Now available on the Nintendo Switch, Vampyr originally released in 2018. In Vampyr, Dontnod Entertainment proves it doesn’t shy away from new ideas. Vampyr seems like a departure from Dontnod’s usual fair, which includes Remember Me and Life is Strange. The studio’s willingness to experiment can be felt throughout the game.
Set against the backdrop of the 1918-1920 Spanish flu pandemic, Vampyr follows newly-minted vampire Doctor Jonathan Reid. Left for dead in a mass grave, he awakens as a vampire. In a fit of supernatural bloodlust, he accidentally kills his sister.
Reid finds himself alone and hunted on the rain-soaked streets of early 20th century London. He soon finds himself embroiled in the machinations of powerful vampires and ancient secret societies, both human and otherwise.
There are also plenty of mundane (but only marginally less conspiracy prone) citizens populating the streets of London. Each character has their own relationships, personality, and story — right up until Reid tears open their throats to feed his dark powers.
The game’s unique selling point is the district health system. The feature is somewhat reminiscent of the chaos mechanic from Arkane Studios’ Dishonored.
Killing NPC and taking other evil actions result in each of the four districts deteriorating further, as disease and disorder take hold. As district health decreases, people die or go missing, enemies become more numerous, and dangerous creatures spread to new areas of the city.
Unlike Dishonored, however, an effort has been made to flesh out individual citizens. Players feel like their actions affect the lives of actual people instead of an abstract global variable.
This leads to the game’s primary moral dilemma. Combat produces only a token amount of experience points. Instead, the quickest method of unlocking new abilities is by feeding on the citizens of London.
The amount of experience gained varies from citizen to citizen. It depends on the individual’s blood quality, representing their physical and mental health. You can increase a citizen’s blood quality by using Reid’s skill as a doctor to cure various diseases. You can also increase blood quality by completing side quests, called investigations, for the character in question. Players determined to hold onto Reid’s humanity by not eating his friends will find themselves perpetually underleveled as they traverse the monster- and vigilante-infested streets.
Even on normal difficulty, the combat is challenging enough that the temptation never really goes away. This adds a lot of depth and nuance to what would otherwise be a black-and-white morality system. You might not end up chowing down on that sad sack hospital patient with low psychic resistance. But after dying three times in a row to the same group of thugs, it will definitely cross your mind.
The gameplay loop is divided between a vaguely Dark Souls-inspired combat engine and an investigative aspect. This investigative aspect ties in with the blood quality and district health mechanics.
But vaguely is the operative word. If the developers drew inspiration from the combat in Dark Souls, they streamlined it significantly. But combat is still based around dodging, stamina management, and timing attacks to land when the enemy is most vulnerable.
Unlike Dark Souls, enemies have what Vampyr refers to as a stun bar in addition to the usual HP gauge. Attacks with ranged and off-hand weapons deal stun damage in addition to regular health damage. When their stun bars are depleted, targets falls to the ground. This makes them vulnerable to Reid’s vampiric bite attack. This is the primary means of gathering blood, which is consumed to power Reid’s other supernatural abilities.
While the gameplay makes a good impression overall, it’s not without flaws. The combat works perfectly well in the open streets of London. But the same cannot be said when fighting inside buildings. The narrow hallways and small, cluttered rooms don’t leave enough space to maneuver. This problem is compounded by the frequency with which enemies are able to stun lock the player. The mutated vampire Skals, in particular, are very prone to this. And Skals tend to prefer the abandoned buildings and narrow sewer tunnels that cause the most trouble.
The lighting engine doesn’t do the player any favors either. While Vampyr is an incredibly atmospheric game, those inky shadows do a great job of obscuring enemy movements. More than once, I was blindsided by a Skal lunging from the shadows to give Reid a taste of his own neck-biting medicine.
The vampiric abilities are reasonably varied, but I found myself using the same two for most of the game. Even against bosses and elite enemies, I rarely felt the need to meaningfully change my tactics to win a fight. While the combat remains challenging enough never to get boring, the little annoyances add up. So, the story and characters are what ultimately carry the game.
I also have mixed feeling about how Vampyr handles saving. As in Dark Souls, enemies respawn when the player dies and spent consumables stay gone. But in Dark Souls, the player respawns at a campfire, one of the few completely safe places in the game. However, in Vampyr, the player is simply deposited wherever they were the last time the game autosaved. Unless the player feels like going through the same fight again with half the resources, this can mean a lot of tedious backtracking.
The stated reason for this is to hold the player accountable for their decisions. Dead characters remain dead, and London suffers the consequences of Reid’s actions. This works most of the time. But Vampyr suffers from dialogue options that don’t accurately convey what’s about to be said. This is a minor problem for most of the game, but it becomes an issue when some of the major plot decisions aren’t adequately explained.
As with the rest of Dontnod’s catalog, Vampyr is a mostly polished game with some great ideas marred by less than stellar execution. There’s astounding attention to detail in the environments, the atmosphere is amazing, and the characters are all well-rounded and believable.
I still ended every session looking forward to the next one, so consider this a recommendation. But Vampyr is not without its flaws and some of them are quite glaring.