Dontnod Entertainment are hot stuff right now. Ever since they won a literal truck load of ‘Game of the Year’ awards for the episodic, time bending adventure Life Is Strange, a huge swathe of the gaming industry has been waiting with baited breath to see what they’d do next. Their next project, Vampyr, in collaboration with Focus Home, certainly shares some of its DNA with that of the adventure of Max and Chloe but more so, it shares many similarities with Dontnod’s first title, the drastically underrated sci-fi adventure Remember Me, at least in its underlying characteristics.
Vampyr begins at the end of the protagonists natural life. In the game you play as Doctor Jonathan Reid, a prominent surgeon and combat medic during WWI who is returning to 1918 London when he is set upon by a mysterious assailant. When he awakes, he’s surrounded by the dead and he has been transformed into a vampire. Vampyr tells the story of how Dr Reid deals with his new affliction as he fights to retain his mortality, fights for his life against an ancient order out to kill him and uncovers the truth behind the Spanish Flu that is ravishing London. It’s difficult to say more about the plot without spoiling it – it’s one of those types of games – but as far as I’m concerned, Vampyr has one of the best plot hooks I’ve experienced in a long while. Aside from a few elements that probably could have done with a tad more explaining, it’s a solid experience and will keep you playing till the credits roll (and then maybe again because of multiple endings).
The narrative of Vampyr is a strong and often thrilling one that’s driven almost entirely by its cast of characters. As you explore a sprawling, real-feeling London c.1918 with very little limitation to your progress, you’ll meet integral characters and bit part players. This game is heavy with dialogue and the vast majority of it is worthwhile – while there’s the ability to skip sections of talking, I found myself using this sparingly because even when a conversation wasn’t pertinent to the plot, they’re often entertaining or packed with lore instead. There’s very few personalities you meet that, after digging a little deeper into them, don’t feel essential.
The characters you meet in Vampyr serve as the base to an intricate lattice of systems which make up much of the game’s RPG elements. Each named character you meet (and there are more than 40 of them) will have a quest for you to complete. Completing these side-quests, defeating the evils that lurk in the night and completing the critical path through the game all grant you experience. This experience can be spent on “Evolving” Dr Reid and his abilities. Unlocking new combat abilities, increasing your health or stamina, unlocking “Ultimate” abilities which do massive damage are all part of this experience system.
The most interesting aspect of Vampyr is how it ties morality to difficulty. Being a vampire, Dr Reid can chow down on almost everyone he meets once his skills have evolved far enough. Doing so gives him massive XP gains which can be spent to make you much more powerful. These XP boosts are increased even further if you’ve exhausted all conversation topics and have healed your target of any ailments before draining them of their blood. The kicker is that this is portrayed in the game as “giving in”, being an evil option which is the polar opposite of what the “default” Dr Reid converses like and acted like in life. Tearing into civilians might make combat easier but it might cost you your soul.
On the topic of combat, while Vampyr might feature a lot of talking, it features just as much fighting. Whether it be against the the Guard of Priwen, an ancient order of vampire hunters, feral monstrous Skals or something else that goes bump in the night, the dark streets of London are fraught with danger and you’ll be doing a lot of hacking and slashing. The combat system in Vampyr is just as complex as the rest of the systems in the game. Attacks and dashes cost Stamina, a resource which refills itself once it hasn’t been used for a second or 2. Being a vampire, Dr Reid can use a variety of Vampiric powers from hacking an enemy with claws to surrounding himself with a shield. All of Dr Reid’s supernatural powers are powered by blood and in order to drain enemies of blood, he needs to stun them first by using “off hand” weapons. All of these elements combine into a very strategic combat system which forces you to be more measured and restrained than you would otherwise in a game like this. There’s no button mashing here and if you do, even the weakest of enemies will pick you off, making every confrontation a tense bout.
Vampyr might not be a graphical powerhouse but in terms of art direction and overall style, it’s delightfully atmospheric, dripping with the macabre tempered by a certain degree of realism. The maze of dark alleys and near-gothic streets are full of little details, even in corners of the map that you’ll never be directed to by the golden path. The entirety of the map is covered in a thick fog that adds to the atmosphere but also lets the game get away with some technical issues too…
I’ve not come across any game breaking bugs in Vampyr but I have seen a number of immersion breaking glitches. I’ve walked into an area a number of times only to find a group of Prwien soldiers spawn in all around me out of thin air. In other instances, I’ve seen groups of enemies standing in the “default T pose” until I’ve shot them and they’ve spring to life. Citizens I’ve been searching for have randomly frozen in place when an area becomes hostile and then died without ever being attacked by a hostile or by Dr Reid.
Vampyr is an deeply ambitious game, attempting to pull off unique feats within this genre and most of those ambitions come to fruition before the credits roll. A combination of the character strength and narrative choices from Life is Strange and the chunky, satisfying combat and competent world building akin to that of Remember Me, Vampyr is a definitive Dontnod title.
A number of glitches and the occasional obtuse plot point stop Vampyr from truly exceeding expectations but it’s a well crafted, expertly designed game that’ll likely be talked about for many months to come.
Vampyr is available now on PS4 (reviewed on standard PS4), Xbox One and PC.
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Focus Home
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we received a copy of the game from the publishers. Please see our review policy for more information.