We live in an amazing time for video games. Blockbuster after blockbuster is released and we’re buying them in record breaking numbers. More money and spectacle are jammed into every title, and expectations have never been higher in anticipation of the next big release.
But as more money is spent, the need for even larger sales numbers grows, and innovation tends to get pushed aside in order to maintain a broader appeal. The side effect of this is we see a lot of games confined to a relatively small number of game types; the ‘throw stones while hidden in bushes’ game, the ‘look at me I’m being historical’ shooter, the ‘if I can see it I can visit it’ explorathons, and the new hotness, the copy pasta royale with cheese. There is nothing wrong with these game types, but as their primary goal is to chase your wallet, they tend to try and appeal to what they know people already have an appetite for.
What does this have to do with a post-Dickensian vampire RPG? Not a lot, and that’s the point. I adore this sub-AAA type of game. It occupies the middle-ground between the big boys of AAA and the indie space where a lot of the real innovation and risk-taking happens. Sadly, these games are also somewhat of a dying breed as gaming is more and more being pushed to either end of the spectrum. The AA space – or is it BBB? – ofttimes houses the most interesting things happening in gaming.
Less money is being spent, so there is a little more latitude for experimentation, even though some breadth or depth cannot be explored in order to keep costs down. These games differ from the indie scene as they are aiming for a more “core” audience. They aim to provide experiences gamers are familiar with, but with a tweak, a twist, or risky alteration that AAA titles tend to avoid. They also come in a bit cheaper to buy, so they can afford to be a little different without putting people off with a large price tag.
This is where Vampyr comes in. Created by the exceptional storytellers that gave us Life is Strange, Vampyr is a character-driven action RPG with a unique if somewhat dour personality. Then again, giving the setting, that dourness is more than understandable. The year is 1918. The Great War is nearing its bloody conclusion, but lives are still being lost in numbers never seen before in the annals of humankind. The world is also in the grip of the Spanish Flu pandemic, with a death count in the tens of millions. It has been said that fear and death walk amongst the living. In London, that has never been truer. The dead literally walk the streets. They walk, and they hunt.
Dr Jonathan Reid has returned to London in the hopes of helping ease the suffering of the city, but he soon falls foul of the evil stalking the city at night, and as a freshly sired vampire, must choose how to live his new un-life. A healer by vocation but now a predator by nature, his choices in many ways dictate not only how London fares, but also how it fears.
It is this duality that is at the core of the game, and it is brilliant. The balance of monster and man has never been better presented in a video game. You are free to act however you feel – you can slaughter and feed on practically every person you meet, you can also use your medical training to treat their maladies, or you can just leave them to their suffering. London is at a tipping point, and you choices will decide on which side it falls.
Every region of London is directly affected by your actions. Heal the sick and you may save an entire neighborhood from certain death. Ignore the sick or feed off the populace too much and you may consign the residents to an early grave, but not before much suffering. In many games this would be a fail state, but here for those inclined to the dark it merely manifests your true nature in the world, and perhaps opens up some unexpected doors.
Killing, saving, or letting “nature” take it course will obviously have other implications, as NPCs become more or less inclined to help you depending on how you’ve treated them – especially if they’re dead. The story and world building here are some of the best I have ever experienced. Unravelling the source of the vampiric menace embracing the city is only part of the mystery that shrouds London, and it is only through careful investigation, conversation, and even evisceration that the shadowy truth can be revealed. Every character has their own tale to tell, and many have surprising backstories that have substantial impact on your journey.
Sadly, not all aspects of the game can reach the heights of the narrative and character interactions. As an action RPG, Vampyr is a little clunky on the action front. Weapons for the most part are a little mundane, which is a real shame considering the mythos the game otherwise so whole-heartedly revels in. Combat is mostly a melee-based affair with a focus on bladed weapons. Unfortunately, it lacks impact and reactivity, and is oddly stilted. However, the combat does improve immensely as you evolve and gain new supernatural abilities, becoming more about power management and timing.
Attacks and dodging require stamina which is expended whenever you do either, and your vampiric abilities require blood. Both can be replenished during a fight, but you’ll need to find the right opportunities to do so. The powers themselves can be upgraded as you level up, and feed, which ties back into the monster versus man question the game continually asks. Killing and feeding will make you a more powerful monster, but are you willing to pay the price? Unleashing these powers is undeniably enjoyable, and helps to offset the sometimes awkward and plodding nature of the combat.
Tonally the game is exceptional, evoking all the post-Dickensian depression you’d hope for from a game set in this era. It must be mentioned that this is a smaller budget title, so those expecting stunning bleeding edge visuals are not going to find them here – apart from the actual on-screen blood that is. There are other limitations as well. London is open for you to explore, but it is perhaps a little smaller than you’d expect, and a lot of the doors you see cannot be opened. Vampyr succeeds in almost all it sets out to achieve, but adjusting expectations is recommended if you want to drain every drop of enjoyment the game provides.
Vampyr is the type of game I love. It’s niche, takes a few risks, and travels a darker, less explored path. It may stumble in the dark a little, and some of the rougher edges can snag and pull you off the path from time to time, but the journey is exciting, fresh, and always interesting. We need more games like this, and I have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone looking for something just a little bit different who is willing to look past its flaws and comparatively small budget.