Off the back of their previous titles Remember Me and Life is Strange, Dontnod Entertainment offers their latest work with the dark and mysterious action RPG title entitled Vampyr. As a pop culture mainstay since Bram Stoker’s famous novel “Dracula,” vampires have enjoyed a slew of success this past decade with the book and film series Twilight, as well as on the small screen with TV shows such as The Vampire Diaries, and the Vampire Academy novels, which also spawned a film. In video games, however, vampires have mainly remained untouched, with some exceptions like the beloved 2004 cult release “Vampire: The Masquerade” – so it’s very refreshing to play something reasonably unique to the medium.
Vampyr places you in the role of a doctor turned newborn vampire Dr. Jonathan Reid, a blood transfusion specialist who is combating the spread of the Spanish flu in London during 1918. Initially, the game focuses on Dr Reid’s battle of morality between his new desire to fulfil his bloodlust and his Hippocratic oath as a physician. As the game progresses, however, you discover more about the origins of the epidemic and creation of vampires, as well as the dark secrets and intrigues of London’s citizens during this time of peril. Much to its credit, the story works in elements of romance, political intrigue with warring factions and more to offer a different narrative for fans of all different genre types and becomes enhanced with a bountiful collectibles offering which improves the lore of 1918 London.
As the tried and true formula of “choose your own adventure” type games, decision making is foremost in Vampyr, and many key events featuring Dr. Reid will affect the way the narrative shapes up as the story unwinds. It’s very apparent that despite having its unique flavouring, that the creative team at Dontnod also put a lot of time into researching vampiric mythology and historic London, which shines through in the Victorian/Gothic narrative backdrop they have created for Vampyr. The one major flaw that sticks out, however, is the narrative disconnect between the story and dialogue “social wheel” at times. Vampyr is not the first game to suffer this sort of problem (see: Bioware), and the limitations of this storytelling style become very apparent because the context becomes easily lost through simple text explanations. One decision I made during the game was not what I had thought I was doing and ruined the game for me somewhat as I considered restarting all over again after having already dropped 10+ hours into the playthrough.
While he’s not spending his time uncovering the dark mysteries of his creation and the spread of the epidemic, Dr. Reid is on the gothic streets of London eradicating threats to the boroughs one baddy at a time. While boss fights did offer some variety and change in combat style, I did find that the overall combat gameplay for Vampyr was threadbare and incredibly repetitive. By the end of my playthrough, I’d been actively avoiding enemies as much as possible to skip doing the same thing ONE MORE TIME. Perhaps the saving grace of this is the difficulty system, which is entirely based on your moral choices and whether or not to kill NPC citizens to increase your XP and gain free levels. It’s not something I’ve personally seen done before and is a great way to put the option of difficulty into your hands directly as opposed to an arbitrary choice. Combat was supplemented by a sprawling skill tree, which feels overcooked for a game that has an even split between roleplaying and action. During my playthrough, I’ve only used about half the skill tree to level up passives and a few actives which have been more than enough to get me through until endgame.
Working your way across London, Vampyr is a semi-open world which allows you to traverse some of London’s darkest and grittiest back alleys as well as its struggling boroughs. With a reasonably sprawling environment, I can’t help but feel Dontnod has been perhaps too ambitious with their scope on tackling the design of London. Despite playing on a PS4 Pro, I encountered many loading instances where the environment assets struggled to load and even in a few cases froze the game for 30+ seconds. Their design flaws are also exacerbated considerably by the lack of a fast travel system, especially in a game which requires you to backtrack across London perpetually throughout the game’s entirety. Especially given the management of borough’s health by administering medicine to sick citizens, this only highlighted how desperately a fast travel system is lacking. Overall, these types of player challenges are incredibly off-putting and affected my overall view of the game considerably. When the design of a game feels like it’s actively working against your enjoyment, what’s meant to be fun naturally turns into a chore and that’s not what video games are expected to be.
Despite being crafted well and creating an authentic feeling atmosphere, the graphics for Vampyr are nothing to write home about and didn’t leave me feeling awestruck with my surroundings or wanting to explore more of the world. Despite this, however, Vampyr is bolstered by a complimentary soundtrack which adds to the sombre and downtrodden tone of the game and features a tremendous collaborative effort by the voice acting cast headed by Anthony Howell as Dr. Jonathan Reid to bring life to the misery and woes of London’s inhabitants. Granted, even this is diminished by the lack of a spell check tool at Dontnod, as the game featured a high number of spelling mistakes and even different dialogue in the subtitles to what is said on-screen. While perhaps a small issue to some, in a game that already struggles with some core components it’s very much an “icing on the cake” scenario when it comes to being critical of its shortcomings.
While instituting a host of unique and exciting ideas, the problem is that Vampyr doesn’t offer you much more than that at its foundation. Performance issues instituted repetition, and minor mistakes make for a game that smacks of potential but never manages to stick the landing properly. A problem that seems endemic to the gaming industry are games that promise too much and often fall short of our expectations, and this is the case here. Vampyr is okay, and some will find enjoyment in playing it, but it’s far from the great game it could’ve been.