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Vampyr Review

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Being a vampire isn’t at all what I imagined. After falling victim to the embrace I awoke with all knowledge of who I had been in my past life.  In my previous life I was Dr. Jonathan Reid and my area of medical study was both in hematology (the study of blood) and trauma surgery.  I was a risk taker and had achieved renown and contempt for my tactics in transfusion.  This all assisted me in getting a job at the Pembroke Hospital, a London-based institution that has a reputation similar to my own, and attempt to help the people there. That’s right, I’m helping humans get medical attention and curing what ails them.  It is the year 1918 and the city is plagued by the aftermath of the Great War, which still wages on, and the Spanish Flu is taking more lives every day with increased effectiveness.  On top of all of this monsters roam about the streets at night, and not just vampires either.  In these times the relationships you establish are key, the politics of both the human and vampire world are always a consideration, and it’s fair to say something apocalyptic may be afoot.  This is Vampyr.

The newest game from studio Dontnod, known previously for Remember Me and Life is Strange, is going all in on the skills it has developed for in the past and combining them into an open world action RPG that leverages story to propel things forward.  Whereas quest givers and NPCs can be seen as somewhat throwaway or in the least dismissed after their vignettes, no one in Vampyr is forgotten after you meet them unless you will it so.  The beginning of the game will introduce you to nearly a dozen characters, each with their own story, background, thoughts, opinions, and connections to other characters.  Getting to know everyone is an arduous task that will surely make up the first two to three hours of your game, but fortunately all of the pertinent details you receive are kept organized and available to you in your notebook.  Unlike other vampire tales, every person you meet is key to the continuation of your story and will assist you at getting to your next goals, just not necessarily the way you might expect.  Along the way you will open up more districts to the point that your cast is roughly 40 characters that you should consistently manage the health, relationships, and well being should you need them in the future.  And trust me, you may need them in the future.

Storytelling is only half of the dynamic in Vampyr but it’s important you understand that it’s the main carrot on the stick.  If you are the type who likes to skip cutscenes and dialogue to get to the action, this won’t be a great experience.  The stories of these individuals and how they relate to one another is key in figuring out where they are located, what they are doing, and generally coming to terms with the world around you.  Jonathan Reid still has the affiliations of his past life and you will eventually end up in the neighborhood he grew up in, but beyond his links to the past he is a blank slate for you to re-invent.  This means you can play the game any way you wish, especially in the myriad dialogue options involved in most conversations.  To a certain extent the way you speak doesn’t have much of an effect on the world – there are no bars that tell you what type of personality you sway to, no tracked indication of your friendliness toward a person, and you should not expect random chats to net you story-changing events.  Instead the dialogue and discussion are exercises in character development that help you decide how you feel about an individual, if their actions are ideal or not given certain situations, and most importantly if they can be food.  A key factor of every major character you meet is their intentions, blood purity (personality, actions, and actual health), and exactly how much XP (experience points) you can expect to receive if you feed on them.  Characters you feed on will die and there will be consequences for those actions, be they benign or significant.  Keep in mind there are also characters who know who and what you are, so if you were to feed on someone close to them there may be accusations thrown your way when a body turns up.  I will admit that the consequences for feeding off of people didn’t change the world all that much, but I also concede I am a conservative player that never fed on anyone with too much authority or too many affiliations.

From a story perspective there is no need to feed on individuals, but the other half of Vampyr that revolves around combat will make it a necessity.  In the opening 5-8 hours you’ll be able to hold your own without issue, but right around the middle of Chapter 3 the difficulty starts to spike and you are all but forced to feed on an NPC to keep up.  This pressure will continue through the end of the game.  You may even find the need to do this sooner if you aren’t running off on the various side quests called “investigations” that the game has, which will net you bonus xp, typically increases the value of the person you did the task for, and opens up the game to a hint of detective work.  Almost every investigation basically calls for you to go to a location, switch on your vampire vision that resembles detective vision from the Batman Arkham games, and follow the blood trail to an encounter or story beat.  Your XP is used much like a currency, where you level up certain skills and abilities in a robust skill tree that will additionally level up your character.  The levels themselves are mostly just an indication of the skill sets you have since your health, stamina, and blood meter are all enhanced as part of these skills, but it does quickly let you determine if you are within range of fighting that level 18 beast in the dark up ahead.  Along the way you will also encounter weapons that can be upgraded and formulas for shots that give an instant boost to one of your three stats.  Finally you will be collecting lots of supplies along your path that allow you to create medicines for the treatment of various illnesses that befall your NPCs, which change every time you sleep for a day to upgrade your skills.

All of these factors come together when it comes to the combat on the streets, in dungeons, and of course boss encounters.  As you roam the streets you’ll encounter humans from the Guard of Priwen, a society of vampire hunters that hope to rid the world of your kind.  These men employ melee weapons, fire, guns, and even priests to combat the dark things that come out at night and if you get near them, they will attack you.  Combat borrows from the Dark Souls formula where you balance a stamina meter that allows you to attack, dodge, and parry.  Aside from the moment-to-moment combat system being based on Dark Souls, there are no other similarities. Don’t be expecting for a ridiculous difficulty, painfully long distance between save points, and the need to return to your corpse if you fail in battle as none of this is part of Vampyr.  On the contrary the checkpoints are quite liberal, often pushing you back after a death to nearly the same spot you died and with little consequence. Your weapons can be either one-handed or two-handed, the former allowing for a secondary weapon on your off-hand that can either be a firearm or something to stun your enemy and allow for a bloodthirsty bite.  When enemies strike you have the options to dodge or parry their attack and parries also allow you to leap upon your enemy and drain some blood for more powerful abilities.  Your blood level allows you to unleash your super powers, so sometimes the ebb and flow of combat is merely working your opponent down so that you can drain their blood and use it for a super move.  I appreciated that for the most part no enemies had sudden invulnerability to a certain attack or the ability to overcome skills you had already earned, but there are different attack types that enemies are strong and weak to.  All in all the combat was an ideal way to break up the time spent on the streets, and with no fast travel and a decent sized map that’s no short stint, as well as for major story points involving boss battles.  I dare not spoil any of the bosses here, but rest assured you will see a variety of creatures, sizes, attack types, and difficulties.  It may be necessary to flee a boss battle, upgrade your equipment further, perhaps even switch to a different type of weapon, and upgrade some powers before returning to finally emerge victorious.  As such I bet completion times of this game will be all over the place.

This dichotomy of storytelling weaved with combat comes off strong at first, but eventually the hindrances of an open world and storytelling progression can have some setbacks.  Whenever you first enter a district there will be groups of people to meet in every area, which will take some time to establish.  You need to get to know everyone so you can see how they all relate to one another and I personally used it as a gauge to determine who might be proper meat for the beast later on.  For the player who values their time, however, this can be a slog of potentially 30-60 minutes of learning a ton of new character storylines and establishing information that doesn’t usually pertain to the main plot.   I’m not sure how this could have better been implemented but even at 20 hours in I found myself emerging in a new area and having to do the rounds of talking to a bunch of people to get a bunch of information on that local place.  The same can be true of the combat, especially later in the game, where the streets are flooded with activity.  A simple walk from one district to the next may result in you fighting a dozen or so enemies, each of which can really get the jump on you if you aren’t careful.  It appears enemies level significantly in each chapter, so don’t go expecting grunts to be a cakewalk late in the game, even though with planning its a battle easily won.  It’s when you are looking for a specific location or person that this can be a pain.  The map does allow you to have markers and it keeps track of certain places like shops and the safe houses where you make upgrades, but certain individuals cannot be tracked on maps and can move around.  That makes the task of finding someone quite annoying late in the game, especially when there are 40+ people you are looking after and no one looks all that distinct on foot.    It never made me want to quit playing, but it made a journey that only took 5 minutes in the past more than two or three times that length and had me missing these basic quality of life items found in most other games.  This game is also incredibly dark with no way to shed more light in areas.  You can walk into areas where you have no idea what’s going on around it and it’s possible to even miss enemies until that initial blow is struck.  I know it was probably a conscientious choice for realism, and it never prevented me from finding anything, but I definitely had to play the whole time in a dark room.  I also don’t think the consequences managed to have as much of an effect on the world as I was led to believe they do, which also made the task of picking a potential victim quite a bit easier as well.  In a world where everyone is supposed to matter, I expected much worse responses to my actions when someone turned up dead.  I also noticed a slight stutter when moving around the districts, somewhat similar to the one I experienced on the PC version of Arkham Knight.  I checked the framerate, which seemed locked around 60 and never let up, combat was smooth as silk while I played.  It seemed to be a hitch in loading up new areas, which I might add had no load times and appeared to be the whole map at once.  It wasn’t too much of a bother, but it was noticeable.  I wonder if a later patch will solve that or if my processor, an i5 4590K, just isn’t powerful enough to handle the load of this open world.  Either way it was present on my PC playthrough, but not too bothersome.

Vampyr is a game all about role playing.  You take on the persona of Dr. Jonathan Reid and you mold him into the type of character you want him to be.  This may change based on the story beats, characters, and abilities you give him, but ultimately the choice is yours.  It doesn’t claim to change the game significantly or even keep track of the outcomes of conversations or story beats for you, but rather gives you a template to create your character.  Since there is no story consequence to your choices, any character will do and any choice is appropriate.  In the end it felt like a single player version of a pen & paper RPG, which was right up my alley.  I also don’t think Vampyr would have been better if developer Dontnod had attempted to keep track of all these things and claimed a customized story for each player like was promised early on with Mass Effect, because those attempts would surely disappoint.  Instead you get a world and a story that you can interact with and move forward with at any time. All of the openness and story focus will surely be a sticking point for some, but if you want a unique take on what it’s like to be a British vampire at the beginning of the 20th century, Vampyr nails it.

Final Score:  4 out of 5  (review policy)

A review code on PC was provided from the publisher.  Vampyr is available June 5 on Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Steam for $59.99 on consoles and $49.99 on PC.  There are retail disc versions available on all three platforms.  

Written by Fred Rojas

June 4, 2018 at 5:00 pm

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