I Finished Vampyr Without Biting Anyone and Role-Played as a Hangry Doctor

WTF is Vampyr?

Vampyr is an action RPG released by the same studio that made Life is Strange. Players take on the role of Dr. Jonathan Reid, a World War I veteran who’s attacked and turned into a vampire upon his return to England. Jonathan soon takes up residence in Pembroke Hospital, where he begins to suspect that the flu pandemic ravaging London is more than meets the eye. As he attempts to solve this mystery, and other mysteries related to his sudden rise from the dead, he’s chased through quarantined streets by vampire hunters and misshapen monsters who all want to kill him.

Jonathan also faces a dilemma: He really, really wants to drink the blood of innocents – his patients, coworkers, and random strangers he meets on the street – but he’s also a doctor who wants to save London from the pandemic, and eating people goes against, basically, all of his oaths.

In gameplay terms, this means players have to decide which (if any) of 65 named citizens Jonathan’s going to bite, in addition to all the other RP problems thrown his way. 90% of the game is fighting your way from point A to point B as Jonathan attempts to solve a bunch of mysteries, 2% is pressured moral choices, and 8% is spying on the citizens, because learning all their secrets makes them tastier somehow.

The part where I didn’t bite anyone

It started as an accident and ended as a stunt. Because you can’t reload to undo your decisions in Vampyr (the game has an autosave function but no manual save and load feature), I wanted to be extra sure that the people I killed didn’t have a quest for me before I killed them, so I dragged my feet on biting anyone. When I realized I was about a third of the way through the game and everyone was still alive, I decided to see if I could keep it going.

I suspected there would be a Steam achievement in it for me (which there was), but it also turned out that not killing the citizens is the stealth path toward the game’s most uplifting ending. It was really gratifying to approach the end and have the characters start to acknowledge out loud that Jonathan hadn’t killed anyone since the prologue, but I also felt like I missed out on some of the fun. (On my second play, I killed some people just to see what happened, and it was a lot more interesting.)

Unique features of the game when you don’t kill anyone

  • You’re playing on the hardest difficulty setting. The main advantage to killing the citizens is that it gives you a huge XP boost. It’s actually the primary way of getting XP in the game. That means that, if you don’t kill any of the citizens, you’re always 5-10 levels below where you ideally would be, and you’re getting killed in two hits by every other boss you fight.
  • Because you missed out on most of the XP you would have gotten from role-playing as a powerful vampire, you have to role-play as a doctor more and run around the city delivering medicine to people and helping them with random tasks. It took me 40 hours to finish the game that way and, toward the end, I got frustrated and started running past most of the enemies I met instead of fighting them, just to get it over with.
  • Because you can’t level up as easily or as often, you have to deal with enemies who kick your ass by doing other stuff, like changing up your weapons, or modifying your attack strategy. I found that that kept things a little more interesting than they’d normally be. I tend to land on one combat strategy and one weapon set that works for me and stick with it – this time, I didn’t have that option, and I needed to actually learn what the full range of weapons capabilities and special skills were.
  • You can really see how little impact your decisions have on other characters. For me, this is a hole in the game design, but it only becomes obvious when you take the zero kills path. The characters are often grouped together into pairs and triads, with some type of conflict between them. If you kill part of the pair or triad, it forces a resolution to the conflict, for good or ill. If you choose not to do that – which, again, because it effects the ending and the story, is also a valid choice you can make, in this choice-and-consequence game – the outcome is that the characters stay locked in their original holding pattern forever. The one who says he’s going to murder someone never murders someone. The doctors who can’t agree on a treatment for their patient never treat the patient. The pair waiting for Godot never find him (though I guess that part makes sense). I was expecting, and would have liked to get, some kind of update at the end of the game letting me know how things turned out, even if the consequences didn’t play out in real time – but there’s nothing. Everyone just freezes in starting position and that’s how it stays.

I had fun, but I also thought that Jonathan’s motivation and the player’s motivation didn’t always map onto each other that well

For example: players are motivated to drink the blood of the citizens because the blood of the citizens gives them an XP boost that the blood of enemy combatants does not (drinking the blood of enemy combatants fills Jonathan’s blood gauge, which is a completely separate mechanic). However, Jonathan doesn’t know about XP boosts, so his motivation to drink blood is a vampire’s thirst… which should theoretically be quenched just as well whether he drinks from the citizens or from the combatants.

That sounds like a small thing to get annoyed by, but the question of how many people Jonathan has killed becomes a major point of discussion between the main characters as the story goes on. So, when they started praising me for my restraint in not killing the citizens during my first play, I partly thought, “Yeah, as a player, that made the game a lot more difficult for me,” and partly thought, “Jonathan just killed, like, fifty-five people on the path from his lab to your house. Why wouldn’t he be able to restrain himself around the citizens? It’s not like there’s any shortage of blood.”

Similarly, players are motivated to spy on all the NPCs and learn their secrets because secrets increase the amount of XP you get from killing them (and also you get a small XP boost from learning the secrets themselves, if you’re on the no-kill trajectory). Jonathan is motivated to spy on them and learn their secrets… for unspecified reasons that we’re left to interpret on our own.

Players are motivated to get Jonathan in a romantic I-hate-you-you-hate-me relationship with the strangely handsome Irish vampire hunter who’s threatened to end his life, and Jonathan’s motivated to ignore that chemistry so he can have a tepid, upper-class courtship with a lady vampire who’s boring.

The list goes on.

Combat is most of the game, but it’s nothing too special

It took me a long time to get the rhythm of combat in Vampyr and to figure out the little eccentricities of how it worked. Certain weapons can be upgraded to draw blood from enemies, feeding it directly to Jonathan (how that works, I don’t know), others can be upgraded to break an enemy’s guard, leading to a “stunned” effect that lets Jonathan drink from them. Jonathan’s hand-to-hand combat moves, including his dodge, depend on a stamina gauge; his vampire moves depend on his blood gauge. It’s impossible to hit anything during a swarm attack unless you use the target-lock feature to take enemies out one at a time.

The very most miserable experience in Vampyr is trying to fight in an enclosed space – something that you don’t have to do often, but that does come up in the game’s first chapter. The camera goes wonky, you get stuck on the scenery, the targeting indicator sometimes stops working, and you basically just have to spin and slash and hope you hit something.

I also ran into an issue where – at least with my Xbox controller – the quick-use items I equipped were mapped to different keys than the menu said they would be.

That said, there are some good features. The levelling system works differently in Vampyr than it does in any other game I’ve played. Instead of levelling up automatically, once you reach a certain XP threshold, you have to wait until you have enough XP to level up and then deliberately choose a time to do it, by letting Jonathan “sleep” until the following night. The complication is that the story progresses while you sleep. Citizens who are sick get sicker. Citizens who are healthy can get sick. And, if you made any major decisions while you were awake, the consequences of those decisions will come home to roost while you’re asleep.

In other words, there are situations where you might really, really want to level up, but have to delay while you run around and take care of some things, or else get to a location far away from a sector that might blow up as a result of your mistakes.

Levelling up is also tied to your skill tree, where the only way to convert XP into a higher level is to spend it on skill upgrades. The skill upgrades are pretty decent, and the game gives you a lot of control over the build you want to suit your combat style, and even the keys specific vampire skills are mapped onto. But forcing you to spend to level up also introduces a cool mechanic where you can’t bank skill points indefinitely – sometimes you have to split the difference by finding something “cheap” you can upgrade so that you gain another level.

Taken all together, I didn’t hate the combat, and my second play went a thousand times more smoothly, once I’d figured out WTF was going on, but it’s not the kind of game where I was excited to find new enemies to fight (as I might be in an Arkham or a Witcher game). It’s the kind of game where, after a certain point, I was disappointed when I walked around the corner and had to kill the same four dudes again, because it was making my three-thousandth trip across the city take fifty seconds longer than it had to.

The characterization is richer than I thought it was at first, but still not as rich as I wanted it to be

I finished my first play thinking that most of the characters were shallow and boring, and it turned out that was because I didn’t understand the game mechanics needed to unlock their juiciest secrets.

Midway through my second play, I realized that the game designers were expecting me to have my vampire senses on a lot more often than I did. That realization came partly because, with everything dark and muddy-looking, using your vampire senses is the number one most effective way to separate the characters from the background, and partly because it’s the only way to tell when a citizen’s doing something dramatic that you can go spy on. Spying on dramatic moments usually reveals the most important information about citizens – facts that are a lot more interesting, or beautiful, or troubling than what you’d learn about them otherwise. And, because they’re conveyed through cutscenes, they also humanize the characters a lot.

On top of that, there’s a special class of citizen called “pillars” who more or less serve as a lynchpin in their communities. Most of the game’s chapters involve learning about one of the pillars and then being faced with a heavy choice about how to handle the complicated situation the pillar’s been placed in. Sometimes, extra options are available to you if you’ve investigated the pillars thoroughly enough, but those options might not always lead to better results. What’s really confusing, though, is that the way you investigate the pillars is completely different from the way you investigate other citizens. So, on my first play, I missed almost every hint about the pillars, didn’t know most of their back story, and had very limited choices.

On my second play, I was a lot more successful in gathering information about the characters, and their stories seemed a lot richer to me. The character-driven parts of the game are telling a complex story about trauma, and presenting situations of abuse, homophobia, racism, sexism, and other delicate topics with an admirable amount of sensitivity and compassion. Jonathan’s own story begins with a horrific sequence where he wakes up in a mass grave, accidentally kills the sister who was searching for him, and fails in a suicide attempt. Many of the characters he meets are haunted by something that happened during the war, feeling the effects of extreme poverty, or otherwise fighting their own kinds of demons in their own way.

As you learn their stories and try to decide whom to kill, the game develops a really interesting, complicated theme about suffering and deserving that supersedes the simple question of whether it’s right or wrong to drink somebody’s blood.

However, that really good, rich, interesting, complicated content still makes up only a tiny fraction of the total content of the game, which leans heavily toward the uncomplicated killing of an endless stream of unnamed enemies whose lives apparently don’t matter. It also presents a scenario where – outside of a handful of special decisions – the only action you can take to improve anyone’s circumstance is to murder somebody. It’s a very blunt solution to extremely nuanced problems, and it sets up a false dilemma where your only choices are to do the most extreme possible thing or else do nothing at all.

In conclusion, I enjoyed this game but it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be

When I think “role play as a vampire,” I think “seduction.” I think “tragic, melancholy romance.” I think, “bite people as a substitute for having sex with them, because that’s the biggest staple of vampire lore.” I don’t think “run around for 40 hours hitting people with a club, then give a speech about why what you did was righteous.”

When I think “get to know the citizens and decide which of them will live or die” I think that letting them live will have some consequence. I think that there will be some believable reason for why I need to kill them in order to survive. I think their stories will evolve from night to night, and that the situation will constantly change around me. I don’t think “spy on them while they repeat the same three conversations and then, for almost purely mercenary reasons, figure out whose death will have the least negative impact on your game.”

Vampyr did not deliver many of the things I thought it would. However, I wasn’t mad at it for what it did deliver. It’s a different game than I thought I was getting, but it’s not a bad game. That said, the only thing that really sets it apart is the get-to-know-and-kill-the-friendlies concept along with its themes about suffering and trauma. I wish that stuff had taken center stage instead of a combat system that’s not really all that amazing.

Image: Vampyr; Dontnod Entertainment | June 29, 2018