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.

* * *

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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TV: iZombie Recovers, Lucifer Falters, Lost in Space Disappoints

Lately there’s been an unusual excess of sci-fi and fantasy TV for me to watch. Unfortunately, it hasn’t all turned out to be must-see television, but it has been interesting enough for me to have a few thoughts to share.

"Brother Love" (Robert Knepper) in iZombie season four(Un)Life in New Seattle:

I went into season four of iZombie with a fair bit of trepidation. While season three impressed out of the gate, over time it began to flag badly. The plot was extremely over-complicated and confusing, and most of the characters ended up going in dark directions that I didn’t care for. I was worried the show was losing its mojo.

However, I am pleased to report that, with only a few episodes left, season four has been kicking all of the ass.

iZombie is now a very different series from when it started. It’s gone from a very simple, lighthearted show with a very small focus to a much more intense drama where the very fate of humanity may hang in the balance.

It’s a big adjustment, but I deeply admire the writers for being courageous enough to shake things up so much, and for the most part, it’s paid off. Season four of iZombie still maintains much of the quirky charm and off the walls humour that made us all fall in love with the series, but it’s now a bigger, more powerful story as well.

I was initially skeptical of the show’s continued reliance on the case of the week formula — it was one of the things that dragged season three down — but they’ve mostly done a good job of making the cases tie into the greater narrative, and they haven’t been afraid to buck the formula when the situation calls for it.

The cast of iZombieSimilarly, I didn’t at first enjoy the idea of bringing Angus back into the story, as it felt like his plot had been pretty conclusively wrapped up, but “Brother Love” has became one of the most spectacularly creepy yet gripping aspects of the series to date.

My one big complaint would be that the season’s attempts at social commentary have largely fallen flat. The conflict between zombies and humans is clearly intended to echo real world prejudices, but real world minorities aren’t an existential threat to the human race, whereas zombies are, so the anti-zombie perspective ends up far more sympathetic than the writers seem to want. Any message of tolerance is lost in translation.

It also feels like a little bit of a missed opportunity not to revisit Liv’s estranged family now that the zombified cat is out of the bag and they (presumably) know why she couldn’t save her brother, but it’s already such a packed season I can understand why they haven’t tried to cram that in on top of everything else.

Aside from that, season four of iZombie has been nearly flawless.

I was pleased to see the show has already been renewed for a final season. Even before the announcement, I was thinking to myself that the story seemed to have about one season left in it, so I think this will work out well.

Hell fallen:

On the other hand, Lucifer’s third season ended up being mostly a disappointment. It started out okay, and it had some good ideas, but a number of missteps dragged it down.

The official logo for the TV series LuciferFor one, it focused far too much on relationship angst. The conflict between Linda and Maze was utterly unnecessary, and the love triangle at the heart of the season was just terrible.

I hate love triangles at the best of times, and this one was made worse by how uninteresting Chloe continues to be. For a romantic arc to work, the love interest has to be appealing to the viewer, but Chloe just isn’t appealing at all. She’s dull, wooden, and lifeless. I can’t understand why anyone would want to be with her, let alone why two immortals would end up competing over her.

Also, the case of the week formula began to really bog things down. It’s always been the weakest element of Lucifer, but rather than de-emphasizing it as iZombie wisely has, Lucifer clung to it with an incredible fervour.

It became painfully predictable. Each week, a new murder where there’s no relevance to the meta-plot, the true culprit is blindingly obvious, and Lucifer makes it all about him in an incredibly childish manner.

Lucifer’s immature ways were amusing for a time, but by now, I was expecting the character to have evolved. Even a show as silly as Lucifer needs some character development.

Lucifer with his renewed wings in season threeHe does finally grow a bit by the end of the season, but only after a truly painful expanse of episodes where the series pretty much just chased its tail.

The frustrating thing is that season three had a lot going for it. “The Sinner Man” was a very interesting villain, and his arc had some memorable twists. There was potential there. Charlotte’s storyline this season was nothing short of brilliant, but it got largely ignored in favour of the petty angst that defined so much of season three.

Sadly, Lucifer has now been cancelled, which means season three may well be its last, barring a miracle pick-up by Netflix or some other network. Despite my criticism of season three, I would like to see it continue. As iZombie illustrates, one bad season doesn’t necessarily spell doom for a show, and the ending of season three did look set to move the show in a fresh direction.

Doldrums, Will Robinson:

Going in, I heard a lot of good buzz around Netflix’s Lost in Space reboot from people whom I respect. Therefore I was quite surprised by how boring it turned out to be.

I mean, it’s not terrible. I’ll probably watch the second season (which is already confirmed). But I can’t say I’m impressed.

For one thing, it is, to be blunt, pretty dumb at times. I never fully recovered from the brain-achingly silly pilot.

The robot and the Robinson children in Netflix's Lost in Space rebootSeriously, guys, that’s not how ice works. At all. I don’t expect a lot of realism from my sci-fi, but when you’re screwing up something you could have tested in your home refrigerator…

The biggest problem, though, is that none of the characters feel real. Dr. Smith is so cartoonishly evil she seem ends up feeling more ridiculous than sinister. The rest of the cast (with one exception) is little better. They all feel forced and unreal.

I also thought the plot was undermined by how much of the show’s drama is dependent on the incompetence of the Robinson children (especially Will, who is just terrible on every level). Either they’re superhuman wiz kids who can serve as part of a deep space exploration mission, or they’re just kids who make mistakes, in which case they have no place on a mission like this. You can’t have it both ways, but that’s exactly what Lost in Space tries to do.

The only strong mark in the show’s favour — aside from the admittedly amazing production values — is Penny, who is awesome. Alone among all the cast, she feels like a real person. She acts pretty much exactly how I would expect a teenage girl to act. She’s precocious, but not superhuman, and relatable in a way the other children aren’t.

And her snark is delightful.

As I said, I’ll probably return for season two, but for me Lost in Space is very much in the “I’m watching this because there’s nothing better to do” category.