Tuesday, July 31, 2018


I remain starved for any games even remotely related to Life Is Strange. That's the main reason why I was interested in Vampyr, the latest (well, almost latest) game from the developer DONTNOD. (Thanks for the gift, Andrew!) Secondary reasons included a vague hope that it would be some sort of spiritual successor to Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines (which, to be fair, it was never advertised as), and this really awesome trailer from E3.

Vampyr ended up being kind of an oddity. It's an action game, mechanically a lot closer to Remember Me than Life Is Strange. In many ways it feels like a cookie-cutter action/adventure/roleplaying game: you play as a white dude, you can switch between a melee weapon and a ranged weapon and special abilities, you fight lots of generic respawning enemies, you collect money and materials, you can do some light crafting to create and upgrade weapons, you follow a main plot line with periodic cinematic cutscenes, along the way you have a variety of optional sidequests that give smaller rewards, you earn XP and level up to increase your stats and gain new abilities, the plot mostly runs on rails but there are a couple of choices along the way that can influence which of several endings you will get. Phew! Sound familiar?

That said, it does add a lot of interesting stuff to the formula. High on the list is its presentation of NPCs. Most games of this sort will either have a small handful of named NPCs that serve some limited function (shopkeeper, quest-giver, etc.), and/or a large bustling mass of anonymous NPCs who add atmosphere but don't do anything significant. Vampyr has several dozen - maybe close to a hundred? - named NPCs. Each of them are their own fairly fleshed-out character, with their own secrets and ambitions and activities. The marquee feature of Vampyr is how these characters are bound together in a "social web": each person is related to other characters, and actions that affect one of them will affect others. This, theoretically, adds a layer to the decisions you made, as your actions will carry repercussions.

A closely related interesting mechanic is the "feeding" system. As a vampire, you thirst for the blood of the living. In this game, that doesn't mean regenerating health or stamina, but the most precious resource of all: experience points. Each friendly NPC represents a substantial pool of XP, and feeding on an NPC gives you a substantial boost. Killing a hostile enemy will earn you 5 XP, while a single NPC might earn as much as 5,000 XP.

This opens up all sorts of interesting trade-offs. In order to get the maximum XP from a given NPC, you need to discover all of their secrets and keep them healthy. So you might debate between the utility of a smaller XP boost now versus a larger XP boost later. Also, due to the aforementioned social web, feeding on a person might have negative impacts on someone else. You might inadvertently close off a potential sidequest that would also generate XP. And over the long run, if too many people fall to your insatiable hunger, the district will fall into chaos, growing far more dangerous to you. And that's not even addressing the moral question of whether you want to feed on them in the first place!


That question "is it right to feed on this person?" can be surprisingly interesting. One of my favorite bits about the game is the complexity of the characters in it, which avoid both stereotypes and easy judgment. Characters are rarely good or bad. And also very diverse! The game is set in 1918 London, which I tend to think of as being a purely white setting; but, of course, the British Empire was globe-spanning, and we run across plenty of characters with Indian or African or other forms of ancestry. And some characters are homosexual, because of course there were homosexual people in England, even if they weren't written about very much. We meet communists, and yes, communists were a large part of the labor movement as seen on the docks here. And women's liberation campaigners, because yes, that was when there was a universal suffrage push. The characters feel simultaneously very modern and very rooted in their setting.

When introducing diverse characters to a place where they might not be expected, I think there's a temptation to make them a little too perfect, to sort of Afterschool Special them. That temptation is avoided here. One of the first characters you meet is Milton Hooks, an ambulance driver and one of the only black men in the game. Talking with him and others, you quickly realize that he's running a variety of rackets: shaking down incoming patients, taking bribes to guarantee bed placement, searching through the pockets of the deceased for valuables. Yeesh! The game never excuses this behavior, but, as you get to know him more and dig deeper, you at least get an understanding of his motivation. Unlike the privileged doctors at the top of the hospital hierarchy, who came from wealthy backgrounds and had all sorts of opportunities and choices while growing up, Milton has never had any opportunities offered to him, and has chosen to create his own. His scrabbling is distasteful, maybe detestable, but if it wasn't for that scrabbling he might not be alive today. What starts out as a judgment about him eventually becomes a reflection on ourselves: it's very easy to cast blame at people who make bad choices, but harder to recognize that they're facing choices we never have needed to confront.

Ultimately, it's up to you (or, rather, Doctor Jonathan Reid in the game) to decide how to respond. In gameplay terms, do you let Milton live, or do you bite his neck and suck out all of his life force to murder him and empower yourself? Milton is far from the most tempting target in this regard, and the game seems to go out of its way to encourage you to feed. One clear example is Clay Cox, the gang leader you meet at Pembroke who introduces himself along the lines of "I sure enjoy MURDERING people! But I'm sick :( so I can't murder as much as I want. But if you make me healthy again, heh heh, there's no telling WHO I might MURDER! By the way, I lost my knife. :-( Can you find it for me?" If you do the knife quest, he'll essentially say "Oy, guv, thanks for getting me back my knife! I can't wait to MURDER another innocent person with this KNIFE!!!"

The game's dialogue is screaming that this is a Bad Guy, and there's a very simple button you can press to take him out... but he's still considered a civilian, he's using the dialogue interface and not the combat interface, and he's not actively threatening you at the moment. The game seems to frown on you feeding on people, so in general it seems like the virtuous path is to spare everyone, but is it really a good thing to just let him wander the street, brandishing his knife?

Oddly, the civilians I felt most tempted to feed on weren't the obvious thugs like Clay Cox or the other Wet Boot Boys: it was the cruel slumlords, the wealthy capitalists. Cadogan Bates inflicts misery on a far grander scale than Cox does. Bates does it with the support of the law instead of in opposition to it, has zero concern for those who suffer under him, and dresses up his oppression with self-serving rhetoric. I ultimately spared him, too, but it was an even closer decision.

And, ultimately, that's one of my mild complaints about the game: they created this really complex, intricate web, but then seem to have superimposed an absolutist all-or-nothing morality on it. If you are a virtuous person who never feeds on anyone, then the web is fully intact and you never see any of those repercussions; if you feed even once, then you do see the consequences, but that instantly casts you to the "dark" side of the moral scale. It would have been interesting to have a wider variety of choices available than "feed" or "don't feed": something like a "bring to justice" option could still have shaken the social web as people are removed from it, without actually killing people, affecting the district's health, and counting as a permanent mark on your soul.

Before I dive deeper into the specific plot, here were things I liked:

  • Great map design. It's based around a deceptively simple principle: doors are locked on one side, and after being unlocked on the other, in the future can be opened in either direction. It's fantastic for guiding players along certain routes, then eliminating the time cost of backtracking.
  • Solid voice acting. It's relatively low-key and not as attention-getting as other games, but feels very authentic and likeable.
  • Variety of personal stories. We've come a long way from "Everyone has daddy issues" or "Everything revolves around me": I was often surprised by the details of individual citizens' tales, and felt invested in their outcome.
  • Quantity of side-quests. It wasn't overwhelming like the seemingly-endless number in an Elder Scrolls game, but there were still enough to have some variety and choice in choosing what to pursue when. Doing enough of them cumulatively grants sufficient rewards to feel worthwhile.
  • A nice range of upgradeable abilities.
  • The atmosphere is fantastic. Dark and moody, but with little pockets of hope.
  • As with all DONTNOD games, it has beautiful lighting. Things like flickering torchlight illuminating damp cobblestones are gorgeous.
  • The unique period setting is a really refreshing change. I don't think I've ever played a game set in this era, but it's great: modern enough to be instantly recognizable and relevant, but old enough to earn a sense of class and weight.
Things I was ambivalent about.
  • No fast travel. This gets to be a pain in the midgame, when you're turning in side-quests around the city. In practice, though, you can run from one side of the city fairly quickly. It's also pretty easy to run through combat in most cases, especially if the route is already open.
  • Character animations are generally fine, but can get really repetitive in certain scenes - once you notice, say, a particular character's hand gesture, you'll see that they're robotically repeating it every seven seconds. 
  • The combat generally felt pretty hard. But, I think that's pretty clearly a consequence of my decision not to feed on the blood of citizens. I do like how this plot decision had a strong gameplay consequence... but it still felt kind of annoying to die fairly often later in the game.
  • Respawning enemies. Combat generally felt more like a chore than fun, and it gets aggravating to face the same anonymous foes repeatedly. This is slightly mitigated by the fact that containers also respawn, and the aforementioned ease of running through/past fights you don't want to do. 
  • "Witcher Senses". They're totally fine on their own, the gameplay is decently interesting and it's a nice change of pace from fighting, but it still feels derivative.
  • Waypointing system. Specifically, they can be misleading: especially early on, a waypoint may show on your map at your ultimate destination, and not at the place you actually need to go. (For example, instead of showing the door to enter a building, it will point to the location on the other side of the block where you'll eventually end up.) I preferred the zone-based approach that just show huge circles over the general areas to investigate, though this is also frustrating for a few quests like finding your father's letters. All that said, I do appreciate having some kind of waypointing while not being handheld for the duration of the game.
Things that annoyed me:
  • Not knowing whether clicking on a door will open it or start a loading screen to transition you to a new area. This is a big issue early and late in the game, but thankfully not much of a problem in the middle.
  • The economy. There's no buy-back or sell-back interface; I accidentally bought a bunch of watches when I thought I was selling them, and ended up losing hundreds of shillings even though I immediately realized my mistake. Then again, there's almost nothing worth spending money on. I did drop some shillings on Good handle parts, but almost immediately afterwards enemies started dropping a ton of them for free. I guess it might make sense if you never loot anything; but since you get most of your money by looting, you wouldn't be able to buy anything in that case, either.
  • Talking to people can feel overwhelming. Whenever you arrive in a new area like Pembroke or Whitechapel for the first time you're confronted with huge walls of text, well over a dozen people to talk with, one after the other. These conversations are very mechanical: click on all of the bright text until it all turns dim.
  • Relatedly: There are persistent minor bugs where dialogue prompts remain bright even after you've spoken them.
  • Ultimately, I found myself often getting bored and doing something else while characters were talking... which is very unusual for me! Dialogue tends to be my favorite part of games like this. Here, that dialogue often ended up feeling like a grind, something I was just going through to get the XP unlocked by the clues.
  • Honestly, a lot of this might come back to Jonathan Reid himself. I liked him fine, but... he's just constantly on about "What have I become?!" and "There is this... HUNGER that burns inside me!" I'll take that over the standard grimdark protagonists who are de rigueur in these kind of games, but it still grates after enough repetition.
  • Whenever you die, you restart from the last checkpoint with full health and stamina, but it takes away virtually all of your blood. Most annoyingly, you see it start at a decent amount, like a half or a quarter, and then get sucked away until you have just a sliver, maybe not even enough for a single ability activation. Especially since you presumably died due to a tough fight, this just makes it all the more frustrating to go into it with a significant handicap. This gets extremely annoying since the enemies you previously defeated will respawn with full health, and depending on how far back the checkpoint was, you might not even be able to get back to the part that killed you last time.

And one annoyance that's not at all related to this game: there were a couple of points where I wanted to check on a sidequest or a choice, and was reminded that FAQs and walkthroughs seem to be dying out. Back in the day, within a few weeks of a game being released you could count on there being a half-dozen or so competing specialized guides that you could turn to; after a few months, one or two would be enthroned as the de-facto community source and contain exhaustive, often spoiler-free guidance. These days, most games don't have any FAQs at all. If they do, it's usually just a single one. So I ended up needing to do general searches and browsing Reddit threads, and occasionally getting mildly spoiled in the process. I'm curious if FAQs are disappearing because of the Pivot To Video, or if it's a consequence of the explosion in the number of games being released, or what. Definitely not the worst trend in gaming, but it's still a little sad to see.

Anyways, back to Vampyr, a quick summary of my style: I focused on quick-hitting melee attacks. By the end of the game I was wielding a Level Five Hacksaw with damage upgrades and a Level Five Liston Knife with drain upgrades. Using the Liston Knife allowed me to bypass the stun/feed mechanic, so I didn't put any upgrades into Bite-related abilities. I also put very few upgrades into my Blood bar in general, largely due to the aforementioned issue with your blood always resetting to near zero on death; I rarely ran out of blood mid-fight as it was, and losing more would just enrage me in real life. On the other hand, I did bump up my Stamina significantly. Even without Stun, your melee attacks will slightly stagger opponents, and so you can sort of soft-stun-lock them by rapidly attacking. If your Stamina is high enough, you can keep this up until they die.

For powers, I focused on Shadow Mist, a long-distance AOE attack, and Autophagy for quick in-combat healing (and aggravated damage healing). I also took the first level of Shadow Veil as a quality-of-life upgrade; it's really nice when you're trying to get from Point A to Point B and don't feel like fighting everyone. Late in the game I took the Abyss ultimate, which I love and wish I'd taken before: it does a ton of damage, and has a long stun that even works on boss monsters. It also doesn't cost any blood at all, just has a long cooldown, and is a great element in any boss fight or general "oh, crap!" situation.

Story-wise, I played as a pretty straightforward good guy. I pretty much always chose the empathetic option in dialogues, generally allowed people to choose their own destiny but tried to look after their interests. I obsessively healed everyone I came across. As noted above, I never fed on anyone, though there are some more challenging scenarios you face later in the game that deal with turning people.


More specifically, when it came to the pillars, I:
  • Made a deal with Dorothy Crane to continue the Whitechapel clinic and stop her blackmail.
  • Convinced Sean Hampton to drink my blood and reduce his craving.
  • Convinced Aloysius Dawson to accept a natural death.
  • Allowed Dr. Swansea to drink my blood and turn into a vampire himself.

I think those are all technically "good" choices, though complicated somewhat. Allowing Dawson to die generates a mild in-game penalty as it causes Whitechapel's health to slip and keeps you from making it Sanitized. And Swansea is, arguably, the main villain of the game, notwithstanding his intentions and affable demeanor.

I hemmed and hawwed for quite a while about Geoffrey McCullum, but ultimately decided to just spare him. It was kind of tempting, though.

I pursued the Lady Ashbury romance. It's very low-key and restrained, and felt super English and very appropriate for these characters: they're all repressed and have these Feelings percolating inside that they just don't quite express. Not the most memorable or meaningful romance I've seen in a video game - heck, far from the most memorable I've seen from DONTNOD - but it was still nice and I was glad to have it. The ending was quite nice as well, with us heading off to visit America and the rest of the world.

Vampyr does seem to be setting up a potential franchise, especially with the lore around the Red Goddess and St. Paul's Stole and other stuff. The reception to the game seems somewhat muted, which makes a sequel less likely, but if it happened, it could go all sorts of ways. That's one of the cool things about having ageless immortal vampires: they could easily jump back to the Middle Ages or forward to modern (or future!) times and still feature many of the same characters.


Honestly, a big part of me just wants another Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines. This isn't that, but it could theoretically lead to that in the future: it already has the vast cast of characters and the lore, it's just missing the setting and the gameplay. Oh, and the protagonist: nothing against Doctor Reid, but I'd have loved to shape my own character.

That's just wishful thinking, though. On its own terms, Vampyr is a perfectly fine game: solid combat, some interesting gameplay innovations, and a really good setting. I was a bit surprised to see how often the feel of the game reminded me of Murdered: Soul Suspect: while the game mechanics are very different, the narrow, twisty cobblestone streets of 21st century Boston reminded me a lot of the streetlit alleys of 1910s London. Both have a lurking layer of the supernatural hovering over a supposedly mundane world. Like Soul Suspect, Vampyr doesn't completely land everything, but it still carves out a unique space in a saturated world, and I'm glad that we have it.

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