Vampyr's Masquerade

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Vampyr is a guy named Gary sucking gently but oh-so-misguidedly at your shoulder, dull teeth scraping across skin, while you stand there awkwardly and wonder what about this is supposed to be sexy. To someone passing by, this exchange, in the right light—which is to say none at all—could look like some legit steamy vampire action. The name “Sookie” might even inexplicably spring to mind, the husky whisper of its cultural currency stirred by the sight. Should that passerby drift too close to the shadow play, though, they’ll see what’s really going on, share a life-haunting sad look with you, and shuffle along their way.

Like Gary, Vampyr aimed for the jugular, but missed the mark and ultimately proved itself fangless.

At its undead heart, Vampyr is a character-driven murder-mystery that tries to fuse a Gothic horror aesthetic with a Holmesian, science-based sensibility. Players put on the quasi-dead flesh of one Jonathan Reid, a brilliant doctor who, naturally, specializes in blood transfusions.  Just back from France and the horrors of the First World War, Doctor Reid returns to London a changed man—figuratively, of course, from all that he’s seen as a combat surgeon, but also literally, the game opening with the good doctor’s first hangry pangs for blood. After that, it’s a whirlwind tour of The Big Smoke’s rundown, Spanish Flu-ridden districts as Doctor Reid tries to get to the bottom of his own undeath and the larger mysteries lurking behind London’s vampire (or as they prefer, “Ekon”) intrigue.

As Reid, players tackle the bulk of this investigation by two means: conversing with the city’s nightfaring citizens and good ol’ fashioned fisticuffs. The former represents an ambitious attempt at marrying NPCs to gameplay progression and loading emotional weight to how a player chooses to advance Doctor Reid’s skills and abilities. The latter, a rote gameplay component.

Talking to London’s eclectic nightlife is by far the most compelling part of Vampyr, and clearly where the developers at Dontnod focused their efforts. Quite a few folk keep late hours in London, including but not limited to: a hackneyed poet, inscrutable twin brothers, a suffragette with immortal aspirations, a foodie and contemporary hipster, Doctor Reid’s mom, and a teen with weapons-grade depression. There are 16 residents in each of Vampyr’s four districts, all possessing varying degrees of character depth. Talking to one might reveal a clue about someone else, opening new dialogue options. Others offer sidequests that might send players on a journey that radically changes their view of the NPC in question. All of these people are crimson-colored XP e-tanks the player can invest in, keep healthy by administering treatments when needed (Hippocratic Oath and all that), and, should they choose, Mesmerize and take to chomptown for a huge boost of red juice.

On paper, this is a diabolically clever work of narrative design, merging player choice and story consequences with systems progression: make the player complicit in murder to enhance Reid’s skills and abilities to match the rise in gameplay difficulty. Make feeding a necessary evil. In execution, sadly, it proves wholly unnecessary beyond an easy-access option. Supplementing the walking blood bags Doctor Reid banters with are no shortage of enemy creeps (mostly Skals, Vampyr’s word for zombie-like fodder) to slaughter and soak up experience. Slower going, for sure, but since you keep any XP gained even when you “die,” difficulty in Vampyr can be dealt with by the blunt hand of grinding until Reid’s up to whatever task is giving players trouble.

This redundancy is in service to a combat system too “floaty” and, at times, just unfairly broken to properly reward skill. Everything from run-of-the-mill tussles with street Skal to full-blown boss fights in Vampyr are routinely the source of loadscreen-triggering frustration. Combat itself is as straightforward as it gets, with primary and secondary attacks, a dodge, and cooldown-paced powers to juggle between while you weave in and out of enemy attack patterns, striking when it’s safe. The real fun comes when attack animations overlap, letting enemy hacks and slashes cut through some of Reid’s longer, locked ability animations and pile on damage while you sit there and watch until the hero healer’s left hurting for health on the other side of it all. And when combined with loose, imprecise movement controls, Vampyr’s combat encounters can’t be decided by skill alone. The presence of creeps becomes a necessity when not leveling is not an option, leaving the entire Citizens system lacking in any actual emotional weight or narrative impact.

As for the central thrust of Vampyr, Dontnod fails to drive the stake home. What begins as a grounded and engaging, if not well-trodden, approach to vampire tropes fails to find cohesion by the end. It seems Dontnod picked up some bad habits from Final Fantasy during their relationship with Square Enix, with Doctor Reid’s science-based search for a cure pivoting to full-tilt Ancient Primordial Evils Rising in its last hour, the quiet, intimate story about contagion quickly becoming a laughably inelegant metaphor of Kojima-brand subtlety and underwhelming character reveals. It becomes, in effect, business as usual for video games. All pretenses of moral complexity and ethical grayspace are dismissed for the usual superficial binary: good versus evil.

Of course, Vampyr’s superficiality will reveal itself to most players long before they reach that narrative beat. Having 64 bespoke NPCs to engage with is impressive, but quantity in craft means sacrificing quality, and while a great many of the Londoners Reid meets manage to rise above one-dimensionality, there’s not enough significant interaction and organic development between people to make London’s moon-soaked streets seem actually inhabited by people instead of progression gates. Vampyr traffics in Gothic tradition, but at the expense of modern appeal. Character relationships jump status unceremoniously and devoid of any chemistry or earned development. This may have flown in Mary Shelley’s time, when pulling a George R.R. Martin by hand would sooner bring death by liver disease than any publishing deals, but here the absence of nuance just makes for writing that scans as shallow. Or, to peddle in cliche as Vampyr might, it does a whole lot of telling, but never any showing. 

Visual language is also a form of communication Vampyr struggles with. The four districts available to players all smear together in design, too steeped in shadow and drab appearance to distinguish themselves significantly. Boxy architecture and identical-looking cobblestone alleyways lead to constant navigation confusion, and the basics of level design—using light or visual cues to guide the player, for example—go easily unnoticed or mistaken for unimportant. Fussy UI is frequently the only thing separating an interactive door from environmental decor, and without any interesting landmarks orienting yourself in the city be disorienting at the best of times. If you were to consider London the 65th character Reid interacts with in Vampyr, it would be described as having all the personality of a decaying corpse. This might be thematically resonant for the game, but it’s not very compelling for the player.

The term bandied about by most people when describing Vampyr is “jank.” Dontnod’s Gothic-tinged tale of vampire drama is, without a doubt, top-to-bottom jank, from quaint QA oversights like “serum very long name” to what sure looks like placeholder UI that someone decided worked well enough. In some ways, that can be charming, like the little imperfections you find in glass art. At their most harmless, Vampyr’s flaws are minor inconveniences that serve as reminders of how video games are made by people, that making games is hard and just about navigating a perfect storm of budgets and bandwidth as it is sheer effort. 

When I speed along too fast using the teleport-dodge and cause the game to briefly lock up while it tries to load the next area, I’m amused more than I am mad about the sudden stop. But when jank corrupts more integral mechanics and systems like bad Ekon blood, you get Skals. Skals like unrewarding and dull exploration, Skals like aggravating combat, and Skals that ride steampunk jet skis and jump sharks in their spare time.

There’s a term of some significance used in Vampyr: healthy carrier. Someone infected with a pathogen who shows no outward signs or symptoms of said infection. Take a sample of a healthy carrier’s blood, though, put it under a microscope, and you’ll see sickness. The same could be said of Dontnod’s third game in just as many publishers. It’s a promising premise and a clever conceit, and something I desperately wanted to lose myself in, but by the end was begging for it to be over.

Chris Holzworth