Once bitten, twice shy?
Vampyr is a dialogue-heavy, action RPG set in a dark, moody vision of World War I-era London where the streets are spattered with blood and crawling with rats. Lit by torches and an occasional bonfire, this is a world of alleys flickering with the shadows of the undead and those hunting them as howls echo through the night. As much as I love anything with a deliberately alternative spelling, I never got around to playing this particular bite-em-up when it first released in 2018. Now that the game has made the leap to the Switch, allowing players to dine-and-dash in daylight or dark, I’m here in my best bowler hat to tell you what I think.
The year is 1918 and you are the accomplished Doctor and blood transfusion specialist Jonathan Reid. You’ve just returned from war to plague-ridden London. While abroad you’ve contracted what you believe to be the Spanish flu. As the game begins, you wake up in a ditch and discover that you are deeply afflicted with an illness that makes you crave the scent of sweet, warm, sticky human blood. Unfortunately for Jonathan’s conscience, the first person you encounter is your own sister. Confused and wild with hunger, you bite her tender neck as she embraces you, feeding on the first of many victims to come.
Stumbling through the dark London night, you make your way to a pub and meet a man named Dr. Swansea who will, after you go and fight a few ruffians, lead you to Pembroke Hospital. Dr. Swansea seems to know something about your condition and he invites you to join the staff of his hospital to help research the plague that is devastating the city. You’re not the only vampire on the premises. Dr. Swansea also offers shelter to a woman named Lady Elisabeth Ashbury who you will later find feasting on a sick patient’s blood behind hospital blinds.
Lady Ashbury explains that you are a specific type of vampire named a Ekon, superior to the common survivors of vampire attacks who haunt the streets and are called Skals. It is believed that there may be a connection between the Spanish flu and the vampire virus terrorising London. Dr. Reid needs to investigate this connection while also uncovering his own origin story. It is rare for an Ekon to be left alone after being bitten as he was. Whoever is responsible for making him a vampire has vanished, leaving him with more than a few unanswered questions.
Vampyr’s London is built around hubs, Pembroke Hospital being the first, with the Whitechapel, the Docks, and West End to follow. In usual RPG fashion these hubs are home to a collection of NPCs who give you tasks and quests that quilt the hubs together, causing you to travel the streets between them fighting other vampires or groups such as the Guard of Priwen (a brotherhood of vampire slayers) or a gang with a brilliant name, the Wet Boot Boys.
Combat is standard and a bit dull. There is a stamina meter to manage as well as one for your vampiric powers. In addition to swinging swords, bludgeoning opponents with clubs and firing off pistols and shotguns, you can cause red blooms of smoke to appear at the feet of enemies, chomping into a good bit of their health. You can shoot a spike out through them, as well as claw and rage depending on what you choose to upgrade. Causing an enemy to stagger allows you a window of opportunity to bite their neck. With a few upgrades this bite will give severe damage, while also refilling a bit of both the vampire power blood bar and your own health.
While fighting rarely feels thrilling and you’ll spend plenty of time indulging in it, it isn’t Vampyr’s main course. That is to be found in the game’s innovative experience point system. While combat and completely quests nets you a small amount of XP, the real juicy numbers are found in the necks of NPCs; many of whom happen to need your help and are ill. This allows you, a helpful doctor, to craft medicine from the various bits and bobs looted in the city and then offer sick NPCs an examination, giving them the medicine and helping to bring them back to full health.
Each NPC has a number of available XP that is visible when using your vampiric vision that allows you to follow clues or quickly track down characters. NPCs also each have a specific number of clues. Uncovering a clue raises the amount of XP that would be gained if you indulged your thirst. As you go around talking to different characters you gather information about their lives and relationships with one another, uncovering clues.
If you learn all the clues about someone, it means you have raised their XP to its full potential and can decide if you want to use their blood to raise your own power level, or if you prefer to let them live. If you want, and if your power to mesmerise them is at a sufficient level, you can even sink your teeth in before the clues are uncovered for a smaller XP snack.
This is a terrific way of translating the moral dilemma of a vampire’s existence into an RPG. It’s a brilliant idea and it gives the player some motivation to wade through the massive amount of dialogue in the game. Talking and clicking through dialogue trees is what you spend most evenings in London doing and while the brilliance of the XP upgrade system is a little dimmer in practice than in theory its promise never fully fades. Dialogue choices are frequently a bit too similar and it can be difficult to tell if your choices really make too much of a difference. But the voice acting mitigates this a fair amount, as does Dr. Jonathan Reid’s own particular personality.
Instead of giving the player a character who is a bit of an empty shell, Vampyr gives you a character who is, to be honest, a bit of a dick. Dr. Reid is accustomed to being respected and getting his way. He’s an accomplished doctor, upper class and, if I had to guess, probably never apologises.
Role-playing him caused me to almost always choose the most insensitive and abrupt dialog option available and I had a lot of fun doing it. The intensity of his voice multiplies when a question made available by an uncovered clue is chosen. No matter what the question is, Dr. Reid asks it with the intensity of a Spanish inquisitor. I was entertained but the limitations are clear. The main choice the game presents is which NPCs to question, heal and then kill or allow to live. Dr. Reid’s own personality is fairly inflexible.
So, is the game worth a bite? The short answer is that Vampyr is deeply ambitious and schlocky as all hell. This is a game where after biting several human necks, longing in audible monologues for blood, and discovering that he can only go outside at night, the Dr. Reid exclaims in surprise when informed that he is indeed a vampire. And that comes nine hours into the game. If you’re running low on the blood that powers your vampire combat powers, you can pick up a rat off the street and bite into its neck for a small boost. This causes Reid to exclaim, “I can’t believe I’m doing this!” in disgust and it failed to get old over the eighteen hours I played.
Schlock and ambition aren’t often paired with the enthusiasm shown here and I personally have a genuine soft spot for the game, even when it fails to break out of familiar RPG quest moulds, serves up combat that rapidly gets a bit stale, and fails to offer the ability to quick travel between hubs. The innovative NPC XP system and the variety of characters to talk to kept me playing, curious who I would meet next.
Unfortunately, in its portable form the game suffers greatly from the compression required to bring it to Nintendo players. The performance is poor and the game’s setting, already dark and a bit drab is done no favours by drastic and almost certainly necessary texture downgrades.
Simply put, this port needs help. In handheld or docked mode the frame rate stutters and drops regularly during normal traversal, just running down the street. These drops are not rare and they plunge into mid-to-low 20 FPS territory, turning animation into a slideshow. The game will also very frequently jump to a loading screen for no clear reason, just briefly pausing as the Switch races to catch up. The normal loading times between areas are also long, frequently well over a minute.
Textures are extremely blurry and muddy. Even accepting that this necessary, it isn’t nice to look at. Most of the time I felt like I was playing with a film of Vaseline over the screen. This is difficult for a game that relies so heavily on dialog where most of your time is spent looking at NPCs' faces close-up.
The achievement of bringing this title to a portable device is admirable but given the game’s cost, performance, and the wide availability of the game at deep discounts on other platforms, it is difficult to recommend the Switch port. Vampyr itself, however, is worth a try, especially at this time of year as the days grow shorter and the air snaps with a chill. Flaws aside, it isn’t everyday that you meet a haughty, tortured vampire who happens to be a doctor with a lust for gossip and bloodshed.
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