Dontnod Entertainment’s Vampyr says that you, the newly undead Jonathan Reid, can kill any one of the game’s unique characters, but you have to get to know them first. Talk to them, read about them, and only after doing this legwork should you decide whether you want to hypnotize them into accompanying you down a dark London alley. The game’s focus is on characterization, on emphasizing the value of what lives you may or may not take to sustain yourself. Then it marries these intriguing character-first elements to the sort of bog-standard open-world design that has you running fetch quests to get crafting materials for equipment upgrades.
Reid is a doctor during the 1918 flu pandemic, and the conflict between his occupation and newfound vampiric status is meant to fuel the story’s drama. As moral quandaries go, it’s far from complex—and recalls, among other things, the recurring Scrubs “Dr. Acula” joke—though it fits Vampyr’s tone of hammy melodrama. Dontnod is in familiar terrain, as their prior Life Is Strange had a borderline outrageous idea of how teenagers talk but nonetheless told an affecting story. Vampyr is significantly less successful, with Reid’s investigation into his un-death quickly buried in a jumble of underwritten characters, even if there’s a certain charm to the overwrought voice acting and dialogue that make the streets of London feel like open-mic night.
The game’s city is divided up into districts, each populated with various named characters with their own individual backstories and relationships for you to discover. And though you can technically kill someone straight away, you’ll want to discover these connections and histories, because the more you know about a character, the more experience points you get when you use their neck as a straw. So you set about filling in the blanks, questioning people and doing favors and searching for discarded letters to learn more. But the more you learn, the more you may realize you don’t want to, say, remove a household’s lone source of income even if the dad is worth 2400EXP.
Rather than going for size in the character roster, Dontnod might have done better to shoot for complexity.
It’s an interesting take on open-ended mayhem, where you view the world as full of potential victims but must also fight that perception by confronting their humanity. It’s also, however, a fairly limited system. Deaths specifically affect only one or two other characters, if any, and while there are some engaging backstories to uncover, others seem extraneous. Rather than going for size in the character roster, Dontnod might have done better to shoot for complexity: Vampyr achieves the intended effect of making people more than just faceless victims, but assigning someone a few sentences of backstory and an acquaintance or two doesn’t really convey the sanctity of life.
There’s occasional atmosphere to the game’s dark, flu-ridden London, but the districts soon blend together until they settle into their existence as a depository for enemies and boxes of inane crafting materials. Vampyr’s semi-open world is, frankly, a wretched, tedious exercise that’s absent the ambition of the chattier segments. You will run boring errands, you will shuffle into every corner for no reason other than to mash the “gather materials” button for later use in the mind-numbing crafting system, and you will be accosted every step of the way by vampire hunters and zombie-like feral vampires.
You don’t technically have to kill any named characters to progress through the game, but it’s a huge chore to fight through London’s back alleys even with the significant experience point boosts that civilians provide; for example, the game doesn’t give a clear explanation for why the blood of the hundreds of hunters you’ll encounter are an unacceptable substitute for, say, the blood of Tom the bartender. Vampyr’s combat is clearly inspired by From Software games like Dark Souls and especially Bloodborne, but its stiff attempts to recreate the deliberate motion of those games lack the precision, with unreliable staggers and questionable windows for dodging attacks.
Life Is Strange had no combat or open world; it was, rather, the teen drama as adventure game, playing to its developer’s hammy strengths. Vampyr’s speech-driven portions have their problems—dialogue options often fail to accurately summarize what Reid might say, even during pivotal story choices—but there are enough decent ideas to plausibly carry the game on its own. Instead, Vampyrcompromises its themes that emphasize the value of life by shackling itself to traditional, tedious game design that finds the good Dr. Reid slicing through hordes of faceless folks in hopes of upgrading his hacksaw.