Vampire games have had a pretty good run in the video game industry. Castlevania games wowed us on the original NES and continued to do so over the next couple decades. Vampire The Masquerade has an almost cult like following and Legacy of Kain is just dying for a good reboot. It’s into this echelon of video game history that Dontnod Entertainment, the studio behind the successful Life is Strange, hope to write their new RPG game, Vampyr. We know Dontnod can tell an interesting yarn, but how about actual gameplay? After spending a solid amount of time with the game, I think I can shed some light on it.
Vampyr begins in early 1900s England during the First World War You play as Dr. Jonathan Reid, a renounced physician who is fresh off the front lines of war. Upon returning to London, he is set upon by an unknown vampire and turned into a creature of the night. Being a vampire doctor is quite the juxtaposition and it’s that dichotomy that really sells Dr. Reid as a character. He is a man of science who is thrust upon a world of paranormal where the “Penny Dreadful” stories actually have some merit. Reid spends the next couple hours in game taking up a position at a nearby hospital (he was a renowned surgeon after all) and familiarizing himself with the local inhabitants on his quest to understand this curse that has been placed upon him. The story really goes places, but at first it starts off pretty generic. That’s understandable in a long form RPG like this where you need to talk to people to get a feel for the world you are now living in. You need to get the backstory before you can really explore the world. Once the supernatural aspects of the world kick in and Dr. Reid really gets tossed into the mix, the game’s story takes off with only slight detours of less interesting plot lines. If you take anything away from this review, know that the story is worthwhile and will keep you invested. This is done through a number of ways, but most notably, the characters.
The characters in Vampyr are all incredibly fleshed out, although maybe not the best animated outside of a few main characters. You’ll talk to characters and understand their backstories (and it is very worthwhile to do so) while leveling up their blood. Why are you leveling up a characters blood you ask? Because you have the option to eat them if you so choose. And this is where my first gripe with the game comes in. You will gain xp through combat and doing quests, but it’s really not that much. 50 xp here, 50 xp there…it adds up, but it’s nothing too substantial. You’ll be able to level up your character with these small sums, but it’ll take a while as the enemies around you get tougher and tougher. To get around this, you can choose to kill one of the town’s citizens that you’ve been talking to and learning their backstories and completing their quests to get a lump sum of xp that will allow you to unlock a decent quantity of skills, especially early on. The blood xp has a max value that you’ll work towards by unlocking dialogue options, performing quests, and keeping the residents healthy through potions and the like when they become ill. This, in theory, sounds like a good setup for a neat moral choice, but it never amounted to that for me. I was always afraid to off someone because of a story beat I would lose out on. If you’re someone who likes to experience the entire story in games, you’ll probably leave most people alive like I did which puts you at a slight disadvantage during combat. The stories being told are too good to eliminate someone and lose out of that thread, especially when killing one person could affect others who go away or end their story lines prematurely as well. It’s a really cool idea and if you tend to play games as the bad guy, it could be really fun, but it just felt not completely fleshed out.
As this is an RPG, you will be leveling up through a skill tree. As I said before, you can get xp from combat, quests, and killing named NPCs and with this xp you’ll unlock abilities. There aren’t too many primary abilities, but each ability can be upgraded further with additional choices. These branching paths of upgrades allow you to create a Dr. Reid that caters to your play style. I favored health and stamina early on and it wasn’t until around level 15-20 where I really started expanding into ultimate abilities (abilities on a timer that do massive damage) or other melee focuses skills. You will also have the ability to craft weapons and potions through the use of items you pick up in your travels. Each weapon can be upgraded multiple times and the weapons themselves have the ability to have bonuses placed on them like increased damage or increased blood consumption (which is extremely useful in fights where you are using lots of melee abilities.) The upgrade system is pretty decent and before long you’ll find weapons that you favor over others based on the bonuses you were able to add. I do wish the raw material system was a little more user friendly because the images of the necessary components all look the same and I never truly knew what I was in need of unless I was standing at the crafting window which is only accessible in rest spots. Overall, being able to craft weapons and potions is a great addition to the game, if maybe a little lacking on the ease of use.
After putting a decent amount of time into Vampyr, I can say that it does great things with the story and the RPG aspects are a lot of fun. The xp system with killing NPCs isn’t my favorite, but it’s not so intrusive that it breaks the game. There is one thing I disliked more than that feature though, and that is the combat. The combat in Vampyr is clunky and overall not at all fun. You’ll unlock skills to help you take out enemies but they require blood. Blood is gained, as you might imagine, by sucking on the blood of your enemies (or through potions or weapon upgrades.) You can’t suck the blood of enemies unless you stun them. You can’t stun them unless you have a weapon that stuns. You can’t then suck their blood unless you break down their stun resistance. This goes on and on and on…From what I can gather, Dontnod had a lot of cool ideas around combat but they either didn’t have the budget or the time to fully implement them all seamlessly. What we get instead is a lot of neat ideas crammed into a fighting mechanic that just feels super clunky. You’ll mash on your attack button to do damage while dodging here and there to avoid attacks while making sure you don’t run out of stamina. Even with all of the skills I had, this was always my tried and true method of dispatching enemies. The combat scenarios were just obstacles to me in order to get from one cool story moment to another. If you’re coming to this game on the hope that the gameplay alone will hold you over, move along because it won’t.
Vampyr is a weird game to review. On one hand, it has a great story with an intriguing mystery that honestly kept me playing well into the evening. I wanted to know who my sire was and why I was chosen to become a creature of the night. I honestly cared about the fates of the NPCs in my world and the stories they had to tell. The tale was wonderfully woven in a way to keep me glued to the game. Unfortunately, the gameplay itself never rose above mediocrity and the time I spent in battle, I was just mindless mashing buttons to try and get to the next story beat. Throw in the fact that my character was usually under leveled because of my lack of wanting to kill off NPCs and the games combat was never fun and usually borderline maddening. You’ll get into a groove and it’ll become easier, but by that time you’re not mad at the bad combat, you’re just bored. So, where does that leave me and my stance on the game? I think it’s alright. When a game has a good story and interesting mechanics that might not work out, but are new and refreshing, you can give it some leeway. I like what Dontnod did with Vampyr and I think their future games will only benefit from the lessons they learned making this one. If you’re a fan of RPG games with supernatural mystery stories, you’ll find a lot to love in Vampyr (if you can look past the combat.)