Vampyr Review: The City That Never Sleeps

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Vampyr may seem an unlikely game from the studio that made the narrative-focused Life Is Strange, but being an action-RPG doesn’t preclude it from being a great vehicle for storytelling. It’s set in a harsh city in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, and much of the game involves potentially becoming the savior the world so desperately needs. If anything, Vampyr feels like the spiritual successor to the beloved cult hit Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines, but with much of that game’s vampire politics replaced by heartfelt interpersonal drama. It’s a story strengthened through the power of choice, with the fate of thousands resting on your ability to sacrifice your needs for the greater good.

Vampyr takes place in England, 1918, at the height of the Spanish flu pandemic. You play as Dr. Jonathan Reid, a renowned doctor just back from the frontlines of World War I. Not even minutes off the boat, he’s violently welcomed back to his homeland by a vampire and subsequently shoveled into a mass grave. When Reid reawakens, confused and stark-raving mad with bloodlust, he attacks the first person he comes across. Before he’s able to process his profound grief and confusion, a guild of vampire hunters chases him off into the night.

How deep you’re able to dive into Vampyr’s narrative rabbit holes depends on your dialogue choices, and whole subplots can be blocked off permanently by not correctly identifying what a patient needs or wants to hear.

Thanks to the help of a sympathetic stranger, your time scared and alone is graciously brief. It’s not long before you’re employed for the night shift at a hospital, and it’s there that you also gain the support of Lady Ashbury, another vampire hiding in plain sight. Once acclimated, Reid aims to come to grips with his afterlife, maybe find a cure for his vampirism, and get some much needed answers as to why he was turned to begin with.

The larger story beats delve deep into the lurid lore you might expect from a turn-of-the-century vampire tale, but it’s not until much later that it becomes the crux of the story. For the majority of the game, Vampyr goes all in on the idea of Reid as an altruistic doctor, a man tirelessly dedicated to the wellbeing of his patients and travelling around town seeing to their various needs. Much of the game involves chatting with fellow hospital employees, patients, and citizens about town, finding out how they’re coping with the epidemic, and building a case file to get to the heart of whatever ails them. Sometimes, their problems can be fixed by simply lending a sympathetic ear. Some troubles can be fixed by concocting a bit of medicine in your lab. But the most engaging quests are resolved by getting down and dirty in an infected area of town, spearheading investigations no living person ever could. How deep you’re able to dive into Vampyr’s narrative rabbit holes depends on your dialogue choices, and whole subplots can be blocked off permanently by not correctly identifying what a patient needs or wants to hear.

Vampyr leans hard into the RPG side of the action-RPG spectrum, and though there’s often a campy texture to the storytelling, it’s very easy to get attached to its motley crew of characters. A factory worker waits on surgery to fix a near-gangrenous arm because his two attending doctors can’t agree on an approach to treatment. A nurse and an ambulance driver rely on Reid to keep their interracial relationship secret. A man becomes an alcoholic due to his survivor’s guilt over an anarchistic plot gone wrong. A non-ordained preacher goes around the city burning the sick alive, believing God told him to cleanse the flu pandemic with fire. Everyone you can converse with has a tale to tell, and the vast majority of them are worth the time it takes to hear them out.

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It’s impossible to avoid the fact that Reid needs to feast on blood in order to survive, but his thirst manifests in more subtle, diabolical ways than just a steadily declining hunger stat. Every little thing Reid does for the citizens of London adds to a pool of overall health for each of the game’s four main districts, all of which contribute to the wellness of London as a whole. While that pool is useful for keeping an eye on the citizenry, it also just so happens you can explore that menu to get details on each of the citizens you’ve met. You can learn how nourishing their blood will be should you decide to feed on them–i.e. how much XP you’d get from taking their life–and refamiliarize yourself with their backstory. The stories of the city change depending on who, if anyone, you prey upon, and in much subtler ways than you might expect.

One of the best choices I made was to feed on a gruff man who Reid discovered was secretly a mass murderer. After his death, the man’s mother, while certainly grieving her son, copes by deciding to take in the awkward orphan living nearby and giving him the love she foolishly gave to protect her own flesh and blood. Reid can certainly drive relationships into chaos in much the same way, but the fact that there’s enough information to be had through your interactions to guide those decisions with is both impressive and empowering.

Walking the streets of London between residential districts, Reid is a persistent target for vampire hunters, brutal sub-human mutants called Skals, massive beasts, and highly skilled vampire elites. Encountering any of them means it’s time to take a more hands-on and proactive approach. Using a combination of bludgeons, sharp implements, firearms, and terrifying vampire magic, you’re quite capable of fighting your many enemies off, but these late-night battles are still difficult. Physical attacks and dodges drain a stamina meter that, if not carefully managed, leaves you utterly defenseless while it recharges. Your vampire powers are impressive and can devastate enemies, but they cost fresh blood to execute. While you can bite your enemies in combat to recover some, not only is stunning enemies to get the bite tricky–you either land enough hits in quick succession or parry an attack, which has a frustratingly small window of opportunity–the powers tend to use more blood than a single bite can replenish.

There are games that have tied survival and power to moral choice, but very few have managed to tie the lure of evil so perfectly–or seductively–to the core gameplay.

Mild combat frustrations are further amplified by performance issues. Playing on a PS4 Pro, Vampyr succumbs to frame rate drops and surprisingly frequent loading screens. You begrudgingly learn to live with these hiccups, but the most preposterous load times–stretching well over a minute–haunt you after death. In a game where enemies can one-hit kill you, and where bosses require a bit of trial and error to overcome, such long pauses aren’t easily overlooked.

One of the best ways to avoid death is to trade in XP earned for ability and stat upgrades. You can increase bite damage and improve the amount of blood you draw with each attack, but the most interesting improvements come in the form of advanced vampiric powers. Some are simple, such as sharpening your claws mid-combo to increase your damage output, but you can also learn advanced spells, such as one that boils all the blood in your victim’s body before causing them to explode. You can become an unstoppable force in London, but it all costs XP. And while you can gain XP from handing out meds or killing enemies, the payouts are a pittance compared to the thousands of points earned from killing just one of the proper citizens of London.

If you desire, you can work to improve the vitality (and XP potential) of everyone in town, only to drink your way through an entire district of healthy people in one night, personal connections be damned. This will make Reid nigh-invincible for hours to come, but conversely cause the district to descend into utter chaos as friends, family, and colleagues go missing, leaving those who remain in despair. Alternatively, you can play the game as a much more civilized sort of vampire, getting by only on the blood of rats and those who attack you first. Theoretically, it’s even possible to play the game without killing a single soul, save the few mandatory boss fights. However, walking the path of the righteous man is the game at its hardest, especially as enemies jump up in level.

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Ultimately, I opted for a balanced, Hannibal Lecter-like path: kindness and erudite mystery, coinciding with a predilection to savagely prey on the free-range scum of society–the occasional mass murderer here, a crime boss there, etc. It felt good, righteous, even, for a while. And somewhere around the time I reached level 20, I was still getting ambushed and demolished in two hits by a guy wielding a torch and cheap sword. The problem could be easily remedied by sacrificing yet another juicy, XP-heavy victim, but that could potentially put the surrounding community at risk of devastation. There are games that have tied survival and power to moral choice, but very few have managed to tie the lure of evil so perfectly–or seductively–to the core gameplay.

The narrative does take a mild decline as time goes on. The late-game answers to Dr. Reid’s questions feel more focused on the game’s fantastical threads than they do on Reid himself–though it cleverly delves into semi-obscure British/Celtic legend and very real macabre British history for inspiration. More and more as the game goes on, Reid’s dialogue choices don’t end up corresponding to the intended tone. And a few of the really huge choices to be made are no-win situations none of the characters deserve.

And yet, the credits roll on Vampyr with the realization of how seldom we see an open-world RPG experience like this, where being a citizen with a responsibility to a place and its people feels personal, even if that investment lies in who looks delicious tonight. Vampyr is certainly shaggy and rough in the technical department, but its narrative successes still make for an impactful and worthwhile experience.

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