Some cult developers become known for a specific type of game. They’ll iterate over and over on one or two basic ideas, or set familiar mechanics in new environments. They’ll focus on a single genre, or even just devote all their time to making sequels. Sometimes digging deep into a niche like that can solidify a studio’s status among its fans. Sometimes, though, their reputation slowly fades away as they repeat themselves.
The French game developer Dontnod doesn’t have to worry about that. It’s released three games—Remember Me, Life Is Strange and Vampyr—and there’s little to unite them thematically or mechanically. The most crucial thing they have in common is that they all demonstrate Dontnod’s commitment to not repeating itself and not chasing trends. It creates games that are unique not just among the studio’s own oeuvre but within the larger games industry. A Dontnod game doesn’t feel like anything else, in both good and bad ways, and Vampyr is no different.
It starts with the setting. A game about vampires will obviously be a game about death, and so Dontnod looked to one of the deadliest pandemics in human history for an appropriate backdrop. Setting the game in London during 1918 doesn’t just let it address the Spanish flu outbreak that killed millions across the globe; World War I, the war that introduced death on an industrial scale, still rages in Europe. The war reduces an entire generation of British men to dust in France, while the flu runs rampant back home.
Jonathan Reid, a famous surgeon and blood expert, returns from the front of World War I, already a vampire and with no recollection of how it happened. Upon seeing the scope of the pandemic, which historically was underreported during the months when it overlapped with the war, Reid pledges to help with an overtaxed hospital in London, while acclimating to his new undead nature and researching how that came to pass. Depending on the player’s whims, Reid either tries to protect the citizens of London, or treats them as his own personal stockpile of food.
After all that is established over the game’s first half hour, it splits itself between two main activities. As Dr. Reid you’ll interrogate various civilians throughout four districts of London in conversation scenes similar to Mass Effect or Life Is Strange. You’ll learn about the lives of these people, see the class divides and inequalities between neighborhoods, and face decisions that can make a noticeable impact on these communities. This is the closest Dontnod comes to revisiting familiar territory during Vampyr, recalling the conversations of Life Is Strange, although Dr. Reid can’t count the ability to rewind time as one of his newfound vampire skills.
Whenever you encounter a figure on the street who you can’t talk to, you’ll find yourself quickly embroiled in the game’s other major component. Combat resembles the precise, stamina-limited dance of a Souls game. You’ll have to juggle strikes, dodges and parries while keeping an eye on that stamina bar, which is always shorter than you want it to be. Early on you have to approach each fight carefully and methodically, as Dr. Reid doesn’t necessarily last long. In time, as you unlock new abilities and upgrade your weapons, you might find yourself rarely dying. Despite mechanical similarities between Vampyr’s combat and Bloodborne’s, Vampyr has little interest in punishing you. You don’t lose your experience points when you die, or respawn far away from where you fell. Death doesn’t have much impact on the undead—it’s a momentary pause that depletes your blood meter, which is used for Reid’s vampire skills, and is easily refillable by biting enemies or munching on rats.
You’re given some leeway on how you balance the combat and conversation. You don’t have to talk to every citizen if you don’t want to, although there are ramifications for remaining aloof. You can sprint throughout London, taking out the roving gangs of vampire hunters that set up throughout the city, and fighting through the swarms of savage, sub-vampiric monsters known as skals while barely talking to anybody. You’ll have a much richer experience if you do meet the locals, though, whether your plan is to help them or mesmerize them into being your next meal.
A key part of interacting with these people hinges on Reid’s occupation, and in many ways makes Vampyr feel like it should be called Doctor instead. The four districts all have a health meter, and that meter will drop for every citizen who dies or gets sick. Reid can make medications for various ailments at his work desk, and those let you treat the citizens’ illnesses. The longer they go untreated the worse their sickness gets, and the sicker a neighborhood is the less safe it’ll be. Every time Reid wakes up from one of his daytime sleeps there’s the chance that more citizens will have contracted something. That effectively forces you into making rounds, not just at the hospital that’s your initial base of operations but throughout the whole chunk of London that the game is set in; if you’re an especially cautious player, you’ll keep a constant supply of every medicine on your person, and go around to every district every night to heal anybody who’s started showing symptoms. Regularly sweeping through every area like this takes a lot of time, as there doesn’t appear to be any way to fast travel, but the decayed beauty of the game’s post-Victorian city never quite grows old.
You can also play as a monster, and devour innocent citizens as often as you’d like. I have no idea why anybody would choose to do that, though. The main incentive is that civilians provide far more experience points than fighting any of the game’s normal monsters, so you can become stronger faster by giving in to Reid’s hunger. There’s no shortage of ways to acquire experience points, though. Every time you heal somebody you’ll get a few points. Completing any mission or sidequest will earn you solid lumps of experience. Those points are used to unlock Reid’s passive and active vampire skills, from health boosts and stamina bar increases, to a variety of grotesque attacks fueled by Reid’s blood bar. I haven’t eaten a single human, and have had no problems leveling Reid up to a point where I rarely struggle in combat. Killing civilians might be a short cut, but between the permanent negative impact it can have on an area, and the moral lapse it requires to perform, it never feels like a realistic option.
A game as focused on conversation as Vampyr depends heavily on the quality of its writing and voice-acting. There are many awkwardly conceived or delivered lines, and some of the characters’ storylines don’t go anywhere interesting, but for the most part Vampyr boasts a consistently enjoyable, occasionally thoughtful script, with fine performances to match. Its cast of Londoners is a diverse cross-section of classes and cultures, each one with its own distinct story to tell. They’re not all equally compelling—you’ll probably want to sink your teeth into some of them as soon as you meet them, if only just to shut them up—but every introduction brings with it the possibility of a fascinating new story.
Its people aren’t nearly as visually pleasing as its environments, or as interesting to look at as they are to talk to. At times you can tell Vampyr isn’t the cutting-edge work of a massive, big budget studio just by looking at it. There’s also a good amount of recurring issues with the dialogue scenes, with odd blocking, distracting faces, and an unnatural flow to most conversations that feels as inhuman as any vampire. Anybody who demands their videogames to be technically perfect might struggle with Vampyr, but these are the kind of minor imperfections that often endear a cult game to its audience.
Vampyr has more in common with Remember Me, Dontnod’s first game, than Life Is Strange, its commercial and critical breakthrough. Like Remember Me, Vampyr is an ambitious, idiosyncratic oddity that doesn’t quite fit into any recognizable genre. It might not be as slick or smooth as the biggest action games or most popular franchises, but it has more personality and more spirit than most of them. It can feel faintly embarrassing one moment, and then do something unexpected and with surprising confidence just a few seconds later. There’s probably an equal chance that you’ll hate it or love it. In an industry that constantly obsesses on trends and often disrespects the taste and intelligence of its audience, Vampyr is as refreshing and anomalous as Dontnod’s other cult games.
Vampyr was developed by Dontnod Entertainment and published by Focus Home Interactive. Our review is based on the PlayStation 4 version. It is also available for Xbox One and PC.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.