We’re very used to games that give us choices, games that let us decide someone’s fate and games that allow us to shape our own experiences. Whether it’s Clem and Lee’s fate in The Walking Dead or wavering between being a peaceful or a violent activist in the recent Detroit: Become Human. Giving us the ability to tell our own stories is evolving at a rapid rate. Now enter Vampyr. Decisions in this game not only affect the game world and the ending you are left with, but they are also deeply seeded into the gameplay itself. There’s no difficulty setting. The game is as tough or easy as you want it to be and it’s your decisions and your conduct as Jonathan Reid, doctor and newly born vampire that will decide it.
Vampyr is an RPG from Dontnod Entertainment and Focus Home Interactive. After returning home from the frontline in France in 1918, Doctor Jonathan Reid finds a very different London waiting for him. Disease and pestilence have ravaged the city and just to top off Jonathan’s day, some bastard has gone and chewed on his neck and scarpered, leaving poor Doctor Reid alone, confused and desperate for either a sausage and egg McMuffin or some lovely warm and slippery blood. As McMuffins weren’t unfortunately invented in 1918, Jonathan must take a life to survive. For a Doctor who lives to save people, killing goes against everything he believes in. But there is much more at stake now than just his own immortality. Welcome to your new world, Doctor Reid.
Vampyr’s heart lies in Jonathan’s duty as a doctor. Even in death he cannot shed his Hippocratic Oath to heal and save. As a doctor at Pembroke Hospital, Jonathan must investigate the rapidly spreading plague and tend to the healthcare needs of London’s districts, but he also wishes to discover his maker. Who was he/she and why did they leave him alone and abandoned. Surely it’s like having a baby and then leaving it on the floor while you trot off to watch some telly. Seems a tad odd and you can see why poor Jonathan needs some well-deserved answers.
Johnathan’s investigations into the epidemic and his own vampiric condition are done via the main storyline, and boy what a great plot. It’s very well paced and very well written. Generally speaking, vampire storylines have all been done before, but Vampyr does a great job of carving out something that’s both intriguing and entertaining. I’ll be honest, I didn’t see any of it coming. It’s hard to avoid the tropes of this type of fiction but the plotline seems on the whole to duck the usual melodrama and cliché and instead achieves something with a lot more class. It’s a dark story and depending on how you choose to play the game and the decisions you make, it can feel a whole lot darker.
In addition to your main investigations there are around sixty citizens to get to know. Every person has a story, a background and quite often a need. Expect malpractice, affairs, murder, gang violence, PTSD and missing persons. You can investigate everyone. Or you can investigate no one. These people are the backbone of the game no matter how you play it. You can help these people and gain a little XP, but if you want a considerable amount more XP you’ll have to do more than help them. You’ll have to kill them.
You can kill pretty much anyone in the game aside from one or two story-centric characters. Your Mesmerise skill must match or be higher than the NPCs ability to resist it, and this is to stop you eating all the NPCs in one go and ruining the game for yourself. If your Mesmerise is high enough you can take them to a secluded spot and “embrace” them. Depending on the character, this can net you thousands of XP points. This is where the game’s difficulty setting comes into play. Combat can be tough, and we’ll get into that in a moment, but if you want to make things a little easier for yourself and if you want to develop all those lovely vampiric abilities and tear your enemies to pieces with a mere swish of your claws and a puff of black demonic smoke, you’ll need to level up. You need that XP and you’ll have to kill to get it.
You may think what’s the point in talking to people if you’re going to kill them. Well two reasons. Firstly, investigating them and taking on their quests improves their blood quality and gives you more XP. A little leg work could double your money, so to speak. Secondly, if you’re feeling guilty about taking lives you can investigate with a mind to taking out only the bad apples. Be warned, however, all this murder is not without consequence. Killing a person can have not only a detrimental effect on the people linked to your victim but it can also have catastrophic consequences on the district itself.
Each district has a sort of health meter, and it shows how stable or unstable that part of London is. The death of particular citizens can make that meter drop as can the health of each person. If your district drops below critical it will become Hostile. This effectively means that everyone dies and the area becomes filled with enemies that you’ll have to fight through to go anywhere. If you’re picking off the population and have your eye on a high XP doctor who needs Mesmerise Level 4 which you haven’t got yet and you turn the district Hostile, you’ll lose him and his XP before you can feed on him. So even if you’re playing a full on villain the game still forces you to think about your actions. Don’t cut your nose off to spite your punctured neck.
Of course keeping a district alive is not just a matter of keeping your sticky fangs to yourself. It’s a time of plague and sickness remember so it’s important to look after and treat the people for what ails them. A quick look at each district menu will alert you if any of your citizens are ill. There’s all sorts that could be wrong such as a headache, anaemia, bronchitis and quite a few other conditions. You’ll need to know how to cure these things and have the ingredients ready to craft the medicine at your crafting table. This is where collecting comes in. Aside from actual collectibles and ammunition you’ll need to be on the lookout for items such as opium and clove essence. These commodities are scarce and it forces you to be thorough in your search of every environment and dead body. I admit it does feel a bit weird to enter an old lady’s house and half-inch her codeine but, to hell with it, if you’re going to off her anyway she can’t take it with her, can she?
Crafting can be done in your hideouts along with upgrading your weapons and recycling your junk into handy components. Your hideout is crucial because in order to benefit from all your blood-soaked XP and evolve into a more powerful vampire, you need to rest. It’s here also that the game really makes you question your choices. When you rest and a night passes the districts change according to your potentially nefarious doings. You never quite know what’s going to happen and so if you’ve got another victim in mind, will they still be there the following night? If you’re playing the good doctor or you are hungry for good quality blood, you need to medicate those who are ill or they may get worse as you sleep the day away. This means you may need to delay that big confrontation until you’ve sorted a few things out first. Resting can change an entire district in just one night. Beware!
Talking of confrontations – combat. You’d be forgiven for assuming the combat would be of the normal hack, slash and block variety. Nope. Think more along the lines of a Dark Souls style setup. You have three bars. Health, stamina and blood. Health is pretty obvious. The stamina bar decreases with every attack and dodge and refills when you do neither of these things, giving you a duck in, swipe, retreat style of combat. Your blood is what allows you to use your immortal powers. Providing you have enough blood left in the bar you can use it to perform special moves such as a powerful claw swipe. You can also drain your own blood to refill some of your health. The only way to refill the bar is by biting your opponents, equipping a weapon that absorbs blood or sucking on rats. Yum yum.
It takes a little while to get used to the combat system but once you click that it’s all about management of the stamina and blood bars and you start to evolve some powerful moves, it becomes a lot of fun. You can also choose an Ultimate power, which can be delightfully devastating. I did suffer a glitch later in the game where my trigger buttons wouldn’t function for a few seconds. This happened just a handful of times but it lead to a slightly frustrating battle or two. Thank all the gods it didn’t occur during any boss battles. The named NPCs who function as mini-bosses, sub-bosses and mean mothersucker bosses can be pretty tough if your level is quite low. This is the whole point of the game. They will be tough if you’re not at a high level and to be at a high level you have to make an overall moral choice. Feed or be fed upon. Those citizens start to look a little tastier after your first boss experience.
The devs themselves have described their own game as AA rather than triple AAA. Facial animations do lack the details and movement that we’re used to seeing this gen, but on the whole the graphics are pretty gosh darn good. Character movement is smooth and realistic, and London itself is gloomy, dismal and perfectly in keeping with what you’d expect from that period in time. They’ve captured the decay and atmospherics beautifully. Loading times could use some work. You have a little wait between deaths which is just long enough to check Twitter. Unfortunately the game will also occasionally pause without warning. Poor Jonathan is frozen mid stride and a whirling symbol and a loading message will appear at the bottom of the screen. I didn’t like that at all. It happened more towards the end of the game but it was enough to break immersion frequently at that point.
While we’re on the subject of the not so good stuff (don’t worry, I don’t have a long list), I did experience a couple of glitches. For the sake of transparency, two glitches, which isn’t bad considering my thirty five hour playthrough. First a marker didn’t update when I progressed a quest and I subsequently spent two hours searching in the wrong spot. I admit it wouldn’t have happened if I’d had been paying more attention instead of wandering off after something intriguing in the distance. The second glitch was right near the end where I was told to find a particular character. He just wasn’t there. In hindsight I believe he was either killed by enemies or I accidentally killed him in a mad frenzy because something big and toothy came at me. Either way, it shouldn’t have occurred. Luckily after I rested at my hideout the area re-set itself and I found him immediately upon my return.
The game may be AA and that does occasionally show but certainly not with the voice acting. It’s AAA all the way. I could listen to Jonathan Reid all day and all night. He has a gorgeous voice, gentle tones, charismatic and the lines are delivered perfectly. Same goes for ‘the voice’ (no spoilers here). He has a beautifully old-fashioned quality and again it’s very smooth and charismatic. My greatest wish is to get an audio book with both men reading to me on an endless cycle. I shall put it with my imaginary Geralt audio book and play them on alternate nights. But seriously, they’ve outdone themselves in this area so bravo.
There are a handful of little glitches, the loading times are too long, and the graphics aren’t Horizon Zero Dawn standard, but the good in this game far outweighs any bad. The gameplay, the setting, the characters and evolving into the vampire you want to be are what makes this experience so good. Vampyr is undoubtedly a contender for my own personal favourite game of 2018.
A great story and a great concept, Vampyr is a lot of fun considering how dark it is. You have an overall moral choice whether to take lives and then specifically which lives to take, and these decisions have a direct impact on the gameplay. If you’re finding the combat too difficult, you must kill. Will you take this easier option? Will you get swallowed by your hunger for more and more power? Or will you take the harder road to keep your humanity intact and your people alive? Awesome, awesome, awesome.
S J Hollis Rating – 8/10
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