Developer Dontnod Entertainment, best known for its highly successful interactive story title “Life is Strange” (as well as the upcoming “Life is Strange 2”), has just released Vampyr, a dark and gritty open-world third-person adventure game that puts players in the shoes of a terrifying vampire in a 1918 town suffering from the devastating Spanish Flu.
Your story begins with a bit of tragedy: Playing as Johnathan Ried, you are returning to London from your time in France. At this time, you don’t quite know you’ve turned to vampirism, but as soon as your sister approaches you to welcome you back from the war, you find out: Your bloodlust consumes you, leading you to attack your sister and take her blood.
Eventually, Ried learns to control his hunger to some degree and is able to disguise his identity by getting a job working the night shift in a hospital, which gives him a social excuse for being asleep all day. This is how the game introduces its most interesting gameplay hitch: As a vampire, you can kill and drink the blood of London’s citizens to grow more powerful, gaining new abilities and making the game a lot easier. But as a human, you don’t want to kill these people, and you’ll miss out on a lot of very interesting stories if you choose the path of least resistance. So will you fight off the hunger and cling to your humanity, or delve into the darkness within and unleash your true, evil nature? The choice is yours.
Dontnod Entertainments certainly shows its strengths here: The game’s cast of side-characters are interesting and diverse enough for the player to actually care about them, making that playstyle more rewarding. The game’s setting is community-focused and community-driven: Rather than a bunch of faceless NPC’s, everyone in your small slice of London seems to have a story. There’s the crazed patients in Ried’s hospital shift raving war stories and suffering PTSD, a true-neutral bartender willing to offer anyone safe refuge, among other fairly believable characters.
Dontnod knows their characters are good. The game leans on this quite a bit: Both in bad ways and in good ones. The bad comes from the repetitive and sometimes flat-out-boring side missions, which I only took in hopes I’d learn something new about one of my favorite characters. But the good comes from another game mechanic: For some reason, when you drink the blood of someone whom you know very well, it grants you a massive boost of experience and power. So if you want to become the very best vampire that no one ever was, you’ll need to commit to the embodiment of the heartless night terror: Growing close to others just so you can lead them into dark alleys and take their lifeforce.
The experience isn’t all blood and roses, however: When you’re not talking to people, you’ll spend much of your time wandering around the London streets attacking or avoiding undead monsters and vampire hunters, both which aim to kill you on sight. This is where the experience starts to fall flat: The game’s combat system is an uninspired attack / counter mix that feels a bit too slow, the animations often fail to sync up correctly with the world or fail to convey any weight behind the hits, and there aren’t enough options to keep the pace interesting. Then there’s the crafting system, which is over-complicated at its best and migraine-inducing at its worst. And the gloom & doom of the London town quickly begins to grow old, doing its best to thwart any smiles the game might bring you.
Oddly enough though, I appreciate the presence of these rough edges. Dontnod isn’t a huge company, and these imperfections prove that the title has chosen the lighter route of its own morality system: Rather than giving in to the hunger within and feasting on more and more consumer wallets to become an ever more powerful product, Vampyr chooses to go light on funds in order to make lasting relationships with its players. It pulls at the heart, rather than going for the throat, which is a rare sight in a market of AAA hyper-corporate casino simulators.
The way the game represents hunger is also brilliant: Instead of an integrated “bloodlust” meter, the game imposes its hunger on the player, saying, “Hey, this game would sure be a whole lot easier if you could afford those new upgrades. Hey, don’t you want this new power? Hey, maybe the consequences aren’t that bad.” It’s a merging of the vampire’s hunger for blood and the player’s hunger for power, juxtaposed against their hunger for seeing the end of an NPC’s story, as you’ll inevitably miss out on more great dialogue if you cash out your blood investment.
Vampyr is a game that’s best when you’re watching it, not playing it. Dontnod Entertainment shows its expertise at crafting killer stories, but hasn’t been able to string together the rest of its pieces into a cohesive experience – at least not so far. But this is certainly a product made with love, heart, and dedication, and in a gaming market over-saturated with cash-grabbing fat cats, heart is my number one quality.
Featured Image via Flickr / SteamXO