Vampire is one of the words that almost everyone instantly recognizes – and how couldn’t we, with so many cinematic, gaming and literary interpretations? And yet, the image of this legendary bloodsucking creature was almost completely distorted in the funhouse mirror of mass media and popular culture. They have been systematically romanticized until their origins and true aspect were made unrecognizable by uncountable literary and cinematic embellishments. True, no vampire movie, book, or game can escape the deplorable fact that vampires make their living by preying on the humans, but this is commonly disregarded by the audience as a minor flaw, something that we’re completely willing to forget to these alluring, tormented, gorgeous, and irresistibly charismatic anti-heroes.
As hinted by the Slavic form of the word, Vampyr, an action RPG by Dontnod Entertainment boldly attempts a different approach. The game tries to bring back vampires to their roots by peeling all the coatings of rose-tinted glamour until the ugly truth exposes them for what they truly are – predators and vultures in search of an easy prey. Of course, even in Vampyr, this process hasn’t been entirely completed, because you still have to make some sort of emotional attachment to the characters, but it’s indeed enough to make the protagonist Dr. Jonathan Reid stand out from the Angels, Edwards, and other bland modern creations.
The game takes place in 1918 London. It is the time of the dreaded Spanish Flu epidemic and the streets are littered with corpses. Dr. Jonathan Reid, a military surgeon and (what a coincidence) a renowned hematologist, returns from the war to his mother and sister. However, instead of the well-deserved rest from the horrors of the frontline, he finds the scenery of his native city much changed. The terror has settled on those once familiar streets, and not just the fear from the illness, but something much more sinister.
A word is out that something is preying on the innocent, and every morning corpses of new victims can be found completely drained of blood. As soon as he sets foot from the ship, Reid also becomes a prey of this unseen menace and ends up unceremoniously thrown into a mass tomb by a couple of pilferers. Of, course, that was not the end of his earthly plight, but just a beginning. He awakes changed – some harsh, insidious voice had settled into his brain, commanding him to do unspeakable things, and the only thing that he is capable of feeling is a terrible thirst. He drains the first innocent passer-by, which, by some dark twist of fate, turns out to be his sister. Wowing that he’ll revenge her and that he’ll find the person or, rather, thing responsible for this, he first must make sense of everything, constantly loathing this bloodthirsty atrocity he had become. War, disease, and now this vampiric menace had brought London to its knees. The city on the edge of ruin offers many opportunities for a fledgling vampire or a doctor in the mission of saving lives. It is up to you to determine who’ll get the advantage – medic or a vampire, benefactor or a fiend.
One of the most compelling aspects of the whole game is the fact that your potential victims aren’t just anonymous, faceless livestock you can drain without a hint of remorse, savoring their life-giving blood like some particularly fine vintage. They are represented as real persons with their individual stories, troubles, hopes, and dreams. During the dialogues with NPCs, you’ll have the opportunity to find out information (or citizen hints as they are called in the game) which will be useful in various situations during your main questline, but will also reveal many traits of their character. This will make your job much more difficult (at least in theory) because you’ll get to know them better on some very fundamental and emotional level.
On the other hand, one of the main selling points of the game is that virtually every character you encounter on your nocturnal trips across London can fall prey to your thirst. If you inspect them, the citizen details will be shown, including their blood quality, and the better the quality of their blood is the more XP you’ll get, which you can use to upgrade your numerous vampiric abilities. However, that’s only the beginning. On top of all that violent vampiric lore that’s at the core of the game, Vampyr will try to seduce the power-hungry players with an additional level of decadence and immorality. Just like some other historical doctors which we won’t name here, you’ll be able to abuse your position and your medical know-how to develop various serums that will improve the health of your patients, but also the quality of their blood. That will present you with the choice between becoming a genuine angel of death capable of consuming entire districts full of people (which you’ve first helped, thus improving their quality as the sustenance) and becoming an ultra-powerful vampire, or adopting more moderate route which will bring you closer to the ideal of kindness and morality. Of course, the ultimate temptation lies in the fact that the latter course will be much more difficult, so only players with extremely powerful moral compass will pursue the righteous path.
Of course, as an extremely moral person (at least at the beginning), Reid will constantly waver between the feeling of exhilaration with his newfound vampiric abilities, and utter revulsion. Naturally, there is no denying that they will prove extremely useful on his journey. The skill tree is divided into active and passive skills, and you’ll be able to choose between many different abilities, from aggressive skills which will develop your vampiric claws and produce a lethal spear made of blood, to defensive skills such as coagulation that will allow you to freeze your enemies. All those skills will drain your blood reserve, so for completely vampire-based playstyle, you’ll be forced to feed regularly.
Besides the combat, your supernatural gifts will aid you in many other ways: just like in Witcher 3, you’ll use your senses to follow the alluring, ruby red dots and blood splatters through the dirty London streets, hunting for the culprit who committed a series of murders. Or you’ll teleport in the gust of black mist from point to point, in the manner of Corvo from Dishonored. The combat system has been criticized as a bit awkward and even rather uninspiring, but with all the different combinations of melee, ranged weapons, and vampiric abilities, it is at least sufficiently satisfying to keep your attention.
It is evident that developers made considerable effort to make the setting as authentic as possible. To that end, they’ve conducted extensive research and even visited original London locations. Thanks to this meticulous approach, the graphics and atmosphere are just how you’d expect them to be – dark, grimy, pervaded with the sense of finality and hopelessness. The developers even went a bit overboard with all the corpses and mass tombs, because they made 20th-century capital look more like London from the time of the Great Plague of 1666. However, the fact that they’ve done it on purpose to emphasize the gothic vibe of the game, makes those inaccuracies completely justified in the context of a supernatural RPG game. Another feature that completes this disquieting image of London, reduced to a hunting ground for vampires and profiteers, is an excellent musical score. It ranges from unnerving sounds loosely structured in a semblance of melody, through sudden bursts of stringed passages that seem as if they are performed by some cursed cellist playing the arpeggios of eternal damnation, to powerful vocal passages.
So, considering all we’ve talked about so far, are vampires cool again? Well, that depends on your definition of cool. If you fancy well-manicured vampires, with fresh minty breaths, styled haircuts, and skin that sparkles in the daylight, then you probably won’t consider Jonathan Reid particularly cool. However, if you prefer a mature and dark storyline that returns to the roots of vampire lore, with a brooding main character, perpetually torn between the desire to do good and his bestial vampiric nature, then Reid is bound to become an epitome of coolness for you and Vampyre a modern classic of a genre.