Vampyr Review: Two Games at the Cost of One

When it comes to vampires, I’m an easy mark.

Tell me something has vampires in it, and I’ll consume it.  Heck, it doesn’t even have to have actual vampires, just give me something vampire adjacent like sharp teeth or aesthetic blood spatters and I’m game.

So it’s easy to understand why seeing Vampyr on the shelves at my local game store caught my attention.  This is, theoretically, my perfect game.  Vampires. (Check.)  Atmospheric, moody soundtrack.  (Check.)  Character interactions where my actions have a tangible effect on my character and other characters. (Double check.)  Vampire is the game my 15 year old inner self has been desperate for since I started playing video games.  Or so the theory goes.

In the end, though, Vampyr is two (nominally three) good games smashed together into one merely okay one.

Dontnod’s strength is in its characters.  Although Life Is Strange had its rough and sometimes robotic spots, the interactions between its characters were nevertheless compelling.  Quirks in dialogue are forgivable, especially coming from a native French speaking studio.  Yes, the slang was sometimes awkward, but full disclosure, I have no idea what high school students in the Pacific Northwest sound like right now and I’m not convinced I could have done any better on some of the subtleties.

With Vampyr the team seems to have largely learned from their missteps.  The robotic affect that characters in Life Is Strange occasionally suffered from is used to full vampiric effect — you know exactly when you’re exerting your vampiric “charm” on a citizen to coerce truths or blood out of them by the abruptly wooden way their lines are delivered.  Puppets without strings, the moment characters voices go flat and toneless is also the moment you have them completely in your thrall.  I won’t lie, I felt a certain sense of smug satisfaction every time I teased another secret out of a vile slumlord or remorseless murderer.  And on the flipside, I definitely felt twinges of guilt doing the same thing to a soldier with PTSD or an already guilt-ridden old woman desperately trying to hold on to her remaining family.

These bits of character, these interactions, these moments when you see another facet of the 3-D person behind the script are where Vampyr really shines.  These moments are Dontnod at their best.  And in light of that, I can forgive the occasional awkward phrasing and dead-eyed stares.

Another point in Dontnod’s favor when it comes to spoken interactions: subtitles are on by default.  This is a huge feature for me; as long as a game has subtitles available, I’m generally happy, but having them turned on by default is great.  Playing games without subtitles is difficult for me, to the point that I’ve dropped games that didn’t have them before, and I really appreciate that Dontnod is consistent with subtitling their games.

If you’ve ever seen Call the Midwife, yes, this is the same Poplar.

On the downside, it quickly becomes apparent over the course of the introductory sequence (which could have been cut in half) that the character interactions, while important to getting the best quality blood, are less important to the overall game than the clunky hack and slash action sequences.

Jonathan lumbers through action sequences, not just heavy on his feet but plodding.  He makes Geralt look nimble.  Unavoidable fights (and there are plenty, between angry mobs and boss fights) fast become tedious button mashing sequences with enemies that hit too hard (I thought vampires were supposed to be tough?) and take too long to go down (even 4 power levels above the inevitable boss fight in a sewer, it still took 20 minutes to bring the boss down).  Being able to switch weapons mid-battle helps matters, but only to a point.  Ammo is limited and maxing out the capacity takes longer than I really want to put in.  Getting into fights in Vampyr is unavoidable and not very much fun.

It’s also weirdly incongruous to the character of Jonathan Reid.  And this is where the two– almost three– different games comes in.  In one game, the character driven drama, you play as Dr. Reid, a devoted physician doing his best to save a city from an epidemic and reluctantly finding ways to use his newfound vampirism for good.  In the other second game, the hack and slash action RPG, you play as vengeful Johnathan Reid, out for blood and out for murder, determined to find the vampire who turned him and happy to cut and bite his way through swaths of innocent people as he does.

These are two very different games, and they’re difficult to reconcile with each other.  In fact, cognitive dissonance seems to be an overarching theme, from the very beginning with Johnathan’s murdered sister (who is flimsy set dressing at best and who merits only the most minor attention after her death), to the action sequences, to the strangely out-of-date soundtrack itself.  In fact, the soundtrack almost seems to have been written for a third game entirely, bringing Jack the Ripper to mind rather than the early days of the Jazz Era.  Every time I heard the dulcimers in the score as I passed a broken down car, it startled me into confusion all over again.  Maybe that’s the point.  Dr. Reid is a forward thinking man, abruptly trapped against his will in an immortal body by an ancient curse.

(Not unlike me at points, fighting the same boss battle for the third time.)

Overall, Vampyr isn’t a bad game.  For fans of vampire lore and previous Dontnod offerings, it has enough meat to it that players will enjoy digging into it, though like me they’ll probably be left wanting more.  But it’s hampered by its own internal confusion regarding what kind of game it wants to be.  The character interactions don’t get as deep as I’d like because the action half of the game demands its due attention.  The action half stumbles along, hamstrung by being only half a game.  I enjoyed it as a vampire fan and for me it was worth the price of admission, but I don’t plan to replay it the way I did with Life Is Strange.

Final verdict: Buy the soundtrack, rent the game.