Release Date: June 5, 2018Platform: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, PCDeveloper: Dontnod EntertainmentPublisher: Focus Home InteractiveGenre: RPG
In Vampyr, you play as Dr. Jonathan Reid, a respected physician who one night finds himself cursed with an unholy thirst for the blood of those he’s dedicated his life to healing. The game, an action-RPG scaffolded by a branching narrative, is full of macabre philosophical juxtapositions and moral conundrums like this, drenched in the perpetual rainfall of the gloomy, 1918 London setting, and of course, buckets and buckets of red.
To be sure, this game is a veritable bloodbath on the surface, with fast-paced combat and a sprawling selection of potential prey. But the irony is that, as you delve deeper into the game, you’ll find it to be a largely bloodless affair, a respectable but fundamentally trite and tame entry in the woefully over-saturated action RPG genre. Gameplay mechanics are cherry-picked from other, similar titles, and there aren’t enough new ideas in the mix to make the game feel like anything special. The brooding, hipster-vamp aesthetic is moody and intoxicating at first glance, but the spell is promptly broken when the shoddy presentation, uninspired gameplay, and stilted storytelling get in the way.
Developer Dontnod’s eminently popular and beloved Life Is Strange is arguably one of the most deeply-felt narrative-driven games ever made, so it comes as a shock that Vampyr’s story feels like a soulless slog. Themes of family, infidelity, trust, xenophobia, the class system, and even gender equality are explored, but the writing is void of wit and warmth (something Life Is Strange had in spades), which impairs the super-serious material with a sort of tonal monotony. There’s only so much anguish and morbidity one can take before crippling ennui sets in.
And Dr. Reid does a lot of talking throughout the game’s 30+ hour campaign. After serving as a military doctor in the war, he takes up residence at a local hospital, where he meets all manner of cooks and crazies, from crooked caretakers to wannabe vampires to borderline necrophiliacs. He explores the rest of the city too, meeting even more loons, rudely psychoanalyzes them all, gets intimately familiar with his new, nocturnal state of being, and hunts down the vampire who “turned” him in the first place.
The decently sized, semi open-world map is split into districts, each populated by its own cast of chatty NPCs, and every last one of them could potentially round out your strictly plasmatic diet. You can choose to feed upon or spare virtually any character you come across, and your decisions will have major, permanent effects on the story and the game world.
This interpersonal mechanic is the game’s brightest idea — feeding on citizens is by far the fastest way to level up Dr. Reid, so while compassionate players can choose to not let loose their undead appetite on anyone at all, they’ll inevitably have a tough go of it when getting clawed, shot, and bludgeoned to bits by high-level enemies on the mean city streets. The concept is a brilliant way to intertwine combat and narrative, but it’s undermined by the game’s most pervading weakness.
Informing your decisions to eat or not eat your fellow Londoners are conversations that unfold via dialogue trees. You can unlock certain speech options if your conversational skills are at a high enough level or you’ve uncovered a hint about a given NPC’s life via exchanges with others. The voice actors sound great, and the dialogue is well-written, but the character models, animation, and camera work just aren’t up to snuff and don’t do the actors justice. The characters are generally well-rendered, but they’ve all got a classic case of dead-fish-eyes, which makes them look plasticky and lifeless, and their idle animations would’ve looked dated a console generation ago. It might seem like a nitpicking, but just wait until you see how long you have to stare at them sway awkwardly back and forth like they’re trying to convince a cop they’re “totally not drunk.” The player can rotate the camera around the scene, but it’s set at an awkward distance to where it’s hard to frame both characters naturally. The overall look of these encounters is off-putting at worst, unremarkable at best.
This issue isn’t unique to Vampyr, but it’s more glaring here because the actors’ performances are so darn good. Dr. Reid is played by Anthony Howell, whose low, gravelly, round voice is an utter delight to listen to (maybe the game’s saving grace). But when you see the character model’s sub-par lip-synching, it creates a jarring disconnect between the compelling, British-accented conversation you’re hearing and the flaccid visuals you’re seeing.
In motion, however, the game can actually look quite nice. You run through the seedy streets and alleyways of London in the wake of The Great War. The city is crumbling, with an outbreak of Spanish influenza compounding the already dire circumstances. Details reflecting the denizens’ collective despair are strewn all about: quarantine posters hang on battered doorways with the words “KEEP OUT, DEAD INSIDE” painted hastily on the wall. You can sometimes piece together the final moments in the life of the deceased by tracking the trail of blood stretching out from their feet, snaking around a dark corner.
There’s an interplay between light and shadow that helps Vampyr pop visually, which is also a nice callback to the aesthetic of the 1932 Carl Dreyer film of the same name. The environments have a nice Gothic feel to them, though they don’t capture the imagination as much as Dark Souls did. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate offered a much richer vision of London, but Dontnod’s game still looks and feels cohesive and atmospheric.
Sadly, nagging graphical issues do abound, smudging what could have been a fantastic looking game. The artists made sure to capture the blanketing London fog, for example, but the fog effects will sometimes pop in just feet in front of you, and on rare occasions, pop in and out of view randomly during combat. And speaking of combat, at times, you’ll be fighting five enemies at once, and they’ll all be the same character model (there isn’t a huge variety of different enemy types either, which makes matters worse).
Combat animations look nice and smooth for Dr. Reid, but controlling him is a different story. The combat system is your typical action RPG fare, based on positioning, lateral movement, and properly alternating offensive and defensive moves. If you’ve played The Witcher 3, Dark Souls, or Assassin’s Creed, you’ll have the hang of it before you even pick up the controller. But Vampyr’s combat lacks the fluid feel of the action offered in those games and it’s hard to put a finger on why.
There seems to be a general lack of responsiveness to the controls that’s subtle, but not so subtle that it won’t get you killed every once in a while. In fact, during my playthrough, there were several times when, with a full stamina bar, I would hit a button and it simply wouldn’t register, resulting in my (infuriating) demise in the middle of a hard-fought 12-minute boss battle. There were even occasions when I’d hit the attack button and the animation wouldn’t play out until five seconds later, typically when I’d be touching some piece of geometry in the environment or even a downed enemy. These issues aren’t rampant throughout the game, but I experienced enough fluke deaths that I stormed out of the room on more than one occasion. Hopefully, these kinks are ironed out in a forthcoming patch.
Aside from the occasional hiccup, combat is solid. You can outfit Dr. Reid with all manner of upgradeable pointy objects, bludgeons, and firearms, and there are several categories of vampiric skill-trees to toy with. You’ve got health, stamina, and blood (essentially special moves) bars to keep in check, and as in Dark Souls, the stamina bar forces you to move with efficiency and forethought, which deepens the experience. There’s nothing new here — these are all systems we’ve seen done better in other games. But hey, it’s still pretty fun.
There are dozens of minor issues that keep Vampyr from meeting its full potential. Texture quality is middling across the board, there are some insipid sewer puzzles scattered about that feel wholly unnecessary, the environments in each district look so similar that it’s far too easy to lose your way. This game’s got a lot of issues, and it probably isn’t going to cultivate a cult status like Life Is Strange did (though it’s sure to make a bigger splash than Dontnod’s sci-fi romp Remember Me), but this is still a solid “jack of all trades, master of none” title from a worthy studio that continues to challenge itself.