Vampyr is set against the backdrop of the Spanish Flu outbreak of London, an actual historical event that took place near the end of World War I and by all indications was just the worst. The game is fascinating mix of conversation trees, Bloodborne type combat, and a dash of Downton Abbey. Yes, you read that right. In fact the Downton Abbey type class warfare takes on a whole new image in this particular picture of epidemic London.
Your character, Dr. Reid, is a new vampire or “new born” and hates absolutely everything about it. He’s constantly at war with himself, his Hippocratic oath as a Doctor versus his lust for the blood of his patients. This dynamic allows the game to do something unique for action RPG’s, you can kill your quest-givers. To throw some incentive into the mix the NPC’s you talk to are typically worth gallons more experience than the actual baddies you fight in London alleyways. A random thug in the street might be worth twenty five experience, while a sweet nurse you work with in the hospital is worth thousands. The game makers wanted you to feel the temptation an actual vampire would feel, and they succeeded.
The crux for the player is essentially this: If you want to become more powerful you will need to feed on the people you are trying to heal. If you decide against that, (the good vampire) then you’ll be attempting to figure out puzzles and fights while at a seemingly low power level. Here’s the really vile part; The way to get the most blood power from patients is to make them healthy, heal them fully and feed on them once they’re on the road to recovery, ouch.
Early on I realized I needed to choose a road. I wasn’t going to kill a few nice patients only. I would either emerge as a Boy-Scout-Who-Always-Kisses-His-Mother vampire who eats rats only or I would go full on Dracula mode and feast my dead heart out. I can tell you with some certainty Vampyr is best experienced by avoiding a middle road.
For most of the game I really never felt the need to overpower Dr. Reid. The game simply isn’t difficult enough to demand that you “hit the blood gym bro” so for a solid ten hours of play through I was the nicest sweetest lost soul you’ve ever seen.
Then something happened.
Many of the NPCs are actual A holes, just pure gutter mush. Some of them are criminal and violent and openly mock Dr. Reid as he’s literally giving them treatments to save their lives. One of them openly admits being violent to his family and casually mentions in deep cockney that now that he’s healthy the violence to his family will probably happen again.
It was after my first feeding that I saw the consequences the game had cooked up for me. First, as you kill the characters of a given area that area will then become more chaotic, with stronger and more frequent enemies. This almost negates the leveling up you do to your own character. Why am I making myself stronger if the game will just juice the enemies at the same time? Second, as the neighborhood begins to fall apart you will eventually lose the entire quest line of the person you fed on, even if they were grade A water garbage.
You will feel a pull to try and stay as good as possible. Dr. Reid’s dialogue makes it pretty clear where he stands on all this and for a time I wanted to honor his wishes of not being a Blood-Drunk-Frat-Bro.
Eventually for me, being good became too much of a chore. Constantly worrying about the health of a neighborhood and seeing characters occasionally die off despite my best efforts to save them was frustrating. Meanwhile the skill-tree of Dr. Reid has some downright tempting moves to gain and use. The game dangles that out in a very alluring way “Hey look at all this cool crap you can do if you get more blood.” So shortly after I killed Mr. Domestic Violence I decided it was too hard to stay on this balancing beam. I’m trying to keep a chunk of the city alive and vibrant but it’s all heading to chaos anyway. My new rule became thus; keep my home turf (The Hospital) in a good position. The staff and patients were off-limits for feeding. Every other neighborhood can go to actual hell. While I’m on the Hospital grounds I’m Mr-Nice-And-Dead. Once I leave the hospital I flip the switch to Super-Hardcore-Blood-Bro.
With my new Vampyr morality firmly in my head and my dead heart I began to let loose a bit, which is what probably happens eventually with vampires anyway. I leveled the good Doctor up and purchased through blood an assortment of abilities that made him a Bad-Ass-Grade A-Type-Blood-Killer.
I noticed that as you level him up his appearance changes. He looks less human, more pale, freakier eyes, and generally looks like he cannot hide who he is anymore. It was a surprising effect that the game never really points out. It just lets the player notice.
Oh yeah, I mentioned Downton Abbey right?
There is the typical class warfare of the time. There’s working class and some nobility. There’s pubs where talks of communism are frequent. There’s WWI Veterans who are dealing with trauma and trying to adjust to life under this new set of nightmares. There’s a general sneer at Dr. Reid when he is walking around the poorer neighborhoods. But there’s also a class warfare among the vampires themselves.
Good news! Dr. Reid is one of the fancy vampires! That’s not even a spoiler. There is a second class of vampire who are a bit more animalistic, physically gross, and generally wearing tatters. They have their own little society and you can love them or hate them. The choice is yours.
Eventually your choices as a blood sucker will lead you to one of four possible endings that hold ramifications for the entire city of London.
The gameplay feels like two separate games. One part conversing and handling investigations. The other is traversal and combat, the former is engaging enough that every character gets a backstory and a future determined by you, the latter can be as simple (or as complicated) as the player wants.
If you’re being a very good boy you won’t have many vampire abilities. Your combat efficacy will be through the random weapons you find in the environment and upgrading them. You’ll essentially be fighting as if you’re a human. I went with a two-handed approach, in my right was a surgical hacksaw that was quick and had good reach. In my left hand was a knife with a small tube that would do less damage but would give me blood from my enemies to power my cool vampire shit.
If you’re a Blood-Raged-Steroid-Vampire-Bro then you’ll have an assortment of supernatural moves you can use. Creating shadows in the environment that damage enemies or one particularly nasty move that is an actual “blood spear” are two of the more intense options. I was briefly reminded of Star Wars; in that the Jedi never seem to have abilities that are as cool as the Sith. Jedi don’t use force lightning. Vampires apparently are the same way. If you’re evil you find out that it can in fact be a bit more fun.
Combat is a cut and jab situation. Quick dodges and quick stabs along with parrying if you wish. Once you’re out of blood you must take it from your foes meaning the enemies you face are literally the vessels you need to heal.
Traversal is sadly the biggest negative you’ll probably find. Getting to a certain location on a map can be frustrating, especially if the location is above or below you. The environment is very much 3D but the overall map has a difficult time transposing that to the player.
At the end of the day, (or night) the sticking point of the game is that the outer world will become a reflection of Dr. Reid. A more evil Vampire-Getting-Sick-Blood-Reps will result in a more evil world that reflects him. A savior vampire will bring about a world that looks slightly more hopeful. Dr. Reid’s penny dreadful adventure is ultimately one where the mirror on himself will reflect the world.
PS – In this game mirrors DO show vampire reflection. It’s a great feature since all the King’s Glass around London gives very imperfect reflections. Great for virtual photogs of the world.
Nathan is a co-host of the universally renowned and loved, Splash Damage Podcast. Check them out of iTunes if you’re interested.