Vampyr review

3 months ago by Steven T. Wright

A cult RPG brimming with so many great ideas that it can’t help but fumble a few.

This vile landlord is here to tempt me, but I won’t give in.

I was skulking around the corpse-strewn streets of Vampyr’s gas-lit London - victims of the very real Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918, here accompanied by a very fictional strain of vampirism that sometimes whiplashes the dead back into a state of terrible unlife - when I heard the sub-vamp Skals tearing at his flesh in a nearby tenement. Ever the altruist, I sprinted up through the labyrinth with my supernatural speed and quickly dispatched the slavering spawn with ease, calling forth vampiric flourishes like shadow bombs and blood spears to save the day.

This didn’t seem to bother the slumlord. Instead, he went off on a rant about how the “dirty migrants” who ambushed him never bother to pay rent. For a heated moment, I considered a distinct possibility: charming him with my predatorial glamor, taking him out back behind the collapsed building, and taking a bite out of his neck for some much-needed experience points.

But the impulse ebbed away, and I left him in the shambles of his own property, cold, alone, but very much alive.

The marrow of a true RPG lies in the choices that you make, and the consequences that follow. By this measure, Dontnod’s Vampyr is an uncommonly thoughtful role-playing game, one that asks you to carefully consider every experience point you spend, every victim you cure, every life you take. It’s an enticing contract, to be sure, but like many “choice-and-consequence” games, by the time the credits roll, it’s hard not to feel that the game’s ambition has quietly outpaced its budget, its combat engine, and even the contours of its own script. But even as the contract lies in ashes at your feet, the idea of it remains so compelling that it’s hard to resist the urge to rev up a new game, to see how a different approach might have changed things, however superficially.

The marrow of a true RPG lies in the choices that you make, and the consequences that follow.

Much of the game’s core conflict stems from its ingenious premise: you find yourself in the heavy tweeds of Dr. Jonathan Reid, an esteemed surgeon-turned-vampire caught between his Hippocratic oath and his more primal urges. Unlike many games that asks players to debase themselves in exchange for incredible powers - such as Bioshock, which infamously gives you almost as much magic DNA-juice if you choose to save the orphans rather than, well, harvesting them - for my money, Vampyr actually walks the walk. The fastest way to become a souped-up megavamp is by learning the secrets of the most vulnerable “Citizens” of each of the game’s four districts and then summarily “embracing” them for a massive boost of XP. Early in the game, I decided to try my best to staunch the suffering of innocents, instead relying on the piddly amounts of experience I could wring out from sidequests or killing hordes of the Skals and vampire hunters which rove through the night, searching for prey. Killing humans in self-defense doesn’t seem to bother Jonathan, but only innocents have the magical XP-boosted blood - go figure.

While this contrivance is never sufficiently explained, I’ll hazard a more commercial explanation: while the game’s premise doesn’t necessarily call for it, this is an action-RPG, emphasis on the action. For such a text-heavy game, Vampyr contains a surprising amount of hand-to-hand fighting, with every corridor between districts featuring at least a handful of encounters which rarely demand more of Jonathan than simply mashing the two attack buttons until the interlopers fall to the ground. While the combat engine itself might resemble the rhythmic give-and-take of the Arkham series at first blush, over time, it starts to take on a grim flavor all its own, relying more on sharp tactics and proper gear than deft dodging or perfect spacing. Since you can only handle four vampiric boons at a time - along with one screen-clearing “ultimate” which takes forever-and-a-day to recharge - Vampyr rewards digging deep into particular skills and spending the rest to boost your base stats, rather than buying them all and trying to figure out the perfect spread for each of the game’s many bosses.

While I found the fisticuffs quite compelling at times - especially some of the late boss fights, which finally put my developed character through his paces, forcing me to face the consequences of my bloodlessness - the frequency of random encounters began to try my patience by the halfway point. Since the vamps and scamps on offer only cough up a modicum of XP when they expire, I traded in my vampiric claws for a shadow-step ability that let me sneak past some of the constant tedium, and I never looked back.

Though these two systems lay a durable framework for a great RPG, as the game progressed, I found myself questioning the workmanship of the balustrades and curlicues that Dontnod affixed to the central conceit of “power vs. will.” Over time, I began to get the sense that I was playing two entirely different vampire games that had been grafted together in a grisly medical procedure straight out of the game’s dark milieu. In one game, I was Dr. Jonathan Reid, a good doctor who bucked the yoke of his vampiric curse to cure the sick and maintain order in an otherwise doomed city, resorting to violence only in self-defense. In the other, I was Dr. Jonathan Reid, a renowned physician-turned-vigilante vampire, prowling into the heart of the city to slay Skals and hunt hunters, aching to dole out vengeance to the vampire who created me.

The former game appeals to me far more, yet it represents all of the game’s optional elements. It's the latter game, which relies on a jumble of genre cliches and leverages none of its unique mechanics, that Vampyr regards as its vital “main quest.” In this way, the game constantly undermines its own best elements, prostrating itself before what it views as the demands of a mass-market audience: copious combat, a dark anti-hero, and a morass of subterranean conspiracies. Vampyr’s main story isn’t incompetent - rather, it’s a perfectly-acceptable bit of shadowy intrigue, played out through three enigmatic factions - but it fails to go anywhere that fans of bloodsuckers and nightcrawlers haven’t been many, many times before.

For the most part, these two halves of the game are sealed off from each other; for example, I never felt that my adherence to nonviolence was reflected in my conversations with other vamps, and my antagonists still accused me of being falling prey to the beast within, even as I endeavored to keep every district hearty and hale. (In order to heal sick Citizens, you can’t merely select from a list - instead, you must approach each one individually with the cure in hand, which can take upwards of a half-hour for every district in the game. In my mind, a patch or mod to make the process less needlessly laborious would significantly improve Vampyr.)

Vampyr is a curse worth taking on. Just don't be surprised if it comes with a cost.

Ultimately, Jonathan’s journey turns far more heavily on the handful of choices you render in the game’s central tunnel of plot and incident, which made my steadfast devotion to a no-kill playstyle across my 30-hour jaunt feel rather pointless. Still, it was the unexplained outcomes that really shook my faith in the game: after a fateful decision regarding a character’s fate, one of my districts fell from ‘Healthy’ status to the unsalvageable ‘Hostile’ in just one night, even though such a consequence didn’t particularly follow from my choice. Vampyr gives you so little feedback on how your decisions actually affect the metagame that I’m still not sure if the collapse of the Docks was a result of my decision or just a particularly nasty bug, and because of the game’s slavish adherence to a single save file - a devastating design decision if there ever was one, especially in a game that occasionally breaks itself - it’s impossible for me to know for sure without playing it all over again.

At its core, Vampyr is exactly what most players will expect: a cult RPG brimming with so many great ideas that it can’t help but fumble a few. Like fellow genre alum Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, Dontnod’s love letter to the likes of Stoker and Murnau is probably at its best when outfitted with a number of mods or patches that’ll emerge in the coming months to sand down some of its more baffling design decisions and inconsistencies. Still, for those willing to wade through some of the jank and muck to experience a truly one-of-a-kind RPG, Vampyr is a curse worth taking on. Just don’t be surprised if it comes with a cost.