The second decade of the 20th Century was a rather tragic era. The First World War and the Spanish flu took the world by storm and mowed down countless victims. At the same time a deadlier, older evil was plaguing the streets of London: vampirism. Or at least that’s what tells us the alternate history on which Vampyr is based.
Vampyr is an action-adventure game with light RPG elements from Life is Strange‘s developers Dontnod Entertainment.
London, 1918. Jonathan Reid has just returned from the French front. He’s a brilliant doctor, specialized in blood transfusions. Or he was to be precise. In fact, his body lies in a mass grave together with dozens of other corpses. To his own disbelief, he’s unexpectedly alive but turned into a vampire. The situation is dire for our protagonist. Vampire hunters hound him. His bloodthirst is unquenchable. However, he finds support in the mysterious doctor Swansea, who offers him shelter in Pembroke Hospital in exchange for his medical prowess. The game begins with Jonathan trying to uncover the truth behind his transformation as well as the mysterious and bloody events that haunt London.
Putting the intriguing plot aside, the game sports a colorful and interesting cast of characters. A disfigured soldier finds comfort in the morbid attention that a crazy woman, who believes to be a vampire nonetheless, gives him. An enigmatic mute girl roams the dangerous Whitechapel attending to flowers and unfazed by the tragic events surrounding her. And so on. During their exploration of London, players will meet and interact with many citizens, doctors, delinquents, nobles, and paupers. Each one has their own story to tell. Getting to know them slowly during the course of the story is probably the best part of the game. Other than directly speaking to them, it’s even possible to overhear the conversations held between multiple people. This gives a welcome note of realism to the characters.
The game is based on the concept that each action holds consequences. Therefore it uses an autosave function and ‘manual save’ isn’t available. Many gameplay aspects follow this trend.
The game’s adventure roots manifest themselves in in-game dialogues. The players can choose between numerous questions to start a conversation with. Each one can prompt another set of choices and so on, till the conversation comes to an alt. Some choices aren’t available from the start, but they necessitate Hints. The player can obtain them from talking with other people close to them or by completing side quests and reading documents pertaining to them. It’s a good system that prevents the player from getting too much information at once and encourages investigation and exploration.
Characters’ reactions to certain dialogue options are often unpredictable. Upsetting them can prevent the player from obtaining any more hints or quests. That wouldn’t be a problem if Jonathan’s words would match what is written on-screen, too bad that it isn’t the case. For example, the player might choose an apparently gentle and sympathetic response to have Jonathan burst out in anger to the poor person in front of him. While characters’ unpredictability is good since it adds more personality to dialogues, the same cannot be said for our protagonist’s reactions that only generate unwanted frustration.
Since Jonathan is a vampire, he can use his supernatural powers to feed on unassuming citizens. First of all, he will have to mesmerize them, i.e. take control of their mind, to bring them to a secluded space. Each character has a specific Mesmerizing Level under which Jonathan cannot hypnotize them. This stat cannot be raised in a traditional way, but it increases during the course of the game’s story. Once Jonathan kills someone by drinking their blood, he will receive a significant experience boost and the items they were holding. Some of these objects cannot be obtained in any other way. He will also read their mind and gain additional information concerning their backgrounds.
Embracing a character represents a moral dilemma for the player since they might have grown fond of them if they followed close their story. From a gameplay standpoint, while it’s good to power up Jonathan, it also causes a significant drop in the quality of that District’s health and can prevent the player from completing future quests. Deciding to follow a more pacifist approach has a really different outcome on the game compared to killing everyone. In this regard, the game gives a lot of freedom to the players.
Jonathan can level up by resting on a bed if he has accumulated enough experience. Players can gain experience by Embracing or curing character, completing side and main quests or defeating enemies. Jonathan has many abilities to unlock. Some of them are passive quirks like increasing stamina or health, while others are defensive or offensive abilities. Each ability has experience requirements to unlock and the players must satisfy both this and the minimum level associated with it.
Finally accumulating the experience necessary to get that wanted ability or power up it is extremely satisfying, especially if the player doesn’t feed on citizens. Even with the low experience at his disposal, being underleveled doesn’t represent a great issue. Moreover, it’s in regard to character customization that the game’s choices’ ineluctability isn’t considered. It is, in fact, possible to reassign experience anytime to try out different builds.
London is a pretty big city and so it was in 1918. Rendering it in its entirety would have been an arduous task. Therefore, the game lets us explore only four districts. Each zone has its own different characteristics and situation, there’s the relatively pacific Pembroke district where it’s located the hospital of the same name or Whitechapel, a place where the flu has proliferated and so did vampires. To orientate themselves players can use the directional bar at the top of the screen. There’s also a detailed map, accessible through the menu. Jonathan can use his vampiric senses to better investigate places. When players activate them the screen will turn to a monochrome black and white, with only blood highlighted in a bright red color. It’s also easier to recognize characters and enemies even on the distance.
During exploration, Jonathan can find hideouts, safe spaces where he can rest and craft items. It’s also possible to unlock shortcuts to cut traversing time. They mostly consist of gates that can be unlocked only from a specific side. Jonathan can also jump to reach higher places, in order to avoid enemies or reach hideouts. However, this isn’t an action the player can make whenever they want but only when prompted by the game. That’s a shame because more verticality could have improved exploration.
Traversing London is probably the most frustrating part of the game: there isn’t a great variety in visuals nor in level design, therefore it’s easy for the player to get lost. Since there is a superabundance of enemies, dealing with them is an annoying activity, especially if the player chose a more pacifist approach. The compass doesn’t show which direction Jonathan faces but only the relative position of the next quest, so it’s easy for the player to get stuck near an important plot-related point without finding its exact location.
The tedious navigation isn’t helped by a handful of technical problems: there’s always the chance that the marker might disappear from the directional bar, forcing the player to look even more frequently at the map, interrupting the flow of the game. This problem usually doesn’t fix itself, but it’s necessary to reboot the game every time it presents to not suffer from it.
A GOOD DOCTOR
Being a doctor, Jonathan has to keep an eye on his fellow Londoners’ health. The game’s four districts have different states attached to them: they range from the healthiest, sanitized, to the worst, called Hostile, where most citizens are dead or in critical condition and dangerous enemies roam around the map. Citizens can, in fact, fall victim to various illnesses: they range from a simple cold or headache to more serious maladies like pneumonia or sepsis. It will be Jonathan’s duty to cure them.
When engaging an NPC it’s possible to check their health status. If an NPC is sick, the protagonist can give them a fitting medicine for their illness. Each time Jonathan rests on the bed, the districts’ status will change: if he cured a sufficient number of citizens, it will go up, but if he neglected them, more people might fall ill while the sick might have their condition worsened. Characters’ death will worsen districts’ health too.
While medically attending to citizens will seem like an interesting and immersive activity at first, with the course of the game the player might grow tired of it. First of all, some medicines are extremely expensive to concoct and require a great number of sources to be crafted. In the initial stages, there’s only the need the cure a few doctors or patients from fatigue. When the game opens up the player will be forced to make rounds in the game’s districts to cure everyone before more serious and therefore expensive illnesses have to be dealt with. The player who wants to keep every district healthy therefore will feel pressured to rest as seldom as possible, unless they want to roam around engaging in this monotonous activity over and over.
Jonathan can craft items on workbenches found at the hospital and in each hideout. Crafting involves both improving weapons found during the game and concocting medicines. There’s plenty of materials to gather during exploration, from enemies or to buy from various vendors. Farming items would be a boring and frustrating chore if not for recycling. Some items the player finds can be torn apart to get. For example, they can get springs and metal from a clock or aluminum scraps from pillboxes.
London’s streets and hallways are an extremely dangerous environment. During the game, Jonathan will have to fight against a wide variety of enemies, like vampire hunters, feral undead called Skals, werebeasts and hostile vampires. Combat is another important aspect of the game. From a technical standpoint combat isn’t particularly complex. Jonathan can attack, dodge or use an ability and there’s a lock-on function. He can use a one-handed weapon like swords, saws, axes together with an offhanded one, which is a weaker weapon with special effects like stunning or leeching blood from the enemies. Two-handed weapons are usually too slow and impractical. It’s also possible to equip ranged ones like pistols and shotguns.
While battling the player has to keep in mind three stats: Health, Stamina and Blood.
- Health replenishes automatically, but slowly. If enemies use particularly strong attacks Jonathan will receive what is called Severe Damage, his Health is reduced permanently unless he uses an ability or item to counter it.
- Stamina is another important stat. Attacking, dodging and running all consume stamina and when its bar is empty the player won’t be able to react in an optimal way to enemies’ actions. It’s easy to accumulate high damage when deprived of stamina and this could lead to a cheap game over.
- Blood is necessary for using some abilities and can be sucked from enemies. Since a well-alerted foe won’t surely let Jonathan get blood from them, it’s necessary to stun them before. Each enemy has a Stun Bar that can be depleted by using specific weapons. Once it depletes, the enemy will stall for a few seconds and that’s when it’s possible to bite them. This represents a nice diversion from the usual mana gauge that either need time or item to be filled up again.
Combat against simple mobs ranges from downright trivial to a frustrating nightmare depending on the enemies’ numbers. A single enemy is incredibly weak and can be killed almost immediately. On the other hand, the more the enemies the more it’s easy to get killed without any chance to strike back at them. Boss battles are instead extremely satisfying. They’re difficult enough that the player has to stay on their toes to best them, but there aren’t many instances in which they feel cheap.
Players can choose between 3 difficulty modes before starting the game: Story, Normal and Hard. The story mode is for people who want to simply enjoy the plot and can accommodate a casual playstyle. It’s necessary to keep in mind that the game becomes trivially easy the more the player progresses. Normal, as the name says, is the most balanced mode that makes playing a pacifist run extremely satisfying. Hard, on the other hand, is extremely unbalanced and will require a more aggressive playstyle and embracing character will become almost necessary. Game Over isn’t overly punitive since the game resumes just before the fight in which Jonathan was killed. However, each consumed item disappears forever and has to be restocked.
There is an inversion of difficulty towards the endgame. Players who spared everyone will have to fight an almost trivial final boss. On the other hand, if the player decided to feed off of every character, they will have a hard time beating it. In this case, grinding will become overly difficult since with no characters to cure the only source of experience is represented by killing random enemies that do not give much experience. Also, good luck with restocking the lost items.
The game’s art style is a realistic one. The detailed character models manage to stay varied and recognizable without appearing out of place. Its atmosphere is top-notch: London’s streets are gritty, disseminated of corpses, propaganda posters, and health concern notices. Houses have their furniture scattered around and destroyed, a sign that scavengers made their way through them. Screaming people, as well as babies wailing, can be heard in certain parts of the town. Everything reminds of the warring period and the epidemic the city was facing. Even the soundtrack contributes to this, thanks to the dark, dissonant melodies and choirs.
Voice acting is expressive but never over the top. Too bad that same cannot be said for the way characters are animated during dialogues. Be it a mournful and desperate dialogue or a violent altercation, they will look at Jonathan sporting the same, dull expression. It’s a shame for a game so much focused on character interaction and ruins immersion.
The game’s length varies on how the player decides to tackle it. An embracing playthrough will last around 10 hours or even less, while a more pacifist approach ranges from around 15 hours to around 30 for completionists.
There’s no new game+ and after the credits rolls, there’s no possibility to return to London to finish untackled business. The only way to experience the game again is to start a new save from scratch.
While people who killed everyone on sight might want to play through it again to see what they missed, there might not be such a need for completionists. Unless they really liked the game, that is. While this might sound annoying, it’s stated in-game in a clear way so there isn’t any way to accidentally proceed past the point of no return. Moreover, it resonates well with the whole concept of irremediable decisions that is the title’s leitmotif.
Vampyr‘s strong points are without character interaction and worldbuilding. If the player keeps that in mind while playing and acts accordingly will be in for a pleasant experience. Combat isn’t particularly innovative or inspired but it gets the job done. It might be dull or frustrating at times but can even donate some satisfying moments. However, a monotonous exploration and dubious design choices, other than uncountable technical glitches, drag the game down and prevent it from achieving excellence.
Despite its shortcomings, Vampyr isn’t a bad game by any means and can surely entertain a wide range of players.
Final Rating: 8/10.