Vampyr is a game where you play as a vampire—something that has been tried to varying success in the past. Developer Dontnod has had plenty of experience with telling a great story as demonstrated by Life is Strange, so I was excited to see what they could do with the often mishandled vampire genre. Dontnod manages to capture the feel of being a recently turned vampire, and they have built an interesting world for you to do vampiric stuff in, but there were just too many things that prevented me from having fun with the time I spent playing Vampyr.
You play as Doctor Jonathan Reid, recently returned from the war to a diseased ravaged London. Quarantines are in effect, and people are dying by the thousands from Spanish Flu. But there is something much darker and sinister at work in the shadows, and Doctor Reid is fatefully caught up in these dark machinations. Reid is ambushed in the streets and turned into a vampire, only to awaken in his newly undead state by his sister who had been searching for him. Newly undead and very hungry, he unwittingly kills his sister only to realize the horror of what he’s done after the fact. He vows to find who did this to him, and to make them pay for what they did while struggling to find his place in the supernatural underbelly of London.
While Vampyr is very narrative-driven, it trades between being an adventure akin to Life is Strange and an action roleplaying game that seems to take hints from Bloodborne with varying degrees of success. This makes two distinct gameplay parts that never really come together: the interactive conversations that consist of most of the narrative bits, and the third person roleplaying game. Both of these have their strengths and weaknesses.
Vampyr’s open world is divided into districts. Each of these districts have their own citizens with their own stories, motivations, etc. You can’t get all the information you want out of them right away in some cases, requiring you to find hints to unlock dialogue choices—either through the environment, eavesdropping, or talking to them or other characters. You can also use a sort of vampiric mind trick to get them to give up some information they wouldn’t usually, but this is only available to you in specific instances. Each citizen can also come down with a variety of maladies that you can cure them of. Healthy citizens are good for the districts, but more importantly for you as a vampire, healthy citizens’ blood yields more experience. The promise of fattening up NPCs to eat them later for greater experience yields sounds great on paper, but it just never manifests as fun or interesting gameplay here—instead, it felt like a chore, and I was never very clear on what other benefits you get from this if you want to keep your citizens healthy and not harvest them. Sure, the district portrait of that person gets a red X through it, but nothing is significantly different.
Vampyr’s combat can be a little hard, and it’s even harder if you ignore the easiest source of experience: the various citizens around the game’s districts. You can’t eat anyone you want at any time, though. You have a mesmerize level, and if that doesn’t meet or exceed your victim you can’t “embrace” them. Various characters also act as vendors, but their wares never seem to replenish, making some of the harder to get items rare no matter how rich you are. This effectively eliminates most of the need for money, so I just ended up recycling my items to get materials, which can be used in crafting medicine as well as weapon upgrades.
If you do want to keep the citizens healthy and the districts in good status, getting to them each night can be a chore. As you unlock more and more of the city, it becomes even more apparent how awful the open world map is. The buildings look great, and there is great attention to detail, but the overly bright lamplights destroy the spooky atmosphere, and lack of identifying landmarks make traversing it absolutely dreadful. I hated having to navigate through the labyrinthine streets, only to get caught in yet another dead end. There are shortcuts in the form of gates that can be opened only on one side (I think this is a trope by now) to lock out areas you will discover later, but I would often miss them because the locked gates were so ubiquitous that it was hard to tell if it was one I had unlocked already or not. A little variation in their shortcut methods would have helped a ton, but the real issue is the lack of major identifying features in each district and their respective transition areas. A minimap would’ve helped a bunch, too. But I found myself dreading travel, and I quickly learned that exploration yielded so little as to be joyless. What’s worse is that there is no verticality whatsoever—no high towers, or low sewers (except separately loaded areas.) Vampyre’s open world detracts from the entire experience.
Like I mentioned earlier, combat takes some cues from Bloodborne. There is an endurance bar that is all-important and determines if you can swing your weapon, or use your vampiric dash/dodge. You also have a blood meter that is used to power many of your vampiric powers, and can be replenished either by biting in combat or using a weapon that leaches blood. As long as you have blood, you can heal yourself, but you can also supplement those powers with various syringes that help in health, stamina, and blood regeneration. There aren’t very many enemy types, unfortunately. There are a few different varieties of human hunters, large werewolf like beasts, and a few vampire varieties, from the mindless to the…bigger.
In combat you can unleash your full vampiric arsenal, but some abilities require you to dump a lot of precious experience into them to feel useful, while others are objectively useful right away. What’s worse is that the combat system is never really explained well to you, so it takes a lot of trial and error to determine what works best for you—which often means you’ve already made several undoable decisions to get there.
As much as the single death of a citizen affects a district, hunters that roam the streets are just cannon fodder who seem to get their numbers from inexhaustible ranks. There doesn’t seem to be a shortage of them roaming London’s streets, and it makes the seriousness of “embracing” a citizen seem silly from a lore-perspective. More than that, Jonathan expresses his disgust at violence at several points, all which come AFTER committing mass murder. I guess “self-defense” goes a long way to justify wholesale carnage. If there was a stealth option or any other way to deal with encounters, I would forgive this, but as it is you’re just on rails the entire time.
None of your choices really make that big of a difference to anything, only one of many reasons Vampyr fails for me on a narrative level as well. I would like to say the story is at least worth playing through Vampyr for, but it turned out to be okay at best, and a worst it was outright corny. Forced romance, hammy acting, and extremely contrived drama involving your sister ruin the interesting lore that was created. It’s almost like the entire game is at odds with itself—a theme in the story, but not a thing that should manifest as a disparity to the player.
Also, while Vampyr does a decent job of making you feel like a vampire, it doesn’t do enough. You can’t use your vampiric powers to traverse the world in any interesting ways, unless you’re given the specific traversal prompt. You can sneak around enemies with certain abilities, but there aren’t really any stealth options. There aren’t any interesting vampiric fast travel options, or really, anything that makes you feel like a powerful undead force.
Vampyr was so full of promise, but it never quite delivered. All of its concepts sound great, but the execution in this case did not do them justice. I do appreciate the world Dontnod has created, but its fantasy world of vampire societies and hierarchies never feel as big or interesting as it had the potential to be.
Vampyr is available now on Windows, PlayStatoin 4 and Xbox One.