(Today’s review has been written by my friend, Lezmagi. If you would like to write a guest review for the site feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for your chance to be featured!)
Vampyr. I’d been waiting for this game ever since it was announced for one and only reason; Dontnod. Now what is it about this studio that I like so much? Their desire to give their best.
Dontnod is a small french studio (growing year after year yes but still rather small) that gave birth to ‘Remember Me’ and ‘Life is Strange’. The biggest qualities of both games were the atmosphere, strong morality, deep subjects (like humanity, grief, love, and so much more) and especially the writing.
You see to some the most important thing in a video game is the gameplay. To some it’s the visuals and to me it’s the writing. I can absorb and enjoy the absolute worst gameplay ever without a problem if the story is compelling and the writing flawless and Dontnod has a history of creating just that; games with not such great gameplay but with very interesting stories that toyed with the players’ feelings.
The strength of the studio is mainly the writing although they also have one of the best art teams I know giving birth to universes that make you feel like you’re involved in the universe of some kind of comic. With great character design, pretty colors and sometimes very poetic imagery.
So you get it now, the things to expect from Dontnod are good visuals, meh gameplay and great story. I knew in advance that Vampyr would have great visuals as even early designs were beautiful and I just knew that the gameplay would be… not the best, let’s just say that. However I was expecting a great story which was original and well built (with weird dialogue but hey they’re french don’t be too mean).
The result was a… strange surprise.
As expected the universe is perfect, it’s visually beautiful. Any screenshot you take is a piece of art. The OST is original and contributes in creating a very unique atmosphere (the musics are mainly just cello and piano and it truly is a delight). Tons of side quests that make you feel a bit more like some kind of police inspector than a doctor but it’s still pretty nice. All 62 citizens/NPC have different faces and their own personalities and background stories and it feels so good! The idea of the game is genuinely good.
In the game you are being given the chance to play as a good guy or a bad guy. If you decide you’re a big bad vampire you will kill citizens to get a lot of experience and get stronger and stronger, just like a real vampire would (I mean if they existed. Probably. Maybe…). Or you can decide that you’d rather play as a nice human doctor, condemned to be a vampire but refusing to take a life resulting in a game full of NPC interactions. The satisfaction of “being good” but also the horrible difficulty of the game. You get experience through talking to people, healing them and fighting of course but it is way quicker to “eat people”. If you go for that route you will most likely spend the entire game 10 levels lower than your enemies which will make your life hell on earth. Now why is that point in the good? Because it is logical. If you’re a vampire and you don’t feed yourself you can’t be strong, it’s obvious. That’s just how it works right? And it’s also a metaphor of our reality since, in life, it is always easier to be the “bad guy” with no morals or respect rather than being that one person who loves and tries to help everybody (I know lots of you will see a bit of yourselves in it, or so I hope, and you’ll understand why I love that Vampyr is all about that).
The fact that you have to interact with a lot of other characters to unlock new conversations and sometimes very important choices regarding this or that character is a very interesting concept. You have so many routes to take in this game. I don’t know how many runs you’d need to explore all the possibilities but if you go at least once “full good”, “full bad” and a mix of both, you will need at least three runs which is always good news. Healing peeps with opium is always satisfactory and the main character, Jonathan Reid, is pretty cool.
This part needs a bit of an introduction. I’s always longer to talk about the bad than the good so take that in account and do not judge this game too harshly based on what I am going to say. I will start by stating simple facts.
- No facial animations.
- Bad animations in general.
- Interesting fighting styles and abilities but it all lacks fluidity. Some kind of “infiltration” mode like the excellent Dishonored series would have been nice too.
- The voice acting is bad. Not awful but still pretty bad and characters’ dead eyes make it all worse (even if Johnny’s voice is pretty hot, I’m not gonna lie).
All of the above is “forgivable” to me. They are the kind of things that don’t keep me from enjoying a game (it just makes it feels like it was made ten years ago that’s all). Back when games were all pixels like good old Final Fantasy or The Legend of Zelda there was no dubbing, no pretty animations, basically games were relatively “ugly” compared to games that come out nowadays. What is, for me, the biggest flaw of this game and what disappointed me the most is actually the writing. Yes I said it and believe me, it was with a heavy heart.
First of all the scenario. It is cliche. Like… really cliche. Without spoiling anything all the things that could be expected to happen, happened. So many classical tropes have been reused here that for a moment I wondered if they had made a list and tried to put as many as they could in the same game. The not very original and expected love interest? Check. The dead guy that’s in fact not dead? Check. The bad guy who’s literally just a typical bad guy without background? Check. No really this was all very cliche. That being said, I can totally gulp down all the cliches you want without a hesitation if it is well served. The problem with Vampyr is that it simply wasn’t well served.
To give you an idea it felt like I’d been given a nice looking, delicious cake that I was asked to eat from the ground. It was edible for sure as long as you cut the part that touched the ground but still…
To start with the less bad points (mainly because it is a recurring issue in lots of RPGs) let’s talk about dialogue. Some of the conversations make no sense at all. Sometimes John would ask a question like “what’s gonna be the weather tomorrow?” and the NPC would answer “When I was six, I once swallowed a fly by accident.” It’s stupid but it is true. Also the fact that you are being given options in the conversation is not helping and I hope game devs would finally understand that this kind of crap is useless and only gives players the illusion of controlling the conversation. Indeed if the player has to select the options/subjects in a certain order for the conversation as a whole to make sense then… just don’t give people the choice and write the entire thing in one go. There’ll be more to read for the people find dialogue boring but at least it’ll make more sense.
Another common dialogue in RPG problem is the “easiness” of human relationships in general. How many times in video games have you read conversations like this :
Main Character : Tell me.
NPC : No.
Main character : Come on.
NPC : Okay, I will tell you everything about my life even though I’ve met you two seconds ago and you’re, all in all, a very suspicious and dangerous looking individual.
I mean come the hell on… If you really don’t have to go through “the convincing someone to tell you something” part of normal human conversation then make it so that the main character knows the NPC already. It’s not that hard especially in Vampyr since John has basically grown up and lived his whole life in this part of London.
But again this is a common issue in RPGs, including the good ones like The Witcher III. Now I’ll give that to you, writing casual and natural dialogue is hard in general but especially hard in a game set many years in the past. Where Vampyr is unforgivable however is that the game lasts at most 30 hours and the main focus of the entire game is dialogue and the relationships between characters.
Really Dontnod? That was bad. You need to hire a couple more dialogue writers and native speakers if possible because sometimes your english is genuinely weird (and I am french myself, which says a lot…).
Finally the one thing I can’t digest; the story-telling. The pace of the story is hugely rushes. Like… big time. Everything is so hardly believable it’s saddens me more than a dead baby bird at the foot of a tree. Here’s a not too spoilery example (it’s still a bit of a spoil though so if you don’t wanna know then don’t read the rest of this paragraph). On night one you meet a woman that you are weary of. Two nights later she’s your new love interest and two more nights you’re dating her and finally two nights further you’re practically married and being all lovey dovey like you’d been together for a couple hundred years.
To that I say no! And again it would’ve been easily fixable. Without spoiling more than he back of the game’s box, here’s how :
The story is that Jonathan Reid is a doctor coming back from the front in France after the end of WWI. As soon as he is back he gets bitten by a vampire, this kills him but he is also reborn as a vampire, and he is hungry. His dear sister, Mary, appears in front of him and (of course because it’s a trope) he kills her to feed himself. There he is found and kind of rescued by a doctor which hires him to investigate the recent epidemic raging in London. To be efficient in his researches, Dr Reid will have to speak with as many people as possible to learn more about the situation in London. The story actually should have been three years ago Jonathan gets attacked by a mysterious creature that turns him into a vampire. A few moments after the attack, he meets Mary, his dear sister, and kills her out of hunger. Unable to cope and accept the cruel reality he volunteers to be a doctor on the front in France during WW I. During the war he witnesses true horrors, humans behaving like monsters, helping him to come to term with his own condition and giving them the courage to go back to england after the war and finally face his mother and friends. Once he is back home, he contacts the nearest hospital to find a new job. He gets hired and is asked to investigate the recent epidemic raging in London. To be efficient in his researches. Dr Reid will have to speak with as many people as possible to learn more about the situation in London, facing old friends, neighbours and new people and learning how things have changed since he’d left.
This, my friends, would have fixed a lot of writing mistakes and would’ve allowed the pace of the story to be more believable. Simply that, changing Jonathan’s background, would’ve fixed this game for me. Now of course I have a lot more suggestions and lots of ideas on how to change everything wrong with this game but it would require me detailing most of the plot and spoiling everything.
This game isn’t bad, not at all. It was entertaining which is what most people ask for from a video game. The plot, while full of cliches, is still enjoyable including a few very welcome plot twists. Now I’ll give it to you, I’ve seen better endings (I think they were on meth when they wrote it. Or maybe I just can’t accept too many fantasy elements). The universe is definitely worth exploring and the atmosphere is truly amazing. If you’d like to feel like a sexy version of a vampire and Doctor Sherlock Holmes in a wonderfully reproduced 20th century bloody and dirty London then this game is definitely for you guys.
As for myself, I will wait impatiently for Dontnod’s next games, Life is Strange 2 and Twin Mirrors, for which trailers have just been released.