Ah, vampires, those mythical blood-sucking creatures of eternal life. One of the staples of our semi-gothic teenage years, spent listening to Nirvana, Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails whilst reading our way through Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, nowadays we may have ditched the black clothes (didn't need to bother with the make-up with our already pasty skin), but we still love a good vampire story - and even more so a good vampire game, like the criminally overlooked Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines (just imagine the outrage if they released a game with boxart like that now, though... Too much undead flesh. Sigh...). And so, along comes Vampyr, a dark role-playing game that charts a doctor's complicated descent into vampire-hood, with all the lore and ambiguous-moral-compassing to rival your average Anne Rice novel. Even if Dr. Jonathan Reid is perhaps more of a realist, and not quite as fabulous and fashion-concious as good old Lestat.
Set in the grimy streets of London, as the city, and its inhabitants recover from the horrors of the First World War, the story revolves around the good Dr Reid, who soon finds himself stepping out of one nightmare, and into another. For reasons that aren't initially clear, Dr Reid awakens in the game's intro to find himself turned into a raging vampire, with his overwhelming bloodlust causing him to hurt someone close to him. In a strange twist of irony, our John also happens to be a leading expert on blood transfusions - which is kind of handy, for a vampire. Eager to get to the bottom of his new affliction, the fledgling vamp is taken under the wing of the mysterious Dr. Swansea, an odd fellow who belongs to an underground order that have spent centuries researching vampire kind. Soon finding himself working as a doctor at Pembroke Hospital, in the East End of London, Reid is tasked with helping deal with a recent outbreak of Spanish Flu. But, as you'll soon discover, there's much more to the mysterious corpses that have been popping up about town, and many a mystery lurking beneath, in the district's criminal underbelly and beyond.
If anything, the setting is one of Vampyr's highlights, providing a suitably moody and atmospheric backdrop as you try to unravel the many mysteries of 1918's London. More of a role playing game than anything, during your daily dealings, both as a doctor and as a vampire, you'll encounter many a citizen in need - whether it's solving a blackmail case, searching for a lost son, or getting some much-needed medical supplies from a quarantine zone - and you can choose to help, or ignore their pleas as you see fit. As a doctor, if you're so inclined, you can even give citizens on the spot medical check ups, and cure them of their ailments with medicines you've created from miscellaneous materials found during your quest too.
And sure, fulfilling your Hippocratic oath and everything is all well and good, but Vampyr gives you a much more sinister reason for wanting to keep the good folk of London healthy. Being a vampire and all, drinking blood is essential to your survival, and London's citizens have an abundant supply, with healthier people rewarding you with not only a greater amount of blood, but also a greater amount of experience points. More experience points mean you'll be able to level up your vampiric abilities and grow more powerful - but in Vampyr, it's impossible to suck someone's blood without bleeding them dry, and killing them. With each patient having their own personality - and sometimes their own side-quests - you're often faced with a realy difficult choice. Do you go for the XP, or do you try and keep everyone alive as best you can, so you can do their side-quests later? As such, playing Vampyr can be a bit of a delicate balancing act, and often there's no 'right' answer to many of the moral conundrums you'll face - merely different shades of grey.
As someone who's more than a little OCD about completing quests and the like, our playthrough of Vampyr involved killing as few citizens as we could - but on the flip side, this does end up making the game quite a bit harder, especially at the start. Despite being an Award Nominated JournalistTM , we're (whisper it) not actually that good at tricky games, and without the vast experience points reserves you get from drinking the blood of the London folk (you're looking at several thousand points vs a couple of hundred or less for defeating bog-standard enemies), developing your character into a formidable vampire is much harder if you a route that's free of innocent blood. For us, this meant that we started the game caught in a bit of a catch 22 - we didn't want to kill any citizens, but we also weren't strong enough to take on some of the stronger bosses.
You see, if there was one thing we could fault Vampyr on, it would be its combat. You're able to equip two weapons at once, with one as your main weapon and another as your 'off-hand' - the former focuses more on damage, while the latter inflicts various statuses and effects on your opponent, perhaps stunning them, or absorbing blood to help fuel your own vampiric powers. Basic button-mashing lets you slash at your opponents, with each attack draining a portion of your stamina bar, leaving you vulnerable for a short time when it runs out. Although you may be a vampire, you're not immortal (??), so you'll want to try and dodge blows rather than just absorbing them - but as dodging also costs stamina, you'll often need to fight a bit more conservatively, unleashing a short flurry of melee attacks to deal damage before dodging out of the action and waiting for your stamina to come back. It's an especially important tactic in the early days, before you've had a chance to upgrade your stamina, as it does tend to run out quite quickly - as does your health when you mess up. Weapons can be upgraded too, letting them deal more damage, improving their effects, or making them consume less stamina, but as you'll likely lack the parts you need to upgrade them at the very beginning, you'll just need to learn to master the combat first.
When you're in a pinch, Jonathan's vampiric blood also lends him a number of special powers. A furious claw attack, a blood-shaped projectile that does some serious damage, and the ability to make your enemies' blood actually boil inside them are just a few of the skills on offer, and all are valuable assets in the fight against London's animalistic nightlife. The only problem is, each special move costs a fair chunk of your blood reserves to use, and getting a shot to suck the blood of your enemies mid-battle to recharge your blood metre can be a bit hairy. Technically, it is possible - but you'll need to stun your foes first, which means landing a fair few hits on them first, preferably with something big and heavy. Our preferred approach is to bypass mid-battle-blood-sucking altogether by adding blood absorption effects to every weapon we possibly can when upgrading it, thereby letting us charge our blood meter with every hit we land instead, giving us plenty of spare blood for our beloved blood spear projectile, and the much-needed self-healing autophagy skills.
Really, there's nothing horrendously wrong with the combat here per se (even if the lock on feature can be a bit hit and miss at times) - it's more the fact that there are some pretty steep difficulty spikes along the way to trip you up, especially during boss fights. Although locking on to any enemy will tell you its level, it's not uncommon to get slaughtered by a bosses who are allegedly several levels your inferior, as any hits they land seem to take off quite a chunk of your health in one go - one early boss could quite easily kill in you in three hits, despite numerically being about the same level as you. Add in the fact that, even if you're locked on, your attacks can mysteriously miss, especially in the case of your costly blood powers, and Vampyr's combat can be rather frustrating at times.
It's a bit of a shame really, as the rest of the game, with the eerie nocturnal wanderings around London's East End, tales of vampiric mysteries and murders is actually really well done, and makes for quite an engrossing role-playing adventure. Having to choose between your duty as a doctor and your animalistic vampire desire for blood is an interesting idea, and one that you'll have to confront throughout the game. If you're more competent than us at its combat - or are willing to slaughter more citizens for experience points to buff up your vampire more - then there's much to like about Vampyr.