French development outfit DONTNOD (I’m not yelling, that’s how it’s spelt) are a self-proclaimed AA studio on the rise, recently enjoying some well-deserved acclaim for their cult hit Life is Strange series. Their latest effort Vampyr has more in common with their debut release Remember Me than Life Is Strange, but it’s still amazing how versatile the studio is in terms of their style, and that no two games in their catalogue have really been the same thus far. So is this a juicy doctor-cum-vampire tale to sink your teeth into, or does it just end up sucking?
Goon of Fortune was hard on everyone
Set in early 20th century London (*Zach Jackson heavy breathing intensifies*), Vampyr centres around the tragic tale of Dr Jonathan Reid, a talented surgeon who has only just returned from a stint as a medic on the frontlines of World War I in France. But it’s out of the frying pan and into the fuego, as the city is currently gripped by a Spanish flu epidemic that’s turning the streets into a mass grave. Unfortunately this isn’t the end of Dr Reid’s woes, as soon after returning he is turned into a vampire, and must quickly come to grips with his burgeoning hunger for blood, while balancing his oath of doing no harm, all while maintaining a slicked-back undercut a la Peaky Blinders that any Fitzroy barber would be proud of. It’s up to Dr Reid to discover the origin of the unique strain of the epidemic wreaking havoc in the streets, as well as hunting for the vampire who created him to get some answers.
It’s unclear the exact tone that DONTNOD were aiming for, but Vampyr ends up sitting very comfortably in that B-Grade schlocky gothic horror niche, that feels unintentionally comical at times, but is oddly compelling all the same. There’s an over-the-top melodramatic vibe that sets in right from the get-go, with overly verbose and poetic dialogue from almost all the characters, and some terribad English voice-acting that seems to perfectly go along with it. The po-faced delivery fails to really resonate on any emotional level but is nonetheless charming in the strangest of ways. It helps that the greater narrative is actually kind of juicy, with plenty of twists and turns and well thought out lore giving things a bit of depth amongst the silliness.
Gameplay-wise Vampyr is a by-the-numbers action RPG, but it manages to spice up its gameplay systems – particularly the way it approaches its experience system – in interesting and meaningful ways. Similar to The Witcher series, not a lot of experience is gained simply by killing enemies. Completing quests and side-quests are slightly more lucrative, but really the best way to boost your level is to feed on London’s beleaguered citizens. The quality of their blood (directly proportional to the amount of experience you gain) is determined by how well you know them, how many of their secrets you’ve managed to uncover, and their basic physical health. You’ll get the maximum experience gain from NPCs who have told you their life stories and you’ve cured of any physical ailments, but that doesn’t mean London is your all-you-can-eat Pizza Hut smorgasbord where you can indulge with reckless abandon. The more citizens you snack on, the more destabilised a region will become (this is also influenced by whether or not the citizens are sick or not because you’ve been lax in your doctoral duties). Kill too many citizens or let people get sick and eventually a region will become overtly hostile; all side quests tied to the NPCs will disappear, and streets once filled with terrible Cockney accents will now be host to fiends hell-bent on your destruction.
The only thing in her wardrobe is a blood-covered smock, but she’s got a heart of gold
I see you have stolen my hairstyle, know that you will not survive the night
The po-faced delivery fails to really resonate on any emotional level but is nonetheless charming in the strangest of ways. It helps that the greater narrative is actually kind of juicy, with plenty of twists and turns and well thought out lore giving things a bit of depth amongst the silliness.
As a scientist I can confirm this is exactly what chemistry looks like
Turn it up, mate
This experience system is validated by a steady increase in difficulty, where boosts to offensive, defensive and passive skills start to really come in handy. You’ll likely breeze through the first few chapters and not need to dine on too many Londoners, but as enemies become tougher you’re most certainly going to be tempted, which plays well into the idea of the allure of power. Districts sort of become like farms, where you balance the people’s and district’s well-being versus your desire to gain bigger and better abilities. It’s a pity that the abilities themselves aren’t overly interesting (more on that in a second), and the upgrades tend to be simple increases in the raw numbers behind the abilities (increased regen, more damage and the like), rather than meaningful evolutions.
Not just a pretty face, Reid is adept at combat with melee and ranged weapons, as well as being able to do battle his newly gained vampiric powers. The latter are powered by blood (which can be regained from consumables or by biting people in combat after you stun them) and are fairly diverse. They include being able to summon a pool of blood which explodes after a short while and inflicts AoE damage, leaping at an opponent to slash them, throwing blood projectiles, or just a good old-fashioned hex which makes an opponent’s blood boil until they explode and inflict damage to everyone around them. There are also defensive abilities such as a protective shield or healing yourself by sacrificing your blood supply, and passive abilities like increasing the amount of blood gained from biting, or the amount of bullets and consumables you can carry. It’s diverse enough that you can start to carve out a build of sorts that suits your playstyle, even if a few of them feel a bit plain.
Using blood powers is fun, but melee combat feels imprecise and ineffectual by comparison. There’s a dodge button that can launch you in unpredictable directions if the camera moves suddenly (which is a real possibility against faster enemies or enemies who phase about the place), and the combat in general lacks a certain fluidity. The AI is also decidedly wonky, and sometimes it’ll be like the Monash freeway and simply stop working at all, and everyone will just stand still (also like the Monash freeway). NPCs also fail to react adequately to your actions or to the things happening around them. For instance, you can freely enter a room and steal all their stuff (which often includes weird amounts of opium, bleach and potassium permanganate – props for including accurate chemical structures though), and they won’t bat an eyelid. In another instance you are tasked with attending a funeral in the middle of a spooky cemetery crawling with Skals (lower vampires who have more or less lost control of themselves and are little more than wild beasts). Who on Earth would organise a funeral in such a godforsaken place, let alone attend one? How did they even get to the middle of the cemetery without getting mauled to death? Inconsistencies such as these can make Vampyr’s London feel like a bit of a cardboard cut-out rather than an actual place.
Die, Sewer Beast!
At least I don’t have the cold, dead eyes of a killer
In DONTNOD’s defence this is the work of a small studio on a much smaller budget compared to the AAA juggernauts who roam the gaming landscape, but seeing as they’re creating within a space/genre that AAA titles often excel in, the game will draw many unfavourable comparisons regardless
While in general I was enamoured with the game’s offbeat style, I can’t say I feel the same on the technical side of things. There are consistent cases of texture pop-in, frame rate drops and intermittent loading screens that come out of nowhere. Foggy London town at times looks pretty nice, but the districts are all very samey, and the dreary colour palette makes one street look very much like the next. Character models are fairly wooden and lifeless too, let down by poor lip-syncing and odd facial textures and weird expressions. In DONTNODs’s defence this is the work of a small studio on a much smaller budget compared to the AAA juggernauts who roam the gaming landscape, but seeing as they’re creating within a space/genre that AAA titles often excel in, the game will draw many unfavourable comparisons regardless. There are also some quality of life features that are sorely missing like fast travel, decent quest-tracking and a lack of intuitive pathfinding in some sections.
As a final note though, in terms of production the game’s musical score is stellar. The beautiful and deep stringed melodies are an absolute delight and a testament to the skill of the game’s highly acclaimed composer Olivier Deriviere. He manages to bring an intensity to scenes with his rich and varied instrumentations that would have otherwise fallen flat and deserves the highest praise one can give.
The power of Christ compels you!
Given that Vampyr is a little janky and rough around the edges, there will probably be a large cohort of gamers who simply pass the game over. But if you can peer behind the veil and forgive some lack of polish, you’ll find a game with an interesting story told with a bizarre style, and an action RPG with enough interesting gameplay mechanics to make it stand out. Yes, it wears its B-grade style on its sleeve, but there’s something indelibly intoxicating about Vampyr, and it’s just as deserving of cult status as Life is Strange, if not more so.
Reviewed on PS4 / Review code supplied by publisher