Vampyr is a delightfully bleak narrative experience
I love a good epidemic. Vampyr gets a lot of mileage out of its own twisted afflictions, combining the 1918 influenza outbreak, more commonly known as the "Spanish flu," with a vampire scourge that has brought the city of London to its knees. While it doesn't quite make good on the promise of visceral vampire combat, it does offer an excellent narrative journey with a memorable cast of seriously depressed and hopeless citizens.
Vampyr's protagonist is Dr. Jonathan Reid, a renowned surgeon who specializes in--of course--blood transfusions. He returns to London in 1918 after a stint in the Great War, but is attacked upon his arrival. Reid awakens in a mass grave with a thirst for blood, a newly-born vampire. Soon, he is found by Dr. Edgar Swansea, the director of the local Pembroke Hospital who is sympathetic to vampires and agrees to allow Reid to stay and work as a physician. The hospital becomes a sort of base of operations for Reid as he conducts an investigation into his own condition.
From here, Vampyr's must successful endeavor is introduced. The Pembroke Hospital is one of four districts in the game that has its own cast of characters. Everyone can be spoken to at length, revealing details about their backstories, motivations, concerns, secrets, and ties to other characters. There is no shortage of damaged souls, conniving tricksters, and honest people just trying to get by. They are immigrants, businesspeople, street hooligans, and veterans of the trenches. It is fortunate that these conversations are as engaging and well-acted as they are, because much of the game is devoted to them.
Every character has a series of Hints associated with them, hidden bits of information that they often won't be forthcoming about. Sometimes asking the right questions is enough to reveal a Hint about a particular person; other times, you may have to find an associate of theirs to learn more. The only downside of this particular system comes in Reid's delivery when you choose a Hint to discuss. Mentioning a Hint to a character is treated almost like some kind of vampiric ability; Reid's voice gets distorted and he takes on a pointed, sometimes furious tone. It almost never makes sense, creating awkward scenes where Reid angrily demands a pleasant character describe their love life to him. It's incredibly strange, though still compelling all the same.
Digging into what makes these characters tick ties directly into Vampyr's character progression. Every NPC has a numerical Blood Quality, a measure of their health as well as Reid's knowledge of them. Uncovering Hints--which can be forever lost, if incorrect dialogue options are chosen--will raise a character's Blood Quality. Curing sicknesses, which crop up randomly in citizens, also has the same effect. Blood Quality determines how much EXP will be gained if the character is fed upon, which leads to their death. Basically, murdering the game's characters makes the game easier. It's a wonderfully enticing mechanic.
This EXP is needed to acquire and upgrade Reid's combat abilities. These include basic upgrades to health and stamina, as well as vampiric abilities that operate on cooldowns. Vampyr's combat encounters occur far more frequently than I would have liked. It's just about impossible to travel between districts without having to fight or run past vampire hunters and Skals, poorly transformed vampires that are somewhat akin to zombies. For the most part the combat is serviceable, though not without its quirks. What's most unfortunate is that I never found the vampiric abilities to be satisfying to use. They never seemed to deal as much damage as I thought they should, and the aggressive cooldowns guaranteed that I spent most of my time swinging a club. Perhaps there's a better way to min/max those upgrades with more EXP, but I wasn't interested in killing off characters to find out. Truthfully, Vampyr was never particularly hard until an unbelievable difficulty spike near the end that forced me to ravage three NPCs in one night so I could dump points into my health bar.
I wish I had felt more driven to engage in one of Vampyr's cooler ideas, though I certainly wasn't upset about keeping a large pool of the game's excellent characters around till the end. It's worth mentioning Jonathan Reid, too, who is voice acted brilliantly by Anthony Howell. Howell brings some terrific range to his performance. Reid is undeniably smart, with a sharp focus and meticulous attention to detail. But he can also have a short temper, delivering piercing condemnations should you chose to skewer certain characters for what they've done. It's one of my favorite performances in a game this generation. What a wonderful surprise this was.