Rare is the game that you can see straining to fill its own shoes in front of you. Seldom seen is the experience where after an IMMACULATE introductory sequence, bout of world-setting and appropriate laying of the thematic table, it all falls apart.
Such is the case with Dontnod’s Vampyr - one hell of am ambitious action-RPG that sees them take all the narrative and storytelling lessons learned from Life is Strange, before applying them to a now industry-standard over-shoulder combat model. It’s a huge gamble for the studio being their forté is dialogue-driven adventure games and quick-time events, and this proves to – eventually - be the game’s undoing.
Back to that phenomenal opeinng, though. You play Doctor Jonathan Reid, an aristocratic, newly-born vampire out to avenge the death of his sister and find his “Maker”. The former of which he wrongly slaughtered when succumbing to the visual and audial sense-robbing blood thirst – something that right off the bat, shows you Dontnod aren’t afraid to get DARK - and the latter he can barely remember having an encounter with.
It’s a great setup that serves you some personal, emotional stakes right off the bat, and as a former leader in blood transfusion, Reid now finds himself ironically/poetically transformed into a figure of the night, skilled both with melee weapons and firearms, yet in need of a constant claret cocktail if he wants to maintain a solid complexion.
This personal struggle is set against the backdrop of 1918 London, England – a city ravaged by the Spanish Flu, as it was in real life. Bodies are piled up and line the streets, citizens are seldom seen but talk of everything from maintaining a strong work ethic to ruminating on the idea that entire families could’ve perished in the time it took to speak a sentence.
Truly, the tone-setting and mist-caked atmosphere is perfect, ripe for a vampiric underbelly of bottom feeders and oligarchal overlords alike to thrive, feasting on corpses and the indisposed.
Right here is where Vampyr plays one of its finest tricks. As the most direct parallel to Life is Strange and Dontnod’s mastery of branching storylines, the open world is split up into four main districts, each with a “Leader” and comprising a host of NPCs.
Every NPC has an assigned XP value, and chowing down on a neck will bank all experience built up to that point through side-quests and general communal standing. Curing illnesses and manipulating social circles will increase peoples’ “worth” before you feast, creating an element of micromanagement - like you’re actively farming the juiciest humans for a greater purpose somewhere down the line.
Little nods to established vampire fiction like seeking permission to enter a house or being able to convince someone to speak the truth by changing your voice are present and correct too - not to mention the option to chew on a wayward rat if you want a blood top-up in between eating the locals. The whole feature is pretty ace on paper, and with each district having a meter that represents general pestilence and wellbeing, you’d best get to crafting cures and playing the good doctor if you want everyone to make it through.
How annoying then, when the game’s proclamations of "an entire district feeling the repercussions of your actions” amounts to maybe an NPC remarking someone has gone missing, a newspaper clipping describing the death of a powerful figure, or a boss chastising you for slaying a person they knew.
Vampyr boasts four different endings outside of its plot-related cutscene beats, but aside from a “no killing” one, I can’t say I felt my ending was particularly reflective of who I chose to take out along the way.
Speaking of killing, all XP is for combat and character progression, and it’s here where Vampyr stumbles. The former interactions with NPCs are already delivered in a very basic, “rotate the camera while two opposing characters talk” setup, but combat boils down to two attack buttons (one of which can become a ranged weapon blast), a dodge, five special moves and… that’s it.
At the outset, when you first look upon Jonathan’s entire swathe of abilities and marvel at the idea of boiling someone’s blood so they explode, it sounds incredible. Then you realise every animation has a strange hurriedness to it – rather like the many other Dark Souls detractors have in common. Titles like The Surge and The Technomancer attempted to mimic Bloodborne’s faster pace, but lost the calculations and methodological weight necessary for speedier combat to truly click. Look to Nioh as the one and only game that ever managed to pull this off outside of FromSoftware’s walls.
This sensation of initial excitement and disappointment thereafter becomes indicative of Vampyr overall.
Once you’ve had answers to the game’s biggest opening mysteries – which sadly come way too soon and are way too unsatisfying – it devolves into what feels like a never-ending slog of boss encounters, compounding the micromanagement and now-threadbare narrative pull into a very displeasing back half. Relying on awkward splash damage radiuses, poison damage and environmental hazards to bring you down, immediately you see the progression system for what it is: Manufactured busywork.
Each new boss will take your health down in two swipes, so off you go to farm some XP through combat or taking a life – just to extend your health bar a tad or ensure a retaliatory strike will hit harder. It comes down to the problem every level-based open-world title does:
If the enemy level is higher, damage dealt is far greater no matter the attack, devolving progression into a battle of numeracies, rather than picking the right move or approach for the job.
It truly comes to something sour when you’re weighing up “+10% damage” vs. “-5 seconds recharge”, as it doesn’t help that each ability has a sub-strand of nodes, identical save for the forced percentage differences, all of which need to be unlocked before you’ve fully acquired the perk in question.
It is quintessential, that in a game where positioning is paramount and attacks/power-ups are chosen to really make you consider your approach, that everything feel fair on the other end. Too many of Vampyr’s bosses and larger enemy encounters feel like they’re straining the already twitchy combat model until it breaks, and none of this is helped by load times that reach close to a minute before you can try again.
Factor in a wheel-spinning plot that yes, is aided by ties to real-world figureheads being outed as vampires, and you have something that should be so easy to love and champion, falling apart the more you keep playing.
Ultimately, Vampyr is utterly phenomenal in its opening and initial setup. Reid is a brilliant protagonist; confident, eloquent, reminding me of Legacy of Kain’s Raziel or Kain himself in many instances if you decide to feast on the populace and play the villain. It’s a competent and admirable game, but you can't escape the fact that Dontnod wind up one HELL of a promising throw, only to miss their target.
More than recommendable once it’s dropped in price – and especially if you adore vampires and vampiric lore – but there’s little worth rushing out for right now.