The Tormented Soul of Vampyr

Thomas Busby

Image courtesy of DONTNOD Entertainment and Focus Interactive

Vampyr was a game that I missed out on in 2018. I just flew past it. It was released way back on June 5, 2018 and was developed by the same studio that brought us Life is Strange. After finishing up Life is Strange I heard about it and my anticipation was at a fever pitch. I heard about it in 2016.

A year is a long time to ruminate on a game. Two years is a very long time, particularly when that 2nd year is 2018. Both halves of 2018 were outrageous when it came to videogames. Let’s just focus on the games I played in that first half: Monster Hunter World (January 26), Far Cry 5 (March 27), God of War (April 20), Dark Souls Remastered (May 25), Hollow Knight (June 12). I was like a kid in a candy store. And by May 25 my sugar high was through the roof. Ask the rest of the Splash Damage bros my favorite game and Dark Souls will be the answer. The release of the DS Remaster not even 2 weeks before Vampyr virtually guaranteed it would be forgotten. For this, I am sorry.

I am also sorry that this game got the middling reviews it did. Eurogamer headlines reads, “a beautiful premise wasted in this bland action RPG,” landing on 3/5 rating. Other outlets, while not offering an instantly quotable headline, gave it a 7/10, some very respectable ones sinking into the 5/10 range. I think this is a damn shame.

I think its a damn shame for so many reasons, but the one I can land on squarely, and the nail I can hit over and over again, is its heart. It is obviously made with so much care.

Image Courtest DONTNOD Entertainment and Focus Interactive

The first thing you’ll notice is your character, Dr. Jonathan Reid. When you meet him, he has been abandoned in what would appear to be a trench for corpses. He has been discarded, yet is not dead. He wakes as a newly christened vampire, only to see a world of shadow, blacks and greys are everywhere, except for the beating red hearts of the townspeople. This is one of the more intriguing design decisions I’ve come across in a while and it immediately communicates to the player the bloodlust that Dr. Reid is now cursed with.

Let’s talk about the NPCs. The NPCs (there are many, many NPCs) are all really well fleshed out. They all have backstories and interactions with one another that are moving, at times evocative. Dr. Reid, quickly learns that he still possesses all his human faculties, all of his human desires, all his human pathos, yet is “outside of the circle of life and death,” as an NPC instructs him early on. He has two paths to evolution, the fulfillment of his vampirism, and it brings to mind the same conflict that Brad Pitt’s character from Interview with the Vampire, Louis, found himself in: he can either scrounge for the blood he needs, feeding on rats and whatever else might cross his path, or feed on humans. This simple dynamic is the main impetus for all your choices in Vampyr.

Vampyr takes place during the Spanish Flu Epidemic (1918), one of the deadliest epidemics in human history. Dr. Reid, a blood transfusion specialist who served in WWI, is found by the head of a hospital, Dr. Swansea. Swansea knows of his vampirism, but also of his renown as a doctor. In exchange for protection and a place to stay during the daylight, he brings him on as senior staff at his hospital.

The premise alone is captivating. A vampire, hired as a blood specialist, during a violent epidemic. A steady stream of blood flowing to his doorstep when he needs it most. This is the situation that you are thrust in, and the NPCs can either be helped or fed upon. The interesting thing is you must heal the NPCs so that their blood is healthier, and learn about them so that they become more valuable to you. The interactions serve to really bond Dr. Reid with them, to let you feel for them in their particular positions. I found empathy for many of these characters, and the ones I did feed upon were chosen carefully out of the fold.

Image Courtesy DONTNOD Entertainment and Focus Interaactive

Feeding doesn’t just allow you to live, but it enables you to level up faster and become a more vicious threat to the vampire hunters that roam the streets. So you are always faced with a choice: to spare the living you’ve grown to know and have a tougher fight, or feed thereby evolving your vampirism, but plunging the neighborhoods you meet into darkness? It’s a riveting concept, and a gameplay mechanic that communicates to the player the tormented soul of Dr. Jonathan Reid. Dr. Reid loves his fellow man, but inevitably must feed. This struggle is always present, and I think its exceptionally well handled.

The combat system is a bit more divisive than what I’ve touched on so far, but its nowhere near as bad as some of the outlets report. Its not as fluid and dynamic as Bloodborne (the setting guarantees a comparison), but it holds up well. The enemies have fairly simple AI patterns and their move sets aren’t as varied as I prefer, but for a studio who has a lot fewer resources than FromSoftware (not to mention countless other studios) it’s a well designed, well implemented combat system. Once you level up a bit (throw some XP into the “Ultimate” category) you’ll go from struggling to enjoying yourself in no time. So, while not the tightest, most dynamic system around, it gives you plenty of progression paths that elevate the combat and set the leveling system apart from your standard Ubisoft-style skilltree.

Image Courtesy of DONTNOD Entertainment and Focus Interactive

With all this, let’s revisit what I said earlier, about the middling reviews Vampyr received. Its a shame. An honest shame. Vampyr is a game that is wholly unique. It has an original setting, a story who’s focus and thrust seems to be the turmoil of its player character, a mesmerizing score (which I failed to mention; hats off to Olivier Deriviere!) that communicates the central themes of torment and doubt, a well designed combat system that really evolves with the player character. It would’ve been so easy to turn this into a power fantasy, and yet what DONTNOD has given us is a morality tale. If you’ve been hesitant of Vampyr, don’t be. Its one of the rare kind of original, risky game the industry really needs to propel itself forward.

Thomas is a fan of all videogames, but has a special place in his heart for demanding, technical, twitch gameplay. He can be found hosting the Splash Damage podcast or @tbuzzworthy. 

Currently playing: Vampyr, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Starlink: Battle for Atlas, Dynasty Warriors 9.

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