does not choose to focus its narrative on that core systemic conceit. Instead, the narrative revolves around a series of three acts to which the residents of London play background parts as pieces of set dressing and leveling opportunities - a decision which defangs the whole "needing to kill for the blood needed to survive" aspects of vampires. The first act revolves around Jonathan Reid coming to terms with his role in his sister's death and his new life as an Ekon, Vampyr's term for the beings we traditionally know as vampires. It is here that we are also introduced to the other varieties of vampires. Skals make up the majority of vampires, but are often people who failed to transform into full Ekons, often going mad in the process. They only need to eat flesh to live and don't require blood the way other vampires do. Vulkod are the brutes of the vampire kingdom, possessing superior speed and strength to other kinds, but often losing themselves to blood rages. Other kinds exist, too, but they are left to be mysterious around the edges of British vampire society.
Before going on, we should note that the icing of yet another woman in the opening minutes of a video game for dramatic effect, a trope with a long tradition (I'm looking at you, Shadow of Mordor), is getting so old. It doesn't help that this is the game's cold open; as players, we have no investment in Jonathan or his sister within those few minutes, which robs even more drama out of this storytelling cliche. The cliche compounds in the closing minutes of the first act as it practically repeats itself. This is lazy writing, and it doesn't sit well in 2018. We can and should do better than going for cheap shock value and character motivation.
The second act expands the world with more details about the various factions: The Guards of Priwen, the Ascalon Club, and the Brotherhood of St. Paul's Stole. The Guards of Priwen act as a human check on vampire activity during the epidemic, wandering the streets and killing any kind of mutated beast they come across. The Ascalon Club operates as an exclusive group of vampires who seek to control the wider world, a kind of shadow government based on blood purity. Finally, The Brotherhood of St. Paul seems to mostly be a group of holy researchers who are more pragmatic than the Guards of Priwen and prioritize the greater good over any vampire vendettas. This act is also when many of the pillars of each London community have to be addressed by the player, often in ways that could doom the communities if handled poorly - but perhaps that's what a less scrupulous Dr. Reid desires?
The third and final act introduces a lot of esoteric lore that was barely hinted at throughout the preceding sections of Vampyr. The final twenty or thirty minutes of Vampyr possesses an energy lacking in the earlier segments of the game as secret after secret comes tumbling out and the narrative pieces all begin coming together. To say much about these closing minutes would spoil quite a bit, but suffice it to say that a Vampyr 2 would be incredibly welcome as Dontnod veers far afield of what might be considered the classical vampire stylings they had adopted up until that point.
Overall, the narrative takes an understandable detour around its core system based around vampyric feeding and winds up with a tale composed of many interesting parts when taken on their own, but without much of a through line keeping it all connected. Mary's death recedes into the background after the end of the first act, replaced by a lot of factional drama that doesn't ultimately get resolved or have many consequences in act two. The third act concludes the plague plot and possesses the strongest focus of the three parts, but doesn't have much to do with the themes of previous sections.
The feeding mechanic further muddles the themes of the game. Doctor Jonathan Reid makes a distinction between killing average citizens and those those who oppose him. For example, when it comes to one of the in-game factions called the Guards of Priwen the good doctor seems to have carte blanche to drink their blood and kill without mercy. This leads to moments throughout the game where Dr. Reid claims to have not killed anyone, provided the player has not fed on one of the civilians of London, despite the massive trail of bodies left behind him as he tore through the Priwenites in the streets of the city. This isn't an active impediment to enjoying Vampyr, but it represents a larger problem of mixed messaging that erodes Vampyr's story structure.
The combat mechanics also present a fun, flawed opportunity that needed refinement. There are a handful of abilities to choose from, each of which can be upgraded, eventually into diverging paths. These include defensive moves, like creating a shield of blood, attacks, like creating a large area of exploding darkness beneath enemies, utility maneuvers, like invisibility or leaping into enemies, and your garden variety carry more of bullets or serums and increase health/stamina/blood. More variety would have been welcome, as after initially deciding which skills to take the system encourages you to stick with those until the end. There's not much room for experimentation or really a need for much as almost any offensive skill will carry you through to the end of the game.
On its own, the combat serves its purpose. When everything is going well, it feels serviceable. Dashing out of combat range to set shadowy traps, whirling through enemies with one of the small variety of interchangeable weapons, powering up an ultimate maneuver, it all can be exciting. That is, at least, provided technical issues or strange design decisions don't get in the way. Some of the enemies have variable attack ranges, will sometimes land a hit without actually hitting anything, and many powers don't feel all that effective. Enemies are often made more difficult by giving them more health and damage rather than interesting mechanics to play around and counter with your own growing arsenal of vampy powers.
One of the most consistently irritating aspects of Vampyr's combat is that if you die in battle, you return to a section just outside the area where you died. That's fine, but any consumables you used in the fight disappear. Struggling through a boss fight only to die at the last minute? Well, good luck trying it again with out any healing items, stamina boosts, or additional blood transfusions. Alternatively, have fun trudging back through the areas you just battled through to make more of those items because you have to craft them all yourself at specific crafting stations and can't store more than you can hold in your inventory at any one time. That means that if you can only hold two serums for use in battle, you can only craft and hold two serums of each type at any given time.
The other issue that plagues Vampyr boils down to mobility. As a vampire, Jonathan Reid can shadow dash and teleport himself to higher vantage points. This seems like it would be a particular useful ability to escape combat situations or navigate the world. Unfortunately, once Dr. Reid enters combat, he loses the ability to travel vertically to escape his assailants. The game simply won't allow that to happen until everyone in the area has perished. This becomes irritating when you realize that often these optional fights simply take up time and resources without giving much in return.
The flipside of this issue rears its head when it comes to world traversal. Mobility stands out as one of the defining aspects of vampires both in the myths and legends of our world and in the game itself. Characters routinely disappear out windows or appear seemingly out of nowhere. Our protagonist doctor doesn't seem capable of this outside of very specific circumstances. This attaches Jonathan firmly to the ground, no doubt as a means of gating player progress from more dangerous areas in the opening portions of Vampyr. In the absence of a fast travel system, players constantly find themselves backtracking across districts and areas that had previously been cleared, but enemies constantly respawn. It becomes one of the most tedious aspects of Vampyr and probably a large reason why the middle act seems to sag and lose so much momentum. Running freely along the rooftops of London or flying through the air as a cloud of shadow bats could have gone a long way toward easing this frustration, even if it only became accessible later on. Instead, we are left with a system that grants freedom of movement, but only on its own constrictive terms.
It would be a grave oversight to not talk a bit about the visuals of Vampyr. London has never looked so dingy, squalid, and vaguely post-apocalyptic (in video games, obviously) than in Dontnod's bloodsucking adventure. Drainage water sits tepid in the streets, reflecting the shining moonlight from between damp cobblestones. Candle light filters through boarded windows. Each NPC has a distinctive face, model, and animations that sets them apart from everyone else (if you don't count the enemies that you meet in combat). Everything looks grim, dirty, and that can all come together to resemble the locations sought out by urban explorers for their decaying beauty. The effort that went into making London an interesting locale shows; despite all the backtracking, it doesn't wear out its welcome.
The voice acting does quite a bit of work to sell the various characters. Notably, Anthony Howell turns in an incredible performance as Dr. Jonathan Reid. You can feel the sorrow and pain in his voice, a character who has seen and done horrible things on the battlefields of Europe and now must contend with the twisted homeland to which he has returned. Dr. Edgar Swansea, an eccentric doctor who treats with vampires and mortals alike, helps to expand and explain the world with the aid of Harry Hadden-Paton's performance. People might recognize Hadden-Paton as the voice actor behind the male Inquisitor's voice in Dragon Age: Inquisition or his role in Downton Abbey as Bertie Pelham. Katherine Kingsley manages to create a compelling and mysterious character with her role as Lady Ashbury, a centuries old vampiress whose every line drips with the weight of history. It is a difficult role and Kingsley plays it perfectly. In the hands of these capable professionals, what could have been a campy story about vampires turns into a tale filled with genuine drama and memorable exchanges.
Dontnod deserves to be applauded for taking risks in a time during which many developers opt for the sure thing time after time. The world and characters they have created in Vampyr could easily be continued in future games, something I very much hope that they do. They took concepts that many might have thought done to undeath and made them their own. The visuals and sense of place that London will take players on a wild journey filled with horror and vampire shenanigans. Even the ideas that don't necessarily work perfectly are at the very least interesting or have the potential to be used more effectively in the future. A few kinks in the machine show a number of narrative and mechanical hiccups that occasionally cause player momentum to screech to a halt, but those setbacks are always temporary. For those who persevere, a rewarding experience offers something you can't find anywhere else. Vampyr is ambitious, flawed, and I loved it.
Dontnod, a sequel would be excellent.
Vampyr is now available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
Play Event if you want something different. It might be short. It might have some narrative problems. It might sometimes have gameplay issues. However, you cannot get a similar experience from anything else released in the last few years. For all of Event's flaws, trying to communicate with Kaizen-85 and unravel its lies and secrets was a refreshing adventure that I feel grateful exists.
Is It Fun?:
Talk your way through a derelict spacecraft to solve a mystery
Very simple and sleek - the retro aesthetic sets this apart
Relatively sparse music, but excellent when it hits
Navigating the correct way to phrase things can be difficult
I enjoyed it, but it's definitely a slow burn
People who prioritize drama and enjoy non-violent games
Event is now available for PC and Mac
Review originally appeared on www.extra-life.org 11/17/16