After the somewhat underappreciated Remember Me and the wildly popular Life is Strange, we had been eagerly anticipating Dontnod’s Vampyr. We finally got to play it this week, when our Xbox One review code arrived just in the nick of time.
I suppose “anticipation” doesn’t actually cover it fully. We first saw Vampyr in action almost two years ago, when Dontnod’s Stéphane Beauverger (writer for Vampyr) talked us through a live demonstration of the game while detailing us its premise. It was simple yet brilliant at the same time, with the kind of setup that makes you want to watch a movie before it’s even out – and no matter how good it is.
In Vampyr, which takes place at the start of the 20th century in a alternate version of 1918 London, you play the role of Dr. Jonathan Reid. A doctor by trade, he’s bound by his vow to keep London’s citizens healthy and alive, yet he’s also recently been turned into a Vampyr (the original way to spell Vampire, according to Beauverger when I asked). It’s a devilish dilemma for Reid, and it makes for plenty of impactful decisions and ways to play. Give in to your Vampyr instincts and leave your oath behind, or resist the urge for blood? How do you justify your choices, and how does it affect the people you were once destined to save?
This premise, combined with the expert (choice-driven) narrative delivery in Dontnod’s Life is Strange, made Vampyr one of this year’s must-play titles. Having played it, I can safely say that – at least as a narrative experience – it succeeds at fulfilling that promise. Vampyr is full of atmosphere, crafted by both the visuals and the quality of the writing. London in 1918 looks like a gorgeous locale that’s perfect for a Vampyr tale – though I expected Jack the Ripper to turn up any second as well. The rise of the Spanish flu, however, makes it more of a scene for Jonathan Reid.
Vampyr isn’t just about Jonathan Reid’s story, however – it’s very much about the citizens of London who are living their own (interconnected) lives as well. Many of them have their own stories to tell, and as you uncover their secrets (sometimes by using your Vampyr powers) you start to judge them and might make a judgment call. Do you kill someone who’s a terrible person and justify your own bloodlust that way, or do you stick to your principles? Killing someone also affects others within London, and can change the narrative in subtle or drastic ways as people become cautious or aggressive after a murder.
As was the case in Life is Strange, your choices really matter to the narrative – and Vampyr could probably have done quite well with a similar gameplay approach to Life is Strange, even if the choices aren’t always as impactful as they are in that game. Vampyr, however, is an action adventure – so there’s a fair bit of combat involved as well. In the months (or years) leading up to the release I had always envisioned this to be a bit like Dishonored in terms of pacing and my choice of approach, but the reality of the situation is the Vampyr’s combat isn’t nearly that exciting. Very often, it’s a case of clubbing someone over the head or using a gun you’ve acquired, and it’s not until later in the game that your Vampyr powers develop enough to be of much use in combat.
I very much enjoyed my time with Vampyr because of its strong setting and narrative structure and took the so-so combat for granted, but it appears as though the Xbox One version suffers from technical issues that I haven’t heard anything about on other platforms. Review code for the Xbox version wasn’t available until the last minute, so perhaps Dontnod was still hard at work patching things up – but it seems like their work isn’t complete yet. Visual glitches include texture pop-in and characters who get stuck in the scenery, and there’s the occasional stutter as well. Granted, I played on a regular Xbox One instead of an Xbox One X, but I still want my experience to be smooth.
This made scoring Vampyr a challenge – on the one hand I adored my experience, but it was also marred by issues that appear platform-specific and might be temporary in nature. As a result, feel free to add up to a full point to the score below if it turns out the Xbox One issues were solved post-release.