It’s easy to forget after Life Is Strange catapulted Dontnod Entertainment to true mainstream recognition, but the developer’s debut game was actually Remember Me, a title that still attempted to weave an intriguing narrative, but married it with more traditional third-person action-adventure fare. Now, three years on and with the cachet of a universally acclaimed franchise behind them, Dontnod have returned with Vampyr, an attempt to combine the best aspects of the two properties in the tale of a doctor slash reluctant vampire slash possible saviour of a broken city.
Set in a fictionalised post-WWI version of London, Vampyr paints its story of vampires and blood against the very real backdrop of the Spanish Flu, a plague far more devastating than vampirism that killed millions.
And whilst it never really approaches the levels of horror that Boris Karloff’s Nosferatu invoked back in the early 1920s, it nevertheless quickly establishes Vampyr’s motif as one of darkness and morbidity. There’s very little levity here, with only a couple of characters in one of the late game areas – essentially a walled garden, protected from the true devastation on its doorstep – showing anything even approaching hope and positivity.
Dontnod’s atmospheric take on London is truly excellent, capturing the game’s feel perfectly. Dark and oppressive, you never feel 100% at ease as you traverse its dingy, rat-infested streets or smog-blanketed cemeteries – death hangs over it all and it’s an extremely effective way to set the mood.
Also contributing a huge part to that atmosphere is an excellent soundtrack – combining ethereal operatic vocals, melancholy orchestral string work and heavy synth to great foreboding effect.
As for how the game itself plays, the combat does feel very Bloodborne-esque. No jump button, no extravagantly balletic combos – instead, it’s all down to timing, dodging, managing your stamina and parrying with some cool vampiric abilities to help you along the way. It lacks the depth of the very best Souls-like games, but it’s arguably more accessible as a result, aided by a nice and easy upgrade tree system for weapons and abilities.
However, what makes Vampyr special is not the action-adventure part, which is perfectly functional and serves its purpose. No, the magic comes from what is very much Dontnod’s wheelhouse – namely their ability to spin a story that hooks you in and keeps you there.
You play Dr Jonathan Reid, a pre-eminent physician who has recently returned from the war and discovers in tragic circumstances that he is now a vampire. He begins to investigate a potential cure by establishing relationships with a core group of NPCs across the city through the use of a Bioware-esque conversation system.
In addition to providing clues as to where Dr Reid should go to find out the next piece of the puzzle, each also has their own stories to tell and motivations to uncover – certain conversation choices can unlock hints which, in turn, can lead to side quests in the form of ‘investigations’.
The voice acting doesn’t always hit – occasionally, the delivery of lines doesn’t quite relay the gravity of the situation – but the dialogue itself is excellent, which should come as no surprise from the developers of one of the best narrative-heavy games in recent years. As such, conversations flow in a surprisingly natural manner for the most part.
The third pillar of the game comes in the form of area management. In addition to speaking with the people of each area, you have to concoct treatments for all manner of flu-related symptoms to maintain the area’s blood health. Failure to do so will see people die and the area fall into hostility, drastically changing your playthrough.
It adds some genuine stakes that make it feel a little more momentous than busywork, doubly so when you add the fact that the game operates with a single save slot per playthrough. All of this makes for a story in which I was invested at every turn – some decisions I made genuinely pissed me off when the consequences came to pass, but it never felt unfair and much of what played out has stayed with me, as I continue to contemplate what I would have done differently.
If you look individually at Vampyr’s multitude of parts, then it would be easy to dismiss the game as derivative. However, to do so, would be to ignore just how well Vampyr blends its many moving parts together to create something genuinely intriguing and, more importantly, something worth playing.
When my first thought upon completion was “man, I really wish this game had New Game +”, I knew for certain that I’d played something special. Sure, there are flaws – occasionally serious enough to cause real frustration too – but none of them dilute the game’s ambition and, for the most part, its execution of that ambition.
It’s not the prettiest game or the most polished, but for the things it attempts (and, more often than not, nails with aplomb), Vampyr is my favourite game of the year so far. I highly recommend you give it a go.