Game review: Vampyr is like Bloodborne crossed with Life Is Strange

Vampyr (PS4) – being a vampire with a conscience is not easy

The creators of Life Is Strange weave a very different kind of story, as you tackle vampiric infestation in post-WWI Britain.

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Some developers go through their entire existence only working on one or two different franchises. French studio Dontnod has only made three games so far – this, action adventure Remember Me, and Life Is Strange – but on the surface they couldn’t be more different. The link between them all is an emphasis on strong storytelling, and in this case you play the role of a reluctant vampire trying to make the best of his situation in a disease-ridden London. Although what constitutes ‘best’ is entirely up to you.

Vampyr is set in 1918, during the Spanish flu pandemic, and starts with doctor and First World War veteran Johnathan Reid returning home only to immediately be bitten by a vampire. Having led a blameless life up to that point he’s immediately torn between his desire to continue to help people and his troublesome desire to feast on human blood. Naturally, he’s not the only supernatural being in town, and so you it’s up to you to decide what to do about the problem and how to cope with your new cravings.

If that all sounds like a very promising set-up for a story-led action game then you’re not wrong, especially as it highlights how rarely vampires turn up in video games nowadays. Which is strange given they’ve not only plenty of well-established superpowers but the whole tormented anti-hero shtick is perfect for an interactive narrative filled with moral decisions. And while it occasionally struggles to fulfil its full potential that’s exactly what Vampyr is.

What’s interesting about Vampyr’s story is that while it does have its own relatively complex background lore the focus for most of the runtime is on characters, not plot twists. Reid is portrayed as a genuinely good man and so dedicated to his work as a doctor what he ends up taking the night shift at a hospital and trying to discover the cure to not just the flu pandemic but vampirism as well. This involves checking up on patients, following clues, and doing medical research – which is probably not what you were expecting in a game about creatures of the night.

The game’s fictionalised version of London is split into four districts and you’re given an impressive amount of freedom in how you investigate them, with different quests opening up based on how you deal with individual patients. One of the things you learn from interacting with patients is how tasty their blood is likely to be, and how much it will help to upgrade your vampiric abilities if you kill them. According to Dontnod you can get through the whole game without killing anyone, but that will require considerable effort and we can’t pretend we managed it.

While Life Is Strange featured no combat of any kind the way the story branching works is very similar in Vampyr, where even the smallest decision can have a significant knock-on effect. How you deal with everything from PTSD-suffering soldiers to a pyromaniac priest not only affects your agenda but the lives of the non-player characters as well. Everyone interacts with each other in believable ways, as your actions inspire them to take revenge, reconcile, or turn over a new leaf.

This element of the game is fascinating but Vampyr isn’t Life Is Strange, it’s an action role-playing game and you’ll find yourself being constantly attacked by both human vampire hunters and various types of vampiric monsters. Given the setting, the mix of melee, ranged, and magic combat, and the quickly draining stamina bar it’s impossible not to make comparisons with Bloodborne – especially as the combat is also surprisingly hard. But it’s not the combat itself that’s interesting in Vampyr but the morale dilemma involved in making it easier for yourself.

Vampyr (PS4) – your vampire powers come at a price

There are a lot of very useful magic upgrades that can make combat a lot easier, allowing you to teleport out of danger or blow up enemies from a distance. But getting enough experience points to unlock these powers is extremely difficult unless you kill a human. You can gain experience from other actions, such as defeating supernatural enemies, but you gain far less than from taking an ordinary person’s life.

The obvious middle ground approach is to only try and kill bad people, but even if you do decide to go full evil there are serious negative consequences. Not only does that close off many quest paths but it can destroy the morale of a district and means you’ve no more mobile blood banks to rely on for the mandatory boss battles or the tougher normal enemies that move into a district in chaos.

Vampyr is an ambitious and impressively unique game, and while it doesn’t get the balance between storytelling and combat quite right it’s still impressive that it works anywhere near as well as it does. The only unforgiveable problem is the frequent frame rate issues and long load times, especially after dying. Which again is reminiscent of FromSoftware’s work but will hopefully be fixed with a quick patch.

But then Life Is Strange was never perfect either, and Vampyr suffers some of the same problems in terms of clunky dialogue and a plot that gets progressively less interesting as it goes on. The decisions you have to make, and how they affect the gameplay and difficulty, are always fascinating though and Vampyr confirms Dontnod as one of the most interesting developers working today. Especially as you sense their best is still yet to come.

Vampyr

In Short: An inspired use of the usual vampire clichés with some fascinating moral decisions to make, that always impact the game world and its combat in unexpected ways.

Pros: An immediately interesting premise and cast of characters with clever use of branching decisions, that create numerous moral quandaries. Competent combat and graphics.

Cons: The balance between combat difficulty and trying not to kill innocents doesn’t always seem fair. Story loses its way towards the end. Frame rate and loading time problems at launch.

Score: 7/10

Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Price: £49.99
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Developer: Dontnod
Release Date: 5th June 2018
Age Rating: 18

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