Vampyr is a technical underachiever but makes up for it with a fantastic setting, rich character interactions and compelling story. Even though it could be better as an action game, it is easily recommended as a story-driven RPG.
Amongst the many games that vie for attention in today’s gaming landscape there are some that do not stand out because of how well they’re made, but because of how well they are conceived. Vampyr is such a game. A brilliant concept yet mechanically underachieving, an extraordinary set of ideas in a hampered body – quite the opposite of its namesake monster.
Vampyr is an action-RPG that lets you taste what it means to be a vampire. An immortal being with an insatiable craving for human blood and supernatural powers that transform you into the apex predator. As you spend time with these powers and unleash them upon rivaling bloodsuckers and the vampire hunters that wish to exterminate you, the only conclusion you can come to is that all of it is too good to be true. As an action game, Vampyr falls horribly short. The combat doesn’t flow exceptionally well, the animations are a bit clunky and the controls are often quite unresponsive. More often than you’d like the camera angles can be a greater enemy than the ones the game intends you to fight. And since you inevitably spend quite some time fighting, it’s a shame the combat system isn’t any better than it is. This is certainly no Bloodborne ‘with vampire paint’.
Despite the charming design, Vampyr doesn’t look like a game from 2018. Character animations are repetitive and rather stale. The combination of these factors has already garnered the game a reputation of one that you’d better just skip. But even though these rough edges are a bit too apparent, it would be unfair to write Vampyr off just because it isn’t a great or even good action game. The soul of the game is its setting and story and those are presented with so much love and care that it becomes easy to love Vampyr for what it does right. Above all else, Vampyr expertly shows you what being a vampire must be like by presenting you with hard-hitting moral dilemmas and a constant temptation for more blood and power. Power is gained through draining blood from living humans and the healthier they are, the better the reward is. Without sufficient strength, you’re next to useless against your enemies and that quickly makes it tempting to search out the most appealing candidates who get to receive your deadly kiss.
But the inhabitants of London are not simply blank slates who are just there to whet your appetite. They are individuals with their own backstories, their own ties, and their own personalities. The more you learn about them, the more experience you get for killing them. But in a sick twist of fate, there’s a high chance you can’t bring yourself to end their lives at all as you get to know them better. You’ll find yourself unable to indiscriminately choose the juiciest targets because taking them out of the picture may negatively shape the world around you. That despicable murderer or racist landlord might seem like the perfect victims at first glance. No one would miss them, right? But what about the youngster who is tempted to masquerade as an elderly lady’s son? You might ask yourself if he would be missed either and if a sip of his blood wouldn’t be karmic justice. But then you realize he’s the poor old lady’s only remaining source of solace in this world and that changes everything right there. It may also leave you filled with remorse and conflicted feelings. There are people with a tragic past that you would wish the best for citizens with families that rely on each other for peace and comfort in dark and depressing times. How can you prey upon these innocents unless you let go of your last shreds of humanity?
And abandoning his humanity is protagonist Jonathan Reid’s absolute last choice. Being a doctor, he is sworn to heal, not kill. London, as presented in the game, is a city on the verge of collapse because of the Spanish flu epidemic and has a secret vampire problem to boot. Despite having become one himself, Reid wants to use his knowledge and power to end the curse that has befallen him and his home. In doing so, he’s taken to a dark and unknown underworld that confronts him with what he has become and exactly what that means. A vampire is, willingly or unwillingly, part of a secret society of immortals destined to fight for survival against hateful humans and its own kind alike. Reid wants no part of it – but what does the player want? The background to which this story about the meaning of humanity is set evokes nostalgic feelings of playing that other immersive vampire RPG: Vampire the Masquerade. Vampyr is not officially part of that universe but it sure feels like it could be at times.
The game-world in Vampyr isn’t terribly large or densely populated, but every single NPC you encounter has a story to tell and relationships that tie him or her to the world. If you destroy a lover’s relationship, kill a district’s priest or the head of a street gang, that action does irreparable damage to that citizen’s direct environment. The result of such actions is districts succumbing to disease or story-lines coming to a premature end. If you instead help these people recover from disease and aid them in their daily struggles, you can save London from a bleak fate. Doing so might grant you less in-game experience, but a very rewarding gaming experience. It as much possible to beat the game by not killing a single innocent soul as it is by forcing your teeth into every citizen of London – and anywhere in-between.
Meanwhile, there are vampire societies that offer an interesting insight into a world that is often left unexplored, with several different species of vampires making an appearance. Getting to know them, the people of London and yourself is the main draw to Vampyr, and honestly: it’s a delight. The story and conversations are really well written and endlessly engaging. They successfully manage to draw the attention from the game’s weaker parts, like the mediocre combat or the lack of fast travel options.
Vampyr is an excellent story-driven RPG with a rich and historically appropriate setting worth playing for the immersive experience it offers. The technical quality of the game leaves a lot to be desired, but at least there are no glitches or game-breaking bugs to speak of. One could only dream of what the game would have been if it was perfect in those aspects as well. As it stands it is still a game worth checking out if you are into vampire stories or gothic horror.
Vampyr is available on PC via Steam and on Xbox One and PS4. For this review, the PS4 version of Vampyr was played.