Of all the games I’ve played over the years, so few have managed to align all their elements as perfectly as Vampyr. At the same time though, even fewer have managed to get the stars to align only to shoot themselves in the foot, making for one of the most frustrating, yet compelling experiences I’ve had in years. Oh yes, and also this joke. Q: Where do the undead go when they visit the seaside? A: The vampier.
Vampyr by DontNod is a surprise. This is a blend between classic adventure games and 3rd person action combat. There are branching dialogue trees, heaps of choices and lots to uncover, and at the same time there’s a stamina based combat system, a whole city of monsters to fight and skill trees to work through. And it works. One feeds the other organically and makes contextual sense within the story Vampyr is telling. And yet, it has so many game ending bugs that I honestly don’t know what to say. On one hand, I love it and another I hate it. Much like the vampire it follows, cognitive dissonance is in abundance with Vampyr.
Vampyr follows Doctor Jonathan Reid during the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918. At the start of the game Reid is turned into a vampire and faces a conflict between his oath as a doctor and his thirst as a vampire. This is reflected in the game’s mechanics, as you can consume the various London inhabitants but doing so affects the health of the district and pushes you further down a dark path. However, if you abstain from blood then you are going to be substantially weaker and each time you feast upon a victim you gain a healthy portion of experience points. These can then be used in your various vampire skill trees to unlock new powers and strengthen your abilities. So Vampyr becomes a balancing act where you choose who lives and who dies, if Doctor Reid become a monster in the night or the saviour of the day.
The combat itself is straightforward. You lose stamina by swinging your weapon and dodging. You can gain blood by biting your enemies and use that for vampire specific powers. And you have a whole host of different weapons to choose from that dictate your play style. At first, I wasn’t impressed by this system. However, once you unlock a few powers and get into the rhythm of the fights, they become a lot of fun. As you progress in the game you’ll encounter several different enemy types, including humans who use light and monsters more terrifying than yourself. Thanks to the simple combat system, you can adapt to each encounter quickly and find the best way to victory. This isn’t an area where Vampyr excels but it is more than competent enough.
Where Vampyr is at its best is in the mystery. Through the many chapters of Vampyr you’ll uncover many mysteries. This comes from talking to people, using your vampire powers and piecing together events. One of the main attractions to talking to people is to unlock all of the information about them. This increases the value of their blood and gives you more experience when you finally decide to consume them. To piece this all together, though, you will need to dig deep into their history and personalities. It’s more satisfying than it should be to work out someone’s secret and then eat them.
And then we hit the genius of this game. All of these systems are great by themselves and come together to form a cohesive game that never falters from its set universe. But where it becomes truly fantastic is in the choices it presents the players. The ones in dialogue are excellent but nothing we’ve haven’t seen before. It’s in the player’s choice of who to devour where you see the real decisions. When you finally decide to eat a person, why have you chosen them? Is it because of their experience points or because you don’t think the district will miss them? Does that mean their life is worth less than the next person? Is their life worth less than having an extra few experience points? Can you resist the temptation to devour everyone and sit atop a pile of bones? Why should you care, you’re a vampire. These people are cattle to you. You don’t care about their lives, you’re only savouring your meal as you toy with your food. Only proceeding to help them before leading them into a dark corner so you can drain their life away. Or can you control your impulses?
Rarely do video games ask us to stop and not do the cathartic power fantasy thing. I talked before in an article on JRPGs about delayed satisfaction. Whereas that is almost a byproduct of the genre, in Vampyr it’s a design decision. The longer you wait before eating someone the more satisfying it is. But can you wait forever? Whether you do that for story, character or personal reasons depends on how you play games but it’s an interesting question to pose to players. And Vampyr is at its best when you feel yourself weighing the lives before you, deciding who to consume and when. You look at the experience possibilities and drool over the power you’ll gain when you eventually devour each person. However, there is a path of the saint. An option to eat only rats and other vampires. You don’t need to kill these people. You could, but you don’t need to. Vampyr dangles these choices in front of you and asks you to consider everything.
And all of this takes place during the 1918 Spanish Flu. I think it’s interesting to have a vampire story set amidst a pandemic. Even more interesting as we are living through the Covid-19 pandemic at the moment. There’s plenty of metaphors and allegories in Vampyr. An easy one is drawing the line of selfishness in sucking the blood of others for your own gain. Another is abusing your power and toying with the lives of those who rely on you to keep them alive. There’s a lot more in there to unpack, but suffice to say you can see our pandemic through this fictionalised version of the one in Vampyr. The only difference is that our vampire’s can walk during the day.
That got dark so here’s another joke. Q: What is a bloodsucker’s favourite title by Supergiant Games? A: Vampyre.
And onto the music. Vampyr’s music has instantly reached my top ten list for video game soundtracks. That is a tough list to crack but the music and sound design work perfectly to sell this dark, gloomy undead filled world. The themes evoke the sadness and desperation apparent in every scene. While the voice acting is occasionally a bit rough, it does the job and I’d much rather it was there than it wasn’t.
And finally, we have reached the bad. The awful. The game ending. Not once, but twice my Vampyr save files managed to bug out so that I could not continue the story. Something happened in two different ways to make it so that I had to restart the game from the very beginning. This lost me only a few hours the first time but it was in the double digit the second. And this is awful. When it happened the second time I was at a loss for words. I wandered around thinking I must have missed something. I Googled frantically and watched numerous walkthroughs but nothing helped. All I could see were other people suffering the same glitch. And I had no way to go back and load a previous save before this glitch occurred. So despite all my praise, be careful if you decide to pick up Vampyr. Keep several saves constantly. Don’t make my mistakes.
However, the glitches are my only major criticism. I wish they would fix them but understand that this is a comparatively small team and this likely affects only a small number of people. But without these issues I would be shouting from rooftops to get people to play Vampyr. As it stands I’m having to caveat all of my praise. That being said though, Vampyr is a masterclass in what it does. While the combat isn’t amazing, it’s good enough, the rest is fantastic and if you are even remotely curious about anything I’ve said you should definitely check it out.