VAMPYR Game Review: Blood In The Time Of Influenza

Choose your victims...or lack thereof.

Do you like vampires? French game studio Dontnod does. The Life Is Strange developers spent the last few years working on their new vampire RPG Vampyr, and it’s the clearly work of people who love vampire fiction and want to immerse everyone around them in it. Moody, atmospheric, and lore-heavy, Vampyr will enthrall vampire enthusiasts, frustrate RPG players, and likely bore anyone looking solely for action.

Coming from the developers of the excellent narrative-driven title Life is Strange, it’s no surprise that storytelling takes a front seat in Vampyr. Players assume the role of Dr Jonathan Reid, a doctor and blood transfusion expert recently returned from the First World War to his native London. Depressed by war, still emerging from the coal-powered and gaslit 1800s, and ravaged by a flu epidemic that killed up to five percent of the global population, post-Edwardian London is an unpleasant place. It’s in this grim, plague-ridden environment that Reid is made a vampire by a mysterious, unseen being, before being unceremoniously turned back out onto the London streets to find his way in the world.

What a setup! There’s so much clever juxtaposition going on here. A vampire who’s also a specialist in surgery and blood science is a terrific conceit, forcing Reid to reconcile his work with his undead status. So is the placement of vampirism and vampire-adjacent infections alongside the Spanish flu, in an age where medicine was still emerging into the modern era. Vampyr uses its setting’s medical and social ideas wonderfully well, constantly bashing them against supernatural elements to create interesting character dynamics and situations. And of course, everything in the city is dark, dirty, and miserable, scored by rough staccato strings - the perfect atmosphere for a mopey vampire game, if a little oppressive by the end.

Not only is Vampyr intent on telling a specific story about a specific character, time, and place; it also makes storytelling a core mechanic. The first thing you’re bidden to do is seek nourishing human blood - which unfortunately comes from Reid’s sister Mary. Feeding on human beings is optional from then on, but it’s the quickest way to gain XP, and thus to level up your stats and abilities. Problem is: you can only feed on named NPCs - and those named NPCs are both plentiful and thoroughly-developed, whether human, vampire, or otherwise. Each NPC has a backstory, personality, conversation trees, and relationships within their community, and killing them will cause ripples throughout that community. The game takes pains to make you want to feed - Reid complains about his thirst often, and you can see people’s delicious circulatory systems with your vampire sight - but then makes you feel guilty about even considering such vampiric misdeeds. You can go the opposite direction and cure NPCs’ medical maladies - but that’ll only make their blood worth more XP.

Sadly, the central story lacks the dynamism of the rich, varied sidequests. Compared to NPC-driven stories filled with mental illness, corpse theft, drug addiction, police corruption, gang infighting, mistaken identities, clandestine homosexuality, and con artistry, the main arc is a leaden trudge through twists on vampire standbys, as Reid seeks his maker and the source of London's vampire plague. Some of those twists are interesting uses of the 1918 London setting, with plenty of Cockney lads to fight and high-society ponces to roll your eyes at, but otherwise, you’ve seen most of these tropes before. Making things worse, many main-quest conversations dump backstory on the player, making poor Jonathan feel more like a lore receptacle and errand boy than an active character. For a game about saving one’s soul, the soul in question is remarkably two-dimensional.

Gameplay in Vampyr is mostly divided between well-voiced conversations and combat. You’ll mostly fight vampire hunters and feral half-blooded “Skals,” with rogue vampires appearing later on, and you’ll do so via melee combat reminiscent of (sigh) Dark Souls. You’ve got a health meter, a stamina meter, and a “blood” meter (mana, essentially, refilled by biting enemies in combat); rhythms are dictated by dodging and attacking; damage can take the form of several types (melee, ranged, stun, blood, shadow); weapons can be upgraded from early-game to endgame quality. It’s clunky at first, but once you get the hang of it, the combat’s enjoyable enough, even if repeated encounters get tiresome.

Just like in Souls games, boss fights often present significant difficulty spikes - but that’s not Vampyr’s biggest difficulty issue. As you level your character up - by draining NPCs or completing quests - enemies level up with you. That’s mostly to provide for non-bloodsucking playthroughs, but it makes levelling up your character’s skills somewhat unimportant and even counterproductive next to leveling up your equipment. That’s accomplished via crafting, as is the creation of cures and serums - the materials for which are generally gated off by story progression, so you can’t craft high-level items from the start of the game. 

The biggest issue with combat in Vampyr - bigger than difficulty spikes or learning curves - is that it’s mandatory. This is a game that specifically offers you a choice about killing NPCs; that supplies reasons why you might or mightn’t want to suck a given character’s blood, then leaves you to decide. Yet progression through the game mandates that you kill, rendering that moral choice somewhat moot. It’s possible to run past random mobs (and in the late game, when you’re backtracking endlessly through the open, fast-travel-free London, you’ll want to), but in many cases, bosses included, you’ll have to kill to progress. So much for the option of being a Good Vampire.

Where story and gameplay meet is where Vampyr’s best content can be found. Its population is interesting and varied, bringing colour and personality to the drab moonlit streets of London. But the central campaign just drags, led by the game’s least-charismatic characters. That’s a common situation for RPGs - sidequests always get to dip deeper into strange territory - but here, with an overbearing atmosphere and molasses-thick lore, the main missions feel like excuses to get to the next community of NPCs.

Nearly all of Vampyr’s ideas are good ones, and make for a pretty comprehensive vampire role-playing experience. I just wish they felt like they came from the same damn game.