I’ve played a lot of video games – it’s an occupational hazard. I’ve also reviewed a lot of those video games and while most have been great, you occasionally have to review a title that’s (how to put this delicately?) hot garbage. But even though a review title might fall into the “hot garbage” category, there’s normally a level of enjoyment to be found somewhere. I’ve never, for example, felt bored while reviewing a video game, no matter how rubbish it was. But then along came Vampyr, a role-playing game so stuffy and dull in its execution that I really struggled to sit down and sink my teeth into it.
I’m a little bewildered as to how Vampyr came about. It’s a Dontnod game, and last time I checked, the French development house was putting out some solid offerings. Life is Strange, for example, has a massive cult following and netted a ton of industry awards, and Remember Me was, while a little flawed in areas, a really interesting concept with its memory remixing mechanic and neo-Paris setting. Vampyr feels like a game made by a totally different company.
You take on the role of Jonathan Reid, a returning World War I medical officer and doctor who has made a name for himself through his contribution to blood transfusions. Right at the start of the game, Jonathan is attacked in the streets, turned into a vampire, and left for dead. During this particular time, London is in the grip of a major Spanish Flu epidemic, and what with World War I keeping most of the globe occupied, this flu rips its way through London leaving the streets festooned with icky, plague-ridden bodies and “no-go” quarantine zones.
Of course, Jonathan doesn’t stay dead for long, and soon he’s clawing his way out of a mass grave with a new lease on (un)life and an insatiable thirst for blood… or as Jonathan refers to it at one point, “the crimson nectar” – I’m not making that up. Did I mention the writing in this game gets pretty strained at times?
Vampyr is a mash-up between an RPG lite and an interactive narrative. The latter comparison is due to the fact that the vast majority of your time in the game is spent talking to characters in order to advance. Interactive narrative experiences rely on fully realised, memorable characters and a plot with at least a smattering of intrigue. Vampyr has neither of these, and throughout my time with the game and interacting with its plethora of characters, I didn’t find a single one that I gave two shits about. The story is similarly dull and focuses on Jonathan’s quest to find out who turned him into a vampire as if that would suddenly make his transformation acceptable. Get the whole experience to play out against the backdrop of a plague-riddled, World War I era London with heaps of medical themes, and you’ve got a dull as mud RPG that plays like an episode of The Crown meets Call the Midwife – just with less royalty and babies, and more Spanish Flu and blood-sucking. All the medical themes within the context of vampirism and flu outbreaks might appeal to some, but I found the whole experience to be about as titillating as porn narrated by David Attenborough.
But the overall drab experience isn’t without some considerable frustrations. The thing with Vampyr is that there are some genuinely great ideas in the game, but they’re just executed rather badly. One of the most obvious clever ideas is that the game lacks a difficulty setting and instead gets you to decide which NPC character Jonathan will “mesmerise”, lure off into the shadows, and drain of blood. Your XP gain and how you unlock the admittedly rather cool set of abilities is directly tied to devouring characters. So if you’re finding combat a little tough and you need to unlock more abilities to tackle a particularly difficult encounter, then you could in theory go off and murder a bunch of characters to gain an XP boost. However, right from the start of the game you’re cautioned that your decisions on who lives or dies will affect the various districts in the game; and while that sounds like a fun way to unlock XP with some lasting narrative consequences, it never really feels as impactful as it’s made out.
Furthermore, you can’t just waltz off into the shadows and suck the life out of every character you want to, because different characters require different levels of mesmerise. The game doesn’t make it immediately clear how you increase your level of mesmerise either. Suddenly the notion of you having to decide which characters to murder or which to spare becomes moot, because the seemingly more plot-important NPC characters are gated behind this artificial, numerical barrier so that one presumably doesn’t break the game. It’s an example of a neat game mechanic sounding better on paper.
Then there’s the combat, which is horrendous. Animation and controls feel very floaty, and combat all too often degrades into extended kiting encounters as you slowly chip away slivers of health from the more ferocious boss-types. There are very few positives to be found in the game’s combat system, which often feels broken and counter-intuitive. Combat feels like a tacked-on element, or a portion of the game that received less budget during development.
So with combat adding very little to the experience, one is left relying on the NPC character interactions and dialogue trees to drive your gameplay forward. Unfortunately far too many of those interactions are unfathomably boring. You’ll encounter dozens of characters, but none of them are memorable or particularly interesting. Dialogues are often very, very lengthy affairs that are full of repetition, with different dialogue options eliciting similar results within the same encounter. At one point I spent some time discussing “the sewer dog” with an NPC, only to have Jonathan move on to the next dialogue encounter and immediately ask the new NPC, “What is the sewer dog?” Honestly I was amazed. I thought, “Seriously, Jonathan? Were you not paying attention? We literally JUST discussed the sewer dog with the barman. Try to keep up, please.”
The game uses a dialogue wheel similar to Mass Effect, but don’t expect anything remotely as engaging as the character interactions you’d find in Bioware’s space opera. It’s just yet another frustration: dialogue is supposed to entice you into learning more about NPC characters so that you can unlock greater XP boosts should you decide to take a sip of their crimson nectar. Sadly, the characters are so wooden and uninspired that the thought of having to wade through reams of dialogue for an extra 250XP points is hardly an exciting prospect.