Posted on 17 Nov 2018 by L Coulsen

Vampyr

The Defence

Developer: DONTNOD Entertainment
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Genre: Action, Adventure, Role Playing
Platform: Consoles, PC
Review copy: Yes
Release date: No data.

The Prosecution

Minimum
Recommended
OS: Windows
CPU: Intel Core i3 2130 @3.4 GHz
AMD FX 4100 @ 3.6 GHz
VGA: Nvidia GeForce 1050 2GB
AMD Radeon R7 370 2GB
RAM: 8 GB
HDD: 20 GB
DirectX: 10
Controller: Full
Mod Support: Yes
VR: Yes
FOV Slider: Yes
FPS Lock: 30
OS: Windows
CPU: Intel Core i7 3930K @3.2 GHz
AMD Ryzen 5 1600 @3.2 GHz
VGA: Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 4GB
AMD Radeon R9 390 4GB
RAM: 16 GB
HDD: 20 GB
DirectX: 10
Controller: Full
Mod Support: Yes
VR: Yes
FOV Slider: Yes
FPS Lock: 30

The Case

DONTNOD have been around for a while now, longer than some may realise. Though they may have only risen to prominence more recently, especially after the release of Life is Strange, their earlier game was a 3rd person action title. So far from being a departure, Vampyr would be better categorised as a return to form. But the real question, is does it succeed, or fall short like their first foray into the genre?

The Trial

Set against the very real Spanish flu epidemic that swept London during the early 20th century, DONTNOD have used those events as a springboard to tie vampires into the narrative. One could certainly argue this is in poor taste, but they have treated the subject with all of the gravity such a catastrophe deserves. At least, for the most part. Minor spoiler, it quickly becomes apparent that vampires are, in fact, the cause of the epidemic, as well as the catalyst for its explosive spread. Not the worst idea, but it’s not exactly original either.

Sadly, this is far from the worst issue in Vampyr‘s narrative. It starts out quite strong actually, the first two chapters being a superb introduction to the setting, themes and most of the major characters. Initially sucking me in and quickly getting me extremely invested in Doctor Reid’s journey. Honestly, the character himself was compelling enough, and so perfectly voiced by Anthony Howell, that my opinion towards him didn’t change during my entire 20ish hours of play time.

However, from chapter 3 onwards, the story just completely fell apart. In one scene alone, there were multiple contradictions to established events, even as they were happening, and it only went downhill from there. I won’t go into too much detail, but basically, there is a character who dies near the beginning of the game who returns as a vampire. That’s fine, a little cliché, but hardly a major issue in itself. The problem is that this character is firmly seen as, conclusively, dead the entire time. Only to reveal that they have, in fact, been following John boy the entire time, whilst dead, and being buried, but somehow out of the ground and physically stalking after him. Riiiight. Later plot points are less egregious, not exactly contradicting or breaking the rules, they just become kind of…moot. And more than a little predictable.

The biggest problems come from the gameplay. The combat is just, bad. Not insufferable or overly difficult, though it is poorly balanced. It commits are far more damaging sin of just being boring. Especially if you indulge yourself and start ’embracing’ (drinking the blood) of the people you encounter. The EXP boost such actions give will have you so rapidly overpowered it’s not even funny. It goes straight past that point to become hilarious. If you resist the urge, you’ll just have to grind a bit, which is just plain irritating. Though, there are side quests you can do, along the way, to gain EXP faster.

Now listen here, you great lump.

Or, you can just game the system. As each day passes, which happens when you rest, there is a chance people in the districts you have discovered will become ill. Some of this makes sense, getting a cold or suffering fatigue, but some people will end up with neuralgia?! Anyway, you can craft cures for all of these diseases (yes, cures, not treatments) that will grant you with experience for the price of some readily available resources. Rest, let more people get ill, repeat.

I actually like the idea of how the townsfolk can be affected by illness, but it’s so ‘gamey’ that it loses any and all impact it could have had. Especially during the lynchpin plot points, where your decisions have a direct impact over an entire district. One, in particular, really drove home the point of how ill conceived this system was. By turning an influential character into a vampire, the following day, suddenly, everyone is ill because…he has money I guess? Yeah, guys, that’s not how illness works. And yes, okay, that might be a nitpick, but it’s something that just really broke my engagement, not least because of how easy it is to exploit for character advancement.

There’s also that moment at the end, if one is going for a ‘pacifist’ run. Not killing any of the named NPCs. John-john will actually comment on this, in the game’s closing moments. Boasting how he has resisted his vampire nature, and not taken a single Human life since his change. Apart from, you know, those 300+ enemies that I murdered the ever loving fuck out of. Often drinking them dry because it’s a great way to both kill the enemy, and heal yourself at the same time. Yeah, fuck those guys, amirite?

Now, having said all of that, those are the biggest issues the game has. And whilst the plot itself is not what one would call expert, the actual dialogue is consistently quite strong. In no small part because DONTNOD found themselves an absolutely superb cast of actors to bring the characters to life. None of the performances are what I would call anything less than good, with something being genuinely top of their game. That certainly helps take a lot of the sting out of the clumsiness of its overall execution.

Also poor Jonathan, I knew him well.

Visually, Vampyr is also extremely impressive. Running on the Unreal engine, it’s pretty hard for it not to be, but the art style is also to a high standard. London looks consistent throughout, though each area has a distinct feel to it, despite the similarities. It’s genuinely very impressive how everything can look so much the same, but distinct at the same time. Meanwhile, character models are well detailed and extremely expressive both in the face and with body language. None of this awkwardly wiggling in place, for the most part at least.

Audio wise, it’s a bit more of a mixed bag. The music is very good, featuring a lot of cello to give it a very gothic feel. The sound design during the first major plot decision was especially strong, really sucking me in to the moment. It’s a real standout, extremely tense. Unfortunately, the music is so omnipresent that it often becomes irritating, or even downright infuriating at times. Because it seems to just fade in and out whenever the hell it wants, so that it can sometimes drown out what people are saying. The problem being, if you do turn it down, the more incidental moments become a tad on the quiet side, making the sound balance generally, well, unbalanced.

Sound effects are more consistent, being to a high quality and generally packing the punch one would expect. Combat sounds can be a bit dull, but in a good way. Jabbing an axe into sometimes stomach isn’t going to make a loud, resounding thunk after all. Most impact sounds come out more as wet slaps, which is rather effective at driving home the fact someone has just been shivved up. Whilst footsteps echo with suitable aplomb, effectively emphasising how desolate the nighttime streets have become.

The game’s strongest point, however, is actually in the gameplay. Specifically, the way character interactions work. Like many games, it has a morality system, but unlike most, it’s not as straightforward was ‘be a saint’ or ‘be a complete dick’. The red Y that stands out so much in the logo, is also used in certain dialogue choices, giving us three options rather than the typical binary. I really like that, I think it’s a great touch. Better still, those three choices actually do mean something, and pretty much always fall into shades of grey.

Hmm, what's all this then?

The most interesting part is during those aforementioned lynchpin moments. Whilst there is typically a quite obvious ‘bad’ choice, the other two aren’t necessarily better. It always comes down to measuring the needs of different groups against each other and trying to decide who will be the least negatively affected. Not always the easiest thing to work out. Now, the lynchpin moments themselves are where this system struggles most, because of things like everyone getting ill overnight mentioned above. But during most conversations it becomes far more interesting.

Each character has a certain number of ‘hints’ that will allow you to glean further insight into their personalities and histories. Some of these you come across by observing their actions, but some can only be unlocked by talking to the right person about the right thing. And if you say, or do, the wrong thing, you can permanently miss out of the opportunity to learn these things. It does make you pause and consider what you intend to do and say next sometimes. Because there are some points where these tidbits will have a direct impact over an NPC, or even the larger story.

Like the young woman you find eating rats towards the end of the game for example. Observing her rambling in a corner will clue you in that she was mesmerised by a bored vampire, and give you the opportunity to break their control so she can go back to leading a, relatively, normal life. Little moments like this do really help keep one invested, despite the problems.

The Verdict

Ultimately, Vampyr is a flawed game that does have some redeeming value. The combat de-emphasising mode that was added post release doesn’t help matters, it just further highlights how poor the combat is. Whilst the greater narrative is so clunky it fails at telling the deep, complex story it so fervently wants to tell. However, the general feel of the game and it’s protagonist are strong enough that I still do, with large provisos, recommend at least giving it a look.

Case Review

  • Characters: Most of them are really interesting, with some being true standouts.

  • Visuals: Unreal looks great, no surprise, but a strong art style is what really makes the game look good.

  • Gameplay: The conversation system is pretty good, but the combat is just boring.

  • Narrative: Starts out strong, but just falls apart and keeps spiralling downwards from a third of the way in.

  • Very ‘Gamey’: The whole illness mechanic is a nice idea, but implemented in a way too clumsy to carry any weight.

  • Combat: It’s just plain boring. An irritation, with some cheap challenge difficulty spikes.

3 Score: 3/5
An interesting idea, sadly botched in its execution.

Evidence

  • Audio: All the usual suspects, but the sound balance is a bit wonky, so even by tweaking them it doesn't ever really feel like you can get it just right.
  • Controls: Fully customisable keyboard controls and full controller support. The latter is the better option, but the former is perfectly servicable.
  • Graphics Settings: A surprisngly low amount on offer, but it covers all of the essentials and gives a reasonable degree of customisability.

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