Vampyr is the rare game that encouraged me not to kill its virtual denizens. It’s not that it isn’t tempting at times, but their deaths mean I’ll miss out on some amazing stories.
The game puts you in the role of a World War I-era surgeon named Jonathan Reid, back home in London after serving in France, only to discover that he has become a vampire. He happens upon this discovery in the most unfortunate fashion: his thirst for blood causes him to attack the first person he sees — his sister, come to welcome him home from the war.
Eventually Reid gets a job on the night shift at a hospital, where he’s able to cloak his undead identity, search for answers about his new status, and also continue to help people as he did before. But as a bloodthirsty vampire, this creates a dilemma: everyone in London is also a source of food. As Jonathan you have to decide whether to kill people around you and become more powerful, or spare them to alleviate your conscious, but make the game harder. It turns out I’m a bad vampire — despite the benefits, I don’t want to kill anybody.
Vampyr is the latest release from French studio Dontnod, best known for the time-traveling teen drama Life is Strange. It takes what the developer is really good at — namely, providing a diverse group of characters that you want to spend all day sitting around talking to — and merges it with a fairly straightforward action role-playing game. The two halves don’t exactly fit together seamlessly; Vampyr is a messy game, with frustrating combat and systems like crafting that soon become a chore. But the characters and their stories make it worth pushing through.
Community is at the heart of Vampyr. The whole game takes place in a small slice of London in 1918, and covers four districts each decimated by the war, an outbreak of Spanish flu, and, oh yeah, a scourge of undead vampires in neverending search of blood. Each district has a number of citizens, and over the course of the game you’ll have plenty of opportunities to get to know them. There are the patients in Jonathan’s hospital, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or the belief that they’re actually a vampire, too. But there’s also the bartender who offers the one safe refuge for those looking for a drink, or the devout religious leader who cares for the homeless and poor.
You interact with these characters primarily through conversation. Vampyr features a fairly typical dialogue system, where you choose what to say from a list and your options expand the more you know someone. You might hear about a character’s crush from a friend, or learn about their dark past after reading a medical file. You can also make choices that change how they perceive you, and these decisions and discoveries open up even more dialogue options, and it’s a structure that had me engrossed. I would take on uninteresting side quests, which typically revolve around venturing to somewhere dangerous to collect or kill something, because I knew it would help me learn more about the fascinating residents of Whitechapel.
The big twist in Vampyr is how these characters are then connected to the rest of the game. While chatting with grisled nurses and drunk thugs is the highlight of the experience, you’ll also spend plenty of time wandering through dark alleys and abandoned buildings using your dark, vampiric powers. The streets of London are filled with vampire hunters and rabid undead creatures known as skal, all of which will attack you on sight. Like most RPGs, in Vampyr you grow in power the more you play; killing enemies earns experience points, which you can use to unlock things like new attacks or increased health. But the juiciest source of experience isn’t combat: it’s the innocent citizens of London.
In addition to being able to talk to people and understand them, you also have the option to hypnotize them, take them to a deserted alley, and feed on their blood. For whatever reason, this blood is the most potent of all, giving you a huge boost that you can use to become a super powerful vampire. And in an extra-cruel twist, the amount of experience you get actually increases the closer you are to the person. So if you really want to get a boost, you need to gain their confidence first.
There are some drawbacks to killing. Eliminating a character also eliminates all of their quests, and depending on their social connections (which you track in the game’s menu) it can also have an adverse impact on the community. Part of your goal in Vampyr is to keep each region healthy and safe from disease, vampires, and other dangers. Killing a pillar of the community doesn’t help in that regard; you’re essentially improving your own character at the expense of everyone else. As the game gets more challenging, these choices get even tougher. The only time I killed a citizen was when I was stuck on a powerful boss fight deep in the sewers that I simply wasn’t strong enough to get past. He was a loner drunk who won’t be mourned, but with his dying breath he thanked me for putting an end to his sad life. It was meant to be an XP grab; it turned out to be tragic.
It’s not the state of London or the sense of guilt that keeps me from killing people, though. When you end someone’s life, you also end their stories, which means you’re missing out on the best part of Vampyr. I need to find out the mysterious backstory of the barmaid Sabrina Cavendish, and what happens with the torrid relationship between the gruff ambulance driver and a perpetually sick nurse. I’m not really enjoying the combat in Vampyr, or its needlessly fussy crafting system, or the unyielding gloom that can make it feel stressful just to walk around. Those narratives are what keep me going. Even if it means the game will be a little bit harder, I’m not going to lose them.
Vampyr is available now on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.