Vampyr Review: Bloody Rare
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Platform: PC (Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Release Date: June 5, 2018
Genre: RPG, Action
Vampyr is a very interesting game, but I must admit when I first played it I hated it. The combat was finicky, the NPCs just didn't catch my fancy, and the world seemed bunched up and confusing. But I stuck with it because despite my frustrations there was something there, something dark and mysterious, something that kept pulling me back in.
I'm very glad I didn't give up because Vampyr has become one of my new favorite games of 2018. How did this switch happen? Not fast, but gradually: slowly over time the game opened up to me and ultimately changed my perspective.
As I played I learned the ins and outs and combat tricks like exploiting the biting animation that makes you invincible, or how important stamina really is. I learned how to navigate London's dark, foggy streets and properly maintain the districts I really cared about.
It opened up so much that I found myself caring about the people of early 1900's London and wanting to help them...until I got too hungry, that is.
Let's get one thing out of the way upfront: I love horror. I like the idea of exploring original themes in horror-based games, and it's a kind of window into someone's dark imagination. The more I played and experienced and saw, the more I realized just how perfectly Vampyr appeals to my appetite for the strange and unusual.
Dontnod's thriller takes place in 1918 London during a time where death and pestilence reign supreme and so much blood covers the cobblestones the rain can't wash it away.
It's a time of sheer desperation and suffering: still riven by the effects of the Great War, London is fractured by the Spanish Flu epidemic. Townspeople are dying from sickness and being maimed by strange shadowy monstrosities that roam the streets. People are scared, weary, and ultimately terrorized on all fronts--but they still maintain their humanity and a tenuous grasp on reality.
In Vampyr you play as Jonathan Reid, a doctor-turned-vampire during mysterious consequences. Trained to always search for answers, Reid will take players on a chase that uncovers some intriguing takes on historical fact while offering some substantial freedom to either save or doom London.
The Adventures of Dr. Acula
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Vampyr is the specific theme of a vampire doctor.
I'm reminded of the Tales From the Crypt episode called The Reluctant Vampire in which Malcom McDowell plays a night security guard for a blood bank. McDowell happens to be a vampire, you see, and feeds off of the collected blood rather than on people. Yeah it's cheesy but there's something there, a kind of clever mutualism that was drummed up by a room full of writers.
Vampyr has something similar but oh-so-much better. I'm very much attracted to the idea of a vampire doctor (Dr. Acula, if you will). Dr. Acula (aka Jonathan Reid) has taken an oath to do no harm, but that hunger is always gnawing at his belly. It's always there, and what's even more motivating is that you actually level up faster if you feed on people. Everyone you kill will give you experience but some people grant you much more if you invest the time. In the game you can literally see through people's skin and watch the blood pump through their veins...which is strangely hypnotic.
There's something darkly enchanting about this theme. Dr. Reid has a vested interest to keeping the denizens healthy--they're his food after all. If a district's denizens start to get sick with a cold or a migraine their blood quality drops, thus netting you less reward for feasting on them.
The more I think about this idea the more interesting it becomes, and it's up to you how far you want to take it.
You can choose to either heal the denizens out of the goodness of your heart or feed on the goodness of their hearts--either way has uplifting or disastrous consequences depending on the person. For example, if you choose to slay a drifter tramp or ne'er-do-well, the consequences may not be so bad.
But there are always consequences.
Take Clay Cox: he's just a mean, murdering ex-gang member who's mouth is as foul as his deeds. Why not just kill him and get a quick spike of XP to level up? At the beginning, Dr. Reid is pretty weak and you're incentivized to feed on people to boost your powers (I never did, though, not until I got to Whitechapel).
At the same time, though, there are people who will miss Clay. There are people who know him and word travels fast when one of their own goes missing. Clay has a wife in Whitechapel, Edwina, who sells items. If you kill Clay, she might hear about it and actually leave her post to find out who did it. But it gets worse: she's connected with the Wet Boot Boys, a gang of boys forced into crime to survive the grisly streets.
At the start, though you have no idea who Clay is or who he's connected to. But as you play and talk to people you learn much, much more about the NPCs and see the beauty of Vampyr's inter-connected world.
Everyone knows someone and gorging yourself on the blood of who you think is a random stranger could ultimately disrupt an entire region. Or it could lead to your death.
The more you talk to people the more clues you get about others. You learn that Thelma Howcroft, who suffers from Cotard's Syndrome and believes she's a vampire, has romantic feelings for Thomas Elwood. You learn that Clay was kicked out of the Wet Boot Boys and has a hatred for the current leady, Booth Digby. Uncovering these clues raises each character's blood quality, thus giving you more XP if you decide to kill them.
Vampyr makes players into a kind of detective that uncovers the best and worst in people. You see their foibles, their quirks, their fears, and often unearth their darkest secrets or innermost desires. Dontnod makes all of it believable though, even if it's based in a supernatural London where monsters and vampires hunt; all of the people seem real.
The farther you go and the more you see and do and uncover, the more potent an NPCs blood becomes. Sometimes you feel as if you're just filling up the blood bank and saving the rows upon rows of vitality for later when you feel hungry or want more power. Maybe that's what Malcolm McDowell felt when working at the blood bank.
Most of the time, though, you feel as if you're understanding the people around you. This fleshes out the world of Vampyr even more and adds a stronger feeling of impact to the player. Can you really kill Clayton Darby after learning he's trying desperately to print the truth about London in the newspapers? Can you kill poor depressed Mortimer Goswick knowing his mother cares about him desperately? Or do you just want to put the poor man out of his misery?
This idea is supremely original and captivated me right from the start. Who becomes your food is one of the main choices you can make in the game and brings with it a certain measure of power...but also an uncertainty how it'll affect your game.
You decide the fates of the people in this world and where their destinies lie. You can kill them, or hurt them in other ways by exposing their dark sides...or worse. These choices and many others are yours to make.
It's a risk, a gamble, and you have to live with your decisions. It's also quite thrilling.
Whether or not you inadvertently doomed an entire district by forcing a key pillar of the community to stop helping others or actually kill them outright for precious blood, your decisions will shape that entire district and determine who comes after you and who doesn't.
Choose not to heal a district and they become sicker and sicker. Dr. Reid can make various cures from materials found throughout your adventures, but if you run out and don't act, the people fall ill. If you wait too long they become sick and desperate and the area will plunge into chaos.
People go missing. People die. Or worse: people turn.
On the flip side, it's still entirely possible to doom an entire district even if most people are healthy. Each region has its own pillar, or person who upholds that particular area. It can be a doctor, a nurse, a father of the cloth--just someone who serves as the glue that holds the district together.
Throughout the main story, you'll be forced to make big decisions that shape the world. You almost always don't know how these choices will affect the London you've carefully curated. For example, my decision with Dorothy Crane plunged Whitechapel back into the epidemic. I won't tell you what happened after that of course, but it's always interesting how these decisions will affect an entire borough.
It's not always about pillars though: killing seemingly random people like Clay Cox can affect your game.
In Whitechapel, I killed Harry Peterson, son of big ruffian Joe "Colossus" Peterson. I killed him because he seemed so dismal, so tired, but more-so I wanted to see what'd happen. When I talked to Joe after the deed was done he told me he'd "hunt down and kill whoever hurt his boy." But Joe didn't know his son was dead yet. So naturally I was intrigued and I wanted to know how the game would either punish or reward this action.
After I killed Harry I retrieved a pistol from his dead body. When you kill people you may get weapons and items along with the XP boost. This was my first reward.
Shortly after Joe went missing. As I quested and roamed London's streets I knew Joe was out there somewhere. He'd find me one way or another and try to take out the good doctor. There was a certain anxiety and thrill in this realization.
Would Joe sneakily attack me while I was busy with a horde of Skals? Would he barge into Pembroke Hospital, where I work, and kill the doctors and everyone I cared about? Would he murder people that know me in the shadows, torturing them beforehand for information on my whereabouts?
When I finally came across Joe he wasn't alone: there was a gang of Prydwen guards with him. Joe, a level 26 mini-boss, almost succeeded...but at this point, I found my nice two-hander build and reunited him with his son.
Killing Joe gave me one of the best weapons that's carried me through the game thus far along with a nifty boon of XP. But more importantly, it exhibited one of the key mechanics of Vampyr's unique social system. Both of these were rewards in their own right.
Combat - Visceral, Bloody and Satisfying
Now that I've talked about the potatoes of Vampyr, let's get into the meat. Combat is visceral and wholly dependant upon your specific skillset.
As you quest, kill, and feed on NPCs you earn XP. How much you earn depends on how much you do of each, of course, and is spent on skill trees that raise specific abilities. How well you do depends on what combination of attacks you level up and maintain and the game allows you to respec at any time for a price.
I've seen lots of reviews say how bad Vampyr's combat is. At the start of the game, I'd agree with that wholeheartedly. But once I found a nice particular combo I had no trouble getting well into the endgame.
Before I tell you my tricks let's talk about how combat works. Players have health, stamina, and blood--the latter two are major resources. Stamina is pretty much like it is in Dark Souls where every strike and dodge takes away from the bar. Try to dodge too much or strike too often and you'll run out. Instead of rolling, though, Dr. Reid does a nifty mini-teleport shift in specific directions.
Knowing how to maintain and handle blood is the most valuable lesson you can learn in Vampyr. Blood is spent on various attacks like Blood Spear, but I only ever really use it for one thing: regenerating my health. Reid has a nifty ability that heals HP at the cost of blood, which effectively makes blood into a mana source.
I've found that combat hinges on how well you do at accumulating and spending blood. Reid can replenish blood by biting enemies in combat, but only when their shields are worn away. What's the quickest way to break down shields? Two-handers (at least in my experience) typically wreck enemy shields.
What's more is that the biting animation not only makes you invincible during the sequence but you also regen stamina. So you get a nice little break, get more blood to spend on attacks or potion-like spells, and regen your stamina to boot.
Better get used to biting.
Here's how I learned to snag an advantage over Vampyr's combat:
- Focusing on two-handed weapons to wear away shields
- Level up Autophagy to at least level 2, allowing you to spend blood to heal HP
- Speccing first in Big Thirst to gain more blood when biting
- Level up Fast Regeneration to gain more HP per bite
- Grab Blood Barrier to absorb a few hits
- Hard Biting is good for dealing extra damage during bites
- Blood Capacity to boost your overall blood
- Physical Prowess to raise stamina
- Body Condition to raise HP
- Abyss is good to hold enemies in place as you smack them with strong two-hander damage
Tip: Don't level up your two-hander too fast or you'll kill enemies before you break their shields, thus missing out on the critical biting animation.
In this way I was able to destroy higher level foes while fortifying Dr. Reid's abilities and boosting my weapons.
Speaking of which, players can upgrade each of their weapons throughout the game. If you go with a quicker, faster build that means you can boost both of your one-handers, or if you're like me you'll upgrade Joe's Barbed Cudgel to the max and shatter everything.
Upgrading materials can be found on dead bodies, in the game world, and bought from various merchants throughout London. Be sure not to feed on a merchant unless you're really sure you don't need their wares...but also remember that supplies and prices will change depending on how a district is doing (ie if its Healthy prices could be lower and supply could be boosted and vice-versa for Critical).
Finding the right mix of skills, passives, and weapon types is key to progressing in Vampyr. Once you find the right combo you won't even have to eat anyone...but that curiosity will always be there.
Dontnod has proven to be masters of their craft once again.
With Vampyr, the devs have created a truly unique experience that blends captivating themes across a somber, bloody stage interspersed with real human stories. There's something for everyone here--action combat for Soulsborne fanatics, skills and level-ups for RPG fans, a winding, deep story built for gamers who want to feel something, and finally a choice-driven district system that allows you to play god.
Vampyr gave me a sense of agency in a dark industrial world torn by death and mayhem. I felt like my choices mattered and that's not something that every game sets out to do.
While I didn't have fun at the start, the game redeemed itself step-by-step with its winding story and rather enjoyable social mechanics. The combat is also fun and challenging at the same time, and takes some adapting...but once you do gothic 1918 London is at your fingertips.
Vampyr has macabre style, a deft, almost feline grace, and is structured to tap the rich vein of bloody vampire lore from classic films and literature. But make no mistake: Vampyr leaves its mark on the mythos rather than wholly deriving from it.
Unique things I saw or did in Vampyr:
- Came across a zombie priest who ate human flesh
- Slain or embraced denizens appear as gravestones in the cemetery
- Explored an underground city of undead that reminded me of Nightbreed
- Uncovered a massacre plot of fire and brimstone
- Doomed Whitechapel with a poor decision
- Encountered a real vampire hunter
- Found a copy of Bram Stoker's Dracula in Lady Ashbury's mansion with a surprising autograph note
+ Atmospheric visuals instill a sense of dread and desperation
+ Challenging combat system
+ RPG progression and skills
+ Deep, winding story arc
+ Strong emphasis on choices and consequences
+ Unique, thought-provoking horror themes
+ Dynamic NPC social system that fuels gameplay
+ Great and memorable characters
+ Solid frame rates and performance
- Combat can be finicky
- Lock-on targeting is wonky at times
- Is meant for longer-term investment
The Bottom Line: Vampyr is a refreshingly rare game with a clever story and amazing in-depth social mechanics, but doesn't offer much long-term replayability.
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