Developer: DONTNOD Entertainment
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
When I first heard of Vampyr, I was skeptical. I’m not personally a big fan of classic horror (or any horror, for that matter), so vampires, werewolves, and the like have never really appealed to me. When I agreed to take on the game for review, my expectations were virtually nonexistent. A few hours in, I was flabbergasted. Now, I’m happy to report that DONTNOD’s dark action RPG has me convinced it deserves a seat in the table for Game of the Year discussions.
I was surprised by just how much spiritual content Vampyr had. There are the standard occult themes that come with anything related to vampire culture (drinking blood, bloodthirst, crucifixes hurting you) but the writing team behind Vampyr has saturated the game with so much more. The game has indignant institutional religious leaders, soft-spoken spiritual leaders, and each of their approaches to shepherding. A major crux of Vampyr is in your decision to consume people for major extra experience or take the more difficult path, maintain your humanity, and let them all live. It’s both thought-provoking and entertaining.
Vampyr has significant gore. While much of the combat is dodging and slashing with a bladed weapon, there are more gruesome scenes to behold. Our hero can consume rats for their blood and you can bite foes to refill your health and blood. There is a decapitation at one point, though the actual act is shown off-screen. There are a significant number of mangled corpses and disfigured creatures in century-old London, too.
The language in Vampyr is everything you would expect from a hard R-rated film. Do not play this game around children, and if you’re sensitive to it yourself, take precautions to avoid it. Terms used in the game include F*** and G**D*** amongst others.
There is a bit of love story in Vampyr, but unlike Bioware’s offerings, it never comes to anything crude or crass. There are characters in the game that insinuate they’d be willing to…oblige…our hero for money, but that’s so far in the game’s peripheral, it serves as nothing more than a tool for worldbuilding. The same goes for the story of one person to tells you a certain priest molested him as a youth.
There are references to drugs in the game. You’ll see junkies trying to get their fix with a needle.
Other Negative Themes
There is an interracial relationship between a couple characters in the game. The characters surrounding that situation gossip and speak in whispers because of the cultural shame of it. Even the people involved talk to you about it in hushed tones, implying they know what they’re doing is forbidden.
Though not as on-the-nose as other imagery, the game shows a form of racial elitism between vampires and an offshoot race known as skal. The vampires live a life of high society with mansions and prominent social standing while the skal are relegated to shanty towns in the sewers.
One character is essentially a grave robber, stealing from the dead to re-sell their belongings. There are cults and brotherhoods warring throughout.
Though they are immortal, several of the main vampire characters show a deep, impressive level of humanity. They do what they must to survive, but they are otherwise helpful, philanthropic, and regret their situation.
I had pretty well kept myself in the dark with regards to Vampyr. The horror-based content is uncomfortable to me, and those stories typically thrive with darker tones. While that’s still true of Vampyr, both the characters and overarching narrative were so well done, I was drawn to see the game to its full conclusion, even debating a second playthrough.
With that said, let’s discuss the game’s story first. The year is 1918. We play the role of Dr. Jonathan Reid, a renowned doctor specializing in blood, diseases, and the like, who’s just come home after being deployed during World War I. When we’re first introduced, he’s in the process of waking up in a mass grave, consumed by bloodthirst. He comes upon a young lady who seems to recognize him. Unable to control his thirst, he bites her, satiating himself and realizing he’d just killed his sister. A bystander sees it happen and opens fire. Jonathan escapes, consumed by guilt and confusion. Shortly thereafter he meets Dr. Swansea, who runs the Pembroke Hospital in town. Knowing full well of his vampirism and of his reputation as a doctor, Swansea invites Reid to take refuge at Pembroke. There, he can take shelter, assist sick patients, and regroup. Taking Dr. Swansea up on his offer, Jonathan vows to find who’s responsible for his condition and get revenge for the death of his sister.
From there, a giant web of intrigue drives each beat of the narrative. You’ll move around London, fighting vampire hunters, crazed skal, and werewolves as you work to unravel the mystery. Each NPC (and there are a lot of them) has tales to tell and secrets to hide. The more you speak to them and discover their stories, the richer their blood becomes (should you choose to consume them later). Each character has well-written dialog and the voice acting performances are clean and believable. It helps build a dark, relatable world you can get invested in, and it’s precisely why I turned the corner on being so fond of Vampyr.
Vampyr has a handful of systems that play together to form a cohesive experience. Along with a top-tier narrative experience, Vampyr provides players with a handful of ways to approach progression and combat. As you make decisions, kill enemies, and complete quests, you’ll earn experience. From there, you can tackle a pretty wide tree to decide which skills you’d like. From claw slashes to going berserk to healing and more, you’re given plenty of ways to equip Jonathan. On top of skill progression, you can collect components with which to upgrade your weapons. You can often customize an upgrade, allowing you to build for more damage, more blood collection, or a balance in-between. It’s enough to give the player some agency without feeling overwhelming. Depending on side quests you handle and medicine you’ve created and distributed to sick NPCs, each city district can also fall into chaos, making your time there much more painful.
The combat itself feels fluid. Jonathan can dodge in and out of range, striking enemies and executing counter-attacks to whittle down the groups you’ll face. It often feels like a dance, only you’re working to outmaneuver several foes at once. And this brings up my first criticism of the game. While I feel like the encounter design is typically well designed and manageable, there are some enemy groups that feel downright unfair. Jonathan is weak to fire, poison gas, and holy light, and some fights will have you facing all of them together in tight spaces, allowing you to be quickly burned down. Then again, it may only have been a problem for me because I refused to consume civilians for the massive experience gains.
By and large, the world design is great. London has distinct districts with unique problems. The game can get a little irritating, particularly late-game, however, since the streets are never devoid of beings that want to end your immortal existence. No matter how many times you’ve cleared them, if a district isn’t completely free of disease you’ll have to contend with swarms of enemies. It makes late game traversing an irritating event.
Vampyr is a decent looking game. Character models and animations are sharp and believable. The whole world feels a bit drab and gray, but let’s be real: we’re in 1918 London at night, going through the streets and sewers of a disease-ridden city. It fits the theme perfectly. The voice acting is spot-on as well. My only real problem with Vampyr‘s aesthetics are in its music, which often feels too loud or out of place for a given situation. A better dynamic soundtrack could’ve made a great game completely stand out.
When it’s all said and done, I think the team at DONTNOD have created a fantastic piece of media you’d be remiss to write off whole cloth. I had begun to do that and Vampyr has proven itself to be one of my favorite games of 2018. While the game isn’t perfect, the combat is fun, the worldbuilding is well done, and the storytelling and narrative are fantastic. Though it may not scratch the itch for folks looking for this year’s Mass Effect, it’s a well done, thought provoking game with an excellent story. DONTNOD has my attention now, and I look forward to the future of the Vampyr series.
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The Bottom Line