Review: Vampyr | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Review: Vampyr

Gaming critic Galen Reich faces impossible dilemmas and deeply flawed characters in Dontnod's latest action RPG Vampyr

I have been excited about Vampyr since it was announced and was fortunate to get my hands on a copy to bring you all the details in time for the release on the 5th June. After this brief introduction this review is split into parts focusing on different gameplay elements of Vampyr.

Vampyr is the latest game from developer Dontnod, which is set in a post-war London that has been ravished by the Spanish flu, as well as the curse of vampirism; with different species of vampires stalking the streets. The game follows protagonist, Dr. Jonathon Reid, a renowned blood expert who has been afflicted with vampirism shortly after returning from front-line medical duty in war-torn France.

Coming to consciousness on a pestilent mass-grave, Reid’s new life as an Ekon (one of several vampiric species in the gritty world of Vampyr) has a rough start. With no knowledge of his creator and no one to turn to for help, Reid is forced on the run from the Guard of Priwen (a faction of vampire hunters) through the streets of London. This tutorial section is a little forced, and the game doesn’t really get going until you reach Reid’s hospital shortly after the first section finishes.

dontnod

Environment

The environment is gorgeous, feeling both open and claustrophobic, with rickety condemned buildings hanging over the winding London streets. There is no question that the world is meticulously designed and is full of enough assets to avoid the ‘copy-and-paste’ feeling that comes with some lower-end games. The narrative portion of the gameplay occurs mostly in safe districts, where the fully fleshed-out citizens reside with their intertwined stories. Early in the game, Reid meets several individuals outside of the district from which they originate. This pleasant surprise adds credence to the notion that the London of Vampyr is a dynamic web of people, and not just small ecosystems isolated from one-another.

A full orchestral and choral soundtrack by Olivier Deriviere accompanies Reid’s journey across London with a dramatic cello taking the lead, anchoring the score, and providing space for the anxious trills, tense vibrato, and dramatic crashes of the other instruments. The scoring is consistent with the time period and proves itself incredibly effective at deepening the dark and wretched ambience of post-war London.

Cursed Be The Choice

Permanent consequences on the game world and made the choices I was making feel genuinely impactful
The main mechanic described in the promotional material for Vampyr, and the mechanic that I was the most excited about is that of the ‘Social Web’. Namely that every citizen is tied to their community and that feeding on them will seriously affect those around them and the community as a whole. Within the districts, Dontnod have done an amazing job at breathing life into the characters and into the world, and there are moral and pragmatic incentives to learn all you can about them; there is a significant XP bonus when feeding on a citizen that you know well. In my first playthrough I accidentally eliminated the pillar of the community in a district and very rapidly the district declined in health and morale. Combined with the single save slot per playthrough and auto-saving as every choice is made, this event had permanent consequences on the game world and made the choices I was making feel genuinely impactful.

The largest factor undermining the “cursed be the choice” paradigm is that this only applies to the citizens living in the districts around London and does not apply to the generic Guard of Priwen soldiers wandering around in between the districts and picking fights with Reid. For these people have no names, no backstories, and no associated XP reward: it feels as if they have been gratuitously included to balance the time spent in combat with the time spent in conversations.

Deciding not to include a difficulty setting is an excellent development decision. Instead, Dontnod forces players to choose between feeding on citizens for XP and more powerful vampiric perks which make the game easier and trying to avoid feeding and remaining weak and consistently under-levelled making the game much harder!

Overall, I think that Vampyr pulls off the life and death decision making very well, and the idea that ‘actions have consequences’ present in their previous game Life is Strange is definitely present here. While the system is not perfect, Dontnod is really pushing the boundaries of dynamic storytelling within their games and they should be applauded for this.

Combat

The combat in Vampyr is middle-of-the-road and doesn’t fail or excel in any particular area. The skill trees are simple, but provide a large enough number of modifications to combat to keep things varied and interesting. With four damage types (Melee, Ranged, Shadow, and Blood) and different resistances in enemies, combat remains dynamic as you switch the tactics from one enemy to the next. Attention has clearly been given to the attacks and their animations, which bring a real sense of power and control to the encounters. The ultimate abilities are where the attacks really shine, with one allowing Reid to suspend an enemy in the air with conjured tendrils of shadow.

In some places the enemy AI falls flat, for instance I experienced an enemy trying to hit Reid at range with a fire weapon despite being behind the full cover of a tree. The guard did not attempt to get a better angle, but instead fired round after round of flaming fury into the side of a rather sorry-looking tree! In other places, the collision detection behaves poorly. I attracted the attention of a group of hunters through a closed gate. Instead of opening the gate, they proceeded to attack at Reid from behind the gate with their swing animations clipping through the gate texture. The clipping allowed blows to be exchanged, weakening the immersion of the game, at least for that moment.

dontnod

Interface

The interface is the weakest part of Vampyr. I should say that I’m playing on a PC and so some of these comments are going to be platform specific, but many are universal.

The interface is very pretty but lacks vital functionality. For instance, while the crafting system is adequate, the lack of a button to ‘Sell all Junk’ or to ‘Recycle all Junk’ makes the process more laborious than a good crafting system should be. When crafting cures each must be synthesized individually with no option to ‘Craft Multiple’: I found myself with half the population of a district succumbing to fatigue, as I had to craft each remedy separately, which slowed the game down and reduced the immersion.

The PC version is ported from the Xbox game, which is indicated by the sole presence of a large Xbox controller in the settings ‘Controls’ panel, which is not intrinsically problematic. However, the port lacks customisation options (such as being able to disable Mouse Acceleration) and the control scheme is ambiguous for mouse and keyboard allowing you to set some key-binds, but not all. I have still not figured out how to switch between the two primary weapon slots during combat and there are no obvious shortcuts to the various Journal/Inventory tabs. These missing (or apparently missing) features make the game less playable than it should be.

All in all, the interface should be Dontnod’s primary focus for early release patches as several very minor changes will significantly improve the entire gameplay experience.

Should you buy it?

Retailing at around £40, Vampyr is not a cheap game, and you should certainly weigh up whether it’s the right game for you. In the state that I played it in there were still several minor bugs which reduced the overall experience and should not be present in a game at this price point. Hopefully these bugs will be patched by day one, but there is no guarantee.

If you’re looking for a combat-focused hack-and-slash RPG to play, and aren’t especially bothered by narrative exposition, this is not the right game for you. However, if you’re looking for a beautifully designed game that brings you in contact with deeply flawed characters and impossible moral dilemmas, then you are definitely in luck with Vampyr.

(@ChronicAardvark)



Published

12th June 2018 at 9:00 am



Images from

Dontnod



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