It’s one of the medium’s great failings that we’ve never had a truly brilliant vampire game.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines was an ambitious RPG befallen by gameplay as ungainly as its title. The first Bloodrayne drowned moments of vindictive glee in a hack-and-slash latrine of endless blood and body parts. The oft-forgotten Darkwatch transfused the first-person shooter with the undead Old West (of a similar strain to Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque’s excellent comic, American Vampire), but its genre wasn’t up to task – vampires aren’t to be boxed in with the corridors of a shooting gallery.
No, now is the time: this, the age of the open-world. Vampirism is, after all, an exquisite sandbox power fantasy – the ultimate rejection of bedtime in every child’s dreams, and a gleeful chance to misbehave. Its dark joys are perfectly encapsulated in the best tagline in cinema history: “Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It’s fun to be a vampire.” Well, it would be, if only someone would give us the chance.
Someone almost has. From Dontnod Entertainment – makers of the much-loved Life is Strange and the love-starved Remember Me (most don’t) – comes Vampyr, an action-RPG with a semi-open world. Damn, so close! Set during the 1918 flu pandemic, you play as Jonathan Reid, a celebrated doctor – specialist in blood transfusions, naturally – back from the Great War and, more alarmingly, back from the dead. Waking in a mass grave in London, with two puncture wounds on his neck, Reid vows to use his medical expertise to combat his curse, and the one afflicting the city.
Even in the throes of influenza, this is a place Horace Walpole would have said had ‘gloomth’: that delectable mix of warmth and gloom, of yellowy lamplight spread over the cobblestones like butter, set against the tenebrous loomings of London beyond the bridge. One of Vampyr’s singular joys is to just take Reid walking, in his flapping shroud of a greatcoat, his collar upturned like Sherlock Holmes or The Dark Knight in Gotham by Gaslight. Dontnod has proven itself a master of place, from the filmy light of a campus morning in Oregon, to the dirty drizzle and neon of Neo-Paris; now, its dream of London is pulled perfectly from the foggy moonlight of a penny dreadful.
If only it felt as good as it looks. “I feel like a child learning the limits of my body,” says Reid, newly anointed vamp. It’s a feeling you’ll be all too familiar with, and, sadly, one that doesn’t dissipate. Reid’s movements are maladroit, his jerking jog often muddying the framerate, and sometimes pausing play altogether, filibustered by a loading icon as new areas stream in. Dontnod hired Teppei Takehana, a ten-year veteran with experience at Kojima Productions and Quantic Dream, as animation director; but even under his stewardship, the Unreal Engine, which has powered all of the developer’s games, creaks and hisses.
Aside from when the game’s performance is a pain in the neck, there is a deeper feel to those ‘limits’ that Reid describes. Dontnod flips industry sentiment in the most bittersweet way: employing play to support the writing, rather than the inverse. As such, you don’t feel like a vampire. Your unnatural power, which should be a delirious drug, is only available when prescribed, a cure for the mildest of maladies – light puzzling, environmental traversal, advancing conversations – and all to drive the plot.
What you get in place of empowerment is what’s on the page: a new idea divined from the desert of vampire subtext. Whereas C.F. Bentley saw Dracula as a reaction to Freud’s concept of the id, and Franco Moretti read the Count as a figurehead of monopoly capitalism, Dontnod imagines the vampire as white blood cell, and London a great ailing body – of sallow pallor, bleeding and blackening with rot. Reid is a sentinel coursing through the streets, cleansing, purifying, feeding.
It’s these nightly pursuits, part of Reid’s charge as nocturnal GP, that make up the best of Vampyr. Each of the four zones – The Docks, Whitechapel, Pembroke Hospital, and the West End – has around fifteen citizens to tend to. With the click of a shoulder button, you examine and diagnose, treating each ailment with the appropriate medicine – which you brew from scrounged ingredients. As you heal the sickly souls, their blood condition improves, stabilising the overall health of the district, but – devilishly – offering up masses of XP should you opt to indulge your craving.
Reid, being a talkative fellow, will happily have you trawling through dialogue trees, probing and prying for local gossip. The districts take shape as described by their denizens, and you can open up more talking points by exhuming secrets – rummaging through bins for letters, scouring surfaces for trinkets, and, where available, using your heightened senses to eavesdrop. The more fleshed out these characters become, the more appealing becomes their flesh; and Reid, having palpated and prognosed, may or may not resist the tempting crunch of canines, and the warm gush of XP therein. Your call.
Unfortunately, it isn’t a tough one to make, because you’ve XP enough just by sticking to the core missions to get by. As Reid beds down in one of the city’s safe houses, he disgorges his XP into a number of different areas: health, stamina, the hydraulic potency of his bite, and his more exotic powers. He can teleport around thumping people, turn invisible for a spot of stealthing, and he is also capable of – get this – boiling his foes’ blood while it purls in their veins, just by looking at them. Anne Robinson has been trying this technique for years to no avail.
The rub is that these all struggle to cattle prod the combat – the usual dodge, parry, slash affair, bitten by imprecise inputs and drained with a stuttering framerate – to life. And the consequences of slaking your thirst with innocent blood are increased patrols by the game’s clan of vampire hunters, and heightened numbers of Skals – a sort of vampire/zombie hybrid. The brawling isn’t deep enough to survive the night as is, without being set-upon at every rounded corner. In short, Dontnod has made it no fun to be bad. It’s often easier to nibble on rats to sate your blood meter as you steal away avoiding trouble. We could have been Lestat but they made us Louis, instead.
It’s unfair to condemn a game for not being what you want it to be, but without the glee of malevolence, or the thrill of a supernatural upper hand, we spend our time in Vampyr digging up plot. The plight of both vampire and human sub-species – the Skals, the poor, the immigrants, the women – struggles to move us when we’re cudgelled with conversation from dusk till dawn, and taming the tangle of mystery around Jonathan’s siring proves equally drab. “Vampire politics are as intricate, and sometimes tedious, as a game of chess in a gentleman’s club,” says Lady Ashbury, an aristocratic vampire who assists Reid in his quest. “I’ve learned from experience it is best to decline to play.” I shan’t argue with her; in throwing away the usual trappings of the genre, the subtext, which belongs buried, is exposed to harsh daylight, and withers away.