This week, Yahtzee reviews Vampyr.
Oh blimey, you know it's that time of year, don't you, when the AAAs all go into hibernation and all the games publishers were a little bit nervous about come out in bloom? Hence all that Agony business, I suppose, that publishers probably would be nervous about if they were planning to make eye contact with their mothers anytime soon. And if I were a publisher, I'd be a bit nervous about Vampyr; I'd be all like, "Do you mind if I run it past a proofreader? 'Cos I'm pretty sure you spelled it wrong. You spelled it right everywhere else; I'm just worried having the title like that might make us look slightly pretentious, like spelling 'magick' with a 'k', or sticking an 'e' on the end of 'noir'."
Vampyr comes to us from French developer Dontnod Entertainment. (And before you say anything, yes, I looked it up, and the French don't spell "vampire" that way, either, so who the fuck knows?) Dontnod were previously responsible for Remember Me and Life Is Strange, and as such, Vampyr carries the distinction of being their first game whose title isn't a complete sentence.
Vampyr is a gothic action RPG with a wide-open world in the Deus Ex sense of not being particularly wide or open, taking place in a sort of Legoland version of early twentieth century "Lan-don Tahn". The protagonist is Jonathan Reid, a tall, dark, pasty bloke with a pointed beard whose transformation into a vampire, therefore, couldn't have come fast enough. "Um, excuse me, Yahtzee; they're called 'Ekons'." …I beg your pardon? "Ekons! It's our special word for 'vampires'! We made it up!" I can fucking tell you did! Might stick with "vampire", if it's all the same to you; "Ekons" sounds too much like an Alien Race of the Week from Doctor Who. Anyway, Jonathan's a physician by trade, and returns after the first World War to find London stricken by both the Spanish flu and a plague of ghouls who-- "Not 'ghouls', Yahtzee! 'Skals'!" What's a fucking Skal?! "It's a human tainted by vampire blood." That's a ghoul!! "We call it a Skal!!" Don't do this to me again, Dontnod; I couldn't understand a fucking word of Life Is Strange, 'cos everyone was speaking in this weird French interpretation of how young people talk.
Anyway, now we get to the other reason publishers might be a bit nervous about Vampyr: 'cos it's trying to do something innovative, a surefire way to make publishers shrink back holding up crucifixes and sucking on a preorder bonus for comfort. The rub is, each district has a number of named characters we can talk to and do side-quests for, and as a physician, it's Jonathan's responsibility to get to know them and craft them the right medicine when they're ill. It's not hard; 90% of the time, they need "fatigue medicine", which I'm pretty sure is just Red Bull. Unfortunately, Jonathan is a vampire on top of being a doctor, so he also has to decide which members of his social circle he's going to rip open and chug like a Wild Cherry Capri Sun, with the understanding that their disappearance will have knock-on effects on other characters and the health of the district as a whole, as well as your digestion.
Now, that sounds interesting, doesn't it, especially since the value of a target's blood goes up the more you've gotten to know them, organically pushing us to get fully invested in the character's backstory and struggles before we put them in a sandwich? So - and here, I find myself flashing back to my review of Remember Me - that was the good idea; here's how they fuck it up. I probably made it sound like you have to pick people to kill, didn't I, much as the game does? But the thing is, you really don't. Your reward for chowing on your chums is a big dose of XP for buying vampire powers and stat upgrades, or perhaps I should say "Lestat upgrades"? Mnehmnehmneh! But you also get XP from basic combat and achieving objectives, and after a whole game of not killing a single citizen, I was, at worst, slightly under-leveled, and none of the boss fights were insurmountable once I had the patterns down.
See, I went for the pacifist run because there was a distinct whiff of moral choice-driven story branching about all this, and my instinct is always to shoot for "best" ending, because it's usually the one that feels like an ending and not like I fucked something up. Vampyr may be an exception, however; it really wants to be a story about a broody vampire tortured by the clash between his urge to kill and his duty to heal, but after I didn't kill anyone, it becomes a story about a perfectly nice, if slightly intense, bloke who doesn't get enough Vitamin D. So the, quote, "good ending" was a bit of a damp squib; one of Reid's vampire pals try to get their melodrama on, going, "Ooh, we are nothing more than killers and our blood is cursed!", and Reid's all like, "Bollocks we are! I haven't killed shit!" "Oh, so you haven't. Never mind, then; let's get McDonald's."
Now, when Reid says he hasn't killed shit, he is truncating a little; he should have said, "I haven't killed shit, except for the 500,000 vampire hunters I murdered in standard combat." Yes, this is the rather glaring incongruity of Vampyr; there's something a little bit hollow about Jonathan Reid's quiet nobility and pacifism when he's just had to murder twelve identical Cockney thugs on the way back from the chemist. Well, I suppose it's self-defense killing, but it still raises a lot of questions. How come killing these lads by the hundreds somehow doesn't affect the rest of London's population like killing named characters does? Did they all get bused in from Wolverhampton? Also, if Reid can drink blood from his enemies mid-combat in a way that doesn't kill them, why can't he figure out a way to nonlethally drink blood from his mates, as well? A little "please" and "thank you" goes a long way! We do need there to be combat, because otherwise, there's no core gameplay loop and, more to the point, it'd be fucking boring, so maybe we could've just fought ghouls? Sorry, "Skals"? But if we did that, it would raise the question of why all the named characters are obliviously going about their cheerful Cockney lives when there's a fucking zombie apocalypse going on next door.
Also, since we're suggesting changes, did you ever consider making the combat less shitty? It's Dark Souls-y stamina management mixed with a bit of Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines combat; ergo, shittiness. There's a very small variety of monsters and weapons, and your vampiric powers aren't that great; they're not much fun to use, or even as effective as just twatting the dudes with one of the stronger weapons. And I'll remind you, we're supposed to like these powers so much, we'd murder our friends to improve them.
The problem with the core dilemma of Vampyr - kill friends to get XP to make combat easier - is that it falls apart if, like me, you enjoy a challenge, and removing it doesn't feel like a reward. And the other problem is with the other half of the concept: interacting with characters, exclusively done through fucking dialogue trees of the worst kind. "Tell me more about the city!" "Tell me more about your job!" "Tell me more about that thing you said about the city that I'm awkwardly bringing up again apropos of nothing!" "Tell me more about this weird, boggle-eyed look we're giving each other like a pair of lovestruck goldfish in neighboring bowls!"
They even routinely interrupt important plot cutscenes so that Reid can run down a questions list; even the last cutscene, just as everyone's poised for the climax! I'm sorry, but if you're still giving us exposition dumps literal seconds before the dramatic conclusion, something's gone wrong! It bears about as much resemblance to natural conversation as sticking your knob in a Müller Fruit Corner is to a whirlwind love affair, and it makes all the participants come across as incredibly stiff. "Well, they are British, Yahtzee." Oh-ho! A cheeky sting! Scurry off, you rummy blighter! Fish and chips!
- He remaaaains an E-E-E-E-E-E-Englishman: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Ah yes, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines. Talk about titles with colon cancer
- 'Skal' sounds like a range of IKEA shelving units