Despite its early-20th century trappings, “Vampyr” gestures to many of the cultural fault lines that bedevil our present moment — from worries over health care, to the demonizing of immigrants, to the dream of building a wall to separate a population of haves from have nots. Those who remember the controversy surrounding “BioShock Infinite” may find similar reasons for praise and complaint insofar as “Vampyr’s” narrative strengths are hobbled by its action-oriented gameplay.
Dr. Jonathan Reid, “Vampyr’s” hero or antihero depending on your orchestration of his conduct, is a veteran of The Great War. At the start of the game he awakens on top of a bed of corpses in a disoriented state. Shambling away from the carrion he is consumed by a body-shaking thirst. Unfortunately, the first person he comes across is his sister Mary who has been out combing the streets of London for him. Overcome by his need for nourishment Reid sups on her blood. Satiated, his reason comes back to him leaving him aghast at his deed and flooded with remorse. Before he has a moment to collect himself he’s spotted by one of the city’s roaming bands of vigilantes who raise an alarm and proceed to give chase. These events unfold too quickly for their own good. It’s impossible to feel anything for the newly hatched vampire or his calamitous mistake since we’re so abruptly introduced to him and his sister. Fortunately, the story soon finds its footing after Reid takes shelter from the encroaching daylight in an abandoned residential building. Following a failed suicide attempt, he leaves his shelter the following night in search of answers.
Coming upon a blood-drained corpse, Reid wonders if it might be the handiwork of the vampire who sired him. Using his newly-acquired supernatural senses he follows the blood trail to a pub where, on the second floor, he hears a woman and a man talking about the strange goings on from behind a closed door. The woman breaks off the conversation after she senses someone is eavesdropping. Though her identity remains a mystery for short time, it soon becomes clear that the people Reid overheard chatting are Dr. Swansea and Lady Ashbury — a mortal and a vampire, respectively. Both are sympathetic to Reid’s predicament. Swansea is a member of a secret society that tracks vampire activity in Britain. He also oversees the Pembroke Hospital, which caters to the city’s working class. Aware of Reid’s reputation as a surgeon and excited by his research in — ha, what else? — blood transfusions, Swansea offers Reid a job. It’s an irresistible deal as the position comes with an office where Reid can work and rest undisturbed.
Once the game introduces the patients, nurses and doctors of Pembroke Hospital it grows much more lively. Each of the characters with whom Reid interacts has locked conversational branches. These can be accessed by discovering personal information, which may involve performing a task, speaking to another person in someone’s social circle, or observing people from afar. The characters are notably distinct from each other and the real pleasure of the game comes from interacting with them. To keep the citizens in good shape you’ll have to monitor their health (which can be done in the menus) and prescribe them suitable medication. The healthier the citizens and the more you know about them, the more experience points can be harvested from plucking them off.
Any of characters you encounter can be killed if your mesmerize skill is high enough. If it is, you can mesmerize someone, lead them to shadows, then do that thing that vampires do. This will net many more experience points than what you’d get from slaying one of the typical groups of adversaries scattered about the city. Murdering one of the citizens can close off different quests and create adverse ripple effects throughout a community. (Do away with a medical professional and the health of the community that he or she treated may drop precipitously. If it falls below a certain threshold, people in that community may become inaccessible for the rest of the game.) Assuming you don’t start picking off the main cast right away, you’ll find that enemies tend to be a few levels above you. In general, this didn’t pose much of a problem for me except for a few boss encounters. Yet, because I refrained from killing citizens whenever possible, I had to be diligent in performing side quests to maintain a competitive level.
Really, it’s the run-of-the-mill enemies that drag “Vampyr” down. Every time you level up your character at a safe haven, you advance time in the game causing the enemies you encounter on the street to level up. Though a few of types of different enemies are introduced later on, there are not enough of them to excuse the fact that you’re constantly fighting the same types of foes over and over. The only difference among them is that as you progress through the game your simple-minded adversaries dish out more damage and have a greater number of hit points.
“Vampyr” is a far more interesting social simulator than it is an action game. Moving between London’s East and West End, I experienced the voyeuristic thrill of soaking in the gradations between poverty and wealth. Logically, a number of the game’s citizens have things to say about the class system, and that extends to the vampires as well. As befits such a mannered society, a poor decision or a conversational mistake can lead to unintended results down the line.
“Vampyr” is a game with one foot in the grave and one on solid ground. Though the game’s combat feels rooted in the past, learning its citizens’ secrets and uncovering their social networks makes for an alluring proposition in our age of oversharing.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
Recent game reviews: