As the summer of 2018 approached, my gaming library was in desperate need of a palate cleanser. Dontnod’s Vampyr, an RPG centred around the Spanish flu epidemic in post-war London sounded right up my street. My feelings about this confounded game are legion and what better way to air my grievances than to the entire world. Let’s dissect Vampyr for what it is and why I consider it to be one of the most disappointing games of this decade.
Shadow Of The Beast
When Dontnod released Life Is Strange, their small development team expanded, as did their aspirations. The studio had already posited the concept of a vampire role-playing game, but couldn’t settle on a location. America was considered but soon dismissed, no doubt to avoid comparison to Vampire: The Masquerade. London was chosen as a more traditional location to covey a sense of gothic atmosphere. The game is set in post-war Britain plagued by the Spanish flu which killed 50-100 million people throughout the world. Despite being set long after the death of Queen Victoria, the architecture of each district remains mainly Victorian, possibly to extend appeal.
As an avid fan of histories darker side, the connection between Spanish flu and vampires makes sense. It’s odd to think of, but not too long ago, people did believe in vampires. This belief becomes widespread during the tuberculosis outbreaks of the 19th century, leading many to connect the exsanguinate looking victims of TB, with these mythical bloodsuckers in campy cloaks. Funnily enough, Bram Stoker wrote his Gothic masterpiece, Dracula, after reading of a family who believed their dead mother was killing them off from beyond the grave. The Spanish flu has similar symptoms to TB, along with a reddish glow around the eyes. You’d be forgiven for suggesting demonic possession as a prognosis.
I admit it; the concept appealed to me. For so long, Vampires have been relegated to love interests in third-rate teen movies; far removed from the fear these creatures installed in people only a few hundred years ago. A reboot for old pale and handsome was sorely needed.
The Void Within Us All
You play Dr Johnathan Reed, a recently deceased doctor who has returned from the dead thanks to a lucky or unlucky meeting with a vampire. As he wanders around the docks, he quenches his new thirst for blood, biting into his sister’s neck; go figure. Despite being as pale as a Scotsman on holiday, with eyes as red as Beelzebub himself, the good doctor manages to pass as a normal human being as he and a small group of followers, help find a cure to whatever sickness is behind the flu.
This acceptance of fact is just one of many suspensions of disbelief you’re expected to accept in Vampyr. Reed isn’t a healthy man, but no-one feels the need to mention it. I admit that humanity has thrived on its ability to label and rationalise things. Still, for god sake, this man has no discernible heartbeat and lifeless eyes as black as coal.
Unfortunately, the story of Vampyr is as dead as its protagonist. A lifeless tapestry of cliches, knotted together to form a passible, but overly long and tedious tale. RPG’s live and die on two things – Narrative and interesting characters, both of which are severely lacking. Two outliers jump to mind, both side-quests. A woman with vampiric delusions, and a rough cockney gang leader who’s hiding his feelings, for fear of being denounced from his position. These quests shine but are fleeting and rare.
The main story? Surprise! London is secretly ruled by a hierarchy of posh vampires who keep lower vampiric forms in check, because when is that not the case. There are also werewolves, because why not. It’s never explained why they exist, but I think Dontnod just though people would expect them. A lost opportunity on every level.
Dead On Arrival
Vampyr’s gameplay is infuriating, mainly due to the poorly implemented combat sections which are drawn out and unforgiving. Enemies, from the lowly vampire hunter to the frenzied werewolf, ingest attacks like sponges with long, sharp claws. Reed is outfitted with a sword and pistol, which is useful in tight situations, but ammo is rare. Melee weapons are ineffectual and lack weight, making battles feel like you’re attacking air. You can upgrade several vampiric powers that are essential for later moments in the game. These special moves deplete from a blood bar, that must be filled by you enemies blood, rats or innocent citizens.
Each London district has a health bar that outlines the effects the plague has had on that area. You can improve the district health through completing side quests for people or give into you baser instincts and drain every unfortunate you come across. This introduces the one redeeming concept in Vampyr, that of consequences. If you choose to help people, they will become healthier, and their blood quality will improve, making them a worthy victim for your needs. But, their death will affect the local area, affecting the outcome of the ending. However, due to the sponginess of enemies, your need for blood and upgrades will always outdo the stale dialogue of the Londoners you’ll meet.
Graphics are a mixed bag — a combination of previous generation textures and impressively atmospheric lighting techniques. At times I was genuinely impressed but was quickly reminded of the game’s graphical limitations when forced to watch the horrifically moulded, 6th generation-eq character models. Vampyr is a study in boundless aspiration and limited budget.
Vampyr annoys me. It started as a promising RPG that could revive the use of vampire for more than pulpy love interests. Instead, it’s a jumbled mess of half-baked ideas and lifeless gameplay. I do not doubt that this game will, with time, become a cult classic with fierce supporters and detractors. As it stands now, Vampyr feels like a lost opportunity that required more time and funding to bring to fruition. Will this be the game’s legacy, well, that’s for history to decide. All I know is that it left me disappointed, with less cash in my pocket than previously. My only hope is that Dontnod takes this experience and learns from it.