Vampires have always fascinated me, even from an early age. I grew up watching classics like Salem's Lot, The Lost Boys and Nosferatu. Once I was old enough to have a television in my room I would fall asleep watching Hammer Horrors and the Dracula films were some of my favourites. Even flicks like LIfeforce that took vampires into space, held onto the basic idea that these creatures needed to drain the life essence from humans in order to survive. It has always made me wonder then, why there are not more good Vampire games? In fact, only two stick out in my memory, those being Blood Omen: The Legacy of Kain and Vampire Masquerade: Bloodlines. Sure, there have been others such as the Castlevainia, but none of these games have ever really captured the essence of what it would be like to be a creature of the night. So when I heard about a new vampire game being worked on by the fine folks over at Dontnod, I was excited to see if this was going to finally give me that quintessential Vampire experience I'd been looking for.
It is 1918 and the world is in the grip of an outbreak of Spanish Influenza. This was a real pandemic that occurred toward the end of the First World War and affected every corner of the planet. In this game we take on the role of Jonathan E. Reid, a famous surgeon returning to London after time spent on the front line. In the opening scene, Reid has already been attacked by a vampire and stumbles from a mass grave craving blood. Once he has sated his thirst (and gains control) he is chased away, confused and weak. I won’t go into plot details, but safe to say you are given refuge by a sympathetic benefactor and allowed to work at the local hospital (the night shift of course) in return for your services as a skilled doctor. This is where the game begins proper.
Played from a third-person viewpoint, Vampyr keeps you on a fairly loose leash. I wouldn’t say this is an open world game like The Witcher 3, but you can wander around most of the surrounding areas if you so wish. On the back of World War One and in the midst of the Spanish Flu, London was not the tourist hotspot it is today. People are dying in their thousands, corpses lined the streets and you could be forgiven for thinking London itself was a war zone. This, of course, is historically accurate, a person could wake up healthy at breakfast and be dead by dinner. This is why I think Dontnod played a blinder when picking this setting for a vampire game because so many of the activities of a vampire could be conceivably masked by the flu. Additionally, many of the houses remain inaccessible but in this setting, it seems almost expected that some properties be boarded up and forgotten.
Interestingly the game also follows many of the tropes we associate with vampires, such as sunlight burning you, crosses causing blinding pain and gaining unnatural speed/strength. In addition to this, you must also seek the permission of an occupied house in order to enter, which is another clever way the developer can avoid having to leave every building open. My initial hour or two of Vampyr was something of a disappointment. The animation of Reid looks a little wooden, movement felt awkward, the combat felt lacklustre and I just wasn’t enjoying myself. Even upon arrival at Pembroke hospital, you are faced with the daunting task of interrogating the many NPC’s now in your immediate vicinity. I think this is a pacing issue because once I broke through these first few hours I really started enjoying the game and started looking forward to engaging with NPCs in conversation. If you also find this opening chapter a bit heavy on dialogue just stick with it, because the game does even out soon after and is well worth the wait.
I would say the gameplay is split into two overlapping sticks, the social networks for each area (of which there are four) and the fight for survival that occurs when moving around the game world. Your first safehouse is at the Pembroke Hospital and it is here that you start to learn how the social elements of Vampyr work. You can open a conversation with any of the main characters walking around and each one has numerous dialogue choices. You will notice that many of these are locked until you learn more information. You can do this by speaking to other NPCs in their social circle or by other means; like reading letters or finding clues. In many ways, this is a management game, where you must decide if you want to save an area or let it collapse into chaos. Your actions will directly affect the status of each zone and so draining every character you meet is not advisable: unless you like it messy. You can, in fact, play the entire game without killing one of these main NPC’s which in itself encourages numerous playthroughs.
As a vampire you need to drink blood, this is a given. However, in terms of sustenance, you are not constantly having to feed your hunger levels in order to survive. Killing (embracing) an NPC is all about the value of their blood because this is how you can gain new skills. The more secrets you have unlocked about a character the more experience you will gain (when/if you drain them) which can be used in the substantial ability trees. On one level this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense but as a game mechanic, it works just fine. The health of these characters is also an issue as they can get anything from a migraine to phenomena. As a doctor, you have the ability to craft medicine from resources you gather and then administer these cures as you talk to the affected person. A disease can also spread between people so it’s in your best interest to get citizens treated before you sleep. When you do finally retire to your bed and sleep through the day, the consquences of your actions will come into effect. Killing a local trader, for example, will drive prices up in that area. You can also very easily gate off entire quest lines (which I did), so tread carefully when deciding who to snack on. One thing I was very impressed with was how killing an NPC is recognised by others, especially if they were in that social circle.
Johnathan Reid is a doctor who swore to preserve life and yet here he finds himself transformed into a lethal predator that feeds on humans. This conflict is one of the best elements of Vampyr because it makes you feel the dilemma and see the results of your vampiric needs. Like the Little Sisters in Bioshock, you could either save them with a smaller reward or harvest them for all the resources (and power) and suffer moral corruption. As I led my first victim to his death, the music changed to a choir who became louder and more distressed the closer I got to the place I could kill. When I finally reached this secluded place I sank my teeth into the poor soul under my influence and the choir reached their crescendo. Then it was done. As my victim faded he spoke of how he regretted his mistakes and worried for his children (now orphans). I sat back in my chair and felt genuinely guilty. The next day I spoke to the two doctors in the hospital who were angry at not being able to help the man and worried about other patients. The developers have certainly kept their promise of giving players consequences that will give them pause for thought.
Does it sparkle?
Life is Strange was/is a fantastic game and one which had something of a visual contradiction. In many ways, the assets and textures used were of a low quality, yet with amazing lighting and good use of depth of field, the final result was far greater than the sum of its parts. Vampyr is certainly a big step up in visuals for this developer with the streets of London looking dark and foreboding. There is also a decent amount of detail on in the interiors from a roaring fireplace, family pictures and so many small touches that make buildings feel weathered and distressed. The lighting ranges from good to mind-blowing. Seeing Reids vampiric features flickering against candlelight is atmospheric but when someone points a cross your way the effects are dazzling. There are also plenty of other impressive visual effects such as the way your reflection (yes you have one) appears more like a distorted soul or the way Johnathan can shift to out of reach places. Unfortunately, there are some ugly spots here and there, one being the facial animations. This combined with the doll eyes that we saw in Life is Strange certainly kills a bit of that suspension of disbelief.
In the main, the voice actors did a great job here, apart from a few exceptions I found them believable and enjoyable to speak to. I also think the music in Vampyr is excellent because it often reacts to what is happening on the screen. In one scene Johnathan must perform an emergency operation and initially, he maintains control. However, as blood spills out of this unfortunate man our anti-hero has to fight his thirst. I thought the sound in this sequence was amazing because as I was on the brink of losing it there is a high pitched ringing that gets louder and louder. There are also plenty of environmental details which I noticed, stand near a crate in the rain for example and you can hear the distinct sound of wood being rained on. This is also true for metallic objects. As you walk the cobbled streets at night the drawn-out wail of a single violin really does add buckets of flavour to the melancholy and despair of a London dying.
Fangs at dawn
So at some point, you will have to get your claws dirty and deal with threats that come your way. Outside of social hubs, you can wield an array of melee and ranged weapons to take down foes. Like many elements of the game, my initial impression of combat wasn’t great but then as I progressed I became a fan. Right from the off, don’t expect this to be on a par with the likes of Arkham Knight because it simply isn’t in that league. Some of the animations look very wooden and in many cases, a fight can boil down to hit, dodge, repeat. However, as you gain more vampiric abilities the fights can become more satisfying while monitoring a stamina and blood gauge. Your vampire abilities use blood which can be replenished by stunning an enemy and nibbling their sweetmeats. You can also modify weapons to drain blood or have other effects.
There are actually a decent range of enemies to face in Vampyr, from criminals, other creatures and even a vampire hunting cult who come with some nifty tricks. These enemies will force you to change tactics and this helps keep combat feeling fresh. There are also themed boss fights which can present a real challenge to those unprepared. The bottom line is that while combat in Vampyr doesn’t break the mould it is enjoyable and lets you blow off some steam after the games more sedate activities.
Is it PC?
I ran Vampyr on an ageing 980 GTX, a CPU running at 4.2 GHz and 16 GB of DDR3. I was able to push all the options to the highest while playing in 1080p on an SSD. This gave me decent frame-rates and I only saw the occasional stutter when spinning the camera around fast. Controller support is good but I decided to play with mouse and keyboard (as always). I had to turn mouse sensitivity right down and had some problems binding keys, but I have been told this will be fixed on release. I only had one crash during my play and overall I was happy with how it ran on PC.
I remember the 16th of November 2004 pretty well because it was the date Half-life 2 released, I know this because I drove my car across Reading to activate it on a friends internet. On that fateful day another game released, Vampire Masquerade: Bloodlines. It has been almost remade these days (mainly by fans) but even in it’s broken state, Masquerade had something special and was by far the best Vampire game I had ever played. How this cult classic would hold up to a modern day Vampire game was one of the big questions I wanted to answer in this review.
I’ll be honest, when I saw that it was developers Dontnod who were making this game I had concerns, only because an action RPG was galaxies away from what they had done previously. After playing Vampyr all week I am happy to say they have nailed it (sorry) and have given us what can now be considered the best modern-day vampire game currently available. It has to be said that even today there are still elements of Masquerade that are still king and for this reason, I am still personally waiting for that ultimate vampire game. However, if you are looking for an enthralling adventure that gives the player true consequences for their actions you will have to go a long way to find a game better than Vampyr.