Estimated reading time: 17 minutes
Dontnod announced a new title sometime last year that became a highly anticipated game. Vampyr has now been out for a couple weeks and in that time we were given the opportunity to slice it open to reveal its dirty secrets. So let’s sink our teeth into it, shall we?
Right off the bat, I was sucked into this game (and that was a lovely double pun for you readers). As expected, the game has a dark palette befitting of what we have come to expect out of this genre. It is gritty, dark, disturbing, humanizing and beautiful all in one fell swoop. The music sets the overall tone, the introduction creates a compelling atmosphere, and this game successfully hooks the player.
Vampyr begins with a cut scene of protagonist Dr. Jonathan Reid with his sister, Mary. Dr. Reid, as he bites and kills her unfortunately unaware that he is the killer. I love it!
Putting you in control, we get to begin the game on the run from the locals who don’t like vampires – despite the fact that people are dying of the Spanish flu. You would think vampirism would be a merciful death but more on that later!
The game play portion begins with Dr. Reid on the run. He quickly acquires a weapon and gets to kill a few people right away though it’s not long before players are forced to make a decision. Do you spare a man’s life or do you kill him?
There are many aspects of this game that I absolutely love. Obviously, the subject matter has always fascinated me personally, but the overall story progression is gripping. This game is not simply meant as a slaughterhouse, although you do have that option. Vampyr has a couple of different layers to cater to all types of gamers. Because I’m an investigative type of player, having the option to do side quests appeals to me. A player can do these side quests if they want, and should they do that, they are then given hints about the citizens leading to more quests. These give experience which allows players to level up, as does killing Skal – the lesser undead creatures in the area. It’s up to the player to determine what path they wish to follow.
Some important things to know about Vampyr: Functionally, the night is endless. A player isn’t forced into a time limit (IE: the sun rising), which I love. A player is able to explore the map, talk to all the citizens, and craft potions. It also lets a player move freely between areas. There is no teleport to location mechanic, meaning that a player must travel on foot. If there was a daylight mechanic to this game, it’d make Vampyr more challenging. Instead, players can prepare themselves for quests by leveling their abilities when they want (as in, when they go to ‘sleep’). Having this sort of game design allows players the ability to familiarize themselves with their abilities and options.
With the passing of each night, the citizens will become sick. If you’ve treated a citizen, they will recover over the course of the day. As such, the overall health of the district changes, which causes players options in terms of their decisions. If the district falls in the serious or lower status levels, hostiles will appear in the area. The important thing to remember is that the player is a doctor. Reid’s primary station in life is to heal, so becoming a vampire is a cruel fate that he must struggle through. These are nice added elements that fit the motif of Vampyr.
To further that point, I love the themes that Vampyr represents. On one hand, a player can drink the blood of all the citizens, sparing them of ailments like the Spanish flu. Yet, to take mercy on the citizens would mean that Dr. Reid would have to kill innocent people – a both illegal and morally wrong concept. By doing so, the game forces players to think about who might be deserving of a quick death and who should be spared. Morally, killing is wrong and as a doctor, Reid has a duty to save his patients. As a vampire, he needs to kill in order to survive. The choice is up to the player.
Sound and Music
Next, let’s look at the amazing sound effects and music used in this game. To begin your journey, the atmosphere is set by a eerie violin tune, which is apropo in my mind. The violin is an instrument that can sing, cry, and instill fear in mere mortals. As a string instrument, it has a lot of ability to cut a person to their core with its sharp sounds. It is an instrument that can also be smooth and dramatic, making it a perfect choice to introduce players to the game. While I played Clarinet for many years, I’ve always appreciated violins for their diverse sounds.
When entering areas where there are Skal – lesser forms of vampires – the music changes accordingly. A player always knows when they’ve stumbled into an area that has creatures to defeat.
On top of that, the overall sound design in this game is absolutely wonderful. When using the tracking ability near humans, a heartbeat can be heard. If a player is close to Skal, then the sounds ressemble something like alien screaming. One particular boss mimics the sound of baby cries to lure its victims. Even when levelling up, the game uses a strong heartbeat sound when committing experience points.
Let’s talk about the voice acting shall we?
I loved the attention to detail that Dontnod has provided players. The characters who are from different countries are actually voiced correctly. The idea of wandering accents is not an issue in Vampyr like is often the case in many movie productions. Characters portrayed by actors are well done and thought out properly. Even the writing of the different characters is done brilliantly.
First, Jonathan Reid is voice acted by a man named Anthony Howell, a British actor who has done roles in other games such as Star Wars: Battlefront II, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III, Mass Effect: Andromeda, and Horizon Zero Dawn. And he’s no stranger to vampires either, because he play Lord Laurent in the 2013 TV series Dracula. (I’m actually still salty they cancelled the show after only one season. I NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS).
Jamie Zubairi plays the voice of Rakesh, and he was born in the UK although he grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. While his acting credits is shorter than some of the other voice actors in the game, Mr. Zubairi was hired for games like James Bond 007: Bloodstone and Just Cause 2.
While there is a decent cast for the various characters in Vampyr, many of the actors are from England – a detail that goes a long way in creating an immersive video game experience. Though, birth in a particular country does not mean that other actors could not have taken on roles. All I’m saying is the use of primarily British actors delivers a captivating and realistic story.
Each character is tailored perfectly to portray different types of people from their sexual orientation right down to their social standing and temperament. These characters are voice acted in a manner that fits the story and the time period well enough that it’s quite noticeable to keen observers.
I absolutely love every bit of the sound and music used in Vampyr. I especially love the casting choices for the characters in the game.
Graphics and Style
In Vampyr, the graphics style is exactly what I expect for this sort of gritty game. The color palette has a lot of greys, blacks, strong reds, and browns. The lightest color is the orange glow that emanates from the street lights or candles. Even the shillings or crates that can be opened have muted colors. Something noticeable to my sensitives eyes is that even the whites are dulled.
Everything in this game is dark, with the exception of blood when viewed through the tracking ability. The red in this is so vibrant that it reminded me of the movie Sin City. In fact, watch that movie and take notice of the color transition from black and white to when the red dressed woman finally appears. Remember how it suddenly felt weird that the red was the only actual color in the beginning of the movie? Vampyr is very much the same. Turning on the tracking ability will cause that trippy feeling to occur in the player. The black and white palette seems unreal at first because the player is adjusting to it. And when color is finally presented, it’s temporarily jarring. In my opinion, this adds to the games atmosphere.
It’s strange that after years of playing video games, I felt more present in Vampyr. When talking to characters in the game, the camera would zoom in on the two of you. Now, in most games, that wouldn’t be noticeable because of the active living world in the background. Vampyr feels more real because it caused me to tunnel vision. What I mean is, graphically the muted colors allowed the foreground to be the primary focus and unlike other games, was not forced.
If I had any sort of complaint about Vampyr, it would be that I wish my graphics card wasn’t terrible. There were several moments where the camera panning wasn’t as pristine as I would have liked. When I spoke to various members of the city, and therefore zoomed in on both characters, Jonathan’s beard looked stringy. However, when I watched other Twitch streamers play, like Bogotter and Dexbonus, their graphics were amazing. Obviously, my issue with Vampyr has nothing to do with the game, it has to do with my computer. (I’ll rectify that at some point in the future)
The Leveling System
The leveling in Vampyr happens each night when Dr. Reid goes to sleep. A screen pops up with a skill tree that players use. Performing different tasks will award experience, which is used to upgrade or purchase abilities. The tree has everything from autophage – a heal – to increasing stamina or health. A couple of the abilities seem endless. Health is one of those abilities where a player can add 5% each time experience is spent. At first health and stamina cost 300 experience each and after a couple levels the cost increases to 600.
Weapons can be upgraded, but they don’t require the player to sleep. Instead, to upgrade weapons, a player needs various materials in their inventory before using the workbench. Players can upgrade their weapons in the hospital or in any hideout. This is also the same concept for creating serums to heal the wounded humans. Each potion requires different combined chemicals and they are made at a separate desk.
Players can acquire these materials by finding them in the area or by purchasing them from merchants with shillings. Since this game allows players to kill everyone, if they want to upgrade weapons, keeping a merchant around could be useful. Should they kill the merchants, then upgrades are still possible, but players will need to rely on RNG or salvaging junk to get the parts. If players decide not to upgrade weapons, they can still become powerful through the skill tree. As in, it’s up to the player to strategize on their own combat style.
At any time, Dr. Reid can use mesmerize to coerce a human to follow him into an alley. This is how the player can kill the city folk without being noticed by others. It is one of the ways that a player can gain experience points faster to take on the powerful bosses in the game. As discussed in the leveling section of the game, there are abilities that can be purchased using experience points. The ultimate abilities that unlock at level 10 cost a fair amount. So, by doing side quests or killing Skal, a player can obtain experience points to boost their abilities.
The game supports all forms of players like those that enjoy getting up close and dirty for melee combat. A player could opt for a ranged build by using the stun ability, using the bloodspear, or players could simply shoot the Skal with a gun. Finally, there are AOE abilities for those that like to kill multiple Skal in one go.
Dr. Reid’s dodge ability is a puff of smoke, which I adore. It’s a pseudo teleportation ability that feels vampiric. Not only can players use this ability to dodge big attacks, but it’s also the same look when teleporting across the water. But be warned, I was level 9 and teleported to the other side where there was a level 18 Skal closeby. I opted to GTFO before I died horribly. A thing to note, Skal don’t automatically aggro since they only notice the player from within a certain distance. The player will know when something is near because of the music change and by using the tracking ability.
For me, one of the most useful skills in the game is that tracking ability. As I said, if creatures automatically aggroed based on level discrepancy, I’d have been a pasted vampire. Remember that level 18 I was talking about? I only knew he was there because of the music change and the tracking ability. Besides, I like to play a bit more stealthy when it comes to games like this. Thankfully, players learn about this tracking ability early on in the game.
For the most part, I’ve done a little bit of melee and ranged combat styles. I’ll first stun the Skal using the ‘coagulation’ ability, then I get in melee range and attack. I tend to dodge when my stamina is getting low or when there is a big attack coming. While I’m predominately a keyboard and mouse player, I decided to play Vampyr with my Xbox controller. (There are only a handful of games that I use a controller for. This is one of them.)
Combat is rather smooth in execution and in its ‘feel’. What I mean is that combat is not clunky. Despite certain abilities having cool downs before execution, Vampyr has nailed the system. I, as a keyboard player, had no issues figuring out the buttons for various attacks and abilities. This is important because in other games where I use a controller, I often change the key binds. The fact that I have not done so in Vampyr is very telling in its design.
It also feels good in the sense that each blow to a creature is satisfying. There are plenty of games that use the vibrate feature of a controller to emphasize a critical hit. Vampyr does have the option to use the function and even though it is natively active, I’ve never felt the need to disable it. Often, I find the vibration usage to be overdone in most games and yet, in Vampyr, it’s never been a nuisance. Visually and audibly the game retains its message without overdoing a controller feature.
As with most games where there is a fair amount of fighting, there are combo abilities. Vampyr is no different in that sense. Pairing certain abilities with each other will cause extra damage to a Skal. In essence, Dontnod has successfully managed to include all forms of play styles, even if they aren’t extensive. They have everything for stealthy, combative, or investigative players.
The Final Bite
To conclude this review, I am going to talk a little bit about the writing in this game. The primary writer, Stephane Beauverger, is also one of the writers for Life is Strange, Iron Storm, Remember Me, Tonic Trouble, and a short by the name of Antinome. There were several points in conversing with characters that I felt empathy, particularly for Oswald and his partner. Many of the characters had been in the military and with some of the brief stories mentioned, I truly felt like these characters were real. A lot of that has to do with the cleverly thought out background stories which Mr. Beauverger concocted. It also has to do with the fact that research was done on possible experiences of those who serve. The writer also did a brilliant job in portraying themes of isolation, PTSD, and depression. As such, there is nothing that I don’t love about this game. Mr. Beauverger is brilliant and has so far impressed me with his work on Life is Strange and Vampyr.
When I first heard about this game, I was super excited because I wanted to know which vampire mythos the developers would base their game on. I view Vampyr to have been based in the World of Darkness universe or in Anne Rice’s vampire world. (White Wolf created a Roleplaying system that includes Vampire: The Masquerade. Should readers wish to research why I think Dr. Reid fits in this rendition of vampires, check out their Wiki page) Given the time period of this game, Vampyr has done justice to the most well known lore.
One more thing that I appreciate is the level of realism when it comes to science. Dr. Reid has the opportunity to explains away an ailment in human terms. What I mean is: A patient at the Pembroke hospital believes she is a vampire. Dr. Reid offers up an explanation: “Have you heard of Cotard’s syndrome?” Upon choosing this answer, the player learns that this mental illness was discovered in 1880 by a man named Jules Cotard. In short, it is the belief that a person is already dead. The reason I mention this is because the development team on Vampyr actually did research and included each element they could into this game.
Furthermore, these vampires do not turn into bats and cannot walk in daylight, but they can be harmed by a crosses power, fire, and silver. In the grand scheme of things, Dr. Reid represents the most accurate rendition of the creature’s evolution at the time that the Spanish Flu plagued London. Not only do I appreciate the attention to detail, but I love that Dontnod brought the ‘roots’ of vampire mythos back to the forefront. (That said, I will add one little bit of clarification. I put ‘roots’ in quotations because vampire lore extends long before what modern man believes to be true. Vampires were known by a number of different names and were referenced in many cultures legends. In fact, the myth of vampires predates Christianity when the church acknowledged the existence of the devil spawn like vampires. As in, what most people believe to be ‘legitimate’ vampires, is likely wrong because the myth predates most people’s understanding of it.)
Finally, Vampyr is a well thought out story with very real themes, allows play style options, and grips players effortlessly. I appreciate the amazing music, gritty atmosphere, and realism of the game given the time period.
Out of ten I’m going to give this game a full score because the lore was done correctly, research was done on legitimate human ailments, and the atmosphere is perfectly portrayed. I love the attention to detail with respect to the posters littered throughout the game. Vampyr’s graphics are beautiful, the music and sound are done properly, the story enthralling, and I will be playing this game until its end.
Dontnod continues to impress me with their brilliant story based games. I can’t express my appreciation enough. If they continue to produce games like Vampyr and Life is Strange, their titles will be at the top of my list to buy without question.
My black vampire heart is happy. You’ve done the genre justice.
Until next time.