Republished on Wednesday 30th September 2020: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of October's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
DONTNOD has so far released two games: 2013's often forgotten Remember Me and the breakout success Life Is Strange. Vampyr is the ambitious company's latest project, and it combines the action of the former with the narrative focus of the latter.
You play as Jonathan E. Reid, an acclaimed surgeon recently turned vampire who's investigating the outbreak of influenza and its possible connection to the sudden appearance of vampires. It's set in a fictional version of early 20th century London, with the first World War a very real backdrop.
Gameplay is a constant balance of Assassin's Creed-style combat with the chattiness of Life Is Strange. You'll get to know each of London's 60 inhabitants intimately by having very long and deep conversations, and occasionally completing a quest or two.
This is an integral part of the experience, because the more you know about a civilian, the more experience you reap when you claim them as a victim. Remember, you're a vampire with a craving for the blood and flesh of the living, and at any moment you can stun them and lead them off into a dark corner to have your wicked way with them.
As an RPG, experience is super important as you use it to upgrade your abilities – which dictates how well you'll perform in combat. Using this XP, you'll unlock a variety of skills that focus around using blood as both a boon for yourself and a weapon against the enemy.
Skills range from healing yourself to throwing spears of blood and even boiling your enemy's blood to such an extent that they explode, dealing damage to all nearby foes. It would be glorious if it wasn't so janky and basic.
To be clear, the combat isn't bad or broken. You hack away at enemies, dodge their attacks, and you can stun or parry depending on the type of weapon you wield. Then there's ranged weapons you can use while fighting from a distance, and your vampiric abilities – which are pretty well animated and feel quite fun to pull off.
The problem is it all just pales in comparison to a bunch of other games we can mention, and it's a little janky. You have to target an enemy to parry their attacks, for example, which feels a far cry away from the stylish counterattacking of the Batman: Arkham games. The general hacking doesn't feel quite as tactile as Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor or Assassin's Creed either.
It doesn't help that it's incredibly jarring when compared to the conversational side of the game. You can go from having a very civilised chat with a patient or fellow doctor while working your night shift at the local hospital, to suddenly racing around the streets beating several different shades of blood out of the city's militia and feral vampires. You could consider it a nice change of pace, but it never sits quite right and it really jars with Jonathan's character.
It's even more confusing when you consider that Vampyr could have survived very well without it. As you can expect from the guys behind Life Is Strange, all dialogue is very well written, and there's a pretty fascinating cast of characters to get to know.
The fact Jonathan's a vampire isn't even made redundant by the loss of combat, as you often use his vampiric abilities to get more information while interrogating citizens. You can mesmerise them to get them to tell you the truth, check the status of their health while in vampire mode (think detective mode in the Arkham games), and even lead them off for a quick biting session.
Tying it into the RPG system is also a very clever move, and can lead to some very serious consequences. Basically, the higher a citizen's social standing, the more XP you can get from butchering them. You can even increase this XP by learning everything there is to know about them, which encourages you to talk to everyone and get out into the world to explore. You really never know where you might find a detail that will trigger a new conversational approach.
If you do end up killing a vital NPC for a massive boost in XP, you might end up destabilising an entire district. Most districts in Vampyr are being held together by what are known as "Pillars" – important people who do a lot of good for those around them. Keeping these guys alive can have a bunch of different benefits, from staving off the most powerful enemies to increasing the health of citizens in the area.
Murder them, though, and the world can get pretty dire for not only the citizens, but you too. For example, you may have to face way more powerful enemies than before.
That trade-off could have led to some very interesting and difficult decisions if there was anything actually meaningful to spend your XP on. In a game where combat is the weakest element, new abilities are hardly tempting enough to potentially break the experience by killing a vital NPC.
You also generally get enough XP from killing regular enemies and completing quests. Sure, you might not progress as fast as you want and combat will be more difficult, but it's hardly Dark Souls. You might die here and there, but you just respawn right by where you died anyway. It's hardly a big deal.
It's a real shame, because Vampyr has some really interesting ideas that never really come to fruition due to its narrow-minded focus on a combat system that's dull, unappealing, and quite frankly unnecessary. If the RPG system was tied into improved dialogue options, we might have had another Life Is Strange on our hands. Instead, it's likely to be another Remember Me.
Vampyr has a ton of interesting ideas, an intriguing world, and a great cast of characters, but is ultimately let down by its narrow-minded focus on unnecessary combat.