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Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: RPG/Action
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Developer: DONTNOD Entertainment
Release Date: June 5, 2018


PS4 Review - 'Vampyr'

by Cody Medellin on June 5, 2018 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Vampyr is an Unreal Engine 4-powered RPG set in early 20th century Britain as the country is gripped by the lethal Spanish flu and the streets of London are crippled by disease, violence and fear.

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There really aren't too many vampire games out there. There are plenty of games where you can fight against vampires, but for those looking to play as one, the selection is rather slim. The last game where you played as a vampire was Dark, and few people talk about that title in a positive light. When it was announced that Dontnod would take a crack with Vampyr, it was met with intrigue since the studio was responsible for the critically acclaimed Life is Strange. Now that Vampyr is finally out, it's safe to say that it's fascinating, even if it could use some work in places.

The story takes place in 1918, when World War I was ending. Despite being spared the conflict, the city of London is faring no better because the Spanish Flu has taken hold. You play as Dr. Jonathan Reid, a world-famous surgeon who has returned to London after a tour of duty on the front lines. His homecoming is more mysterious than uplifting, as he awakens in a pile of corpses on a dock. To make matters worse, he accidentally kills his sister by instinctively biting her neck and draining her of blood. Mortified, he tries to figure out who's responsible for his condition and trying to do what he can to keep the epidemic under control.

There hasn't been a vampire game in this setting before. Most are either modern, semi-futuristic, or deal with something more medieval. This is a London that's past Victorian and past the turn of the century but still has ties to old-world beliefs. For example, you'll find that desperate people are turning to religion instead of science as they seek answers. The disparity between districts adds some character since poor and rich areas are well defined, and immigrant districts also provide a richer tapestry.

The characters are also a big part of the tale and the game world . Much like London itself, every character occupies various gray areas instead of being inherently good or bad. You'll meet a barkeep who's saintly despite his gruff appearance. You'll run into nurses who despise patients, while those same patients are an annoyance due to their gossiping. There are fanatical cults that want to eradicate vampires, vampires who engage in politics with humans to keep the peace, and strife between gang leaders who are trying to keep their businesses going. Almost all of these characters are inconsequential to your main questline but are interesting to converse with.

Vampyr makes a big deal of conversing with everyone. Each person has several dialogue topics, starting with the most basic ones about their personal status and life in London. It initially seems normal, but it branches off to personal information about their ailments, knowledge and relationships. That opens up more dialogue options to give you a better chance to know them better. Surprisingly, you can also permanently close out dialogue options through events or by giving the wrong answer to a question. As such, the game makes you want to converse with everyone multiple times and shuttle between a few of them often to make sure you don't miss anything.

Aside from being a device to flesh out the world, talking to and learning more about every character provides an important gameplay benefit. The inhabitants of each London district are a wealth of XP, and getting to know more about each person significantly increases their overall XP value. For example, you can get a pretty big boost by finishing off someone who committed murder in front of you, or you can tend to their needs and get a lot of XP through conversation and basic investigation before initiating the killing bite. The game even tells you that the journey is easier if you act on your predatory instincts and bite everyone you meet, so it's tempting to give in. Interestingly, the game lets you attack anyone regardless of their significance, so no one is safe.

At the same time, there are consequences to murdering anyone who isn't a hired goon for the anti-vampire cult, a lesser vampire, or a rat. On the surface, that means conversations will change when people notice that others have gone missing. Whole branches of dialogue will disappear, and fewer people will be willing to talk. More importantly, the moral status of each district is affected if the missing person remains absent, and statistics start to go down. This means that the flu will become more rampant in that area and more enemies will appear, so there are fewer places in the city where you can freely roam without fighting. Even with the large XP boost gained from killing civilians, the game will still find a way to make you pay.

The constant struggle between whether or not to go for the big XP boost is a nice moral dilemma to have when you consider how that mimics Dr. Reid's own moral struggles. Then again, the benefits gained from XP aren't mind-blowing. Most of the benefits amount to increased damage or bigger boosts when performing basic actions, like biting an enemy. You're not going to get vampire powers that you see in movies, like turning into a bat. Only a few of the abilities are cool, like summoning a spear made of blood or freezing someone in place for a while, but most abilities are only available later in the game. Spending the XP to level up also requires you to go to sleep to get the benefits, and the progression of a day sometimes leads to people getting sick or new events changing the landscape of London. In a way, Vampyr ensures that someone will die, so you have to decide how much you're willing to sacrifice.

While a good chunk of the game is spent on talking to people and crafting cures out of dismantled discarded items, you'll spend a significant amount of time fighting off a small selection of regular and supernatural enemies. If you're familiar with Dontnod's work on Remember Me, then you have a fair idea about the combat. This time, that's been mixed in with some other elements of other popular games. You can choose between having a two-handed weapon setup, or two weapons split between primary and off-hands. For the former, that means adding the ability to parry incoming blows to give you a small attack opening. For the latter, that means your off-hand weapon is used for firearms or to stun an enemy with a lesser weapon so you can go in for a bite to deliver damage and refill your blood meter so you can use your vampiric abilities.

Aside from a parry, your only other defensive move is a quick dodge, which turns you into a puff of smoke for a brief moment before rematerializing. All of your moves require stamina, and while that meter refills quickly, you can still be completely vulnerable if you deplete it at the wrong moment. Additionally, certain attacks from enemies deplete your health and lower the maximum amount of health you can recover, forcing you to use vampiric powers to boost the health cap so you can regain more of what was lost.

The combat can be viewed as excellent or suffocating, depending on which moral pathway you're going for. If you chose to kill everyone early on, then you have a powerful vampire who can dish out a ton of punishment to one enemy and zip around the field. If you're playing a more docile role, then the combat can be an exercise in tedium. You're almost always going up against higher-level enemies, so your attacks are going to be a routine of attacks to stun, a bite, a big vampire attack, and maybe a few melee attacks before backing off to regenerate stamina and repeat.

Boss fights feel much longer because of this, and their hits always seem to land with a tremendous thud, setting you back in a fight or outright killing you and forcing you to go through a long load screen before restarting the fight. Go up against a group of people, and the lack of intelligent group attacks on your part means performing the aforementioned dance in much shorter spurts. Since the XP gained from killing normal enemies and completing quests is much lower than outright killing civilians, the combat remains in a weakened state for a long time and eventually becomes one of the game's big turn-offs.

The sound is absolutely gorgeous. The score alone does a great job of filling you with dread whenever you're in the streets, and it changes up things to give you something more hopeful when you're back at your hospital base. The voices are also well done, with very few instances where the accents or inflections feel off. The game also makes excellent use of surround sound, so the experience is amplified further. There are, however, a few instances where voices are sometimes heard too far away from the source, but that doesn't occur enough to be a major distraction.

Graphically, Vampyr lacks a good amount of polish. Part of this is because the game exhibits a very bad case of Unreal Engine pop-in; almost every area you encounter has something with more detailed textures popping in or items that appear out of thin air. You'll see it with parts of buildings in cut scenes and with the fog that appears constantly in London. You'll also see it whenever you access your menus and inventory, which feels off-putting. Animations look off most of the time. Running looks awkward, as your body is in motion but your head looks perfectly still. When talking to people, you'll notice some odd animation routines and slightly askew mouth movements because the camera defaults to strange angles whenever someone speaks. If you can ignore all of that, then the rest of the game looks pretty decent if you're fine with everything happening at night. Even the poshest districts in London look kind of dirty.

Vampyr is a rough but interesting game. The story starts off in an intriguing manner, and the character interactions show that Dontnod still knows how to make them the most compelling part of any game. The quandary of whether to give in to your base desires seems like a good moral dilemma, until you realize that the combat heavily favors you upgrading early to make the progress less of a grind. That means the game leans heavily toward an evil ending before you attempt a good one. Due to the lack of good vampire games in the market, Vampyr is worth a look, but don't expect a masterpiece out of the gate.

Score: 7.5/10

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