‘Vampyr’ (PS4) review: Stalking friend and foe alike

‘Vampyr’ intrigues with its fascinating morality system — and then frustrates with everything eles

The world of “Vampyr” comes with an interesting dilemma: Those you bond with most will grant you the most power, but how you go about gaining that strength is a story of two paths, one cloaked in righteousness, the other in a darker sense of morality. Will you, a new vampire birthed in a World War I London ravaged by the Spanish flu epidemic, resist your urge to feed, or will you succumb to your baser instinct and ravage those most important to this blighted land?

The choice here — slaying everyone, sparing everyone or some combination thereof — matters in “Vampyr,” the latest creation by Dontnod Entertainment (creator of “Life Is Strange,” a personal favorite). The game’s morality is linked to who lives and who dies, all of which ties into how the game world responds to you and your appetite. The game employs a citizen system, spreading NPCs around the city to provide you with lore, quests and experience.

As you learn more about each character, gathering clues and solving investigations, a personal blood meter will fill up. You see, while you have the option of going full vampire on just about every character of importance in “Vampyr” — and you can choose not to, which will be detailed later — it serves little purpose to do so immediately. (Not that you can for the most part: You need a certain level of mesmerize skill, which is story-locked, to deal with most citizens.)

The reason why: They just don’t have enough blood to make the inevitable fallout worth it — at first. But once that blood meter fills up, you’ll go from getting just a couple hundred experiences point from draining that character to several thousand from the most important of people. It’s an oddly morbid system: The better you know someone, the more worthwhile his blood will be to devour later. And that blood is tied to your level directly. If you manage to find out enough clues about a character and boost his blood meter to, say, 2,000 points, those points are what you will use to level up and gain more vampiric abilities.

In effect, if you want to be the most terrifying powerful vampire on the block, you’re going to have to feed. Oddly enough, the game’s enemy level system is purposefully designed to not level with you, so the more powerful you become, the easier the core game is — and the more Count Dracula you’ll look. In reverse, if you forgo dining on the denizens of the London night (you’re a vampire and you don’t like the sunlight), you’ll have a more difficult time fighting through the city — though you may end up keeping your soul intact.

However, several other factors kick in if you kill the citizens, most importantly being you lose out on any further quests or information they may have had later — and you have no real way of knowing what, if anything, was lost in your blood frenzy. Also, once people start disappearing, the health status of the individual parts of the city will start to deteriorate, making the streets more dangerous to explore.

Either way, your feeding choices require a trade-off. Personally, it took me far too long to understand the basic premise of “saving” my meals for later, so I ended up losing on plenty of quests and lore early on, which spread into the rest of the game. However, because I always was full on delicious, many-clues-solved citizen blood (why stop what I already started, right?), I got to experience the wide range of vampiric powers the game offers while slashing and biting my way through London. (Of note: The 20-hour game uses an autosave system, so there’s no going back. Once you make your choice, you’re stuck with it.)

This macabre system is empowered by excellent citizen development in “Vampyr.” Protagonist Dr. Jonathan Reid, a skilled surgeon who served his time in the trenches of WWI before returning to the squalor of epidemic-ridden London, is a man of science suddenly thrown into a world of supernatural beings and otherworldly mysticism. His internal conflict — his straight-and-narrow beliefs being mocked by the very reality around him — grants surprising depth to the daunting problems he faces, both as a doctor trying to saving flu victims and as a newborn vampire trying to find his way.

The rest of the characters offer hours of explorable dialogue trees, each refreshingly in-depth and worthwhile. No, not every option will result in something tangible, but it’s clear the dialogue was chosen with care. Each character is worth talking with if for no other reason than just to see why he says. (Plus, you may discover he’s edible or can help bolster another’s blood meter. A win-win, really.) It’s easy to tell who’s important and who’s not, especially because they eventually fill out a character tree in your menu basically delineating such status, but it would behoove you to explore and talk to everyone at least once.

You might as well anyway because you’ll be walking around the city — a lot. There’s no fast-travel system, so even though you’re a vampire, you’ll be hoofing it from one mission to the next. But, while that may be slow, “Vampyr’s” London is well-realized and just as grimy and desolate as you would expect, what with the flu wreaking havoc and whatnot. Everything is dark and brooding — until you reach the glitzier end of town. The upper class clashes with the dredges of society, echoing themes that may seem a bit prescient in today’s era of polarization: classism, xenophobia, racism, sexism and more. While the game may center on the supernatural — a vampire’s quest to understand just who he is — many threads of the plot stick much more firmly to terra firma. (Until the late game, of course. It is a game about vampires, after all.)

But while the intricate plot, spreading across multiple chapters, characters and neighborhoods, is polished and interesting, the same can’t be said about “Vampyr’s” technical aspects. And that covers everything: From fighting to animation, the game lacks any of the finesse or appeal that was put into scripting and character development.

The game’s combat system is lackluster, devolving into a hit-and-dodge snooze-fest before long. It’s clear the reason why is because Reid may be a non-human-blood-drinking vampire and not have access to the cooler abilities — like being able to hide in shadows and throw blood spears, for instance — but it drags down the game play substantially. Why give me all these options if the best way to best any enemy is to just bludgeon him to death? As mentioned earlier, the random encounters do become more difficult if you feed on the citizens — think of this as the game’s difficult setting — but that’s hardly enough to ward you off from sating your appetite. Even the boss battles don’t require much deviation — strike, back off, heal if you need to (which requires you using your own blood, which you can replenish by draining the blood of your enemies), rinse and repeat. Maybe throw in a vampire ability for fun.

The game’s crafting system will be loved or hated depending on how you feel about crafting. To me, it felt weird that it was even in the game — I’m a vampire, what do I need weapons for?! — but its simplicity made it convenient enough to use. However, it’s pretty basic, and it offers little in the way of true customization.

But the most egregious problems come with frame rate, loading and crashing, and animation issues. For instance, the city itself looks good. The features of minor characters, however, will leave you less than impressed. (I thought we had moved past out-of-sync dialogue issues.) Even just loading into the save rooms — which are mostly static rooms separated from the rest of the world — could take upwards of a minute. The game is so poorly optimized that it would jump to a black screen to load in an area I was just in — or it would just crash outright. The frame rate stutters far too often, clearly falling below 30 frames-per-second on a constant basic. For as much work as Dontnod put into its characters, it’s a shame everything around them feels so lazy.

In the end, “Vampyr’s” bite comes from its well-developed characters and how they interact with protagonist Reid. There’s an interesting morality system, pitting your vampiric desires against your human ones, making you choice between feeding and abstaining in this death-ridden version of London. However, other than the quests and dialogue you lose, there’s not much of a penalty for slaying everyone around you to gain new abilities — which, once developed, feel completely unnecessary because the combat is so lackluster, making the loss of the citizens kind of feel worthless. Add to that all the technical failures, and you have yourself quite a conundrum. It’s a shame, really, because the story here is bloody impressive, but the rest of “Vampyr” is just bloodless.

Three “I did it for the XP” stars out of five.

Editor’s note: This retail copy of “Vampyr” for the PlayStation 4 was provided by the publisher.

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