Vampyr
Review

Vampyr Review — A Stake to the Heart

The vampire is one of the most recognisable and enduring of mythical monsters, more relatable and terrifying than either the werewolf or zombie because of its relatability and sentience. Since at least the late 18th century, the creature has been a staple of Western fiction, with its contemporary portrayals a far cry from its horror roots. Fiction has massaged and softened the beasts over time, emphasising their sentience to the point that, in some instances, they are distinguishable from humans only thanks to their stereotypical strengths and weaknesses. Dontnod Entertainment’s Vampyr follows in this latter mould, casting players as a sympathetic vampire, yet struggles to create a cohesive identity in either gameplay or narrative.

In the opening moments of the game, Doctor Jonathan Reid wakens with no memory of his past and an insatiable thirst for blood. With his rational mind overrun by animal instincts, he attacks the first human he comes across—his sister, Mary. Returned to his senses, but none the wiser about his new nature as a creature of the night, he is overcome by remorse and pledges to take revenge upon the being that has irrevocably altered his life. The premise of a protagonist being galvanised into action through revenge is tired, and Dontnod fails to enliven it with a true sense of justified rage. Jonathan is too much the scientist to be consumed with emotion for long, so the righteous anger he expresses at key moments feels disingenuous and out of character; more convincing (and thankfully more numerous) are the quiet moments wherein he analyses the world around him, prodding the citizens of London for information about their compatriots or the city at large. As players make progress toward Jonathan’s vengeance, they are also privy to tales from the frontlines of medicine that sought to halt the Spanish Flu epidemic that swept the world in the wake of the Great War. These latter stories, rife with defeat, are grim and ultimately set the overall tone of the title.

One of Vampyr’s key successes is the atmosphere of its portrayal of wartime London, which is pervaded by a crushing sense of hopelessness. The predominantly nocturnal setting is necessitated by Jonathan’s condition, and its dreariness is heightened by the worn, detritus-strewn streets. However, nothing sells the apocalyptic fears of the citizenry quite as adeptly as the abandoned highways and byways of the city. Most recreations of London emphasise the bustling metropolis, but that of Vampyr is defined by silence. This trait may be, at least in part, the result of the development team’s modest ambitions, yet it succeeds in showing the potential of contained scale in opposition to the busy, overstuffed open worlds prevalent in the contemporary gaming industry.

Despite the careful construction of London’s boroughs and the successes achieved therein, Dontnod errs on the side of caution in attempting to make the title an engaging ARPG. As with most games of this ilk, players must have recourse to gain experience through battle to ensure the story-determined levelling of enemies remains in hand. To that end, London is peppered with roving bands of wild vampires and their fanatical hunters, the Guard of Priwen, and the abundance of these factions undercuts the strength of the environment. With a combat encounter around every other corner, Vampyr’s would-be thick atmosphere evaporates, turning the world-building into set dressing. This design trope also reinforces the patchy characterisation of Jonathan: built as a man of compassion within the story segments, he transforms into a violent, animalistic force in these gameplay sections.

Perhaps in an attempt to minimise the effects of ludonarrative dissonance, Dontnod has opted to impart minimal experience from slaying foes in the open world, instead demanding players surrender to Jonathan’s vampiric urges if they wish to outpace the game’s levelling systems. Central to rapid increases in skills is the much-touted social web feature. All of London’s named NPCs are included in this network, and players maximise experience earned from feeding by unlocking facts about them through dialogue. The system holds more promise for a living world than has been present in almost any new game of recent years—with the real possibility of revolution in open-world titles—but the execution is flawed. All of the hidden information about many NPCs can be uncovered from only a handful of sources, meaning the characters feel insulated from the wider community. Moreover, investigations are simplistic, requiring players to do little more than follow each dialogue path to its conclusion. Given that Vampyr falls into the typical trap of allowing conversations to be repeated ad nauseum, the processes involved almost preclude the possibility of failure. However, the game prevents players from becoming too powerful through hard-coded level gating that ensures many NPCs cannot be embraced until after certain story beats are completed.

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This design decision betrays the agency provided in almost every other aspect of the gameplay, yet it is justified by context. As a newborn vampire—or Ekon, to use the game’s terminology—Jonathon is growing into his powers alongside the player, so to provide him the full gamut of abilities from the beginning would be incongruous. Nevertheless, the bloodthirsty gamer will never be at a disadvantage, as, even without taking innocent lives, they level quite evenly alongside enemies. Because of this carefully balanced structure, the dichotomy intended to be at the heart of the project—Jonathan’s internal conflict to either hurt or  heal—is sidelined. Slaying at will is always an option to make the game easier, but it is never truly necessary, which removes much of the angst created by the protagonist’s position in the world, and the sense of emptiness emerging from that unrealised dilemma is an apt summary of Vampyr as a whole.

From Remember Me through Life is Strange and now to Vampyr, Dontnod Entertainment has striven to introduce new ideas to each genre it dabbles in. However, the team’s latest project is also the one in which that desire feels the most diluted. Novel mechanics including the social web and that core conflict between the Hippocratic Oath and vampiric urges hold immense promise for a project to carry weighty consequences, but the potential is never fully achieved in Vampyr. The need to ground these ideas within familiar, saleable gameplay leaves the title lacking. While the game is enjoyable and engaging, the apparent lack of courage in the strength of its more unusual ideas is slightly disheartening, leaving it feeling slightly toothless.

Reviewed on PC.

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