I’ve just come back from a trip to London. If you’ve had to spend money in London recently, you’ll know this – it can absolutely bleed you dry.
Thanks to Life is Strange creators DONTNOD, we can learn the historical context of our capital’s economic vampirism. That’s right: ACTUAL VAMPIRISM. In 1918, dank London streets were stalked by diseased, moribund ghouls; victims of the pandemic turned undead predators, leaving little hope for the poor and forgotten denizens of a once proud city.
Among the victims, Dr Jonathan Reid was disposed of, alongside so many others, in a mass grave. Rising again with a bloodlust, his compulsion drove him to murder his grieving sister before he could make sense of what he had become. How could he make up for this appalling transgression? Could he even resist this urge to drink from human flesh?
Our first moments exploring Reid’s world would suggest not. Staggering through dismal streets, his literal view of living Londoners is of a translucent circulatory system, pumping and churning with tempting vigour. Snapping into human coherence for a moment, he hears their exhortations and realises it is he that has become prey. Calls of “fucking leech!” from these vampire hunters prompts a panicked escape, a search for a safehouse among the abandoned tenements with their rotting inhabitants.
It’s way more unpleasant than the bill for champagne at the top of the Shard. The consolation is that Dr Reid has hope for redemption, while I am not getting that money back. As you would expect from DONTNOD, the focus is on the social ramifications of Reid’s choices in response to his condition. As a former army medic with some renown for blood transfusion techniques, his is an interesting dichotomy. Use his medical specialisation as a cover to feed, or resist temptation and use this second chance of life to benefit society?
“I have so much more to achieve!” is a phrase that echoes from Vampyr’s opening beats. Reid’s final (and comically implausible) dying words point to the character of the man; a man that wants to defy his destructive nature in a world that is already destroying itself. In a society riven by disease, it is satisfying to have him rail against this decline. Conversations with peaceable survivors reveal branching dialogue choices, opening opportunities for Reid to help with personal challenges. This is the beating heart of the game, with deep connecting arteries through the sprawling districts of the city.
Uncovering the personal motivations of one character might reveal something about another. Reid’s vampiric powers of persuasion come in handy here, unpicking secrets through establishing the extent of local social networks. There’s a material benefit to uncovering these links; truly knowing a character translates to an increase in their latent XP value, redeemed by sucking their blood. This is a sophisticated nod to BioShock’s Little Sister sacrifices; the more you come to empathise, the greater the benefit in betraying your natural ethics.
Back in hostile territory, the benefit of a large XP boost quickly becomes obvious. Combat with the city’s hunters, ghouls and beasts is deliberately modelled on Bloodborne in style, execution and aesthetic. Without the XP to unlock powerful vampiric powers, close quarters combat can be an almost entirely impractical endeavour. That said, XP gained from helping survivors, killing lower level adversaries and completing side missions is adequate for achieving a workable levelling trajectory, and before too long I had settled into a rewarding rhythm within Vampyr’s combat system.
Melee attacks exhaust stamina quickly, demanding a cautious dance with enemies that will capitalise on your wild flailing. Dodging back to recover and winning by slow degrees is one tactic, but a secondary stun attack allows Reid to wear down and bite his opponent instead. This has the benefit of Reid recovering his stamina while he drinks, while also recovering his health before launching into a fresh flurry of hits against a weakened target.
This is excellent combat design. While this is not evident until a few abilities have been unlocked, the layered skill tree continues to offer meaningful rewards and sustain engagement with what could have been a fairly repetitive loop of encounters through well-journeyed streets. This perhaps wasn’t expected of DONTNOD after Life is Strange, which was great for many reasons but never for real time action (of course they made Remember Me before that, but who remembers that?). Doubters can feel safe that this talented developer has more than one set of skills.
Inevitably though, Vampyr is much more about interaction with its characters than anything else. Players should be warned that there is a ton of dialogue and decision-making here, perhaps more on balance than there is full on action. Aficionados of From Software may think there’s too much distraction from the ballet of violence, but it’s the thing that gives Vampyr its own distinct footing. From some early dialogue stumbles, the writing develops into something mostly convincing and always compelling.
If you forgave Life is Strange for its “hella” moments and fell in love with the unspoken heart beneath, similar discovery is to be found here. Vampyr also works better as an action RPG than we either expected or needed it to. That is the final nail removed from the coffin allowing DONTNOD to breathe new life into being dead, and I’d have no qualms about suggesting you pay them handsomely for it.
Vampyr was provided to us by Xbox/Focus Home Interactive for Xbox One. It was reviewed on an Xbox One S and X.