Vampyr video game review (spoilers)

A few days ago I finished my first play-through of Vampyr on the PS4 and I think it more or less…maintains the standard of Dontnod’s previous game Life Is Strange.  That comparison might be a little difficult for me to make since I’ve only played through Life Is Strange once and I’ve already made some progress into a second play-through of Vampyr.  That, in and of itself, speaks to one significant difference between those two games: Vampyr invites repeated play-throughs more than Life Is Strange.  At least for me.  Thing is, Life Is Strange is so heavily narrative driven that I got way too attached to my choices and what my “head cannon” of the story is.  I fully intend to replay it at some point, but it ended in a way that just seemed too “neat” to be tampered with.  Part of this is established  by how linear it is as well as the attempt at flowing like a true-to-life experience, like a film.

Not that Vampyr isn’t narrative driven and carefully written (carefully written a lot of the time, anyway).  It’s just that the player character and the setting are more conducive to exploring and experimenting.  Life Is Strange revolves around a girl in her late teens to early twenties who, for the most part, only has the resources and perspective of an American minor.  The appearance of Maxine Caulfield’s time travel ability creates a stark point of departure where she has to navigate the possibilities of her new power with her pre-existing frame of reference.  This divided perspective rooted in a single character (without getting into the Before The Storm stuff) orients everything about our view of the story and it’s pacing.  The scope of Life Is Strange revolves, very closely, around Max’s personal point of view, which means you are not going to be easily tempted to step off the beaten path.

The way in which Vampyr differs from this has to do with some mechanics that are rather common in other genres, like a map showing different accessible regions.  The leveling mechanic and combat add an action-RPG touch that at times leads you to play the game like an action-RPG, with the attendant exploration.  Your player character being a vampire also puts some emphasis on combat which also makes Vampyr feel a little more like a “normal” video game (although you do not need to feed on non-combatant civilians to finish the game…not if you don’t want to, anyway).

What also adds to the relative openness of Vampyr‘s gameplay is it’s sense of place.  Vampyr is set in London in the year 1918 and Dontnod worked hard to make this very immersive.  The character animations are some of the best I’ve seen in recent history with a few very memorable instances of subtlety in body language and facial expression.  Particularly with the characters Edgar Swansea and Elisabeth Ashbury.

Right now, during my second play-through, I love watching the exchange between Johnathan Reid (our player character) and Swansea in the boat at the beginning.  Swansea’s body language is great at establishing both his familiarity with the world of vampires and the supernatural and also a certain obtuse enthusiasm.  Swansea never get’s uncomfortably awkward but there are a few moments where he seems like he’s about to.  In the boat, a few of his gesticulations almost look as if he’s tempted to touch Johnathan, like he’s barely stopping himself from being overwhelmed by curiosity and excitement.  Later in the game you have the chance to make some decisions that lead to him being turned into a vampire and his facial animations shine well after that point as well as his voice acting.

If you choose to explore this possibility, Johnathan Reid transforms him as a punishment for inadvertently unleashing a version of the Spanish flu that also transforms its victims into extremely impulsive and dangerous undead creatures called Skals.  After his transformation, though, Swansea either seems totally dismissive of it being a punishment or unaware of it.  If Johnathan brings it up, Swansea will happily assure you that hearing your thoughts in his head occasionally is quite punishing (in this game, fledgling vampires sometimes hear the thoughts of their makers).  He fantasizes out loud about conducting radical experiments on his vampiric body that a human could not survive through.  If Johnathan asks him if he learned anything from his prior mistake, Swansea will say that he promises to never do any experiments on mortals.  He adds “See that?  I said mortals.”  I just love how that reflects on his grasp on the conversation’s tone and how his casual and light-hearted word choice contrasts with Johnathan.

Elisabeth Ashbury, a fellow vampire, is another highlight.  She may be the only video game character I’ve ever seen who, through facial expression, body language and voice acting, pulls off a kind of stoicism that reveals tenderness by implication.  It’s possible for a budding romance to take off between Elisabeth and Johnathan.  Here, Elisabeth comes as close as she ever does to being effusive with warmth and it’s pulled off largely by what is unsaid and what is said timidly.  I also gotta say the chemistry between these two characters is a joy to watch.  During my first play-through, I got an ending that was kind to the couple, and I loved the emotional pay-off.

Also, when I said “only”, I meant the only one to pull off these things largely through character animation and voice acting.  Emotional momentum can happen a million other ways in video games and I feel like text-based RPGs and action-RPGs are sometimes unfortunately overlooked here.  For me, reading dialogue while watching character animations can be very persuasive and when Final Fantasy X used voice acting for the first time in the history of the franchise, I wondered if maybe they weren’t doing it simply because they were expected to.  I also remember playing Diablo II for the first time as a preteen and that game had some truly bad voice acting at certain parts.  The American accents kind of got to me.  I mean…is the spoken language of Diablo‘s world meant to resemble any particular real world language?  Probably not, but the American accents messed with my suspension of disbelief.  And a review of Vampyr probably wouldn’t be the place to get into the ups and downs of voice acting in the various Silent Hill games.

So yeah, I don’t think photo-realism and voice acting are necessary to create emotional investment in the story of a video game, but Elisabeth Ashbury is probably my favorite implementation of convincingly dramatic character modeling and voice acting.  Rumor has it that a TV adaptation of Vampyr may be in the works and I think the casting of Elisabeth is something that it could potentially stand or fall on.

There are also some interesting elaborations on vampire lore in this game.  I already mentioned Skals, one of a few different species of vampires.  The Disaster phenomena, aka Dus Astros, which figures largely in the later parts of the game, was intriguing…at times.  Maybe it’s because I’m an Anne Rice fan who has read everything she wrote to date about the spirit Amel, but when it was revealed that the Red Queen and Myrddin are spirits that live in all vampires, I thought the writers could probably do something a little more creative than what they ended up doing.

It did have some interesting nuts and bolts, though.  Myrddin has created numerous vampires including both Johnathan Reid and William Marshall.  The Disaster appears periodically throughout history and typically begins life as an ordinary female vampire.  What the Disaster does, then, is cause a giant regional disaster (*giggles*) like a plague and feed on the pain and suffering.  Anyway, William Marshall, the knight from British history, has dedicated his existence largely to fighting the Disaster when she appears.  At the end of the game you have the chance to ask William a few different questions.  If you ask him who the first Disaster was, he says he cannot say it in front of Elisabeth, who is his fledgling and surrogate daughter.  Off hand, I can’t think of any obvious reason why he shouldn’t talk about it pertaining to Elisabeth herself, so perhaps it has to do with him.

This reflects interestingly on an unexplained plot hole.  During my play-throughs thus far, I have come across three different animated sequences that almost resemble comic book art.  One is after fighting and killing Johnathan’s sister, Mary, whom he turned into a vampire on accident, another is after fighting the Disaster in the sewers beneath London and the last one covers the ending.  Mary’s accidental transformation is a plot hole because Elisabeth explains to you clearly how vampires are created and it’s through a human drinking a vampire’s blood.  During Mary’s death, there is no visible opportunity for her to drink any of Johnathan’s blood.  If Elisabeth is to be trusted, Mary’s transformation has no obvious explanation.  Now this could be a simple oversight on the part of the writers, but this brings us to the placement of the animated cut-scenes.  The two latter ones, after the Disaster fight and at the end, are very specifically related to huge plot points.

So.  William Marshall cannot bring himself to talk about the first Disaster he ever fought.  What other vampires has the spirit Myrddin created other than Johnathan Reid and William Marshall?  King Arthur is one of them.  King Arthur died at the hands of his son, whom he sired with his sister, Morgan LeFay.  As far as I’ve dug into the lore of this game, King Arthur, William and Johnathan are the only three that are specifically singled out as being the progeny of Myrrdin.  So according to myth, King Arthur’s sister played a huge role in his downfall, William Marshall will not talk about the first Disaster he fought, and Johnathan’s sister became a vampire for no reason that reconciles with anything else.  It almost seems like, whenever Myrddin creates a male vampire, that male will soon make a female, but not through the ordinary blood exchange (remember that part in the myth about Arthur impregnating his sister?), and that female seems disposed to become a Disaster.

If this theory is true, then obviously Johnathan killed his sister before she could mature into a Disaster, but look at how quickly she develops as a vampire as opposed to Johnathan.  Many agree that the fight with Mary Reid is the first truly hard one in the game.  Not only is Mary more emotionally explosive but her destructive supernatural abilities far outstrip Johnathan’s.  She seems to be maturing far quicker than normal and is far more powerful than a typical fledgling.

This theory also makes sense since Myrddin and the Red Queen seem to be two halves of the same whole.  An avatar of one may necessarily call into existence the avatar of the other.  If a Disaster appeared in the time of King Arthur, potentially in the form of Morgan LeFay, that would even help explain the nationalist loyalty that many vampires feel.  The Ascalon Club, an exclusive shadow-government of vampires and humans, is dedicated to the protection of England.  Myrddin says a few times that he is committed to keeping England safe.  This protective sense of possession would make sense if, whenever a legendary English male figure became a vampire, a Disaster would also appear.

This also helps to explain William Marshall’s somewhat crazed passion for finding and stopping Disasters, up to and including chaining himself up forever in a castle, since, while he did not exchange blood with a Disaster prior to her creation, he did get bitten by her during the fight.  This infection is known colloquially as the blood of hate, and he even spread it to Elisabeth once.  During that time, Elisabeth was a blood-thirsty monster until William concocted a sort of antidote.  Elisabeth was cured of the mental frenzy of a Disaster, but the blood of hate remained alive in her body, meaning that if she ever tries to make more vampires, they would become Disasters.  As Johnathan puts it, she is a “healthy carrier”, like Typhoid Mary.  (and yes, the appearance of the current Disaster has to do with Edgar Swansea doing experiments with her blood)

Then again, the mysterious creation and maturation of Mary Reid could be a simple oversight.  It’s not like there are not moments of laxity with establishing causal links in Vampyr.  Now and then, the next elaboration in the story line may either be unexplained or obliquely explained.  At one point, Johnathan’s objective is to help the Ascalon Club in their fight against Priwen (vampire hunters), which I think happens after the fight with Doris Fletcher.  Before this, there is no reason to think that the Guard of Priwen and the Ascalon Club are in a state of open war.  You even have an earlier opportunity to talk to Lord Redgrave, the leader of the Ascalon Club, about things like this and he makes no mention of it.  Then, the closer you get to the Ascalon Club, Johnathan’s mental narration tells us he plans to take advantage of the protection the club offers it’s members while investigating further.  This is a little messy, to say the least.  The next lucid story objective appears before we have time to really dwell on the messiness, but it is still messy.

There are also a few moments where the next story direction comes from an in-game document you pick off of a corpse but, unless you take the time to actually read the paper, you are not given a clear reason why the next objective appears.  I could see how one could argue that expecting the player to read the in-game notes and stuff is perfectly reasonable, but it still creates this odd possibility that there is a way to play parts of the game where you don’t know how or why Johnathan knows something.  This oversight stands out, especially since Life Is Strange, Dontnod’s previous game, was so tightly written.  As I said at some length earlier, though, Vampyr is intentionally open-ended and exploratory, so perhaps a little messiness is to be expected when coming off of a prior game that was quite linear.  These little oversights are no less of an eyesore in the writing, though.

The gameplay, though, is pretty solid throughout.  The combat is what I would call tough but fair, which I think bears some mention since some other reviewers have brought up the combat system as a weakness.  I liked the combat since it encourages you to try a few things, evaluate how their working, then go back in, and the aggressive AI makes this tense as well as engaging.  Over time you start to notice certain patterns, like you may, occasionally, catch an aggressive Skal alone and off guard, but you will never catch one of the Guard of Priwen alone, even if you have them off guard.  Renegade Ekons (in-game jargon for the species of vampire that you and Elisabeth belong to) are often alone, but also have an annoying tendency to be a little close to Skals who might decide to enter the fray at painfully vulnerable moments.  Combat in Vampyr teaches you to look for circumstantial advantages and disadvantages before and also during a fight.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this game.  Weaknesses in the writing notwithstanding, it continues Dontnod’s trademark of strong, narrative driven games while also taking some substantial steps in a new direction.

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