So then, who was the worst on screen depiction of Dracula? Was it Richard Roxburgh and his anaemic whiff of flatulence in Van Helsing, or maybe that guy from prison break who I can’t remember the name of in Blade: Trinity who played him as the world’s most disinterested street thug? I don’t know about you, but for me vampires ought to be sexy and interesting or at least one of the two. Vampyr tries very much to pitch itself into the latter but after however so many hours it took to finish I’m left wondering if they would have been better off just putting some sweet ass on screen.
It’s not that the game’s awful, but it’s a relatively joyless and sexless drudge through early 20th century London on offer in Dontnod’s action adventure, part RPG thing. You play as Jonathan Reid, a highly regarded surgeon and master of the immaculate shave and suspiciously modern haircut. You are made a vampire and have to find out who did it and why your home town is suddenly overrun with diseased monsters.
The central idea is that in order to ‘evolve’, that is increase your powers, you must consume the blood of your fellow citizens where their health is tied to the amount of experience you yield from their death. Yet their deaths ultimately undermine the city’s stability so you are faced with either making the harder by not killing anyone or chomping down on a tasty old Londoner in exchange for more power but a more devastated city.
It doesn’t work; getting through the game without killing any of the named NPCs isn’t that hard and so the desire to kill anyone simply doesn’t arise. It can occasionally pass the mind due to how annoying the combat is, but with the weapon upgrades on offer and with access to various healing serums, much of the challenge can be effectively neutered. Similarly you can gain experience from healing your fellow citizens and by completing their own missions which somewhat undermines the central idea that you ‘need’ blood at all.
Managing the health of the city is still crucial however, so even if you do aim to not kill anyone there remains the risk that should it drop sufficiently then you lose access to that region’s NPCs and their associated quests with powerful monsters replacing them on the streets. You can do this by crafting medicine and routinely visiting affected areas. Again, it’s not hard, just slightly tedious for all the backtracking that’s involved. Vampyr has no fast travel, so plan accordingly.
So as you do this and complete the game’s main missions you are introduced to the game’s combat; an awkward and imprecise variation on Bloodborne’s dodge/counter dancing. Collision detection is wonky, as is the camera; getting caught behind trees and lampposts when you really need to be able to see clearly given how hard they hit and how they seem to magically glide around to track you with each attack. Mercifully they all have pretty rigid patterns so are easily countered once deciphered, but for the time spent on each encounter the rewards can seem pretty stingy with a handful of crafting materials. It’s also not that fun and ended up becoming a sufferance more than anything.
One would hope then that the story makes it all worth it, but aside from some entertaining spectacle in parts, it too fails to pull me in. Far too much of the story is conveyed either by collectible documents or flat exposition. The vast majority of spoken dialogue is via static face to face encounters where the lack of facial expression undercuts the emotions being expressed.
There is a clear point near halfway into the game where Jonathan must confront a very familiar face and the encounter is presumably supposed to be fraught with conflicting emotions at this great tragic moment. But crucially, as so much is the case with Vampyr, there is a failure to adequately establish and immerse you in the relationship at stake here. The game is all tell and no show, which makes all the character’s grand soliloquising feel empty and hollow as I just don’t have any emotional connection to what’s going on in front of me.
Vampyr never puts in the hard work to make the story come to life; primary characters are on screen far too briefly to feel fleshed out and most of everything else is just people standing around explaining the plot. The best moments are to be found in the game’s main romance but even that feels disjointed and at times like I’ve missed large chunks of character development that stood between being friends and then suddenly becoming lovers.
If there was an interesting story here I most certainly failed to uncover it amongst all the botched storytelling. The voice acting is good if almost comically stereotypical at times, the writing didn’t make me cringe much, but I was left decidedly cold by events which is quite a feat for someone who is usually a sucker for the smouldering yet tragic Gothic romance. Olivier Deriviere’s sumptuous soundtrack does its best to help things, but even its magic is dulled by proceedings.
Visually the game is quite rich, with a nice and thick atmosphere of gloom in amongst London’s narrow streets. Touches of rain add to the sense of misery but this soon becomes rather one note and puts me in mind of the godawful Thief reboot. After a while it all starts to look the same and without any sense of London during the day or some wider context it’s actually quite hard to believe it’s an active city, populated as it is by identikit thugs and ghoulish monsters.
There are also a number of other little issues that plague the game; characters endlessly repeating lines, a choppy frame rate, enemies standing with arms outstretched or not animating properly and some quite long load times.
In spite of all this Vampyr still has admirable qualities, but its uniqueness and strides at innovation just don’t make it fun or engrossing to play. Much of it felt like a chore with the prevalence of the combat, whilst the narrative payoff was just never worth the effort. Being British there is an almost genetic instinct to put this down to the developers being French and therefore pretentious idlers, but there’s clearly a degree of ambition and desire on display; unfortunately I just don’t think the game’s very good.