I really hate it when vampire games and movies feel the need to include other supernatural creatures. Don’t get me wrong, the whole vampires vs. werewolves thing has a certain limited, “Freddy vs. Jason” appeal, but it always smacks to me of distrusting your source material. As if the idea of a bestial bloodsucker isn’t enough to really scare anyone: we’ve gotta throw in zombies and lycanthropes and the disembodied head of Ronald Reagan if we want to get a true reaction out of anybody!
This summarizes to me the overarching problem with Vampyr. Not in the literal sense, mind you, there aren’t werewolves in Dontnod’s new action-adventure game. Okay, actually there sort of are, but I’m really trying to make more of a metaphorical statement here.
In the process of trying to fit several mediocre pieces of gameplay into Vampyr instead of one or two solid ones, we come away with an over spiced dish. The “too many cooks” factor that’s on display in this new horror jaunt becomes quickly apparent, and it couldn’t have happened to a game that I was more looking forward to.
Released in June of this year, Vampyr is the latest game from indie darlings Dontnod Entertainment, probably best known for their story-centric Life Is Strange series. When I first heard about this one, I was all about it. The story centers around Dr. Jonathan Reid, a visionary doctor and recently embraced vampire. You’ve come home from the first World War to find London in the throes of the Spanish Influenza epidemic, and you must learn to curb or indulge your monstrous desire for blood while healing the sick and attempting to learn about your vampiric origins.
That is just about the coolest idea for a vampiric origin story. The parallels of disease and vampirism have been around since someone first pointed out, “Hey, this Bram Stoker story sure does sound a lot like the spread of syphilis to me.” It’s a bleak and gripping metaphor that has somehow escaped the more popular vampire stories of the modern era, and being able to play my way through a story like that sounded absolutely blissful to me. I was ready for a game about difficult choices with real consequences: the same way that Dontnod had done so beautifully with Life Is Strange.
And to that end, Vampyr does a pretty serviceable job. You travel the various districts of London, meeting the locals and learning about how their various stories all tie together. In true adventure game fashion you work your way through dialogue trees, find clues and hints scattered throughout the nearby hubs, and sew together a patchwork quilt of drama, heartbreak, and occasionally hope. At first glance, I mentally strapped myself in for a lovely story that I could literally sink my teeth into.
And then I got into the game’s combat system. And that’s when everything started to fall apart.
Yeah, I had heard that Vampyr was going to have a combat system long before it was released. And while I was a touch put off by the idea, it didn’t necessarily raise any red flags in my mind. Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines had plenty of combat without sacrificing the variety of stories and plotlines you could find yourself weaving through, after all. Combat’s fine: I like combat when it’s done well.
Vampyr’s combat is not done well.
There’s a part of me that feels like Dark Souls is to blame, here. Hear me out: Dark Souls is infamous for its use of heinous difficult and breathtaking atmosphere to tell a story without actually telling the story all that much. The internet is awash in gamers slowly unraveling the tiny breadcrumbs of plot that are able to be found throughout those three games, and that’s been a major factor in the franchise’s longevity. There’s a part of me that thinks someone at Dontnod said, “Well, what if we did some Dark Souls action while actually giving the player the plot line? We’ll be welcomed as liberators! A Vampyr flag waving proudly over the monitors of men and women all over the world!”
But there will be no flag waving, because Dontnod’s strategy of balancing story and combat just doesn’t work.
So here’s the conceit:
Like a lot of games since the turn of the millennium, Vampyr has something of a morality system. Essentially, you’ve got a large cast of characters, and as you get to know them, you have the option of draining them dry and gaining huge experience bonuses as a result. Those bonuses go toward a variety of awesome vampire powers that will make your trials by combat far easier. However, when you do kill off various members of society, you cut yourself off from different storylines and generally make the district that they live in a far worse place. And on the surface, that’s a pretty cool, challenging idea. But in a game, an idea is only as good as its implementation, and Vampyr’s combat sucks.
The combat in Vampyr feels like it was designed to be like Dark Souls by a person who had only watched footage of Dark Souls and not actually played it. Full disclosure: I’m not a Dark Souls guy. It is punishing on a level that I just do not have time for. But in my various attempts, I did have to admit that there was a certain grace to the controls: that the right amount of patience and attention paid would see most players through eventually. And that doesn’t even include the exceptionally beautiful and disturbing monsters and vistas you see throughout. It’s difficult, but it’s a fair level of difficult.
Vampyr’s difficulty, on the other hand, is as cheap as gas station pistachios.
The controls are sluggish, and you’re constantly being ganged up on and forced into corners where you’re basically blind. And if you die… sorry, that’s a silly thing for me to say: when you die, you respawn outside of the combat zone, your enemies return, bright eyed and bushy tailed, and your blood pool is reduced to basically nothing. Bear in mind that your blood meter is what you use to power all your excellent vampire abilities that are basically required to win the fight in the first place. It’s like the game is shaming you for losing a fight:
“Oh, you lost? Well, no problem: we’ll just respawn you and everyone else back into their original positions. And by the way? Fuck you.”
This is made worse by the fact that it feels like you’re constantly fighting. There are mindless vampires wandering the alleyways, and vampire hunters that can tell you’re a vampire at 20 feet everywhere else. Oh, and there’s no stealth mechanic. You’d think that would be a no-brainer. I’m a skulking creature of the night, right? Shouldn’t I be able to hide in the shadows?
Quoth the game:
Dontnod’s idea of difficulty appears to be just ramping up the levels of your common, every day enemies. It doesn’t matter how patient you are, grinding and wisely choosing abilities that will help you out in a fight: the moment you level up, and everyone else does, too. And it’s the damndest thing: they always appear to be just a few levels higher than you.
These are the frustrations that are meant to tempt you into killing a few named locals, gaining those experience bonuses, and having a little more leeway for murdering the hell out of your enemies.
Except I wasn’t tempted to play Vampyr for its sick combat. I wanted to play for its rich story and haunting atmosphere. Which, to be fair, it has in spades: it’s just all locked behind insanely frustrating combat zones. It’s like the obnoxious gatekeeper gamers of the world came together and designed an adventure game:
“Oh you wanna see the thrilling conclusion of this vibrant storyline? Git gud, scrub!”
Am I using that term correctly?
It’s so frustrating. I wanted to love Vampyr: I really did. And the worst part is, the storyline is great when you get to access it. It’s liking losing a bag of change in a pile of mud and trying to find them, and the winking metal of the coins is just making you more and more frustrated as you dig.
Vampyr expects you to be patient. It expects you to be patient with the slowly unraveling tale of a doctor and his curse. It expects you to be patient about the truckloads of lazily padded enemies that you’ll have to face in moments between that tale. And it expects you to be patient with its slow, methodical combat style. And in the end there’s only so much patient a person can offer.
I’m not suggesting that everyone’s going to dislike Vampyr as much as I do. I just don’t know who this game is for. It won’t satisfy action fans who are looking for complex and satisfying gameplay, and it’ll only frustrate story gamers, who maybe won’t care about killing their hundredth generic vampire hunter in a row. Between the storyline, the development of medicine, and the investigations that you get to go on, Vampyr has so much potential. But it’s weighed down by so much unnecessary padding that mobsters could use it for concrete shoes.