As ubiquitous in popular culture as they can sometimes seem, vampires are seriously underrepresented in videogames, at least as fully realized leading characters. For this reason alone, Vampyr deserves some attention. Happily Life is Strange developer Dontnod has managed to deliver a vampire tale that avoids most of the cliches, camp and gothic melodrama so common to the genre. Only some mechanical issues and the patina of the game's relatively modest budget cast a bit of a shadow on the proceedings.
Set in post-World War 1 London, Vampyr's atmosphere, story and characters are clearly the focus of the thirty-hour game. The player character is Dr. Jonathan Reid, a renowned surgeon and innovative blood transfusion specialist recently returned from the war, who awakens one horrible night as a newly minted vampire. Initially, the game is all about discovering the parameters of the blood-sucking lifestyle and its causes, while maintaining some semblance of normality as a doctor trying to help the citizens of London in the midst of a deadly influenza epidemic. Although Vampyr is clearly aware of the vast vampire literature and lore, and includes a few greatest hits along the way, it's a refreshing take on the mythology. There isn't either a mopey, sparkly or Buffyesque wisecracking vampire in sight.
The game rather intriguingly presents one of many moral dilemmas, as Dr. Reid must weigh the needs of a vampire for blood with his desire as a doctor to save lives. In fact, this choice is writ large in one of the game's fundamental mechanics. As Dr. Reid explores the shadowy districts of London, he cultivates dozens of relationships with its citizens, from the vile criminals to the saintly do-gooders. The more he develops relationships or even heals their afflictions, the more potent the victims' blood becomes, making their killing a bonanza for the doctor and allowing him to increase his abilities and power in combat - not to mention the ability to craft even more effective medicine. The less he kills, the weaker he seems relative to the enemies he encounters. The more he kills, the more dark and chaotic the world become in which he must survive.
For such a story and characters focused game, combat is important to Vampyr, and while not quite as fluid or finely-tuned as in many other third-person action games, it gets the job done. Thanks to an ever-expanding arsenal of melee and ranged weapons, upgrades and combos, combat becomes more satisfying as the game progresses. In fact, this is generally true of the game as a whole. Vampyr just gets better and better with each hour, though there are some difficulty spikes in boss encounters that can frustrate, especially when one plays the good doctor as a pacifist vampire.
Vampyr nails the psychologically dark and intense atmosphere of post-War London through effective level design, lighting and music. While character movement in combat is fluid, character and facial design in general isn't quite as impressive and can be downright ugly. This is less of a distracting issue than it potentially could be thanks to the nearly always outstanding voice acting which gives distinctive life to an amazing number of NPCs. My biggest quibble with Vampyr's script and voice work was that it occasionally has a hard time finding its tone, and seems to veer haphazardly between the florid and sideways slides into more recent sounding speech.
Serviceable combat and graphics aside, Vampyr is one of the best and most nuanced games based on the ever-popular vampire mythology. As with most vampire-centered entertainment, Vampyr uses vampirism as allegory, in this case less obsessed with Victorian sexual repression and more focused on larger ethical issues. We need more games like Vampyr, with an interesting cast of characters, moral ambiguities, and most critically, vampires.