It’s a grim place, Vampyr‘s London. The irrevocable aftermath of the war is not just stamped on the pockmarked streets; you can see it in the eyes of its people, too. They talk of it constantly – its casualties, and the cost not just to the city, but to the people themselves.
Wherever your journey takes you, you’ll see them trying to rebuild their homes and businesses just as they rebuild their shattered lives… and then the city suffers further, gripped by a deadly influenza crisis.
You’ll never seen it in daylight, which means you’ll only ever see these places and people huddled beneath the damp blanket of darkness. But these folk don’t always trust the man with the tailored suit and soft voice prowling around after hours, no matter how kind or charming you are. Sure, you’re an eminent surgeon at the cutting edge of post-Victorian healthcare, but what do these people care?
Imagine how they’d be if they knew you were a vampire.
The opening sequence is brutal. Dr. Jonathan Reid returns from active service as a field medic, only to be attacked in the street. As he awakes from death, desperately thirsty for blood, his vision and hearing is compromised. Thanks to his newly acquired vampiric senses, he can see nothing but the pulsating scarlet glow of the warm bodies around him.
Driven to feed, he grabs and devours the first beating heart he happens across… and with a devastating, sickening coincidence, Vampyr begins.
While you don’t get any say in that first death, the rest are very much up to you. It’s an uneasy choice, wherein you can opt to succumb to the temptations of a Vampiric life, or suppress your dark nature and maintain your Hippocratic Oath. There’s plenty of scope to do either, thanks to the droves of sick people peppered throughout this world. The choice is yours, Doctor; will you heal or harm them?
Do no harm
This world is truly Vampyr‘s most remarkable asset. Dissected neatly into districts, each one boasts a handful of key citizens – rich, poor, good, bad – and your job is to keep the health of the region elevated by ensuring the townsfolk don’t succumb to their ailments. The sicker your people, the sicker the town… and if you let the district’s level fall to critical, chaos is unleashed.
And it’s a good place to explore, this wet, wild London. Plenty of spoils are secreted down its allies, although there are too many locked gates and doors to permit free movement. While Reid can’t jump in the traditional sense, he has an intriguing contextual leap ability, which helps him reach places that would be inaccessible to other folk.
Accompanied by a satisfying Nightcrawler-esque BAMPHF noise, we never grew tired of watching Reid vanish into a cloud of black smoke and suddenly re-appear on a nearby ledge.
Despite being arguably the coolest undead ability Reid has access too, frustratingly, this endearing little power is rarely utilised.
In a nice touch, Dr Reid’s medical background is more than just a bit of narrative dressing, but something that’s deeply intertwined with Vampyr‘s core gameplay. There’s a simplistic crafting system that enables you to create medicine for the sick, but you can also fashion serums to keep yourself healthy, too, and enhance your weapons.
But the components you need aren’t always easy to find. There are loads of padlocked chests and doors but not many keys, and even unlocking the recipes to make drugs for your patients’ ailments isn’t straightforward (despite copious backtracking we’ve seemingly overlooked the headache recipe, which means the poor citizens originally needing a dose of paracetamol eventually developed full-blown neuralgia as we couldn’t intervene quick enough).
Of course, citizens aren’t the only things roaming the streets at night. But while there’s plenty of rogue vampires — or Skals — to put down, and many a vampire hunter to shake off, you’ll never feel truly comfortable with the difficulty, even if you’re tackling enemies at the same level as you.
Ammo for firearms is frustratingly uncommon, which means you’ll need to use it sparingly or else you’ll even exceed the supply of your local merchant. Trouble is, it’s tricky to use it sparingly when you’re taking on five vampire hunters and being chargrilled by a frickin’ flamethrower.
Melee weapons, therefore, will become your trusted allies. They each tout their own speed and dexterity stats, and the bigger the weapon you wield, the harder it is to handle. This is fine in a one-on-one battle, and even most boss fights if you’re very careful (learning to continuously dodge whilst waiting for your special abilities to cooldown is a cheap but effective way to topple solitary foes), but once you come up against a small crowd, the combat feels clumsy and unforgiving, especially as you can only re-gen your life by biting enemies – a feat that’s harder than you might expect, given you must stun them first – or by crafting serums.
You’ll also unlock a suite of Vampiric special abilities, and these are deliciously fun to use. To use them you need to gather blood, either again by biting victims or chomping down on rats.
But run out of blood and serums and you won’t be able to use them again, no matter how modest their cooldowns.
Dead to the world
You can also “Evolve” by collecting XP and levelling up via a detailed skill tree. It offers the standard fare – defensive/aggressive traits, and boosts to your life and stamina and so on – but to Evolve, you must sleep… and if you go to bed, you’ll stay there until the following evening.
So if you haven’t checked the health of the citizens across the borough before beddy-byes time, it’s possible you’ll wake up to find missing colleagues or dead patients.
The fastest way to Evolve, however, is to soak up the sweet XP blood coursing through the veins of your friends and colleagues. And therein lies the dilemma of Vampyr. It’s tempting, chomping down on the townsfolk, especially as their backstories are revealed.
But by taking them out you’ll not only lose access to their quests, hints, and stories, but you’ll also detrimentally affect the health status of the district, which further impacts the local economy and the merchants you rely on. So it’s up to you, good doctor, to decide which you value more – back stories and side quests, or that scarlet XP.
Those who make it through alive will have interesting stories, though. And while you’ll hear a lot about the war and the effects of the Spanish flu, you’ll also pick up investigations from the citizens, which offer a good selection of kill-this, collect-that side quests to boost your XP and add coffers to the purse.
Yes, they’ll repeat themselves a lot, but the flavour-dialogue is well-written and, if occasionally hammy, well-acted, with Reid’s responses to them – available by way of that olde world dialogue wheel – mostly relatable, and almost always making sense, even if it feels as though those choices may not impact the story much.
Is it perfect? Sadly not. Maybe you like your combat brutal and unapologetic, but there’s little respite for those new to hack ‘n’ slash-esque mechanics or anyone wishing to focus on the tale rather than fighting. It’s tempting to forever traipse across London in black and white, as Reid’s striking Vampiric Sense mode permits you to see the location of some friends and foes at distance.
And while the map isn’t prohibitively huge, it would’ve benefitted from a fast-travel system, especially when you reach latter chapters and your foes get significantly stronger.
There’s no way to conveniently tag citizens, and for all its side quests and world-building, it’s a fairly linear story that – citizen investigations aside – doesn’t offer much else other than Reid’s desperate quest to uncover how, and why, he was turned into an immortal.
Is Vampyr any good?
Despite the strikingly different premise from Life is Strange studio Dontnod, the team’s expertise in characterisation and world-building dovetail neatly into this vampire romp. Reid’s world is full of detail and flavour, its cast fully-realised and three-dimensional. It’s just frustrating that its clumsy combat and limited loot detract from its otherwise unique ideas and exhilarating story.