Vampyr feels like a game that I’ve been waiting nearly 15 years for. Somehow, despite the wild 2008 boom of vampire fiction that followed Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight franchise, video game vampires have often been given the short end of the stick. While there are certain shining examples, from the grim western Darkwatch: Curse of the West, to classic RPG Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, the genre had yet to show off its true potential – until now.
Vampyr takes place in the early 1900s, following the outbreak of the Spanish Flu. Jonathan Reid, our noble protagonist, finds himself in a bit of a pickle when he wakes up to find he’s been turned into a vampire by a mysterious and shadowy Maker. On a quest to discover who committed him to this fate, Jonathan stumbles across a shadowy cult of vampire hunters, discovers plots of blackmail, extortion and murder, and ultimately discovers the true powers of his kind.
Vampyr is an incredible achievement, and one with so many intricate, moving parts that every playthrough and decision will create a different and equally intriguing world. Player decisions play a large, important part of the puzzle, and making a mistake can have dire consequences on the world of the game.
Levelling up in Vampyr can take place in two ways – the honest, vampire hunter fighting and story progression way, or the ‘easy’ way, hunting and killing all your friends in London to gain valuable experience points for their blood. Getting to know the citizens of London and uncovering their secrets will allow you to build up more potential XP, but also riddles you with unavoidable guilt (trust me, I know).
The structuring of these interactions is incredibly clever, as the game actively encourages you to learn more about your potential victims in order to gain the most experience from them. More than that, if you choose to kill the citizens of London, they’ll often leave you with one last, heartbreaking gift in the form of their final confession. After I tore out one poor man’s throat, he admitted to me that all he ever wanted in life was to be loved. That one stuck with me a while.
Actions have consequences in Vampyr, and every decision ripples throughout your chosen community. The morality system works somewhat like inFAMOUS, in that Jonathan’s appearance and powers are directly affected by what path the player chooses to take. Unlike many similar systems, however, Vampyr does a brilliant job of illuminating the stakes of life in London.
Killing a member of a social group or romantic partnership carries dire weight, as one death can lead to another, or a variety of other, more serious consequences. In my playthrough, I chose to kill Milton Hooks, because after discovering his backstory, his blood was worth 2000XP, and I was in dire need of a power boost after discovering a monster in the sewers. Further, throughout our dialogue, I’d discovered that Milton was engineering an extortion racket among the patrons of Pembroke Hospital, and act that I felt was enough to earn my wrath. In playing judge, jury and executioner, I made a dire mistake.
Unfortunately, I failed to account for his partner, Pippa Hawkins, who, upon learning of Milton’s death, left the Pembroke Hospital hub to join the army of vampire hunters. As I entered the dangerous streets of Whitechapel (which had since devolved to a Critical health state, after I killed one too many lads), I was assaulted by Pippa, and killed twice before I was able to advance.
Similarly, a brutal early decision came back to bite me in the ass later in the game, when the pillar of Whitechapel, Dorothy Crane, became infected by the epidemic and transformed into a lesser vampire – a ‘skal’. Defeating her gained me some experience points, but meant that the health status of the district dropped to 55% (a critical rating), filling the streets with disease and hoards of vampire hunters. While other districts remained stable, travelling through Whitechapel became incredibly difficult, as did maintaining the health of the remaining citizens. Unfortunately, there’s no way to reverse decisions you made earlier, rendering all impulsive and naive decisions as permanent features.
The more lives you take, the unhealthier and more dangerous a district becomes, and the streets are soon filled with vampire hunters and rabid, lesser vampires alike. These enemies also level with you, meaning that travelling the streets genuinely becomes a thankless task the more you give into your vampire instincts. While more experience points will lead to better abilities and higher strength, speed, health and stamina, you may stumble upon higher powered and trickier enemies in return.
Temptation is a theme that resonates throughout the entire game, with the player constantly prompted and reminded that killing citizens will give them an enormous power boost, and make their journey easier. This reminder would pop up often after I was killed by a particularly powerful enemy, as if to goad me into cheating my way to victory. I’m ashamed to say that this tactic worked, and worked often. While I initially began the game with noble intentions, I soon gave in, and picked off a half dozen citizens with little regard for the consequences.
Choosing a victim to sacrifice at my own altar was often difficult, as the heavy dialogue and character interactions encouraged to gain more experience meant that each character became real and relatable by the time you made the decision to off them. Some of them were easier to kill than others, particularly as some deserved death for their crimes, and others were outcasts from society, with no social circle to speak of. When killing someone who belonged to a social circle, new dialogue options and interactions opened up, giving weight to your own decisions and the characters themselves.
A minor gripe with this process is that often, interactions between characters are bogged down by too much dialogue, sometimes rendering new area interactions cumbersome. Thankfully, the game does present a skip option for all dialogue, meaning that players who want a focus on action can speed through any unnecessary interactions.
While dialogue and character interaction is where the game shines, with realistic and emotional writing, surprisingly, the combat in Vampyr is solid and enjoyable too. In fact, it feels rather like the combat system from Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, where players are able to use a variety of weapons including axes, bats, stakes, firearms and fangs in order to stun or attack enemies. There’s a surprising amount of strategy to be employed in combat situations, particularly when facing higher-powered enemies, as a good balance between attacking and stunning needs to be employed in order to maintain high blood levels.
Throughout the game, experience points will allow players to gain a variety of high powered skills, each of which can be levelled and improved upon. These abilities are essential for combat, and can mean the difference between life and death. Some enemies that may appear too high powered can indeed be defeated through some well-timed hits and no small measure of strategy. It makes for a game that strikes a perfect balance between difficulty levels, reducing frustration levels by encouraging different, subtler approaches.
The story unfolds throughout the game, and features several side quests, discoverables and unlockable interactions. Essentially, the game is a battle for survival, as Jonathan seeks to discover his Maker, and the reason he’s been transformed into a vampire, all while attempting to resist his urges. But below the surface, it’s an incredible dense, branching story that weaves in a brilliant narrative with deeper questions about psychology and the nature of humanity. I was fascinated by the world of the game, buoyed by the incredible atmosphere built by the visuals and haunting soundtrack, and was driven ahead by a need to discover more. While I will admit this was partially because of my interest in both history and the vampire genre, objectively, Vampyr is a brilliant, well-rounded and accomplished game.
Vampyr has succeeded in escaping the horror that was late-2000s vampire fiction, instead taking inspiration from classic vampire and gothic literature to carve out a new pillar of the genre. One can only hope that the currently untapped potential of the vampire genre is in the midst of a new renaissance, brought about by the solid and inspiring tale of Vampyr.
Review Score: 9.0/10
Highlights: Brilliant story; smooth combat; great world building
Lowlights: Lack of fast travel; cumbersome loads of dialogue
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Release Date: Out Now
Platforms: Windows PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Review conducted on Windows PC using a pre-release retail code provided by the publisher.