Coursing Through Thine Veins

HIGH The player’s choices have far-reaching consequences.

LOW Repetitive encounters and samey-looking environments.

WTF No fast travel and constantly respawning enemies?!

Vampyr is a prime example of a double-A title offering a surprisingly strong premise and a decent trifecta of drama, combat and exploration despite a lacking presentation and failing to fully frame the protagonist’s inner turbulence. Though I was initially drawn to it thanks to other reviewers describing it as a “soulslike,” this game goes beyond that label and ends up a triumph, albeit not a flawless one. 

Set in an early 20th century London on its knees due to a raging plague and the looming shadow of WWI, the story opens with would-be prophetic lines spilled out at a cadence trying to mimic Shakespeare. As the echo of these lines swirls over a ditch full of dead bodies, the camera slowly hones in on their focus – middle-aged Jonathan Reid, lying dead atop the pile.

Suddenly opening his eyes as the voice of the narrator climbs to a zenith, Reid finds himself back in the living world, now ridden with the curse of vampirism. However, more than just a member of the undead, he’s still an esteemed surgeon — one who’s performed blood transfusions a plenty, and enjoys an excellent reputation among his peers.

Vampyr spends a lot of time postulating on the routes a scientifically-inclined, logical vampire would follow to ‘solve’ their situation. This may or not equal a cure, since the main story beats sway towards both a head-on resolution and also to what might be the true nature of ‘divine interventions’ in the centuries leading up to this historical setting.

Personally, I didn’t expect to stumble upon something that entertains so many philosophical sides of this premise. In support of this, Vampyr is chock-full of well-written and well-acted dialogue. Midway through the prologue, Dr. Jonathan Reid reveals his determination to fully unmask the façade of something he’s not sure is entirely supernatural, and his resolve grants a fresh status to the horror that someone might experience from a situation like his.

Aside from Reid, the cast has several mainstays whose personas become enriched as the plot progresses, yet, the legions of side characters populating this ultra-bleak version of London are the real stars here. Each of the city’s four districts is home to a group whose inner relations are already established and direct their lives.

Every night, Reid can freely mingle with the cast, interview them on intertwining topics, and possibly uncover a way to fix some of their current predicaments. This is done by selecting an answer from a list or completing a short quest for these troubled individuals. Of course, most of them hide dark secrets that are believable and human, each of them worthy of a character study by Reid. So, one of the tabs in the menu is dedicated to his notes on these characters’ traits, allowing the doctor to make deductions about how to pressure them into getting to the meat of each matter.

…But why bother with niceties when a vampire is surely able to overpower mere humans? For one, we need to level-up our anti-hero (alas, the enemies often come prepared) and completing side quests grants us experience points. It’s true that drinking blood opens up the skill tree and allows us to prepare Dr. Reid for his new way of “life,” but there’s a catch – while we can mesmerize almost any denizen and make them follow us to the nearest gloomy alley for a meal, emptying the streets of London won’t do us much good. The districts have their own ‘health bars,’ and if we are overzealous with feeding, they succumb to chaos. At that point, normal humans will no longer appear in that area, and in their place, we’ll find increasing numbers of infected beings that would otherwise dwell underneath the surface.

So, while we could hunt everyone in sight if we choose to, I opted for the humanitarian approach and cared for the cast, which often meant having to muster remedies for a list of random illnesses (headache, cold, fatigue, etc.) and offering any other sort of help that was needed.

Keeping up with this workload isn’t easy, though. Vampyr is stingy with its color palate, so the districts look similar, and the whole map is tilted somewhat queerly, making it hard to remember the layout of the streets. On top of that, there’s no option for fast traveling, so anytime I needed to help someone on the other side of the map, I had to re-trace the same path, over and over again, every single night. This wouldn’t have been such a drag if it wasn’t for respawning enemy groups.

As mentioned in the opening, Vampyr indeed is a soulslike of sorts, offering an impactful combination of stamina-draining actions (attacks with our main and off-hand weapons), blood-draining superpowers (casting exploding mist, firing a blood lance, etc.), and a cooldown-based ultimate move — but not much more.

Though this may sound exciting on paper, there aren’t many combos that one can use to maintain the combat’s freshness, and the severely limited enemy variety exacerbates it. This becomes more prevalent as the adventure nears its conclusion — I expected some late-game discovery that would allow me to fire on all cylinders at once and steamroll my opposition, but alas, no spectacular evolutions happen combat-wise, ever.

The underdeveloped combat is far from a deal breaker, though. Vampyr successfully sinks its fangs into most of its topics, not only catching me off-guard in its profound exploration of the vampire mythos, but also enthralling me with Jonathan Reid’s razor-sharp focus on getting to the bottom of it all. Anyone hungry for a vampire-themed adventure with both blood and brains would do well to join this one in the shadows of the night.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

— Konstantin Koteski

Disclosures: This game is developed by Dontnod Entertainment and published by Focus Home Interactive. It is currently available on PS4, XBO, Switch and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the PS4 Pro. Approximately 20 hours of play were devoted to the game and the game was completed. This is a single-player only experience.

Parents: This game has received an “M” rating by the ESRB, and contains Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, and Use of Drugs. The official rating summary reads: “This is a third-person action game in which players assume the role of a surgeon (Jonathan Reid) roaming through London as a vampire. Players learn vampire skills/abilities; track citizens as potential prey; and battle other vampires, ghouls, and vampire hunters in frenetic combat. Characters mostly use swords or guns to attack enemies; Jonathan can also rip out the throats of human enemies by stalking and biting them. Some sequences depict executions of characters on and off-screen—a man’s decapitated head appears on the ground in one off-screen killing. Blood-splatter effects occur frequently, and some environments depict mutilated corpses covered in blood. The game includes some sexual material: references to a priest molesting a child; a prostitute soliciting a character on the street (e.g., “Pay me a glass and I’ll be gentle…Pay me a bottle, and I’ll be nasty…I promise I’m cheap and clean.”). During the course of the game, a character is depicted slapping his arm for a vein, then injecting himself with a drug off-screen (“that is better…I will make it through one more night.”). The words “f**k” and “sh*t” appear in the dialogue.”

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I’ve played around two hours with the sound turned off and didn’t have much trouble. Granted, some enemies signal their follow-up ranged attack (i.e. a pistol shot) via a sound cue, but the rhythm of their repeating attack patterns is not hard to identify with sound muted. On the other hand, reading the texts of the collectible items was a bit of a hassle since the font was smaller than I’d like. However, Jonathan will comment on any important find, making it easy to keep track without trying to make out every single line. Also, there are three options for the size of the subtitles. I’d say this game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: This game offers a controller diagram, but the control scheme is not remappable. The sticks move the character and the camera, the directional buttons are for switching weapons and using healing items, the face buttons are for attacking and dodging and the bumpers are for special attacks.

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1 month ago

I will always read “Vampyr” as “vam-purr.”