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Dr. Acula: Vampyr review

Vampyr has some extremely lofty, ambitious central messages, almost in an attempt to step as far away as possible from Life is Strange’s idyllic teen ambience. At the core of it all, a gifted doctor stricken down with vampirism, still trying to heal the sick and protect London’s vulnerable lower class from a rampaging plague. To have the strength to protect, you must also prey on the very people that you’re trying to save. This is the main theme throughout, and it’s tied in directly with the difficulty/level-up system. If you want to play the tortured dark hero, you’re going to make your un-life a lot harder, but snack away on necks and you’ll be much better equipped to take on the challenges of a London rife with peril.

It’s a complex theme to tackle, and I have to applaud DONTNOD for giving it their all. More often than not, though, the story/dialogue massively overshoots the subject, which gives the decadent gothic atmosphere a distinct aroma of B-movie cheese. There’s a very fine line between camp and scary when you’re dealing with blood-sucking denizens of the night, and as your hero falls to his knees, reaches to the skies and literally cries “What have I become?!” it becomes more or less clear just where Vampyr lands. It wants to be this big, dark, complicated thing, but thanks to some slightly overcooked dialogue and an obsession with biting you in the arse for being a villain, it misses the mark. Yes, there are consequences for our actions, but sometimes bad people just do bad things and get away with it.

That’s not to say it isn’t fun – combat is a brilliant, bloody spectacle that has you flitting between enemies, slitting throats, employing a variety of tools and abilities to wreak havoc. Honestly, it captures the ‘feel’ of being a vampire far more effectively than the storytelling does. If you lean full into it as a hammy Dracula simulator you’ll probably get significantly more entertainment out of it – churning through foes and friends alike for tasty morsels with no concern for mortal morality, powering yourself up and becoming a veritable incarnation of darkness is an excellent ride. It’s when it stops to ponder and pontificate on Dr. Reid’s cursed dual existence as monster and healer that the pace begins to drag. Some of the substories and momentary interactions with side characters or passersby feel infinitely more real and difficult than the central plot, and it does throw up a sharp contrast against the bloated main event.

Various subsystems govern your time in London. Crafting, getting to know people so if you eventually feast on them there’s a bigger experience payoff, districts have their own levels of stability you can impact. Your vampire senses can highlight sicknesses in people you can create remedies for, and track blood trails like a Witcher in a slightly nicer coat. If you choose to engage with them you’ll be rewarded with more blood, better weapons, and depending on the path you take, a level of mustache-twirling evil appropriate for the setting. I tried sparing the innocent, I really did, but mesmerising weak-willed souls and drinking all their red stuff just ticks too many of my teenage goth kid’s leftover boxes. Part of me wishes DONTNOD just doubled down on making an Underworld style undead romp with less emphasis on splitting narrative paths and more on the Vampire: The Masquerade line of really indulging those bloodsucking fantasies. Right now, it’s caught somewhere between Lestat and Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I personally think the game would have benefited from picking a route and sticking to it.

When it’s not undercutting itself with contemplation, Vampyr is a great experience. Combat is varied and well-implemented, the abilities incrementally adding new flavour as you progress, and occasionally a character or event will come along that surprises you. London is recreated well, and there’s something really enjoyable about being a complete bastard from time to time. You might even find yourself coming up with your own code of conduct as you play, as there’s a lot of moral grey surrounding the cast of potential prey you encounter. You can be a literal bat-man, feeding on evildoers to free London from their criminal grasp, or pick off targets of opportunity as and when you need to. It’s possible to play it as a holier-than-thou doctor with a curse, but unless you’re a special kind of sadist, just not really that enjoyable, and that’s where one of Vampyr’s larger problems lie. For it to really work, both routes need to come with their own challenges, and other than some moral/story issues, being as evil as possible is significantly easier. It even says before you start the game up proper that it gets easier the more lives you take, and it would have been interesting to see the bad guy route come with more gameplay tradeoffs. Perhaps the more you feed, the harder it becomes for you to pass as human, whilst people who abstain from their dark gifts get increased resistance to sunlight or crosses.

How far will you go to save lives, Vampyr asks. Are you willing to become a monster to defeat a greater darkness? How much of your humanity can you lay on the line? For me, the answer was vague. The philosophical and moral themes it champions fall flat, but ripping apart vampire hunters with a toybox of sanguine power is a ton of fun, and that alone saves Vampyr from a forgettable fate.

THE TL;DR:

  • A fun, atmospheric game caught in a quagmire of existence contemplation that never reaches the lofty heights it aims for.
  • There are some excellent sidestories and choices – the ongoing world around you is often more interesting than the central conflicts.
  • It’s good to be bad – levelling through murder is an interesting concept but there’s very little incentive gameplay-wise to not be a jerk.
  • Ultimately, an entertaining experience, but certainly not the game it wants to be.

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