Something you should know before playing Vampyr: this is not a joyful game. Even games about hipster-coiffed bloodsuckers like Doctor Jonathan Reid, the newly undead surgeon star of Dontnod’s follow up to Life is Strange, come burdened with an expectation of fun. This game is ugly and hopeless even in its best moments, a series of dirty alleyways, docks, and gaslit halls where you make dirty decisions and fight mostly faceless monsters (the enemies whose faces haven’t rotted off in the process of becoming lesser vampires are largely interchangeable, hyper-aggressive human thugs). Just because something isn’t fun, though, doesn’t mean it isn’t pleasurable or good. Vampyr is good — flawed, but very good — and pleasurable.
What is most impressive is where it pulls its pleasures from. Role-playing games have drawn too frequently from the well of moral dichotomy over the past 20 years. Every time you take control of a Jedi, a Witcher, or seemingly any fantasy warrior born in America or Europe, you also have to choose whether they’re a moral paragon (literally in some cases) or an inveterate asshole. By the end of those games, you’re either a superpowered angel or an unstoppable devil. Vampyr is also a story and an adventure built on what looks like a moral binary, but it has one impressive difference. It is incredibly hard to be the good guy in Vampyr. Trying to be one can be frustrating and deflating thanks to repetitive, often unfair combat, but I found the process so gratifying that I never wanted to stop trying.
What you’ll like
The Good Doctor
Vampyr sets the mood fast. After a sequence of hazy scenes soundtracked by loopy goth poetry, Dr. Reid wakes up in a mass grave and discovers his vampirism only after succumbing to uncontrollable bloodlust and killing his own sister. Horrified and confused, he runs off into London’s docks only to find them almost entirely abandoned save for trigger-happy vampire hunters and worse. It’s only when he meets up with the sympathetic and surprisingly chipper Dr. Swansea that Reid gets a fuller understanding of what’s even happening: he is indeed an immortal that needs blood to live, most of London has been quarantined due to what people think is Spanish flu but is actually a vampiric sickness turning people into crazed monsters, hidden factions of powerful vampires and vampire killers are vying for control and survival.
The specifics feel overwhelming at first. High vampires called Ekons, a vampire cabal called Ascalon, the vampire hunting order called the Knights of Priwen, the vampire-researching Brotherhood of Saint Paul. It’s not hard to place yourself in the role of Dr. Reid while playing; like the lead, the player is also mostly pulled along by the plot in a state of half-understanding the bigger story that seems to be happening behind the scenes. After Dr. Swansea gives Reid shelter at Pembroke Hospital, the first of Vampyr’s story-centric district environments full of other characters, the smaller human dramas that make up most of your time in the game start to emerge.
Dr. Reid is not just unlike most adventuring RPG heroes but also most tragic or vicious vampire story leads because he’s famous from the outset. Dr. Swansea gives him shelter because he’s the Dr. Jonathan Reid, famed surgeon and hematologist who revolutionized blood transfusions on the battlefields of World War 1. Pembroke isn’t just a hideout for you, but an actual job where you have to take care of ill Londoners and the fatigued staff.
As you spend the first few hours of the game just talking to exhausted orderlies and patients, you learn about how you spend the bulk of your time in Vampyr. London has four districts populated by Citizens, characters with personalities and associated quests, most of whom are interconnected. For example: Milton Hooks, the ornery gun-dealing ambulance driver, is in a relationship with the disconsolate nurse Pippa Hawkins but their romance is semi-secret because the socio-political landscape of 1918 Britain doesn’t smile on mixed raced couples. Each district only has around 15 to 20 Citizens, a low number justified by the quarantined setting. Reid doesn’t just talk to the characters in circuitous dialogue trees to pursue the main story solving the mystery of the vampires or running fetch quests for money and experience, though. He actually has to treat them or devour them.
Leveling up in Vampyr is slow and painstaking. Reid has a small and distinctive skill tree to boost his health, stamina, and vampiric abilities like turning invisible or shooting spikes of blood at prickly werewolves, but the resources to do so are doled out in stingy doses pursuing the plot. Even hours into the game, even the most common Skal (that’s a low-level, almost zombie like vampire, you dig?) can kill you in seconds. The only way to make Reid a force to be reckoned with as he wanders London is if you eat the fleshed out characters for an enormous dump of experience points. Mesmerizing them with Bram Stoker-style vampire hypnosis will let you snack on weak-willed bartenders and shopkeepers from the start, but the better you get to know citizens through conversation (unlocking previously unselectable Hint dialogue), then the richer the reward for killing them.
Of course, you don’t have to. And unlike other games where choosing between good and evil results in mechanical and narrative equivalency, Vampyr makes it clear from the start that doing right by these people is what you should be doing. Reid has dialogue options that let him play the heartless monster, but the performance and the majority of options lean heavily towards that character staying as someone who swore to the Hippocratic Oath. The more challenging pursuit then is healing Citizens.
Everyone you meet is constantly getting sick — from anemia, fatigue, colds, migraines, and other illnesses–and you have to use raw materials you find exploring and fighting to mix medicines to keep both them and the districts healthy and free of discord. This also takes time. Eating people if you have a high enough level can be done any time, but people require the passage of time to get sick or to heal after getting treated. Time passes by spending the night in a safe house, which is also the only place you can level up. Further constraining you is the fact that you can’t have multiple save files; every choice, every night you spend is locked in after you make it.
This war of attrition is, as it would be for a real early 20th century doctor, exhausting sometimes. Citizens are constantly getting sick and while resources for medicine are in ample supply, you can only spend so much time out in the city adventuring before the enemies become overwhelmingly strong, and you have no choice but to go to sleep and level Reid up to keep going and unlock new story paths and treat other citizens. Watching a district like the poverty-stricken Whitechapel go from being in “Serious” condition to “Healthy” because you’ve kept people alive and treated them feels far more rewarding than unlocking a new sword, gun, or sweet special move. At the same time, doing so doesn’t make you stronger or better equipped to move on to the next district. It only makes your trip harder, giving you more lives to preserve, and makes the actual story choices you make affecting the character’s lives more fraught.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t
Vampy’s richest storytelling and most rewarding moments of play come when you’re desperately trying to do the right thing and it all goes terribly wrong. A Pillar, a citizen that every other relates to and whose health and status also reflect that of the district itself, is at the heart of each in-game community. In Reid’s first mission out from the hospital, you have to track down and stop someone who’s blackmailing the Pembroke’s monetary patron whose circumstances are, as you might expect, more complex than they first seem. On confronting them to get them to stop the extortion, I had three options: to kill them, to simpy implore them to stop, or to hypnotize them so that they’d forget the blackmail entirely.
Panicked, I chose to mesmerize them and was disturbed by how it all played out. Reid didn’t threaten the blackmailer’s life, but the physical intimidation and force that was a part of the mesmeric vampire powers was so visually abusive, so inappropriately coercive, that I immediately regretted the decision. How was I to know based just on the dialogue choices? I thought I was doing the “good” thing and was disgusted that the game seemed to think so as well. But Vampyr is, in moments like these, much smarter than it first appears.
My choice protected the hospital’s patron and prevented me from eating anyone alive to selfishly reap experience rewards, but it ultimately destabilized the health of the entire district and caused irreparable damage to the blackmailer I was trying to spare. How was Dr. Reid, a novice vampire who barely understands his power, to know? It was a moment of pure synergistic storytelling where every part of the game cohered. Vampyr is full of moments like these. The biggest problems come from what you have to do between them.
What you won’t like
C’mon, put ‘em up
Being a big budget console game about supernatural beasts, it’s not surprising that Vampyr places such a heavy emphasis on fighting. There are even boss fights and tussells with tougher versions of the stock enemies haunting London, cannon fodder with beefed up strength and a character portrait by their life bar to spice up the stakes. While the combat isn’t so bad that the game would be better if it was extracted entirely, it would be a much, much stronger game with a fraction of the fights.
The basic elements are novel and suit the premise. Reid can carry a selection of makeshift truncheons and guns with limited ammo, swinging his melee weapon around in clumsy but adequate strike combinations as a stamina meter peters out until he has to regroup. The twist comes from biting enemies. All those aforementioned special powers require you to expend blood, a third meter alongside health and stamina, which you have to refill by breaking an enemy’s guard and biting them. Biting monsters and super aggressive Knights of Priwen, those humans who really don’t care for vampires even when they’re civilized sorts, feels spectacular and creates a staccato rhythm to the fights. Striking enemies with a big two-handed spear and then biting them at the key moment, protecting yourself from other attacks and refilling both stamina and blood in the process, gives the rumbles a distinct, delicious flavor. Which is great provided you can see what’s happening.
All too often, Vampyr’s combat gets in its own way. Enemies that can kill you in just a few hits, sending you all the way back to the outskirts of a neighborhood riddled with enemies that have now all respawned, can do so from out of sight. Maybe it’s a life-sucking gas canister or fire arrows or another vampire jumping on your back and draining three-quarters of your life away in one fell swoop. Whatever it is, it happens fast with little recourse to react quickly and recover since Reid moves so stiffly.
What’s the point of all your sacrifice?
The counterbalance to enemies wrecking your business is the ability to drain citizens for a rush of experience. In theory, it’s another way to force you into making difficult, unsavory choices to yield rich, peaty results in the game’s dismal world. With combat, though, the fascinating moral tug of war between death and health loses its power. In between story districts, Reid will likely have to fight and kill a half dozen human enemies. In the process of completing a few sidequests for the named citizens with backstories, you’ll likely kill three times the number of faceless human enemies as there are actual citizens.
The conflict between story and character is as old as video game narrative, and the Uncharted Conundrum — how can this good guy murder dozens of drones and still be all conflicted in a cutscene — is resolved in the big budget game space. Big budget games that have a little bit of action tend to have a lot of it: the end. But in Vampyr, where the struggle to not kill people is so foundational to all of its many story threads, characters, and even mechanical character growth, having so much awkward combat isn’t just irritating, it cracks the fundamental pleasure of the game.
Cracks in the facade don’t always break the work itself. Vampyr has real problems, and they’re problems that seem to affect all of Dontnod’s work. Remember Me was another fantasy game with cumbersome combat whose ambitious moral inquiries didn’t make much sense on closer inspection. Life is Strange, whose teenage melodrama has gripped so many people, struggled to make its stars’ lives as interesting to control as it was to make their decisions for them. In all three of its games, Dontnod’s ambitions outstrip their execution. But they strike their targets frequently enough to make the experience enriching every single time despite those shortfalls.
At no point in Vampyr did I have fun following trails of blood, mixing antiquated remedies out of opium, or bludgeoning some Crucifix wielding goon in a mask for the 50th time. But I was constantly compelled forward to find out what next grim choice it would give me, anxious to spend yet another night in one of its safehouses to see if my efforts to keep London’s souls alive another day had worked. Whenever a district turned back over to healthy, I could feel myself actually breathing easier.
Vampyr is out on June 5 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Focus Home Interactive sent us a PlayStation 4 code for this review.
You can't solo security COVID-19 game security report: Learn the latest attack trends in gaming. Access here