I’ve played Vampyr on and off for a solid week and so far I’m enjoying myself immensely. Trouble is, I just can’t bring myself to murder anyone.
Vampyr is a game where you play as a World War I-era British surgeon who is suddenly turned into a vampire, forced to hunt among the denizens of London amid an historic and deadly outbreak of the flu. Death is everywhere, with bodies literally laying out and rotting in the streets. Players are told repeatedly that they need to add to the death toll, committing murder in order to increase in power. But, so far, I’m getting by without.
It’s not like I haven’t killed anyone, of course.
Throughout the first third of Vampyr I’ve eviscerated dozens of rookie vampire hunters and mutilated enough slavering, zombie-like scavengers to fill a double-decker bus. But, as far as the important people go — the ones you can actually have a conversation with — I just can’t seem to pull the trigger. And the game seems alright with that.
It’s frankly unbelievable. The game is encouraging me to commit murder left and right, but so far it’s refusing to punish me for my lack of bloodlust. Instead, it feels like the developers at Dontnod Entertainment, the makers of the Life is Strange series, have filled the narrow streets of period London with plenty of narrative opportunities to stay my hand. Even minor quests and errands have provided me with enough experience to muddle through.
And the truth is that I’d be happy to go on a killing spree. It’s just that everyone is so damned interesting that I can’t bring myself to do the deed. If they’re dead then I can’t talk to them anymore, and their part in the overall narrative of the game is lost.
I’ve spent most of the early game in a base of operations called Pembroke Hospital. While I’ve ventured out into the city itself, I’m nearly 20 hours in and there are still unfinished storylines running around outside my office. There’s the Indian pawnbroker who runs the makeshift morgue and claims to be an underemployed doctor; the Romanian nurse with ulterior motives; and the aging, overworked doctor with actual blood on his hands. London might not miss them, but I’m emotionally invested in them and want to learn everything I can about them.
So, for now at least, I’m forced to keep them alive rather than lead them into the linen closet and drain their blood. Whether or not I’ll pay in the end for suffering so many mortals to live is another story entirely.
Vampyr is very much a bifurcated experience. At times it feels like playing two completely different games, one filled with conversational mini-games and the other with close quarters combat.
I’ve spent the vast majority of my time having lengthy conversations with the people of London. As you progress through the game, new regions of the city open up, and job one is simply roaming around finding everyone who lives there in order to check them off your list. Everything is extremely well voice-acted, in my opinion comparable with the very best work from BioWare’s Mass Effect and Dragon Age series.
Structurally, however, what you say has very little impact on how NPCs react. The game is all about completing tasks, both large and small, in order to open up new parts of the dialogue tree. Using the word “tree” here is generous. There’s very little branching going on and every option seems to bring conversations around to the same small set of possible conclusions.
The storyline wants alternately to be a mystery and a police procedural. In reality, it plays out more like a scavenger hunt. I spent a lot of time exploring the map, getting my passport stamped in all the right places and opening up as many containers as I could find in order to unlock more dialogue options. Simply finding people to talk to is part of the gameplay. The majority of new encounters happen on the street, but you’ll also discover NPCs inside dungeons or behind locked doors. Simply gaining access to the areas where characters are hanging out waiting for you is part of the fun.
In that regard, the game feels decidedly retro. It also feels a bit unpolished, with plenty of graphical and physics bugs to gape at.
The thematic mechanics themselves feel unfinished as well. Take the conceit of the main character’s “vampiric vision.” Once toggled on, it allows you to detect blood trails on the walls and ground. That’s handy for tracking down bodies and the like, but you’ll also use it to reveal opportunities to use your character’s enhanced ability to amplify sight and sound. This is also known as triggering a cutscene, it’s just up to players to find the right spot to stand in.
Vampyr is very linear. A side effect of that is the game doesn’t always show you clearly enough where it wants you to go next. I spent entirely too much time using my vampiric vision to see through walls into the part of the level I desperately needed to explore. I could even detect the characters that I needed to talk to in order to advance the plot, but I was completely unsure of how to unlock the doors that barred my path. That is despite being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, an ability which is limited to discrete locations scattered around the map.
Combat is fun, in part because it’s extremely low risk. Vampyr takes its cues from the Dark Souls series and from Dishonored. Your vampire skills allow you to dart around during battles, making feints and attacks while dodging the same. If you die there’s not much lost aside from your consumables, like ammunition and healing potions. There’s a mix of melee and ranged weapons, along with fairly powerful skills that allow you to spend blood to do damage, stun enemies and heal yourself. But hit the buttons enough and in the right order, and there’s not much challenge to it.
Killing your adversaries opens up parts of the map and stops new baddies from spawning in, but dungeons repopulate once you leave. Luckily, the game does a good job of telegraphing when you need to stock up on potions and modify your weapons before tackling a difficult encounter. You can also respec your character from scratch and virtually at will, removing all of your experience points and rebuilding your abilities from the ground up. Even without murdering any of the named characters to gain levels, it feels like there’s always enough experience to be earned from completing quests.
But then there’s the jank that I mentioned above.
Conversation trees aren’t at all tight, with many redundancies throughout. While characters are interesting in and of themselves, the interactions are not. Talking to people feels more like ticking items off a list than actually having a back-and-forth conversation. Also, it seems like the game is a bit poorly paced. I was well into my 12th hour with the game when the main character asked earnestly, “Am I a vampire?” By that point I had been dissipating into a vaporous mist and lashing out with supernatural claws for an in-game week, eating rats in my spare time to stave off the shakes. Everybody knew I was a vampire except the voice actor, it seemed.
Nevertheless, it’s Vampyr’s NPCs that keep me coming back. To highlight any one of them in detail would amount to major spoilers, so you’ll have to trust me that they’re worth the trouble. So far I’m getting less of the sexy vampire vibe that was part and parcel to Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines and more of the slowly simmering, painfully polite class-based warfare portrayed in the first few seasons of Downton Abbey.
The easy way out for Dontnod would have been to take the most time-worn tropes from dime store horror novels, season to taste with period melodrama and serve it all up for players to enjoy. Vampyr reaches for more, and I’m very interested to see if the finale does it all justice — and to discover who I’ll be forced to kill off in order to be powerful enough to see the game through.