Vampyr is a series of contradictions, part by design and part, seemingly, by accident. Torn between healing and killing, combat and narrative, personal gain and sacrifice, Vampyr is a paradox from the start, and this contrast becomes both the game’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness.
The struggle begins when Doctor Jonathan Reid, a sophisticated doctor and member of London’s elite, awakens on a pile of corpses: the unburied victims of the 1918 Spanish Influenza. In the chaos of escaping these cramped, claustrophobic quarters, every sense on alert, Reid finds himself aware of the blood pulsing through the rats around him. When a human-shaped figure appears before him, heart pumping with vibrant red blood, Reid lunges and bites without a second thought—and in that moment, his true dilemma begins. Though Reid has dedicated his life to the study of medicine, saving lives in the Great War and sworn to do no harm, he finds himself a vampire, with an insatiable urge to hunt, drink, and kill.
Despite his condition, Reid is able to attain a position at a local hospital, assisting the many dying and desolate victims of the plague (and perhaps picking off one or two for his own needs). Vampires—or, as they prefer to call themselves, Ekons—aren’t quite as mythological in this world as they are in ours. Certain people are in the know, and vampires have their own social structures to navigate, with Ekons at the top and lesser forms of undead like Skals at the bottom. A band of vampire hunters known as the Guard of Priwen have taken up patrolling the streets, attacking any “leeches” that may come close.
It’s in this hospital, and in venturing into the safe zones of other districts, that Vampyr‘s greatest strength comes into play: a clever Catch-22 system set up to force players to choose between compassion and killing. To unlock more of his vampire powers and level up, Reid needs to gain experience, and far and away the fastest and easiest source of experience is the blood of the innocent civilians populating the town. The more blood he drinks, the more powerful he becomes. There’s a catch, however: the better Reid knows a citizen and the healthier they are, the sweeter their deaths become—and the more blood they can provide. Before killing a person, then, Reid must optimally spend time with that person, asking them about their lives, uncovering their secrets, curing their diseases, helping them with their goals by completing sidequests for them, and learning how they tie into the overall health of the district around them, making the ultimate decision to kill a difficult one. Killing people also has permanent consequences on the health of each district, and if the overall health of a zone ever dips too low, monsters begin roaming the streets and the game gets harder all around.
Players aren’t required to kill citizens, just as they aren’t required to save them. I managed to go my whole first playthrough without killing any innocents, since I wanted to see as much of the story as possible without cutting off any avenues of information. This revealed the second half of how the system is clever: since blood is directly tied to experience, it puts the difficulty of the combat directly into the hands of the player. On my no-kill playthrough, I was effectively on the hardest difficulty level and perpetually underleveled. Every time I died on my peaceful playthrough (which happened a lot, since towards the end I could get killed by a single enemy blow if not careful), prompts on the reloading screen taunted me, reminding me that the blood of civilians would always be available if only I would just give in and make the experience a little easier on myself. Dr. Reid’s restrained attitude in regards to blood reflected in my combat; with only a few abilities to choose from and a lower pool of resources, I had to be restrained and careful myself in how I approached fights.
Glut yourself on blood, however, and you’ll have access to all of Dr. Reid’s vampire powers. Combat offers plenty of options, if you gain enough experience to unlock them. A stamina meter lets Reid run and dodge with vampiric speed, while a blood meter acts as a mana of sorts for your vampire abilities. Stun an enemy in the middle of combat, and you’ll be able to leap at them and drink their blood. This blood can then be used in ultimate attacks, summoning shadows to crush your enemies, vicious claws that swipe at your foes and drain blood, a self-healing blood drain, abilities to clot your enemies’ veins and make them vulnerable to your attacks, and much more.
Reid also wields a variety of mundane weapons in combat, with one-handed swords and cudgels that take up stamina to attack, two-handed scythes and clubs, off-hand stunning staves and blood-siphoning knives, and a variety of low-ammo guns. Since enemies have different resistances—resisting your blood powers, shadow powers, melee damage, or ranged damage depending on the foe—you’ll have to use a mix of powers and weapons to succeed. Mundane weapons can be upgraded through scrap and metal parts you find around the world, or through purchasing parts through merchants (provided you didn’t kill the merchants on a bloody rampage, anyway).
It’s difficult to judge the quality of combat as a whole, since the modular difficulty of upgrading weapons and unlocking new abilities greatly changes the feel and flow of every fight. If you’re restricted in abilities and underleveled, the game becomes a series of harrowing, desperate fights against extremely bulky enemies that might as well be bullet sponges for all the damage you’re doing. Get too strong, though, and you’ll chew through enemies like tissue paper. Finding that sweet spot where combat provides a challenge but opens up enough options to be entertaining is a tricky balance.
However, the combat also opens up another can of worms, one that had me especially frustrated on my no-kill run: the narrative dissonance. While rescuing civilians from danger, creating cures for their wounds, and uncovering their life stories, there’s a sense that every life is precious. Even the lowest beggar, inflicted with sepsis and cursing life, has some inherent worth, and that’s reflected both in learning their stories and in each civilian being worth 1,000 to 5,000 experience points a pop. In the streets, however, many of the enemies that attack you are humans as well. Sure, they’ll shout “a leech!” and charge you with a gun or bayonet, but why are their lives so disposable and cheap just because they’re hostile? Some human enemies are even named and carry crosses or other unique weapons. What makes killing them suddenly morally okay? (And since I’m already killing them, why can’t I get more than 5 or 10 experience points worth of blood from them?) There’s no way to avoid killing these enemies, even on a run that awards the achievement for not killing any civilians, and it’s a jarring dissonance that’s present throughout the entire game.
Vampyr has a few other weaknesses as well. It’s no stranger to jank—some of the animations can be a little wonky when talking to NPCs, and more than once I got some strange camera angles when initiating conversation with one in an unusual spot. I often got some flickery lighting glitches whenever entering or leaving a hideout, locations scattered around the city where Dr. Reid can rest and craft and level up. At one point a combat dash left me stuck behind some crates in the road I couldn’t escape from without reloading the game. Of the many words I would use to describe Vampyr, “polished” is not one of them.
For all its flaws, though, I enjoyed Vampyr. It may have too much combat for fans of narrative games like Dontnod’s Life is Strange, and it may have too much time spent talking to NPCs for fans of action-oriented games, but as someone who enjoys both, I liked the mix. While it’s never too difficult to figure out the full story of an NPC—just make sure to talk to everyone—those stories spun a web of their own lives and dramas playing out in the claustrophobic, smoky, plague-ridden streets of London. Even through some of the game’s wonkiness and a few combat frustrations, I always pushed forward to see the conclusion of the story—the mystery surrounding Dr. Reid’s creator, the Spanish Influenza, the machinations of the vampires, and the secrets of the blood that ties them all. I never wanted to stop knowing how it all ended.
Vampyr walks a fine line between narrative storytelling and action-oriented combat, trying to appeal to fans of both genres and mostly succeeding. Though the game lacks polish in many areas, it stars a clever morality system that entices players towards both good and evil deeds, a well-rounded web of background NPCs, and an intriguing overall narrative of an undead doctor investigating the spread of the Spanish Influenza, making Vampyr a treat for any vampire fan.
Focus Home Interactive
M – Mature
|Vampyr is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Primary version played was for PC. Code/hardware was provided by Focus Home Interactive for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Emma’s early gaming was mostly done in secret, as the only gamer in a family of normal people. She still retains skills from this dark period in her life, such as the ability to teleport instantly across the house away from the computer, and holds a gold medal in the Olympic sport of “Hide the Gameboy.” Sorry, Mom, now you know.