Review: Vampyr

Vampyr has been one of my most anticipated games for a while now. I may not be the biggest fan of vampire fiction, but Dontnod has made interesting games before, and this seemed a fresh take on the idea.

A cutscene in VampyrIn Vampyr, you take on the role of Jonathan Reid, a doctor returning home to a flu-stricken London following a tour of duty in the Great War. After an attack by a mysterious assailant, Jonathan wakes with an uncontrollable thirst for blood. As a doctor, he is sworn to do no harm, but as a vampire, he must feed on the living to survive.

This dichotomy lies at the heart of what makes Vampyr special.

The temptation of blood:

The combat and the main storyline in Vampyr are both firmly in the realm of being okay, but not great. Neither offers one much cause for complaint, but neither really stands out compared to other games, either.

What makes Vampyr memorable is its mechanics around difficulty and progression, and how they tie into the story and game world.

There are no difficulty settings in Vampyr. If you find yourself struggling, the only way to make things easier is to level up more. But this isn’t a game where grinding is a viable strategy. While there are other sources of XP, by far and away the quickest and most efficient way to level is to “embrace” Citizens, killing them by drinking their blood.

Using vampiric senses to track a blood trail in VampyrBut there are no faceless Citizens. Every one of them is a deeply fleshed out character, and they all have their own relationships and social connections with other Citizens. If you kill someone’s family member, friend, or lover, the survivor will mourn… sometimes with consequences for you.

Thus the heart of the game is in the decision of when to take a life, and in the question of who deserves death. And rarely is it an easy decision. Even cases that seem cut and dried can become surprisingly complicated.

Early in my playthrough, I met a character who confessed to being a serial killer, without remorse. Feeding on him was a no-brainer… but what about his elderly mother? She knew about his crimes and kept the secret, allowing his predations to continue, but is that enough to warrant her death? Before you answer, consider also that she’s looking after a local homeless boy who would have no support without her…

The amount of XP you gain from embracing a Citizen is heavily influenced by how well you know them and their current health. The more you learn about them, the more they trust you, the more XP they’re worth. Their XP value is also lowered when they’re sick, so you can find yourself in a situation where you’re offering friendship and medicine to people only so that you can gain more power when you ultimately kill and betray them.

And as noted, killing has consequences. Embracing an important member of the community can have ripple effects, and if you kill too many, an entire district of the city can collapse, killing off all remaining NPCs, cutting off access to their missions, and causing the area to be overrun by powerful enemies.

A funeral in VampyrThat never happened in my playthrough — I was able to keep all four districts intact — but it was a very near thing.

There are story consequences for killing, as well. Vampyr has multiple endings, and it’s surprisingly hard to avoid the bad endings. Be very careful about how eager you are to embrace people.

If I have one complaint about this system, it’s that the stories of all the various Citizens are largely frozen in amber, never progressing. I respect that they didn’t go the Bioware route of making the player an omnipotent being who can fix everyone’s problems, but it’s a little disappointing that the lives of NPCs never change or evolve unless you start killing their loved ones.

Even with that minor issue, though, I think the mechanics around Citizens and the need for blood are one of the most clever marriages of story-telling and game design I’ve ever seen, and it’s stuff like this that keeps me following Dontnod games, despite their flaws. Very few developers offer innovative game design like this.

The dead of night:

As implied above, Vampyr does have some issues, though most are minor.

For one thing, it’s a bit unpolished. There are a lot of bugs — though none are close to game-breaking — and more than a few typos in the game’s text.

Combat in VampyrMy one big problem with the game, though, is how much running around it involves. It’s a big game world, and there’s no fast travel, so the only way to get somewhere is by walking.

Which you will do a lot of. Every time you rest (which you need to do to spend XP), more citizens become sick, and if you don’t give them medicine regularly, it risks destabilizing the city. So you’ll spend a great deal of time making your rounds to deliver meds.

Now, I get what they were going for here. Jonathan’s duties as a doctor are central to the story’s themes, and walking around the city by night to deliver medicine helps sell the ambiance of the game. These are good mechanics to have, and adding fast travel would have broken immersion a bit too much in a game so devoted to it.

The tuning is off, though. Too many Citizens get sick too often, and it becomes too big a part of the game.

That aside, though, it’s a pretty consistently good experience.

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At this point I feel like we know what to expect from Dontnod. They make games that are brilliant, deep, powerful, and occasionally flawed.

Performing surgery in VampyrAll of that is true of Vampyr, but I think this the best job Dontnod has yet done of accentuating their strengths while downplaying their weaknesses. I strongly recommend Vampyr to any fans of vampire fiction or intelligent, story-driven games.

Overall rating: 8.8/10

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Gaming Round-Up: The Reject Pile

I’ve been having trouble finding anything I’m passionate about to play lately. I’ve tried a lot of different things, but none have stuck. Let’s work our way down the list, shall we?

Combat in the anime MMORPG SoulworkerSoulworker:

I started by continuing my tradition of trying new MMOs whenever I’m bored. First up was Korean import Soulworker, an instanced grinder in the vein of Vindictus.

Of all the games in this post, Soulworker impressed me the most. It’s actually got a lot going for it. The cel-shaded graphics, for instance, are gorgeous. Screenshots absolutely do not do justice to how vibrant the colours are, nor how fluid and full of personality the animations can be.

The combat’s great, too, and I found a character I quite enjoyed: a pale-haired, sword-wielding girl who bore a certain resemblance to my heroine from the Soulcleaver novels.

Most surprisingly, there’s clearly a lot of effort put into the story in Soulworker. The meta-plot is pretty rich and elaborate — if decidedly quirky in the way one would expect from an Eastern game — and the quest NPCs actually have a fair bit of personality. Each playable character also has their own backstory and style of conversation that influences the feel of the game.

However, Soulworker is crippled by two severe flaws.

One is that the people who cared about the story are the ones who wrote it back in Korea, not the ones who translated it into English. The voice-overs haven’t been translated at all, and the subtitles are incredibly awkward. You can still understand what’s going on, but the style of speech is so unnatural it rips you right out of the story.

My character in the anime MMORPG SoulworkerThe other is that it is incredibly grindy. I expected that to be the case going in, but even so, I was shocked by how little time it took for me to reach a point where I couldn’t even progress the story without repeating the same dungeons multiple times in order to level up. It stops being a game and starts becoming a chore very quickly.

It’s a shame. With a few rough edges smoothed out, this could have been a pretty good game.

Closers:

Next up was another action-heavy Eastern grinder, Closers.

Not gonna lie, guys, I managed maybe twenty minutes in this game before I couldn’t take it anymore.

Somehow I completely missed the fact going in that Closers is a side-scroller. Like, what the hell. I know side-scrolling MMOs aren’t unheard of, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.

The controls are spectacularly awkward, too. I managed to rebind everything into something semi-normal, but it never felt quite right.

Dat UI, doe.Add to that more sloppy translations and one of the most unbearably obnoxious interfaces I’ve ever seen in a game, and you get a recipe for endless frustration.

I very rarely say things like this, but stay away from this game. Life is too short.

Getting what I paid for:

A few months ago, Ubisoft gave away a bunch of games — Watch_Dogs, Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, and World in Conflict — and it took me until now to play them all.

I was underwhelmed by them all. Watch_Dogs had something approaching an interesting story, and I enjoyed the music and ship piloting mechanics in Black Flag, but both suffered from an over-reliance on stealth, clunky controls, and a general feeling of dullness.

This was my first time playing an Assassin’s Creed game. I can’t say I was particularly encouraged to play more. Though in fairness I’ve never liked pirates in fiction. I don’t understand what people find so compelling about a bunch of rapey, scurvy-ridden sea-muggers.

A shot from Assassin's Creed IV: Black FlagAs for World in Conflict, it was just kind of dull. There didn’t seem to be a lot need for micro, and there wasn’t much macro, either, and the story didn’t attract me at all. I’d love a good RTS, but I don’t think this is it.

Overwatch PvE:

Finally, Overwatch recently had another free weekend, and it coincided with a repeat of the two events that comprise all of the game’s story content to date: Uprising and Retribution. Naturally, I was eager to try that.

It was fun, but I’m still left a bit baffled as to Blizzard’s thought process here.

The thing is, these are basically two missions extracted from a campaign that doesn’t exist. Without that context, they can’t achieve much in terms of story-telling, but they’re also far too linear to make much sense as repeatable content. They’re not enough to fill the gap of story content, but they don’t work as grindable events, either.

Sometimes I really don’t understand why Overwatch is so successful.

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I’m just glad Vampyr isn’t far off now.