If developer Dontnod Entertainment has proven anything, it's their ability to craft an intricate and compelling storyline. Just look at games like 2013's Remember Me or the widely acclaimed point-and-click adventure Life is Strange; both brought interesting ideas to bear through carefully crafted narratives that made playing through to the end feel like it was worth it. Sadly, though, this knack for storytelling doesn't always transfer over to mechanics, execution and overall playability, leaving their newest title, Vampyr, feeling like it's halfway there at best and 12 years old at worst.
You are Dr. Jonathan Reid, a late-1800s era London surgeon who has just woken up beneath a pile of corpses because—guess what—you a vampire now. Someone or something turned you into this creature, and you're out to get answers. Along the way you'll meet various other monsters and townsfolk, run afoul of an ancient vampire hunter order and, interestingly, take a job at a rundown hospital. You're a healer, after all, even if working there means constantly curbing your instinctual lust for drinking blood.
Reid's evolution is where Vampyr does its best. Players can choose to either aid various Londoners or suck 'em dry, and the idea that he is in constant turmoil between his doctorly duties and his new vampiric need to drink blood places a sort of nagging feeling of dread over all of his goings-on. It gets a little complicated here, however, as you'll need to level up your powers and abilities in order to defeat stronger enemies or mesmerize potential victims for access to their sweet, sweet blood. In doing so, you'll receive a massive XP boost which leads to newer and stronger abilities. But everything has its price, and that nurse you killed so you can vampire better might lead to unforeseen difficulties down the road.
The way Dontnod has handled dialogue is stellar, both from the branching paths that provide more information about NPCs to the way they (or someone else) will often let slip private information. You can use these "hints" to open new dialogue options or advance the game itself. Not only does this provide a deeper sense of the many characters throughout the course of the narrative, it feels like a mini game unto itself right down to the handy little feature that reminds players what tidbits of information they've unlocked. Voice acting for most NPCs is pretty OK, but Reid is so wonderfully acted you begin to feel like you actually know him.
London, meanwhile, is laid out like a rat's nest of various districts, sewers, docks and buildings. Some doors and gates are locked at first, but by wandering around London's streets, you'll often work out how to get through them and ultimately make getting around easier. This feels quite similar to From Software's gripping Dark Souls series or Bloodborne—though finding new paths and areas in those games made you feel like an intrepid explorer, whereas Vampyr's nooks and crannies usually feel pointless and same-y. Worse yet, main and side quests appear confusingly on the map, and marking your own waypoint is only available for said missions and never just some random area you might like to explore. Thus, finding your next objective sometimes becomes a trial-and-error process of opening and closing the game's map until you zero in on that person or entrance; especially troubling when getting around isn't always exciting.
Combat, meanwhile, is borderline embarrassing. Again, we see From Software's influence, both in the UI of the weaponry and in the pacing and scripting of battle. But whereas a game like Bloodborne or Dark Souls feels challenging yet doable, Vampyr feels painfully and tactlessly doable despite the cheap tactics employed by enemy AI. Rather than a dance of timing, Reid is forced to rush in and then quickly back out in a monotonous rhythm that even the various creative melee and firearm weapons can't make up for. Still, the addition of offhand weapons—such as stakes or guns—is an interesting one; the more you use them, the more stunned or fatigued an enemy becomes, leading to an in-combat window for a blood-suck move that adds health and stamina for subsequent attacks. Regardless, the types of enemies you'll face don't feel different enough to matter, even if bigger and badder ones do appear the more innocent townsfolk you murder and even if there are some pretty challenging bosses scattered throughout the game.
Elsewhere, find simplified item-crafting and one of the most tedious looting systems in the history of games. And, all the while, outdated graphics and animations drag Vampyr into some pretty shaky territory. Hasn't Dontnod been working on this thing for years? They have? Cool. Just checking. Thank goodness, then, that the story stays strong and worth unfolding, even if the final overall product feels rushed and undercooked.
*We played a retail copy on the Xbox One X
+Fantastic story; cool setting
-Outdated mechanics and graphics; obvious influences are straight-up better games
Developed by Dontnod Entertainment
Rated M (Oh, there's sucking alright)
PS4, Xbox One, PC