Vampire legends have been around for centuries. At first the product of superstition and folklore, they’ve transitioned into the modern age almost seamlessly, and this is thanks to a reinvention of the vampire from monstrous, decomposing bloodsucker to a charismatic, ageless villain. This modern vampire is almost ubiquitous in fiction and has achieved its tremendous success for two reasons. One is the sexy allure of vampirism, which has driven the creation of so many novels that there’s now a dedicated subcategory for them in many bookshops called Paranormal Romance. The other, though, is that being a vampire is increasingly portrayed as A Generally Awesome Experience. Vampires are superhumanly strong and fast, have mind control powers, do not age, and regenerate from almost any wound — and that’s before you start mixing in author-specific traits such as the ability to transform into animals and sparkling in sunlight. It’s no coincidence that a lot of modern vampire fiction tends to gloss over the less salubrious aspects of vampirism, like the blood drinking or the inability to go sunbathing; nobody really wants to spend much time dwelling on the drawbacks when it’s far more fun to treat it as the ultimate power fantasy.
It is something of a shame, then, that nobody told Dontnod any of this when they were developing Vampyr.
To be clear, I’m not complaining that Vampyr’s take on vampires deviates from the norm. I’d be all for an RPG that attempted to take the legend somewhere new, especially if that produced some interesting gameplay concepts along the way. The problem is that Vampyr’s vampires — confusingly they are always referred to as vampires despite the game being called Vampyr which really begs the question as to why the game is taking itself so bloody seriously that it has to jam the Y into the title — are as conventional as they come. Super speed and super strength? In cutscenes, absolutely. (This is a very specific proviso that we will come back to in a moment.) Immortal bloodsuckers? Sure. Burn in sunlight? Yep. Aversion to garlic and sunlight? Check. The game has its own fiction as to various vampire strains and powers and whatnot, but if you just think of a the idea of Vampire with a capital V the chances are that nothing Vampyr does with the concept will surprise you.
Well, perhaps one thing it does with the concept will surprise you, because it certainly surprised me: the protagonist character, newly-turned vampire Doctor Jonathan Reid, is a really, really crap vampire. I guess Vampyr’s idea of a vampire is unique in a way, because at some point in the design meetings somebody at Dontnod said “What if, right, what if we made him a vampire, but a vampire that’s inexplicably weaker than every single enemy he’ll fight on the streets of London including the stock human vampire hunters?” And then everyone else at Dontnod forgot what the studio was called and nodded along enthusiastically, and then a year or two later I found myself being repeatedly taken to cleaners in one of the most frustratingly lumpen and imprecise combat systems I have been unfortunate enough to experience in the last decade.
I know vampires are supposed to be antediluvian creatures but that’s no excuse for Vampyr feeling like a game from 2005 in terms of its layout and systems design, and nowhere is this more obvious than the combat system. It’s going for a more Souls-esque approach with stamina-fuelled attacks, a lock-on system and small numbers of tough enemies, which would be perfectly valid from a mechanical point of view if it had received the ridiculous amount of polish and iteration that Dark Souls afforded its combat encounters. Dark Souls is punishing, but you usually feel like you’re struggling against the individual enemies instead of against the game as a whole. In Vampyr, though, your most challenging fight won’t be against the sack-of-health-with-invincibility-frames priests or the constantly-teleporting-with-invincibility-frames blink ghouls. No, first you’ll have to master a combat system where your vampire gets winded after a couple of swings of a hatchet, where he is constantly getting stuck on scenery (god help you if you ever have to fight in an enclosed space), and where every single enemy, once they’ve started an attack animation, will slide ten or fifteen feet across the ground so that they can still connect with it even after you’ve dodged away. The lock-on system isn’t fit for purpose and breaks down completely if you’re fighting more than two enemies since it shows an inexplicable preference for the ones furthest away from you instead of the ghoul that’s half a second away from munching on your face. Many enemies get invincibility frames that aren’t telegraphed at all and which can completely nullify attacks from your ultimate ability, which has a 100 second cooldown. If you die — and you will die, a lot — then when you respawn the game won’t bother to replenish any consumables you used in the fight, necessitating a trip back to a crafting bench to make some more.
Mechanically it’s a jumbled mess of a system, and the only way I made it through the game was by learning to abuse the two elements of it that actually worked in my favour. One is that the dodge move isn’t bad — it depletes stamina along with pretty much everything else you do in combat, but once you’ve invested some skill points in doubling the length of your stamina bar you can almost reliably stay behind an enemy, which is the only real way to avoid being hit by them. The other is that most enemies have a stun bar that goes along with their health bar; you get an off-hand weapon that can be specialised to deplete this stun bar (which is much shorter than their health bar), and once it’s gone they’ll collapse to their knees for a brief period, which is your cue to do a Bite attack. Bites do damage, replenish Blood (i.e. mana) and heal you by a small amount, but this is all incidental to the real reason they’re so useful: while you’re in the lengthy Bite animation you’re completely invincible — other enemies will politely stand back until you’ve finished your meal — and your stamina regenerates while it’s executing. If you run out of stamina you’re pretty much dead, so exploiting Bite attacks in this way is absolutely crucial to your survival in the later fights.
Really though, my biggest problem with the combat wasn’t that the combat itself was absolutely miserable to interact with, but that it failed to properly contextualise my abilities as a vampire. If we compare Vampyr to The Witcher 3, for example, which also had a combat system that perhaps wasn’t the best (although it was far more mechanically interesting and fun to engage with), The Witcher doesn’t make the mistake of having Geralt get beaten up by a single human peasant wielding a stick. He can take on half a dozen guys without really breaking a sweat because he’s a superhuman Witcher — but he’s far from the toughest or meanest thing in The Witcher’s world, and when he throws down against the more fantastic creatures that he hunts he really has to work at it. The fights against the mook-equivalent enemies properly communicate Geralt’s power level and make the player feel like a badass while also ensuring that the more difficult fights against the real monsters have more meaning. And if you want to look a bit further back for an actual vampire game that doesn’t do this too badly, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines made you feel like a proper vampire while still also scaring the bejeesus out of you when you encountered a werewolf for the first time.
In short, when I’m told I’m some supernatural creature of the night I expect the game to actually communicate that fact to me in its mechanics, and this is something that Vampyr utterly fails to do. All of the enemies have several times the health pool that you do, so you conjure up a hellspear made of your own blood to pierce their bodies and it takes off about 10% of their health bar. If you try to hit them with a weapon they’ll often take ten or fifteen strikes before they go down, which is not exactly selling me on the concept of vampirism when their riposte knocks off a third of my health. The thing that really bugs me is that most of the time these aren’t even monsters you’re fighting; the main enemy type in Vampyr is a band of vampire hunters called the Guard of Priwen who are all 100% human beings, and the average Guard member will still take a dozen melee hits to kill — and also bear in mind that your wheezy vampire can swing a hatchet maybe four or five times before he has to stop for a breather. This is like when Deus Ex told me I was a bionic superman who turned out to not be able to sprint for more than five seconds and who died instantly if he fell off a shed roof, but at least there I wasn’t having those shortcomings constantly rubbed in my face.
These ridiculous restrictions on what you can do even extend outside the combat — Vampyr establishes pretty early on that vampires have a short-range teleport ability that is mostly used instead of ladders, but the protagonist will still shrug his shoulders and exclaim “It’s locked alright!” when confronted with a cast-iron gate. Hey, idiot, did it ever occur to you to teleport through the bars? To perhaps use your vampiric super-strength to tear off the lock? Instead it’s treated like an impassable barrier, and while in gameplay terms it is – you’re not supposed to open that gate until you’ve hit the appropriate story point — it’s a design philosophy that I haven’t seen since 2013 disasterfest The Bureau, or perhaps Splinter Cell: Conviction’s godawful Iraq segment where the progress of your elite special forces team through the level was stymied by a waist-high barricade made out of plastic chairs. It just feels dated, along with the rest of Vampyr; modern AAA games, which I suspect Vampyr would very much prefer not to be compared to but which it very much is, especially with that ridiculous £45 RRP, find ways to either avoid or camouflage these overtly game-y level design phenomena. Vampyr doesn’t bother and instead has no problem constantly confronting the player with its own confused ludonarrative dissonance.
Mechanically, then, Vampyr treats being a vampire as almost an afterthought, with some lip service paid to the concept in the branding — your magic spells are powered by Blood instead of mana etc. etc. — but otherwise having the player character behave like a regular human person in almost every single way that actually counts. The one where it doesn’t is Vampyr’s big gimmick: outside of bossfights you only get an extremely residual amount of experience from engaging in combat, with your main sources of XP being the following:
- Talking to people. By talking to people and gathering evidence from around the world you can gain hints that unlock new conversation options. Exploring these unlockable conversation options grants a small amount of XP, which stacks up when each NPC you talk to has three or four of them.
- Curing people. Vampyr is set in the middle of a London flu outbreak in 1918, and every time you rest to level up your abilities there’s a chance that the NPCs in each district will contract disease. If many people are sick the stability of a district decreases (I never did find out what happens if you let it drop too low), but you can cure them by crafting up the appropriate antidote to whatever their condition is.
- Eating people.
This last one is the part where I raise my eyebrow slightly because my vampire must have munched on hundreds of those bloody vampire hunters throughout the course of the game with nothing to show for it, but eating a single named NPC will give you thousands of experience points to spend — if they’re not sick, and if you’ve managed to uncover all of their secret conversation options. The disease thing makes sense but it’s never explained why knowing more about them makes them a tastier snack, or why NPCs are so experience-rich at all, but anyway: if you have an appropriately high Mesmerise level (which you can’t upgrade yourself and which only increases at set points in the story) you can mind-control an NPC, lure them into a dark alley, and eat — sorry, “embrace” them. Eating NPCs obviously means they aren’t going to be in the game any more (so you’ll fail any quests they might have) and impacts the stability of the district they live in, but otherwise doesn’t mean much besides getting you the Bad Ending if you eat too many.
The drive for your eating people is the ever-increasing levels of the enemies you face. Outside of the tutorial enemy levels start at 5-6 (you are at level 2 at this point) and if you suck up every other source of XP in the game — spending hours back-and-forthing between NPCs to cure their ailments and unlock their conversation options — that level gap will still increase until you’re eventually fighting baddies who are a full 10 levels higher than you. This is a problem that doesn’t ever go away since Vampyr levels up its enemy spawns (all enemies in the city respawn each night) according to your progress through the story. This makes the already-painful combat borderline impossible since the damage of both you and your enemies scales with level, and so unless you particularly enjoy dying over and over again in some of the jankiest melee combat you’ll encounter this decade you’ll find yourself indulging in the odd citizen to try and close the gap between you and your enemies.
Now, this might have been an interesting gimmick if there had been more in-game consequences for eating people, but because you can eventually eat pretty much anyone the NPCs have been put together in a rather self-contained way. There’s no interesting branching narratives to be found here depending on whether or not a given NPC is alive; instead you can pretty much kill who you want just so long as you don’t let the district stability slip into Hostile status. Because Vampyr goes to such lengths to avoid bifurcating its narratives it also means that those unlockable conversation options don’t have any in-game consequences — there’s a particularly good one later on where you confront a woman with the fact that she’s been poisoning her husband, and her response is essentially “Yeah? So?” because you can’t actually do anything about it beyond exhausting the conversation option and getting your 25 experience points out of it. And then once that’s done all she’s good for is eating. Once you’ve cleaned out all of the experience from the conversation tree there’s no upside to letting anyone live except avoiding the bad ending, and once you’ve eaten a few people you’re going to get that anyway, so you might as well eat as many people as you can get away with.
The NPC writing itself is adequate, but having some vague characterisation associated with each NPC wasn’t enough to make me give enough of a shit to not eat them — certainly not when that would mean making the combat even more miserable thanks to the level difference. Vampyr keeps telling me to “take responsibility for your actions” but since my actions didn’t have any effect outside of the ending cutscene I chowed down on ten or twelve people in the name of keeping the combat merely annoying instead of downright insufferable, and I don’t think anything about my playthrough was substantively different to that of somebody who abstained from eating anyone. There are a few crisis points in the game where your choices will have a concrete effect on outcomes with moderate knock-on effects for some NPCs, but these are scripted as part of the story; nothing that you choose to do in the moment-to-moment gameplay will change how things play out in the long-term.
One interesting consequence of this decision to decouple experience gain from combat is that I eventually ended up running past most of the constantly-respawning goons and monsters infesting the streets of London, as they were slower than me (despite my vampire’s top speed being a brisk jog) and there was absolutely nothing inducing me to stand and fight them. It was far quicker — and far less painful — than actually engaging them in combat, and I suspect the whole “combat is not only bad, it’s actively pointless” thing is something that would have been caught very early on by the game’s QA testers, but that Dontnod wouldn’t have been able to do anything about because it would have meant taking the entire game back to the drawing board. The non-fighty parts of Vampyr are certainly interesting, and I think there’s a worthwhile game lurking somewhere inside of it that focuses more on the serial killer aspect of being a vampire. That game isn’t Vampyr, though, as aside from a few offhand comments and the ending cutscene my NPC body count hardly figured into it at all except for preserving my sanity by ensuring the end boss only took two attempts. The rest of it is a stodgy, self-important mess of a game that’s been released at a triple-A price point but which invites extremely unfavourable comparisons by doing so because I can just point to any number of games that do the things Vampyr is trying to do but better, some of which are much older. Witcher 3 has better combat (and that was the weakest aspect of Witcher 3), Bloodlines has better vampires, and Alpha Protocol blows it out of the water when it comes to choice and consequence. I’d rather have spent the 16 hours it took to finish Vampyr playing any of those instead.