It is hard to imagine that following the critical acclaim and success of the creators of Life is Strange, the developer team of DONTNOD did not work on the sequel LiS: Before the Storm. Instead they moved on to a new project and it would be a completely different game altogether to the first game that put them on the map. Moving to create a brand new action rpg title with a surprising setting of the mean streets of London in 1918 with you playing as….a Vampyr!
Players get to step into the shoes or fangs of Doctor Jonathon Reid, a surgeon specialising in what else but blood transfusions. After serving three years for King and country in the First World War, he returns to London only to be attacked by an unknown force killing him but has him reborn as a new blood sucking vampyr. Confused by events and a rather heartbreaking accident during his awakening, players must guide Jonathon as he attempts to solve various mysteries including who turned him into the monster, the science behind what he is but also what is happening to London.
London in 1918 is a city in pain with millions already dead from the Spanish Flu epidemic that ran amuck. As a setting for the game it is a perfect vehicle to introduce that at the same time, a bigger threat was at hand and the game’s narrative uses this rather well throughout the campaign. On the surface the people and authorities of London are dealing with this epidemic but our Doctor Reid quickly discovers another truth in that the recent murders and disappearances of citizens attributed to the epidemic is actually something worse, that people are being turned into feral Vampires known as Skals who are attacking the four districts of London. As Doctor Reid begins to learn more about his change and the truth of vampires living in London, a far bigger and darker reality is uncovered, one where vampire society is powerful and secret whilst hunters known as the ‘The Guard of Priwen’ are actively seeking them out in hopes of stopping and eradicating the threat of vampires.
For the campaign the city of London is split into four districts or regions: The Docks, the West End, Whitechapel and serving as his home and base of operations really, Pembroke Hospital. Though the freedom to explore these regions at any time is there from the start, this is not quite as open world as you would imagine with some routes blocked either by high level enemies or story progression. The main campaign will naturally introduce these regions as Doctor Reid is sent to each one as the story unfolds in order to undertake various investigations into what is happening. I really liked how each district has its own social circle populated by varied characters that Doctor Reid can meet and build relationships with and by speaking with them can uncover new information about them and other. Those relationships are determined by how you talk and treat them as a character. New dialogue options are revealed by gathering information on them which can then create new dialogue options but be careful, saying the wrong thing or doing something they don’t like and those dialogue choices can be costly or locked away.
Visually I really love the art style to Vampyr, as someone born and raised in this city, the game brings the London of 1918 to life brilliantly well, from the posters all other the districts serving as public warnings about the Spanish flu epidemic and the steps taking to contain it such as forced curfews, does and don’ts if infected with the flu and teaching the populace how to create their own breathing mask. The variation of each region brings those districts to life and even with the game completely set in the darkness of night, the lighting really puts the player on the streets of London. Though not as sharp visually as say Horizon Zero Dawn or God of War, I did enjoy the almost graininess of the art style and character designs. Compliments by a sinister sounding musical score and audio effects, it is a welcome change that certainly makes it stand out from the art style of Life is Strange.
Vampyr is very much an action RPG which through the course of the story will give the player options in how to ‘evolve’ Doctor Reid with new found powers and abilities. XP is earned from fighting, completing investigations and main campaign objectives and can be spent to activate a number of powers which can then be enhanced by spending more XP. From increasing your health and stamina capacities to activating new defensive and attack powers, managing and deciding how you evolve is key and possibly one of the most frustrating aspects to the game but will come to that a bit later on. Weapons can also be found and upgraded and each time you upgrade a weapon you can enhance it by giving it a damage boost or a stun and elemental boost. Each time you upgrade to a new weapon level it brings over any boost the old level had and can be enhanced again. How and which weapons you upgrade and use will play a big part of the combat in the game.
Combat itself at its core is rather simple in that you use either a one handed or two handed weapon. By using a one handed weapon you can then use another weapon in the other hand such as a firearm or an off hand weapon that can be enhanced to do stun damage or to take blood from the enemy to replenish your own blood supply. Blood is used to activate your abilities which range from being able to heal yourself by drinking your own blood to creating a defensive blood shield or throwing a blood spear for example. You can really tailor what abilities suit your combat style as with the weapons you craft. Whilst exploring the streets of London you will come up against various types of vampire as well as vampire hunters and for the most part you will be outnumbered and ganged up on in fights so selecting the right powers and weapons will be key.
But this brings me to my biggest problem with Vampyr, player choice. It is no surprise that the team behind Life is Strange carried over the mechanic of player choice with them but this time it has far wider and game changing consequences. To start off with, as a vampire the player is given the choice of being good or evil and depending on which side of the ethical and moral fence you choose has a big impact on the game’s world. For example, to evolve and upgrade skills and powers you will need XP and the people of each region are full of this precious material. A passive ability Doctor Reid has is that of being able to mesmerize the characters in that district thought some require a higher level than others. By opening dialogue with a side character you have two additional options with one asking if they need medical help and if they have symptoms of something you can craft and carry medicine for, you can give it to them to help them recover which will increase the XP you can take from them if you use the second additional option of mesmerizing them. Triggering this will have Doctor Reid speak softly into their ear to put them in a trance allowing you to lead them to a secluded area to either release them or to embrace them which is essentially killing them. Each district has a health status which is affected by your actions as Doctor Reid. Help cure people and refrain from killing them and the status will remain healthy but deciding not to help them medically or starting to feed on them and that status can drop to critical and the risk of losing the region.
Now I made the mistake of doing this as early as Chapter 2, and I lost the district of Whitechapel. I could still visit the region but once it fell it meant all the side characters were now dead or missing stopping me from doing any of their investigations or having dialogue as well using shops and hide outs. Either by not paying attention or giving into the blood lust meant I had lost an entire region of gameplay that early in the game.
Another consequence of deciding whether to kill or not kill is that following that loss, I chose not to feed on side characters anymore and I was earning enough XP to upgrade from playing the game normally anyway…or so I thought. Despite the game giving you the player choice to be good or evil, it will punish you either which way you decide. By being evil I lost an entire district of people to interact with but by being good I essentially put the game on hard mode and it almost broke the game completely for me. I found in the later parts of the game that all the standard enemies I encountered were all much higher level than Doctor Reid and by higher I am talking five to ten levels above me. Having fully levelled up weapons and powers meant I could still put up a fight, but the greater distance in level between me and the enemies meant they simply hit harder and when ganged up on meant I could be killed in two or three hits. This literally stopped me in some missions and especially boss fights with the only solution of retreating and having to feed on innocents in order to evolve to higher levels. I felt I was in a no win scenario whichever path I took and it undid so much of the game I enjoyed. I like a challenge but do not like being punished for being the good guy and this game breaks its own logic far too much.
The frustration continued in how that logic continues to contradict itself such as doors and gateways can suddenly become one way doors and gates so that trying to find a route between the districts can be blocked off or forcing you to take the long way round. Doctor Reid has the ability to turn into smoke, something which allows you to quickly dodge in combat but also to reach high platforms and looks very cool. But then you will come up against a gate in railings which is locked and you somehow are unable to ‘Willow the Whisp’ yourself through the gate as smoke and how is it that a Vampire with enhanced strength is stopped by a locked wooden door which you should easily be able to tear off its hinges or break open with the weapons you have?
Vampyr has as many positive and brilliant elements as it does frustrating mind numbing contradictory problems that it really undoes itself sadly too much. Being punished that much by choosing not to feed on innocents almost stopped game progression entirely but it certainly hindered each boss fight and later stage which I did not appreciate. The story is detailed and rich but towards the end it became slow and pedantic to a degree. It suffers from tragic loading times and even moving too fast around districts can cause the game to pause whilst it took 30 seconds to load the next part but starting at a “You were defeated, why not go feed on innocents to earn XP to level up” for two to three minutes are dying was so painful to endure. I also suffered multiple game freezing moments when transitioning into a cut-scene, new area or fight that I had to put the PS4 to dashboard in order to let the game catch up and auto pause itself for me to resume. There will be a day one patch to address some of the issues review versions had but the penalty for being good or evil along with the loading screens really killed the experience for me.
As an action RPG and first break away from Life is Strange, Vampyr is enjoyable and fun to play until its issues and logic start to break it apart. Player choice can have huge consequences and without the ability to rewind time, making too many ripples in the game world could break it enough to force players to start a new game altogether. It is such a shame that such a detailed and breathtaking world to be in at times unravels under its own cleverness. I will be starting a new game and hopefully I can learn from the harsh lessons of my first time through the game, but the frustrations tarnished the experience for me just far too much.