2018’s Vampyr was such a fucking cool game and it’s massively underappreciated (despite pretty solid sales). It’s a complete game (it did have one small 3 item content add-on despite Don’t Nod’s original intent, but it’s not gameplay DLC), it’s got an interesting story despite being about the most eyerolling and overdone creatures outside of zombies, and it’s not just a lazy clone of another game. I’ve got a pretty good idea of why, why that’s unfortunate, and why you should still overlook the game’s (possibly serious) flaws and give it a shot if you haven’t anyway.
I’m nothing short of a complete sucker for lore (something that will no doubt become apparent on subsequent Fallout posts [spoiler: gonna make some Bethesda fanboys really butthurt]) and this game really knocks it out in a way that’s easy to overlook or straight up lock yourself out of. Yes, the game detail about the Spanish Flu outbreak is a huge focal point of the plot, but that’s not the most well-executed lore building. No, where Vampyr really crushes it is the attention to detail and character empathy for the Romanian political refugees.
“Romanian history is complicated” is one hell of an understatement (a very, very condensed history of the crumble of the Austro-Hungarian Empire can be viewed here). Don’t Nod managed to handle the nuances of Romanian resistance to Austrian-Hungarian rule pretty well, but in a manner easily skipped by the average gamer. Interacting with Nurse Crane (nee Dorothea Craciunescu) is unavoidable for reasons I will avoid discussing too much to avoid spoiling anything, but actually listening to her (and Darius Petrescu) is something else entirely – Dorothea’s family, her history with what at the time was a still burgeoning Communist movement, the where and why of movement of Romanian immigrants are all just pieces of a richly detailed historical record provided in the game that as best I can tell from online reviews and forum discussions is almost completely overlooked. You can tell it’s a labor of love, the game designers clearly cared about delivering a meaningful story about a group of NPCs from a cultural background not often explored in pop culture.
I do get why – unskippable dialogue is a bane so forcing the player to hear everyone out about everything would only serve to alienate players – and not everyone is a history nerd even within the “completionist” gamer circle so they’re targeting a very, very small group of players that would actually give a shit. Vampyr isn’t Life is Strange, it’s not targeted towards a “visual novel with a small amount of conventional gameplay,” crowd, it’s combat heavy and clearly aimed at an audience that wants that experience (yes, I am aware they added a Story Mode after launch, they also added a Hard Mode so miss me with that “gotcha” shit). But, it’s also a huge part of the game’s best mechanic to not necessarily even allow the player to have the chance to find out everything. You can miss the majority of the most in-depth lore of the game simply by choosing who lives and who dies at the wrong moments.
Vampyr succeeds in the trait RPG players have been begging for as far back as I can recall – a choice system that actually matters. I don’t just mean the four endings, the game changes based on how you choose to play, the world changes, NPCs adapt to who your Jonathan Reed is as a character. Making the morally correct choices (not consuming citizens outside of combat, not turning people, etc.) results in an incredibly difficult gameplay experience; it’s nearly impossible to level effectively (you gain small XP from combat and healing citizens, which also effects the game), you have to gain knowledge through trust and favors versus developing the “mesmerize” skill, enemies get bigger much faster than you do because the game wants you to feel the call of the darkness. I have no doubt doing a full monster, skip side quests and lore run would allow you to beat this game in under ten hours (a completionist run averages a little over 40 per HowLongToBeat) but if you’re going for the “good ending” (0 civilian deaths, all towns in decent health) completionist run I can’t see it being completed under 50-60, more if you’re playing on Hard Mode. Granted, while I game more or less daily I’m not “hardcore” so my perception is likely off for someone with MLG level skills, but it’s absolutely a replayable game for the choice branching alone if you’re willing to dedicate the time to it.
So why is Vampyr’s Metacritic score so middling? There’s a couple of issues I think tank their score, not necessarily undeservedly:
- The graphics are honestly pretty so-so (however, this has the advantage of being playable on older computers). With as much NPC interaction as there is, the body/face models leave a lot to be desired. Characters stare into space, the model looping can be glitchy, the camera view is awkward at times, it’s just a bit lacking. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it ugly, but it probably would have been benefited by a couple of extra months of development time. Vampyr was a low budget, low expectations game and in the graphics area this really, really shows.
- The loading screens are agonizingly long and uninspired. With as much lore as there is in the game it’s shocking they couldn’t find something to have on the screen besides a loading bar – an old style opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) botanical sketch, a fake old medicine bottle a la the “Doctor MacAlister’s Chloroform and Cannabis Children’s Cough Tonic,” there’s so much they could have done that it almost seems lazy that there’s nothing. “Nothing” wouldn’t be that bad if the load screens were short and infrequent, but they are neither of those things.
- The combat is a little wonky – it’s not bad enough it’s not recoverable but the view aspect of the 3PS results in occasionally being stuck in combat that is off-screen for a few blows and honestly, that gets pretty obnoxious pretty quickly. I expect this is at least related to the issues in point 1, the camera/graphics reactivity is just not great.
These problems are minor to severe depending on your opinion of the importance of such things but I expect since they are encountered (frequently, if not constantly) before a lot of the good lore and all of the meaningful player choice moments they really start the game off on the wrong foot. I completely get why to most players that’d be enough out of the gate to discard the entire game, and if beautiful, well-rendered graphics are a big part of your gaming experience (no judgement, it’s just not my personal priority), yeah that’s going to completely distract you from all of the really great things about this game.
Vampyr is part of Xbox’s Game Pass as of 3/28 and goes on Steam sale really frequently – I hope you’ll give it a shot so more studios take a chance at projects like this. Lore heavy, well-written story and combat heavy long campaign games (not in the JRPG movie-length cut scene ilk) are less common in the era of Battle Royale megagames and they add a depth to game experience lacking in most AAA titles right now.