Art by Empanada.
Some of the biggest issues plaguing game development today have to do with content and general design. Often, studios and publishers set out to make something wonderful, but get bogged down in the minutia of creation, so much so that the grandiose goal they’ve set their eyes on is just too far out of reach.
The result is often disappointment.
I ran into this recently when I played through Dontnod’s Vampyr. From the first moment it was announced, I had high hopes for the game. It promised to allow players the opportunity to live the life of a vampire—from the gritty reality of having to feed on unsuspecting victims, to the intricacies of vampiric politics and society, and more.
It all sounded so perfect.
Down the Rabbit Hole
Instead of a choose-your-own adventure, Vampyr forces the player into the shoes of Dr. Jonathan Reid, an ex-military doctor and model English gentleman. Though already turned at the beginning of the game, he is unaware of his predicament, but the game wastes no time informing the good doctor about what fate has befallen him. Or piling heaps of help on him despite his nature.
The result is a story that reintegrates the post-dead doctor back into a London that is crumbling due to the Spanish Flu epidemic that ravaged all of Europe during WWI. From there, the on-rails story barely offers enough in the way of thrills or intrigue to keep the player engaged.
And it doesn’t help that the game wraps up with a last-minute information dump designed to fill in a litany of blanks left unaddressed during the main campaign.
A World Full of Emptiness
If story issues weren’t bad enough, London adds to the mundane. Dontnod managed to build a city that’s so monochrome, and uninteresting, that even after dozens of hours of play, it is still easy to get lost wandering from one area to another without constantly referring to the map.
Adding to the confusion is a Dark Souls-esque system where the player must open doors to make alternate paths through London available. These paths make travel from one area to another faster (which is a must since there is no fast travel), but there is often no way of easily telling how to get to the other side of a locked doorway to open it. And many times, I found myself facing locked areas that wouldn’t open no matter what direction I approached them from.
Even then, having to run the same paths from point a to b many times over embodied the type of tedium that turns off many players.
And even that feeds into other issues with the game.
Enemies and Experience
Probably the most frustrating issue with Vampyr comes in the form of enemies and experience (not combat . . . more on that later).
The uninspiring streets of London are filled with only a handful of enemy types—without counting reskins. I can probably count the total number of enemies in the game on both hands—that respawn after certain periods of time. The issue with this system is that experience for combat is doled out sparingly.
Only a pittance of experience is awarded for the first time the player kills an enemy, but subsequent kills only offer experience if the enemy is more powerful. Even then, whether experience is awarded feels hit or miss.
This means that most of the game’s enemies wind up acting like an obstacle than any type of worthwhile challenge. And as the player progresses in level, running past enemies, rather than fighting them, becomes the rule.
This begs a very important question: how, then, is experience gained?
A Right Step in the Wrong Direction
Every so often, a studio will develop a system that’s brilliant in both design and implementation. With GTA V, it was heists, with the only downside being how few there were in the main campaign. And with Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, the Nemesis system produced countless challenges for the player to overcome in an organic way that was a wonder to behold.
Vampyr’s social system strives to create a similar experience, but misses the mark by a mile.
What is presented as a dynamic, ever-shifting, battle for London’s well being, is soon discovered to be a never-ending chain of busy work that has the player constantly asking “how much will the borough suffer if I eat another NPC?”
I could go into more detail, but all you need to know is that discovering inconsequential bits of information about NPCs increases the amount of experience you get for devouring them. And eating NPCs, it turns out, is the only real way to stay properly leveled as the story progresses.
There are other ways of gaining experience, but side quests and other tasks don’t even come close to offering the amount of experience an NPC provides—even before you’ve uncovered anything about them.
But wait, there’s more . . .
As the game progresses, enemies gain levels by leaps and bounds. On more than one occasion, I found myself five (or more) levels under the weakest enemies. This makes them difficult to fight at best, and nigh impossible at worst.
On multiple occasions, my only recourse to forge through the story was to go forth and feed. For the mid-game boss, I had to eat three NPCs. And to get even close to the final Boss’ level, I had to eat four more (and this doesn’t take into account the scattered NPCs I ate at other points in the story).
***If you want to avoid possible spoilers, skip this next section***
Probably the worst part about the game is that it constantly pushes you to feed on NPCs. Apart from overleveling enemies, it occasionally reminds you (through dialogue) of your need to feed. And there are constant tooltips on loading screens reminding the player to eat NPCs if you are having a tough time.
The end result is a huge slap in the face at the end of the game where you are given the “bad” ending if you fed on even one NPC. The good ending, reserved for those chaste players who killed not a soul, is inconceivable to me. I’m sure it’s possible, but I have no idea how, considering the difficulty of combat.
Even so, combat in Vampyr is likely one of the most refreshing things about the game. At the beginning, it is challenging because every physical action in combat uses stamina (and the starting bar is tiny), but there are more than enough upgrades and powers available to sate even the most restless soul. Pair with that a decent number of weapons and weapon upgrades, and combat in the second half of the game is actually . . . fun.
As an added bonus, players are even given the option to respec their powers as many times as they like, with the first time being free. Subsequent respecs, however, cost xp.
What’s in a Game?
Disappointment drove me to write this review because, buried in this disaster of a game, there are enough fragments of brilliance to see what could have been.
When Dontnod announced that they were going to delay release for six months for additional development, I thought nothing of it. Maybe they were planning on making a good game better?
But, alas, that wasn’t the case.
The reality of the situation is that Vampyr is a game that was dead on arrival. While I don’t necessarily regret the 30 hours I put into it, I can’t say that it was worth the price I paid for it. Or that I got as many smiles-per-hour out of it as I would have liked.
So, I guess you could say it sucked the fun out of Vampires?