A surprising and mysterious gothic adventure
I have to admit that Vampyr blindsided me. I didn’t know about it at all until maybe a couple of months ago when I watched a preview on YouTube. At first glance, it didn’t seem terribly interesting — a gothic vampire horror set among the foggy streets of London? It seemed like a well-worn trope. But as I was watching the preview, I became intrigued by the apparent moral dilemma at the heart of the experience; as a vampire, you don’t have to bite people. Doing so does confer immediate gameplay benefits, but also brings with it a string of unintended consequences that might utterly destroy the world around you.
Now that I’ve completed the game, I can definitely say that Vampyr features perhaps the most interesting “morality system” I’ve ever encountered in a video game. However, calling it a morality system feels incredibly reductive; it’s so much more than that. As it happens — and well aside from morality and its related systems — Vampyr is a thoroughly unique experience, and one of the few action RPGs that I’ve felt compelled to play night-after-night until completion.
Vampyr takes place in 1918 London during the Spanish flu pandemic. The protagonist — and the character you play the game as — is Dr. Jonathan Reid, an apparently world-famous doctor who is known for his leading work on blood transfusions. Reid visits London to visit his ill mother, and is almost immediately attacked by a vampire. You take control of Reid shortly after this incident, when he wakes up in a mass grave, in a state of thorough confusion about his situation. The game’s opening segment is not a quiet descent into London’s depths — it is a frantic escape from a group of aggressive vampire hunters, who can be heard screaming for your blood as they chase you through the streets.
Right from the start, Vampyr gets the pacing right. Both Reid and the player are confused and desperate to escape. During this initial gameplay sequence, you’ll get to grips with the basic controls including movement and combat.
Shortly after your initial escape, you’ll meet one of the game’s major characters; Dr. Edgar Swansea, who heads the Pembroke Hospital. Without going into spoilery detail here, I’ll just say that Reid ends up in a fairly enviable position for a man in his situation — he is able to work at Pembroke Hospital at night (he’s regarded to be on “night shift”), which both provides a convenient cover for his vampirism, and also ostensibly gives him the space and resources required to research an outbreak that has emerged alongside the Spanish flu itself; it’s an outbreak that is turning the denizens of London into grotesque creatures known as Skal. In addition to solving this mystery, Reid is motivated to better understand his own condition, with the hope of curing himself.
It sure sounds like Reid has a lot on his plate, right? Well, that’s only the beginning. As you’ll quickly discover while you explore the gloriously-rendered Pembroke Hospital, every single patient and member of staff have their own personalities, relationships, motivations and stories.
Okay, so, being a vampire has its obvious perks — you can do cool vampire stuff including everything from nearby teleportation to some crazy moves in combat that can utterly confuse and destroy your enemies. But where Vampyr is different, I think, is that these vampire superpowers take place in a very real (and tragic) context. Your action — or inaction, as the case may be — will affect real people. And as you might expect, your affect on individual people can start to cause ripple effects across whole districts of London. As well, let’s not forget one important thing: you’re a doctor. You’re not a bloodthirsty killer (well, I suppose you could be…) But I’d say the game is at its best if you really put yourself in Reid’s shoes; you were the victim of a vampire attack, and although you’ve turned, you’re still a doctor with a job to do. And if that Hippocratic Oath means anything to you, there are going to be some tough decisions to make.
Although Vampyr takes place across several major districts in London, the game really begins at Pembroke Hospital. And, for much of the experience, you’ll be returning there at various times and for various reasons (both having to do with the main plot, as well as the huge number of sub-plots that exist within the district). The hospital is full of patients — so much so, that many of them are spilling out onto the streets in front of the building, packed into tents that act as temporary wards. As you wander around and talk to both the staff and the patients, you’ll immediately get a sense that everyone here is an individual person and they are all actually doing something. These people don’t feel like anonymous background NPCs; there’s nothing generic about them. Each person has a name, a very specific place in the world, and in many cases, their own sub-plot that unfolds through investigations (investigations in Vampyr could be considered optional side-quests).
The way you interact with people in the world of Vampyr is not only great fun in its own right, but the way it folds several other gameplay elements together felt completely novel to me.
When you initiate a conversation with someone, a dialogue wheel pops up. Typically, the wheel starts with maybe 3–4 options (you’re pretty much always given the option to ask “personal questions” or to ask about “your life in London” as ways of triggering further discussion). As you activate these options, you begin to move down a branching conversation path which seems to be wholly unique to every single character in the game (I’m not sure how many NPCs there are in total, but I’m thinking it’d have to be dozens). You will find, however, that certain branches on the tree display a little padlock icon — this means you can only use that dialogue option when you’ve learned something specific about the character.
I will resist spoilers here, so I’ll give you a generic example. You may meet a character who has a specific problem that might relate to their relationship with another person (say, a wife’s relationship with her husband). You won’t be able to ask this character about her husband initially, because in reality, Reid doesn’t know certain information until he’s told or he discovers it in some other way. If you happen to read a diary that reveals a tidbit of information about the relationship, a notification will pop up signifying that you’ve unlocked a dialogue option with this character.
The more you explore the world and talk to people, you’ll find that these notifications pop up quite regularly. And for the most part, uncovering information about people is not as stereotypical as reading a diary; you’ll often come across information in very roundabout ways. Sometimes you’ll unlock a dialogue option for a character who seemingly has nothing to do with your current activity — but when you actually use the newly-unlocked dialogue option, the connection will generally make sense.
It’s worth pausing here to point out how great this system is. In a lot of games I’ve played with branching dialogue trees, there’s this unstated assumption that the player character is somehow omniscient; although this might facilitate smooth gameplay progression, I always find it jarring, because it is so unrealistic — why should you have exclusive access to information by osmosis, but other characters don’t feature the same omniscience?
Non-player characters are the heart of Vampyr; the above image contains a typical example of what you see when you examine a character within the game menus.
Each of those branches on the right represent a fact that can be discovered about Beatrice (I’ve censored the actual text to avoid spoilers). On the left, you’ll notice a social circle — this is a representation of the people who Beatrice knows (they might be family members, friends, acquaintances, a spouse, etc…)
You’ll also see a status at the top right which, in this case, says “Healthy”. Each character in Vampyr’s world may have one or more illnesses (anything from a headache to sepsis). As you come across characters on your travels, you’ll be able to quickly identify any ailments they have and, if you have crafted the relevant treatment, you can heal them.
The overall condition of a specific character is represented by their Blood Quality stat. As you learn more about a person — and especially if you heal any condition they might have — their Blood Quality rating increases. Of course, not all people play an equal role in London society; in each district of London, there’s always a “pillar of the community” — a character who is centrally important to said district. Quite often, you’ll find that if a character has a particularly high Blood Quality they’ll either be a community pillar or they’ll at least be someone of special significance.
You’ll soon discover that there is a very direct connection between the condition of each person in London and the overall condition of the district in which they live. Each district has general status, which ranges from the best-case “Santised” through to the worst-case “Hostile”. These district statuses, in turn, dramatically impact gameplay. If a district is “Sanitised”, that means there are no sick people in the area and nobody has died — in this scenario, there will be no enemies at all within the district. On the other hand, if enough people get sick (and if their diseases progress far enough), you’ll end up with a “Hostile” district. This is essentially the toughest difficulty setting — there are more enemies, and the enemies that appear are much stronger than normal. A district’s health can essentially change your experience from being an atmospheric jaunt around foggy London to a completely horrific Dark Souls-esque quagmire.
Each time you save the game at one of Reid’s hideouts, you’re given the opportunity to spend any experience points you’ve gained (more about that in a moment) — but crucially, every time you save, the game moves to the next night. When you “wake up” the next night, a status screen will appear to track the events (and impacts of your actions) across each district. This is where you’ll see changes occurring across every single person you’ve met, as well as any status changes for the district itself.
In Vampyr, it’s very important to save strategically. Once you roll time forward to the next night, you can’t go back — the game auto-saves, and there’s only one save slot. So you are forced to live with your actions. To add insult to injury, the people of London can contract multiple illnesses and their ailments can progress if left untreated (headaches can become migraines, which then become neuralgia, for example). Some investigations are also both timed and context-sensitive — so, you might be wandering around and hear a person screaming for help because they’ve been cornered by some Skal. You can ignore them, sure. But if you fast-forward to the next evening without helping them, they might die, which will often have have unpredictable follow-on consequences.
Of course, Reid’s life isn’t all about good bedside manner. There are enemies in Vampyr, and while they initially take the form of the Priwen Guard (human vampire hunters), you’ll eventually find yourself running afoul of other supernatural beings of various kinds (including the aforementioned Skal). As well as fighting regular enemies, you’ll come across occasional bosses out in the field — I designate them as bosses because when you encounter them, a large health bar will appear along with their name. There’s typically a pretty high XP reward for killing them (although it’s rarely as much XP as you’ll get if you “embrace” a civilian NPC). There are also major boss characters that are rooted more directly in the central plot.
Combat in Vampyr is relatively straightforward, but there are a couple of unique flourishes here. During any encounter, there are three bars you’ll need to be aware of: health, stamina, and blood.
Health regenerates over time, stamina is expended any time you dash/run or use a weapon, and blood is essentially your MP gauge — using vampire powers expends blood. Blood, unlike health and stamina, doesn’t automatically regenerate; you have to restore it by either biting an enemy or (if you just can’t bring yourself to do that), biting one of the many rats you’ll find running around the streets. Of course, rats don’t give you nearly as much blood as a juicy Skal, so that’s something to bear in mind. To bite an enemy, you’ll have to wear down their stamina by “stunning” them — once their stamina hits zero, they’ll stagger, and you’ll be able to bite them. Each time their stamina gauge recharges, it adds another segment; this means that you can’t easily cheese an enemy by continually biting them, as they’ll become more and more resistant to your stun attacks as the fight rages on.
In terms of weaponry, you’re able to use two hands — so, you might use a single-handed weapon in each hand (say, a sword in one hand and a gun in the other) or you might use a larger two-handed weapon to deal more damage. Every weapon deals a different type of damage, and has its own upgrade tree based on materials you collect (or acquire by recycling other items). Upgrading weapons feels good, and it’s both simple enough to understand while also enabling you to tailor weaponry to suit your fighting style.
As you upgrade Reid using XP, you’ll be able to unlock specific vampire powers. Some are purely defensive (creating a shield that will block incoming attacks), and many are offensive (sending enemies flying into the air with an exploding cloud of dust is a particular favourite of mine). There are also several “finisher” type moves that consume more resources, but which are much more powerful (my personal favourite involves a move where I can remotely explode an enemy’s heart — ouch).
Taken together, these elements enable combat to feel fluid and fast, but strategic enough so that it’s actually worth investing some time in strategically upgrading the bits and pieces that suit the way you want to play.
I know I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the intricacies of characters and the way your actions impact both people and the world around them. This is important, because as you get deeper into the experience, you’ll find yourself confronted with more and more difficult choices. This is partly due to plot events, but it’s also due to the fact that (depending largely on the health of each district), enemies will become more numerous and more difficult — I reached the point where, in some districts, enemies were many levels higher than me. This meant that even non-boss encounters became a lot more threatening. And because there’s no fast-travel system in Vampyr, you have to navigate the world much as you did in the original Dark Souls — if you need to reach the other side of London, you’ll have to walk there. You will quite literally move between districts that might be completely safe, to places you’d rather avoid entirely.
For this reason, there’s an increasing temptation to find ways of gathering much more XP than you can during regular plot events and through helping people with their illnesses. This can mean only one thing: it’s time to embrace a victim. The delicious irony, of course, is that the most suitable victims — the people with the highest Blood Quality — are the people you’ve helped the most, and who you know most about.
The people who are closest to you are the most attractive targets to kill if you desperately need that XP boost.
As far as I’m concerned, this is utterly brilliant. It’s clever both from a pure gameplay perspective and in terms of your own emotional investment in characters and plot. There were a couple of times where I’d start up the game and say to myself “Right, I just have to kill someone — I need to level up a few of my stats to fight this next boss”. But I’d spend half an hour pouring over my district stats and running around London — not because I was lost or confused, but because I found it so difficult to choose a victim.
Matters are made even more difficult because of how real each person in the world is. What I mean by “real” is that few people are either 100% good or bad. Remember that Vampyr takes place during the Spanish flu outbreak; London is in chaos. People are desperate. And desperate people often do ethically questionable things for completely valid reasons. So, even if you say to yourself that you’ll only kill off people who are obviously bad, you’ll quickly discover that even the worst actors have some redeemable qualities (which, sadly, you may only discover after they’ve died, especially if you didn’t get to know them very well when they were alive).
Streets of London
I feel that I’m already gushing about this game without making any reference to some of its more obvious delights.
For instance, Gregory Szucs and his art team at Dontnod have done a brilliant job bringing turn of the century London to live. It’s not just the characters (whose appearance — including wonderful costumes — may signal their social status/class, occupation, and even their general demeanour); it’s the actual city itself. Each district is lovingly-crafted in painstaking detail, including many building interiors that each feel like distinctive places where real people actually live (or lived in the case of abandoned hideouts). Even small pieces of clutter — paperwork, decorative items, dirty cutlery — all provide context and visual storytelling in delightful and sometimes surprising ways. You will walk into a room and immediately know that something terrible happened there; sometimes you’re quite literally seeing how a house looked right as the family grabbed up their belongings and abandoned it — perhaps due to the threat of the Spanish flu, or maybe due to the district’s descent into Skal-infested madness. There are makeshift barricades everywhere, and scaffolding that looks conspicuously tenuous — as if someone intended to renovate a beautiful Victorian townhouse, only to hastily abandon the project and leave town abruptly.
Sound design is also stunning; almost universally, voice acting is delivered confidently and authentically. Although I knew all NPCs would be voiced, I was genuinely surprised to find that even “minor” characters are uniquely and lovingly represented by their respective actors. Ambient sound not only draws you into that creepy, misty London vibe — it also acts as a useful tool, especially if you are wearing headhphones. You’ll hear many enemies well before they spot you, whether it’s the grunting and heavy breathing of Skals or the fascinating back-and-forth chit-chat of the Priwen Guard members. Depending on a district’s status, you’ll also fairly regularly hear (and witness) active fighting between enemies of different types — it’s actually a lot of fun to watch a vampire fight with several Priwen Guard; the enemies weaken each other, giving you an opportunity to jump in and finish them all off. Great stuff.
Then there’s the utterly brilliant, moody music. Olivier Deriviere was the composer for this project, and his work here really nails the feelings that the developers wanted to evoke. Instruments such as the bass flute, piano, double bass, and cimbalom feel reflective of the time period depicted here (and apparently this is why they were chosen); and the cello, played by Eric-Maria Couturier, is used to stunning effect — its versatility is remarkable, oscillating between fearsome in some moments to serene and sophisticated in others. The soundtrack subtly changes in different locations (there are some pieces of music that, if I hear them now, immediately take my mind back to their in-game), and it expertly dovetails with the plot to provide that important additional emotional resonance.
I don’t know if Vampyr was a sleeper; it certainly feels to me like it has largely floated under the radar both before and after its release. It’s almost pure luck that I even picked up the game to begin with; it wasn’t something I’d been specifically looking forward to and following for a long time. But I’m so glad I gave it a chance; I’m still pretty surprised at just how much I’ve enjoyed it.
Are there problems with Vampyr? Yes, absolutely. The combat is fun, but repetitive (and there isn’t a great deal of enemy variation, either). And some of the game’s systems can be a bit confusing at first, especially the role that district status plays.
And yet, as I said at the beginning of this review, it’s very rare for me to pick up a meatier game like this and play it right through to its conclusion in one go — usually I’ll play for a while, and put a game down to play other things, with the intention of returning later. Not so with Vampyr. Whenever I had time, I was compelled to dive back in and hit that next story beat to find out what happens next. I wanted to check on everyone and heal whoever I could.
Most of all, I was hungry to explore the rich and beautiful version of London that Dontnod have created here. Highly recommended.