Vampyr is a story of choice and consequence. War hero and field surgeon Dr. Jonathan Reid has returned home to London just after the first World War. The London he remembers has been replaced by a dangerous place, teeming with rats, and plagued by the Spanish Flu. As he steels himself to help take care of the city he loves, he finds himself beset by an entirely unexpected problem. Creeping from the dark, an unseen assailant attacks Dr. Reid, ferociously biting him on his neck, thus turning him into a ferocious vampire. Will he be able to preserve his humanity and help those who need his medical expertise, or will he descend into madness, slaking his feral thirst as he embraces his burgeoning power?
As usual, I’ll be as light on spoilers as possible. You can check out the first hour of the game below, but suffice to say that Dr. Reid is facing an impossible dilemma. Once he reaches Pembroke Hospital, he’s taken in by the facility Director as a surgeon for the overnight shift. Plenty of patients need his help, but all of them are effectively meals on wheels. What makes Vampyr different is that the patients, doctors, and other main characters, are inexorably linked. Many have hidden relationships and agendas, and all of them make up a community. Embracing and consuming a person may net you a ton of experience points, but it’s often difficult to discern just how far that decision can reach.
If you are stepping into Vampyr thinking it’s going to be a heavy action title, I need to temper your expectations. Vampyr is, at its core, an Action/RPG. You will spend a lot of time talking to patients and passers by, solving their problems in exchange for trinkets and experience. As you talk to a local resident, they may reveal that their landlord is fleecing them for rent. Finding that landlord, you could mesmerize them (if your Mesmer level is higher than their resistance level) and lure them to a dark corner to feed upon them, but that could have dire consequences his tenants. Or, it could result in them being charged no rent whatsoever. The best parts of Vampyr is that it’s often hard to predict the lasting effects, even if the surface outcomes are apparent.
One of the major gameplay loops in Vampyr is dealing with the medical maladies that plague the streets of London. During conversation, you can check on a person’s physical state and give them medicines you’ve prepared back at the hospital. This improves the quality of their blood, which will yield higher XP amounts, but it also improves their health, which will obviously help the state of that ward of the city. There are nine maladies, of which only three are known at the beginning of the game. These can range from a simple headache to anemia, sepsis, migraines, pneumonia, and worse. A simple crafting engine lets you break down things like cheap gin into a glass vial, a watch into springs, screws, and grease, and so forth. These components are used to craft the aforementioned remedies, upgrades for your weapons, and serums that can help you regenerate stamina, health, or cure toxins. Much of the recipes you’ll learn come from decisions you’ll make at crucial story junctures, so don’t obsess about guy with the migraines — you’ll fix him up (and possibly serve him up) later.
As you work through the dialogue wheel with people you encounter, you’ll find that each have several secrets to uncover. These can lead to deeper conversations, and even opportunities to take specific actions that can improve their overall health (and thus the XP you get if you were to eat them). Sometimes it’s a personal issue, sometimes it’s a health malady, and occasionally they just need to be told that they will get through the sickness plaguing the city. They also have a social circle of people who just might notice them if they were to go missing. Pivotal figures are identified as “pillars” of the community — the loss of them would plunge the entire area into chaos, so choose your next meal wisely. The overall health status of the area can range from hostile, to critical, serious, stable, healthy, and at the top, sanitized. A shrinking social circle, or a borough of sick people can drive that down quickly.
Combat in Vampyr is fairly simple in the beginning, but quickly grows to something with some substance. Dr. Reid has a choice of several vampiric attack types, as well as a wide assortment of weapons. Pressing X attacks with the primary weapon, and pressing Y attacks with the secondary (I’m using a controller on PC). The tough part is balancing your health, stamina, and blood supply levels. Vampiric powers use blood, and you can’t feed on a target willy-nilly. To expose their neck, you’ll need to use weapons that can stun them, leaving them vulnerable. Each power has a cooldown period, pushing you to mix primary, secondary, and vampiric attacks together. Some attacks and powers blend better than others, but I never felt pushed to use any one combination over another.
Vampyr has a very wide assortment of weapons. From simple hand axes and wooden stakes, to scythes, clubs, and mystical swords for melee weapons, each has a different attack speed and stamina consumption. Some also have secondary effects like stunning the target, absorbing blood from the target on attack, or the ability to parry an incoming attack. Similarly, Dr. Reid also has access to quite a few firearms over the course of the game. All of the weapons in Dr. Reid’s arsenal can be upgraded with items found in trash cans, on corpses, in lockers, and being sold by merchants. These bits and bobs can be combined at your work bench to increase weapon increased damage, impact shock effect, velocity and even setting people on fire or covering them with an acidic chemical.
Combat in Vampyr is inexorably linked to choice as your level is directly determined by XP and choice. Killing creatures or human hunters will only yield a pittance of XP, with your choices yielding a bit more. The largest source of XP, by a very wide margin, is sacrifice. You don’t feel the weight of this until roughly 10 hours into the game, when you shift to the latter acts. When your enemies are nearing level 30, and you are level 13 because you’ve chosen to try to save everyone, the temptation to scarf down some human blood gets tempting in a hurry. You can supplement your XP gain by completing the minor subquests that many characters will dole out, but these will often offer a few hundred XP versus that one dying patient or ailing street urchin which can yield thousands of XP each.
There is one very large issue with the combat in Vampyr. Enemies have boundaries where you can ‘game’ them by luring them to the edge where they will suddenly lose interest in combat and start to walk away. You can use this to take out enemies far tougher than your current level, if you are careful. Since enemies tend to camp around the entrances to new areas, you are very likely to see this manifest in your game. You can observe it in action below:
Leveling means resting in any of the multitude of discoverable safe houses and spending your earned XP. Stamina, health, blood capacity, and your capacity to carry life-saving syringes and bullets are flanked by more direct attack powers. The ability to throw a blood spear that will impale all targets in a line, the power to unleash unnatural claws, and Shadow Mist which places a cloud of shadows that explode, causing heavy damage. These powers are flanked by three ultimate powers with longer cooldowns. The ultimates can be game changers in a fight, causing shadowy figures to rise up and fight on your behalf, stunning your opponent and causing them to explode after a short period of time, or Rage which causes Dr. Reid to lose control, teleporting and striking his foes with furious abandon, but without upgrades it’ll be a full minute before you can use them again. For the more tactical approach, you can use Shadow Veil to turn into a semi-invisible mist, or Spring to make an unnatural leap towards your target, causing splash damage on landing. I really enjoyed the fact that these powers do not make Dr. Reid invincible by any means. If you want a particular aspect to keep pace with your enemies as London descends into chaos, you’ll need to spend points to build it up.
If you’ve not picked up on it, developer DONTNOD wants to make sure that your choices have meaning. As a result there is no loading or save screen. The game saves periodically and frequently, and without a way to back up, any choice you’ve made is permanent. This can occasionally bite you when Dr. Reid’s dialogue choice doesn’t exactly match with what you think it should, but it does give a moment of pause as you interact with the world. What’s done is done.
Speaking of loading, the load times in Vampyr are very, very long. Most of the boroughs can be traversed without loading, but going indoors occasionally will hand you a loading sequence of nearly a full minute. Dying and sleeping to level up also triggers one of these colossal loading sequences. My system is bleeding edge and sporting an m.2 drive capable of 1.3Gbps read speeds. I can only imagine that this will reach critical pain levels on a mechanical drive.
Aesthetically, Vampyr is a pretty solid entry. The video above showcases the game at 4K with all settings maxed, including plenty of character interactions, so I’ll let you decide for yourself where it fits in the pantheon of games. My only complaint, graphically, is that the menus feel very placeholder-esque. I also had one instance where, when using a giant two handed club, I had the “Press Y to Parry” stuck on my screen until I forced a transition to a new area. It’s a minor nit, if not for the long load time. I’ve also seen some odd Havok engine bugs where enemies will twitch after you kill them, or they’ll stand in the semi-Vitruvian Man pose, their arms outstretched until you get close, after which they snap into place.
Vampyr manages to deliver on its promise to make choices matter. Every decision has implications that spider out in unseen directions, often far into the future. While there are some wobbles in terms of combat and load times, the engaging storyline and premise carry this title far.