'Vampyr' is a Deeply Flawed Game, But That's Exactly Why It's So Memorable
The new game from the developers of ‘Life Is Strange’ writes checks for ambitions it can’t cash, but it’s worth the ride.
Image courtesy of Focus Home Interactive
Most video games, especially big budget ones, arrive with rough edges sanded off in favor of putting their best foot forward. This often means leaving some measure of ambition behind, because there isn’t time to make it all work. Vampyr is not one of those games. It’s one of the most frustrating games I’ve played in a long time, an experience with deep and obvious flaws that make it outright hostile to the player experience. But it was also a game I couldn’t put down because the world, characters, and strange systems wouldn’t let go. Over 30 hours, Vampyr proved as confounding as it was charming, which is why it’s so damn memorable.
There used to be a term for releases like Vampyr: B-games. The term riffs on B-movie, aka a production with a low-budget. It used to be a pejorative, but in a more modern context, B-movie has become a term of endearment, a way to lavish praise on a piece of beloved art that, with more money and resources behind it, could have been even better. Video games used to have a robust B-games scene—games like Psi-Ops, Singularity, The Saboteur, and Syndicate immediately come to mind—but it’s mostly died out, as AAA games have gotten more expensive to make and players have become more savvy, prompting safer creative choices. In their absence, the rise of independent games have largely picked up the slack.
Vampyr opens with a bang: the main character, Dr. Jonathan Reid, unexpectedly turns into a vampire. He doesn’t know he’s a vampire, but the hunger for blood is there, and the first person in his path becomes food. Unfortunately for Jonathan, it’s also his sister. Plot-wise, there’s no reason Vampyr couldn’t have offered players a chance to swap roles between brother and sister—the game could have fudged enough details to make it work—but in B-games, you aren’t usually flush with options like that. At the very least, without going into specifics, she is not a fridged character. Jonathan’s sister exerts her agency on the story.
As Spanish Flu has gripped early 20th century London, Jonathan’s anemic appearance doesn’t immediately betray his lack of humanity. In a twist of fate, Jonathan saves a man from death, leading to a helpful offer. In his old life, Jonathan was a leader in blood transfusion, and with Spanish Flu everywhere, his skills are needed in a hospital where he can work night hours. The doctor knows Jonathan is a vampire, but figures the risks are worth it, given the...stakes. (You’re welcome, Danielle.)
Once you’re in the hospital, a hub the player spokes from as they explore the city, Vampyr reveals itself. The game has several interconnected systems, but does a poor job explaining how they mingle with one another, forcing the player to figure it out on their own—or, sadly, make incorrect assumptions about how they work and accidentally make some bad choices.
Which is a shame, because those systems really interesting! At the center of this is a complex web of major NPCs who don’t exist in isolation. They have deep ties to one another, and you often end up in the middle of conflicts. While some choices are life or death, most of the time it’s far less consequential. If you learn about a lie between family, do you tell the other person, or keep quiet? One choice might lock you out of earning more “hints” for a character, but it may be the “right” call. While players do accrue some experience points by fighting random enemies and completing quests, they’re pennies compared to the amount of experience gained by killing the many NPCs you’ll spend dozens of hours with. Upfront, the developers warn how much harder the game will be if you don’t kill anyone, and if you want to upgrade your skills, this means making permanent choices on who lives and dies. Because the game is constantly saving, you can’t go back on a choice and see another way.
It took me hours before I decided to kill an NPC, a choice I put off as long as possible because in the early hours, as the game kept impressing upon me how important this was. Do you have to kill anyone? It wasn’t until I ran into a series of enemies too powerful to defeat that I talked through the pluses and minuses. Deep breath!
In practice, though, the game is far less complicated. It portrays a handful as objectively bad, such as a landlord sexually exploiting the poor, or an unrepentant murderer. These are people, the game seems to say, nobody would be upset to find in a gutter the next morning, and hardly force the player to make an uncomfortable decision. There are lots of those characters in Vampyr, mind you—a woman possessed by a vampire and forced to commit horrible acts, a father who ignores his child in favor of bullying people to satisfy his own emptiness—but I wasn’t pushed into a corner enough. The difficulty artificially ampts towards the end, which may prompt some players to reconsider who deserves to live, but the game would have greatly benefited from doubling down on this warning and making good on it.
The first time you kill an NPC, regardless of their standing in the community, is absolutely haunting. You’re not just removing a random respawn from the world, but someone you spend time talking with, getting to know, and likely completing quests for. The screen darkens, clouded by a mist of blood, as you walk an entranced human into a place nobody is watching. You can back out of the decision at the last second, or “embrace” them and start drinking. It’s this moment when you get a final piece of dialogue from the character, a revelation that may confirm suspicions about who they are—or possibly undermine the reason you chose to kill them in the first place. When the latter happens, it’s a gut punch.
Still, this B-game muddling is makes recommending games like Vampyr such a hard sell. In a world where there are seemingly infinite good games to play, why spend time (and money) on something that’s clearly missing a few pieces? I’ve made my arguments for playing bad games in the past, but Vampyr isn’t a bad game. It’s much different: missed potential. Just because Vampyr doesn’t fully capitalize on its promise doesn’t mean there isn’t worth in getting what you can out of them. The obsession over a game being “perfect” is misguided, anyway; lots of games have only a handful of standout elements, but those may shine bright enough to make your investment worthwhile. I found it easy to forgive Vampyr because it would do something clever, such as forcing players to sleep overnight to apply new skills, which both pushes the game clock forward and prompts choices to ripple into the world. I learned this the hard way when I ignored an NPC crying for help while chasing down another quest, only to learn, after sleeping for the night to gain power, said NPC had died in an alley.
Vampyr manages to imparts a measure of empathy to London’s worst by tying experience points to conversation. The more you know a person, the more valuable their blood becomes. (Why? It’s not really explained.) While talking with someone, some dialogue are options locked off, as you don’t have the “hint” to unlock that part of the tree. Additional hints are found by talking with people, finding notes in the environment, finishing quests. etc. It’s a clumsy system—too often, hints are in random trash cans or scattered amongst papers that look like miscellaneous scene dressing—but it nonetheless forces purposeful relationships.
Insidiously and mischievously, it’s also possible to lock yourself out of future conversations with certain answers. In most games, when you’re making a “choice,” the game outright flags players should be careful about what they do next. This is true of Vampyr for the big stuff, such as how to handle the fate of major characters in the story, but moment-to-moment, one of your seemingly innocuous conversation choices may piss someone off, prompting the game to blare “hint failed,” as a character will now refuse to engage deeper on the topic. At first, this part of the game infuriated me because it wasn’t upfront and transparent, but over time, I came to love the trickery. “Hint failed” is messy phrasing because it’s not accurate, but I welcomed the game being forthright about how others interpreted my take on Jonathan.
It helps that London has no shortage of complicated residents to interrogate. It’s not shocking, of course; developer Dontnod was most recently responsible for the teen drama Life Is Strange, a game wholly reliant on relatable characters you wanted to spend time with. It’s here where Vampyr excels, as one of the great joys is reaching a new area—there are four—and knowing there are hours of conversation ahead. Many begin as little more than paperthin stereotypes—sex workers, gang members, bartenders all drawn with familiar cliches—but as you dig, they gain material depth. The sex worker does not apologize for what pays the bills. The gang member lived an empty youth and finds purpose in crime. The bartender avoids getting close to others, lest they learn he tried to kill someone years ago.
It’s less about everyone having something to hide, more that everyone has a story. Vampyr rewards time you spent trying to understand people, making its core mechanic of killing for experience all the more nauseating, even if you’ve decided they’re worthy of death. Your presence in conversation isn’t without purpose, either. Jonathan has motivations absent player desires, but it allows you to fill in the gaps, especially when it comes to his politics. If you want to be the Woke Vampire, Vampyr will grant you such an option. If you want to be a judgemental piece of shit, have at it. You can even be a centrist, which might be worse?
After asking the sex worker how she ended up in these particular circumstances, she reveals having fled war in her country, only to encounter bigotry in London, which blocked her from other jobs. Needing money to send back to her family, she found a path forward. You have a few different ways of responding to this revelation:
- Empathetic: “I always thought I was the master of my own fate. But now I know we don’t always have control over our lives. I don’t judge you.”
- Asshole: “Many people must deal with poverty, but not all choose to sell their bodies. This was your decision.”
- Centrist Prick: “I am sure you could have found another job, perhaps less lucrative. Maybe you should try again?”
Your reaction has no impact on the ending, which seems to vary based on how many people you kill, but you’re given enormous agency in shaping Jonathan’s worldview. Showing empathy might not translate to more experience points, but made me feel good, and granted extra emotional weight to Jonathan’s paradoxical circumstance. Humanity is a food source, but immortal or not, he remains grounded to their plight. So many choices in Vampyr do not have physically manifested consequences, but greatly inform the player’s own role-playing.
A big reason it all works, too, is because the writing is so sharp. It’s not properly supported by the game’s visuals, especially the shoddy and distracting animations for most characters, but I dare anyone to tell me this isn’t one of the funnier exchanges you’ve seen in a game:
The ultimate choice of killing doesn’t exist in a vacuum; they ripple to questlines you could now miss out on, and impact another system marking the health of various districts in London. If you kill someone, it can spread disease, mistrust, and despair, spiraling the district towards disaster. If a distract is hit hard enough, it crumbles. All the NPCs outright die, and high-level enemies begin to walk the streets. While certain NPCs are designated as “pillars” of the community, you don’t actually know how important someone is until you take them out.
In theory, it’s a cool system, and one that kept me on my toes for most of the game, as I watched districts nearly plunge into anarchy after I chose to feed on a few of their citizens. But unfortunately, the game leaves a problematic loophole for you to exploit. The people of London will come down with random afflictions—cold, headache, fatigue—which Jonathan can heal by offering them crafted medicine. Each person you help improves the status of the district a tiny bit. So long as you stay on top of that and refuse to eat everyone, it’s basically impossible for the game to impose grave repercussions on you. None of my districts ever devolved into madness, because, again, the game refused to double down on its systems.
Vampyr wants to appear hostile to the player, but in reality, it doesn’t hold up to pushback.
Vampy is not Life is Strange, however. You spend a considerable amount of time in Vampyr playing a crappy imitation of Bloodborne, a form of combat where players are balancing their health, stamina, and blood (the resource used by vampire superpowers). You even dash to avoid being hit! But Vampyr is also not Bloodborne; it does not feel good to hit enemies, and it lacks the rhythm that makes Bloodborne such a pleasure. It doesn’t help that Vampyr has players fighting the same endlessly respawning enemy types over and over again, enemies who are artificially made higher level over the course of the game for no justifiable reason, besides keeping then from becoming pushovers. Because basic enemies provide so little experience, though, there’s no reason to engage with them, outside of wanting something to do. They drop loot for crafting, but halfway through the game, you can buy what you need, meaning players spend a lot of time running past enemies while trying to complete quests.
The combat isn’t awful, but it’s painfully average, and there’s just way too much of it. In an alternate universe, one where Vampyr was as fun to play as Bloodborne, it’s perfectly fine. We don’t live in that universe, though, and given how strong the storytelling is in Vampyr, it may have benefited from ditching it entirely; I suspect many will be turned off by this aspect.
Combat isn’t alone, either. Where the lack of polish is can be endearing, it creates barriers of frustration elsewhere. The capital W world—the deep sense of place Vampyr creates—is aces, but the level design is utterly forgettable, making it difficult to remember where things are, even dozens of hours into the game. Making things worse, there’s no way to fast travel in Vampyr, and it can take a long time to trek across the map, especially when forced to dodge enemies along the way. And even when I’ve made it to a location, it’s needlessly difficult to find specific NPCs. The game provides no way to explicitly track down an NPC in the world, which often means you’re forced to aimlessly wander, hoping to run into them. (Jonathan does have an ability to sense humans around him, but it doesn’t extend very far.) I spent far too often looking up YouTube videos to get some hints on where to look for people.
The curse of the B-game is being unsure whether the constrained resources of its development are to blame for elements not reaching their full potential. If someone had stepped in and given Vampyr the biggest check in the world, would these problems have come together harmoniously, or revealed fundamental design flaws? As it stands, the developer is handed a convenient excuse and the player a credible rationale. It’s a standoff, one that ultimately fuels why games like Vampyr can become cult hits down the line, the kinds of games players rally behind for unexpected sequels. Maybe, this time, it’s different.
And yet. And yet. And yet! After putting a few hours with Vampyr before leaving for E3, I figured my time with Vampyr was over. Another game would come along, and Vampyr would be forgotten. But in a moment without anything else to play, I dropped back in—and the game didn’t let me go. When I woke up, I thought about Vampyr. When I turned it off, I was plotting how to find more time to play Vampyr. It’s what prompted me to write this tweet a few weeks back: “I can’t stop playing Vampyr? It’s so deeply flawed and yet so utterly compelling? Its politics are some of the most fascinating in a game this year?” It’s why I’m writing a review a month after release: I need to tell more people about it. Vampyr isn’t perfect, but its flaws stem from a game that goes for it in a way that’ll reward your attention.
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