2013’s Remember Me offered up an interesting story set in a cyberpunk universe hampered by fairly clunky combat, and 2015’s Life is Strange gave us an episodic, vaguely supernatural coming of age story which eschewed combat almost entirely. Vampyr, the third new franchise from developer DONTNOD, is kind of a blend of the two — a supernatural story hampered hugely by fairly clunky combat.
Set in 1918 at the height of the Spanish Flu epidemic, you play as Doctor
Blood Jonathan Reid, a world renowned surgeon and expert on the newly invented blood transfusion technique, who has returned from the war and through a twist of fate, been turned into a vampire. As tends to be the case in these things, Doctor Blood Reid is mistaken for dead and tossed into a mass grave, only to wake later, stumble twenty feet forward, and murder his sister with his vampire teeth.
After a quick jaunt through a basic tutorial section which sees Doctor
Blood Reid hunted by vampire slayers, you end up tracking your vampire dad to a pub, only to discover he isn’t there, and in the process meet the administrator of a hospital, who you then kind of team-up with to take down a completely insane vampire murderer. This administrator, knowing fully that you are a vampire, offers you a job working the night shift at his hospital to use as cover.
His hospital full of the sick, infirm, and easily bite-able patients.
Once here, you have the meat of the game. Solve your own death, do sidequests, and maybe get a fix of blood right off the tap. Craft medicines to heal people, or hypnotize them, walk them into a corner, and drink their blood for incredible EXP gains. A huge moral dilemma sits at the center of this particular video game experience: Be a good doctor and help the sick, which improves things for everyone in whichever specific district of London you’re questing in at the moment, or drink all of the blood and dump that experience into combat skills to actually get through the combat.
It’ll definitely make things bad for you and London as a whole, but the combat is kludgy enough that maybe it’s a requirement for success. Earning experience through drinking blood or through fights lets you dump experience into a variety of skills, both melee and ranged. A stronger bite for when you drink the blood of your enemies, or a longer bite to drink more blood in one go? A lance of blood you fire from your hand, or vampiric claws for terrible rending damage? Or how about more health, more stamina, or a bigger stomach for holding all that blood?
That’s probably where the blood is stored, right?
Unfortunately, as soon as you find yourself fighting more than a single enemy the combat becomes exceptionally frustrating. In fact even a single enemy can be an issue. By default you have a visually cool looking dash — you can flit around to avoid attacks or get a bit of breathing room. It’s a core part of the combat, and it seemed to fail me as much as it worked. If I would dash super early, it was fine, but if an enemy began to telegraph an attack and I used the dash before it landed, it was a coin-flip on whether or not the attack would hit me, even though I was mid-dash.
If an attack hits you, you can find yourself receiving multiple attacks in a row. In one encounter against one of the first non-tutorial enemies, I was hit mid-dash, and then my controls stopped responding as I was hit over and over until I was dead. That was just against a single enemy. Against multiple enemies, you can dash out of one attack and suddenly find yourself being connected with another enemy’s already in-progress hit, even though you would expect they shouldn’t be able to track you like that.
It leads to a lot of running around in circles, waiting for your stamina to recharge so you can keep dashing and maybe hit back once or twice, until everything is finally dead and you get to explore for a minute before you have to fight the next thing.
Honestly, all the video game outside of the combat is fine enough that if this game had no combat, Vampyr would be much more enjoyable. In terms of dialogue choices and banter everything is suitably British, with Doctor
Blood Reid popping off with an air of poshness, while the various other characters run the gamut from well-bred to hard cockney. In a city like London, where walking ten feet can bring you up against a new type of accent, the London presented here does justice to the sheer variety of voices you might meet. Most of the characters themselves are easy to believe as being real, authentic people dealing with the horrors of an epidemic raging through their city, and most of them have enough motivation to truly flesh out the social web shown off in each district.
The fact that the areas you inhabit react to your choices, whether or not you heal the sick or kill them, is maybe one of the coolest features of the game. Letting London turn to shit has very tangible consequences; stronger, much more deadly enemies will roam the streets, making traversal and even basic survival a trial of patience.
This inter-connectivity between your choices and the actual areas you move through is cool. Very cool. Coupled with a decent vampire origin story, it’s enough to suffer the combat to get that sweet reward. But only just. If you’re the type who needs their games to play well, this might not be the experience for you. If you can handle frustrating fights while getting into a solid plot, maybe Vampyr is something you want to look at.
This review is based on a copy of the game sent to SideQuesting by the publisher.