Dontnod Entertainment left their mark on gamers hearts with Life is Strange, a vibrant, linear and episodic narrative game that focused heavily on player choice and the consequences of those choices. Anybody familiar with Life is Strange may find Dontnod’s most recent effort, Vampyr – a dark and gritty open world adventure – to be a complete one hundred and eighty degree turn for the studio. Where Life is Strange was headlined by prominent female characters set among modern day Arcadia Bay, Vampyr focuses instead on the quite undead Dr. Jonathan Reid, a pioneer of blood transfusion technology residing in London during the Spanish Flu epidemic. Life is Strange, while dealing with decidedly dark subject matter, takes place in a world that is colorful and well lit, whereas the world of Vampyr is plunged in darkness due to Dr. Reid’s condition as a vampire. Despite their differences, however, there is one thing that makes it glaringly obvious that the masterminds behind Life Is Strange are likewise responsible for the intriguing world of Vampyr: Dontnod’s immaculate grasp of cause and effect storytelling.
After a tragic introduction to the good doctor, players can begin exploring the streets of London, but not without being forced to make their first difficult decision. Because of his vampiric condition, Dr. Reid needs to feast on blood, naturally. Every NPC that players encounter have complicated storylines and a multitude of narrative hints that weave and mingle with the other NPCs and their stories. Some have vital information that can help Dr. Reid with his various investigations, or additional side quests that can provide valuable items or currency to help the player out later down the road. However, that’s not an argument to avoid consuming NPCs, as each one also has a blood point value. The more Dr. Reid knows about a potential victim, the higher the victim’s blood point value becomes and the more worth the player’s while to risk taking the NPC out of play. This adds a predatory stalker notion to the narrative gameplay, almost as if you’re playing with your food. If careful, players can ultimately maximize a NPCs blood point value by uncovering all of their narrative hints and completing their side quests and then embracing them. These blood points can then be exchanged for valuable skills and abilities.
Abandoned quest lines and narrative hints are not the only consequence to embracing the citizens of London, however. London is broken down into a variety of districts, and if a player is careless enough to hunt for citizens in any one district they risk plunging the status of that particular district into chaos. The more chaotic and unhealthy an area, the more dangerous it becomes for Dr. Reid. This creates a cycle of viciousness, since Vampyr’s difficulty is adjusted by the decisions the player makes. Killing civilians allows you to acquire the aforementioned blood points for special abilities, but throws a district into chaos resulting in more difficult encounters that will require even more blood points in order to upgrade enough, so on and so forth. It’s all a part of the system of consequences and its vital to fully experiencing Vampyr’s narrative. It can be crushing to work hard on your relationship with a character only to find yourself in a position of needing to upgrade quickly.
Just as important as Dr. Reid’s need to feed is his need to assist. Jonathan is a doctor, after all, and the spanish flu is tearing London apart even without the help of the supernatural. Many citizens are plagued not only with influenza but with a myriad of other complications such as migraines and fatigue. Players can choose to craft cures for these ailments, and then upon performing a check up on an ill citizen they can likewise choose to provide relief with medicine. Much like over hunting can cause chaos, choosing to heal can improve the status of various districts and should the player be patient enough they can even be made completely healthy again.
The various districts of London cover an impressively large map area, giving players plenty of exploration opportunities, but this does lead to Vampyr’s biggest downfall. There’s no means of fast traveling around from district to district, despite the fact that each district has a hideout available for crafting and upgrading. Dr. Reid’s natural gait is quite slow, and though it is possible to run by holding down the B button doing so comes at the cost of stamina. It’s risky to take off running for an extended period of time, as it could lead to accidentally finding yourself face to face with a gang of vampire hunters while Dr. Reid is out of stamina. While Vampyr’s combat mechanics are built on fairly simple combos of dodges and attacks, players do need to micromanage their stamina and blood availability in addition to keeping an eye on their own health bar.
While embracing citizens and draining them of blood points is a viable strategy for upgrading Dr. Reid, it is important to note that the game does allow players to forgo indulging on citizens and instead have Jonathan take a bite out of enemies during combat. Oddly enough, Jonathan can not immediately drain an enemy while in a fight. Instead it is only possible for him to take a quick bite which will fill a small blood meter. The available blood in this meter can be spent to use special attacks or for short bursts of health. With enough of the right upgrades, it can be possible to have Jonathan gain a burst of health simply from biting enemies, as well. If chowing down on other humans is just too much for your sensibilities, however, there is always the option to grab rats for dinner. Be warned, however, that Jonathan will let you know he’s not happy with his lower quality meal.
Many of Vampyr’s missions can leave players making countless trips from one side of London to the other, thus a good chunk of the game’s runtime is simply mundane travel. Additionally, crossing between districts will occasionally trigger a microfreeze while the game is loaded on the Xbox One S. Vampyr’s environment is stunningly detailed and worth exploring if for nothing more than to just soak in the scenery, but the game freezing with the exception of a rogue ‘loading’ emblem in the corner can be jarring. Likewise, the game does suffer from longer load times overall. To some extent these lengthy load times can be forgivable given the size, scope, and detail of the environment, but it does ultimately leave you disheartened when you’re whipping out your phone to browse social media for several minutes while the game loads.
Long load times and the absence of a much needed fast travel system aside, Vampyr stands strong as a powerful narrative experience. Every encounter with a civilian, for better or worse, can have lasting effects over the course of a playthrough, meaning players will regularly be in a state of mind where they wonder what might have been if they only they chose to do things just a little different.