When we hear the words "vampire" and "RPG" in one sentence, there's something that gets our blood racing. Maybe it's because a decade ago we were happily playing Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines.
Fast-forward to 2018, however, and the throwback kid in us was hoping that Vampyr, an adventure set in early 20th century London, could rekindle this love affair. Does it get the heart pumping, or simply suck?
Good vampire, bad vampire
Vampyr is set in London, 1918, at a time when the city was ravaged by Spanish flu and the traumas of The Great War. The bodies are piling up and the streets are awash with misery.
You assume the role of Dr. Jonathan Reid, a recent victim who wakes to find himself buried in a mass grave. You guessed it: he discovers that he's not only been left for dead, but is also now a freshly turned vampire.
And so to the premise: you, playing as Reid, are forced to choose whether to embrace this new thirst for blood or fight to save the streets of London. As a doctor, you have the tool to help those in need; as a vampire you can drink their blood and reap the rewards. Choices, choices.
Map of moderation
Unfortunately, Vampyr is a rather linear game. Although there's a large map to explore, we often found our way was frustrated or blocked by high-level enemies, locked gates or simply impassable locations.
Your special vampiric abilities mean you can dash across the river in certain locations. The same applies when leaping great heights by changing into a swirling black cloud. Such abilities are fun, but are restricted in their use; as you're not free to use those powers to get through a locked gate or over a wall that's blocking your way, the game design makes it hard to stray from the path.
Stalking the streets for prey
In classic role-playing format, Vampyr sets itself up as a narrative-driven game. You're pushed to question everyone you meet - probing characters and their backstory - which is the kind of conversation-led game some will love, others will loathe.
As you question people, you are able to unlock the ability to ask personal questions of them and probe their personalities or learn about others from them. This approach allows you to suss out the quality of their blood and in theory to pick and choose who you bite, if anyone.
An individual's blood grants you some experience points. The more important people have the most valuable blood. But you may also discover that humble people have good quality blood too - and you can improve it further by providing them with medicine, for example. Such people with experience-boosting blood are a valuable commodity. You're essentially better off farming them; fattening them up for the slaughter to get the best results.
Draining blood gives you a massive boost which can improve your vampire powers vastly, making the game easier and combat more effective. Resting then allows you to evolve your powers further.
But you'll also see the consequences of your actions as people you were meant to help get wiped from the map, with sections being potentially downgraded and, if you overdo it, regions will turn to chaos. Taking too many lives destroys the side-quests and opportunities and changes the game experience.
The lure of biting is often difficult to resist though. The characters you come across are instantly likeable or loathable. We soon made a shortlist of people we were going to drain when the opportunity came. Obvious candidates include gang-members and rude individuals who have visibly caused others misery. The problem is you cannot just give into your vampire instincts whenever you feel the need - which we felt this to be restrictive at times.
However, there are other ways to gain experience points. Completing the main story objectives, side quests and even fighting in the streets all offer small amounts of experience, but won't help you to level-up nearly as quickly.
To fight or to run?
Although the majority of the game is focused on narrative and investigation, combat is still a consideration. Wandering the streets to get from objective to objective you'll find yourself bumping into hordes of violent undead creatures that need dealing with, as well as a mob of vampire hunters who prove a regular pain in your fangs. There are feral vampires (Skalls), too, along with other supernatural creatures with sharp claws and menacing fangs.
We soon found frustrations in the fighting. We'd clear an area of the map, only to go back through it later and find the same enemies had respawned and were lurking there ready for a fight again. There's no way to fast-travel across the map either, so you can't avoid this frustration.
This has its ups and downs: killing vampire hunters and hostile vampires gives you a little extra in terms of experience points, but it's also a hassle if you're just trying to move about the map frequently. It closes it off from being a true open-world game in a retro-tinged kind of way.
For perspective sakes, felling an enemy gets you around 5XP, while draining even basic citizen's blood can get 400XP and upwards. Considering the initial abilities require 300XP and the more advanced cost thousands, you can see you need to embrace the vampire side if you want to become a powerful creature.
The combat system is a bit clunky and frustrating at times too. You need to manually lock on to a target before being able to easily fight them without the camera flitting all over the place in the middle of a fight. Even manually locking on isn't intuitive, as we found it sometimes locked onto enemies that were further away rather than immediate threats.
Enemies you do encounter are generally found in groups. They will all pummel, shoot and attack you at the same time, but are incredibly gentlemanly and are always happy to stand back and leave you in peace while you suck on a friend's blood. Incredibly sporting of them, but not terribly believable.
Blood drained from enemies during combat not only rejuvenates your stamina, but also allows for launching special moves which deal more damage. Fighting, dodging and running all use stamina, so you need to plan your fights carefully. Vampire powers also allow you to use your blood reserves to heal yourself in a fight, so it's key to bite an enemy whenever you can.
But biting during combat isn't the same as draining a human of their lifeblood. It's just a quick nip to revitalise yourself. We found this logic confusing - drinking the blood of the undead – especially feral vampires and werewolves doesn't make sense but is basically essential during combat. And why can't you drain a vampire hunter completely in the middle of a fight?
As with any role-playing game, you'll often come across enemies that are a higher level and will end your life with just a few well-placed strikes. It soon becomes clear that you need to improve your vampire skills if you want to win such fights.
Don't run from everything though: you'll also come across people who need saving from attack. Failing to do so will lead to an end of their potential quests and a worsening of the surroundings. A good example happened when we found a man pinned behind a large gate, fearful of some high-level Skalls trying to attack him. We saw those Skalls were twice our experience level and we wouldn’t win that fight, so we had to leave him. After resting through the day, we woke to find he had died without our help and the city had changed as a result. An awful shame, but a clever bit of game design for sure.
Like your vampire abilities, weapons can be upgraded too. You'll find parts when looting or buy upgrades and mods from merchants located around the city streets. There's also a system that shows certain enemies have a resistance to specific attacks or weapons, so you need to make sure you're equipped for all situations.
The consequences of your words
With upgraded weapons, we often found ourselves asking the question - if you're going to be a good vampire and only live on rats and the blood of Skalls – why do you even need to bother talking to people? It's to influence the world around you with your actions, choices and decisions.
Vampyr's narrative-driven design is mostly focused around well-scripted questions and replies. To get through the story you ask a specific set of questions and it's rare that your choice has any impact on these words. There are occasions when particular narrative choices are highlighted as having a game-changing consequence, while other narrative options are locked until you find a relevant clue.
The result being that Vampyr's world feels pre-decided; your fate is already laid out ahead of you and it's a case of unlocking it. That said, there's a lot to like about how the story is played out. The voice acting is superb, the characters are fascinating and their backstories often colourful and intriguing.
We have mixed feelings about Vampyr. There's no denying it's a beautiful, well-crafted and atmospheric vampire game. But its large world often feels like it's on strings, with the story too rigidly laid out and the consequences of choice too little.
That said, the setting and storyline is wonderfully pitched, with enchanting characters throughout. If you go into this game realising you'll be spending most of your time talking with rather than drinking characters' blood or fighting then you'll be happy.
That's the thing to take-away from Vampyr: it's a thoroughly enjoyable RPG romp with hours and hours of potential playtime. You'll just need to be satisfied with its "all talk, no bite" focus to be a fan.
Vampyr is available now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.
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