Vampyr Review – Sucking Gameplay?
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Release: 5th June 2018
With Life is Strange Dontnod delivered a great narrative game, ablet o carve a lasting space in the industry. Now, with two new narrative games announced, their often delayed Vampyr was finally due for release. Budgeted between independent and AAA, it features a promising unique take on the vampire genre, infused with the studio’s unique flare.
Playing as famous surgeon Jonathan E. Reid in London of 1918, who was turned in a vampire. After escaping the ever-present hunters, he finds himself trapped in a mystery surrounding both his unknown attacker and the devastating Spanish flu, ravaging in the city. Now it´s up to him, to either save the people he meets along his path, trusting them to lead his way or devour everyone whole, murdering his way to answers.
Although many may disagree, Life is Strange, similar to other Dontnod titles, didn´t have a great main plotline. A trend which can be seen in Vampyr too; the main mystery around the mysterious vampire master, Spanish flu and London´s trip into chaos not only sounds generic but plays out way too predictable. Especially the beginning feels like a cliché entry in a mediocre movie, rather than a new take on an existing formula. Exploring sewers, districts, helping citizens in the main quest … the pacing often loses itself in a surprising amount of seemingly undirected interludes. Naturally, the story can´t start off with all kinds of meaningful events but the first third of the 30 hours long campaign just feels too stretched out. For example, investigating the hospital storage and alike are all part of the early main quests, serving as tutorials. Yet, when I already beat a boss and level, I don´t need another, way easier dungeon to teach me the same but in a less interesting way.
Luckily, when things kick off, the whole thing can at least introduce more interesting aspects of the world and story. They´re still interrupted by pointless sounding side missions and padding, while never manage to create something truly exciting but are able to keep the player interested nonetheless, due to the main focus lying on the giant mystery. It´s not an amazing plot by all means and leaves a lot of potential untouched, since the fact Reid is a surgeon gets often ignored except in side missions and conversations. Instead, Vampyr tells yet another dark vampire story, that works but is nothing else than greatly written.
Speaking of writing, the true joy of playing Vampyr lies in something completely different: The characters. The not so big open world is divided into four big districts, each featuring their own one or two dozens of citizens. As previously stated, Reid´s conflict between vampire and surgeon is pretty much the core conflict, which is mainly illustrated through interactions with these people living in London. Mainly due to the complicated underlying district system. Each one of them has an own “health bar”, indicating how stable or dangerous the situation is. In order to evaluate this stat, the game looks at the status of every person living there. So if someone is sick or even dead, they will naturally affect everything in a negative way. Especially the so-called “pillars”, very important persons basically responsible for maintaining a status quo, can keep up or bring down one with ease.
So when citizens are so important why kill them? Easy, because they´re by far the biggest and easiest XP reservoirs of the game. Killing one gives you tons of XP but hurts the world. Now one could simply kill everyone he´s able to, ignoring the conflict to have an easy life. Even then Vampyr basically forces you to learn more about those people, since the more hints you gather about them, the higher your XP gain will be. Here lies Dontnod´s true power because every single one of them has an own unique backstory and problems.
What seemed like a forced endeavour to bring conflict into the game, quickly turns out the be a giant pool of creative writing. No matter where you look or whom you talk to, none of those citizens feel like NPCs but humans. They tell those dark stories of shattered lives the main plot can´t offer. They begin to grow on you as likeable characters, which deaths not only impact the game but your personal perspective too, after all, none of them deserves to die in this truly twisted world. Really, when I first came to the biggest hub “house” I spent 2 hours solely by talking to them, exploring dialogue options and so on. The fact you may learn new things through conversations with different citizens, crafts a unique, intertwined picture of this world, where citizens actually know each other. Every district feels like a microcosmos, with an own atmosphere, theme and struggles, portrayed by its inhabitants. Honestly, one of the best implementations of this system I´ve ever seen.
What´s holding back Vampyr from perfecting this experience, is, unfortunately, the combat. Dontnod tried to aim for a harder RPG but ended up delivering a clunky misinterpretation. Theoretically speaking, there´s everything one could want. From a normal light/heavy attack scheme with the ability to dodge or block to a handful of unique and amazing vampire abilities like a blood spear, shadow roots or the option to suck blood. However, especially the weapon combat suffers from the same problems many tiny titles do: It just feels stiff and unresponsive. Hits introduce a certain animation priority, meaning dodges feel delayed, while attacks feel slow. Mixed with he general slowness of animations. It doesn´t feel as bad as The Surge but definitely not good enough to make it work for 30 hours without frustrating the player. Luckily the game aimed for a classic save and restart system instead of a souls-like one, making it deaths less meaningful.
The biggest two-sided sword for me though are the abilities. Since Vampyr wants to be a harder game, the effect of those epic sounding powers was nerfed significantly. For example, a blood spear chops away a fifth of the health bar of a normal grunt, merely staggering him. Same with the bloodsucking ability. Given, otherwise, they would´ve probably ruined the balancing, yet, I can´t help but feel like there would have been a better way than degrading any kind of powerful attack to nothing more than a blood consuming, unspectacular attack. It just feels like such a wasted opportunity to give the combat system something truly epic and rememberable.
Last but not least the district aspect merges with the combat to a certain degree. When you want to upgrade your abilities you will have to sleep in safehouses. Every night each district evolves somewhat more, citizens become weaker or improve, depending on the people living there and so on. Particularly later on this introduces a neat, natural time limitation in the player´s mind, as no one wants the citizens to die by themselves, not giving you any XP or allowing to save the district. Additionally, there are quite a few side quests scattered around London, which have to be completed once you see them or risk killing the people in need. Otherwise, Vampyr remains a pretty straightforward game, focusing mainly on its citizens and their stories.
Where many might see the limited budget of Dontnod though is the technical framework. On the one hand, the game can masterfully create a unique atmosphere of a plagued London on the brink of its death. Textures, models, animations, all those things aren´t on par with current AAA titles, obviously. Nonetheless, all of those things soon blend together into a coherent experience. Only the mix of stiff animations with the already thematised frustrating still creates a unique kind of stiffness. Combined with the already poor framerate at times and long loading screens, playing Vampyr often feels like a way cheaper thing than needed, Seeing how one vital screw-up impacts the whole game is always interesting to see, not always nice though.
Vampyr is definitely not something for everyone. Too stiff and frustrating is the combat system at times to actually enjoy it to its fullest as a RPG. Instead, Dontnod´s latest game should yet again be enjoyed as a brilliantly narrated story. Only a few games offered the sheer mass of unique NPCs seen in this plagued London, mixed with a great system to illustrate the effect every one of them has on their district. If you´re in the mood for dozens of hours of dialogues and plot, then Vampyr is just the game for you.
[A Review Copy was provided by Koch Media]