People have different ways to grade games: Some use the letter system; others use numbers; some prefer categories, such as excellent or bad. Similarly, people categorize games in different ways, sometimes depending on their quality, other times depending on their scale, budget and genre; Vampyr reminded me of a category I have not assigned to a game in a long time: The ‘good-grey’ category. ‘Grey’ games are, simply put, games that have, in equal measure, good and bad qualities, which are then sub-categorized depending on whether the game feels like it is good with a lot of faults, or bad with some merits; hence ‘good-grey’. An example of a ‘bad grey’ game for me is Tokyo 42; while there is plenty to like about it, like the visuals, the style and the re-introduction of the open-world format reminiscent of old GTA titles, but those were not enough to push me through the boring gameplay and bad stealth/shooting mechanics.
The perfect example of a ‘good grey’ game is Vampyr. Developed by Dontnod-the studio behind Life is Strange- Vampyr is a gothic, grim, over-the-top theatrical vampire RPG with heavy influences from the SoulsBourne games, in terms of combat and progression of the character, as well as an entirely different take on narrative and characters in the game’s world. There is so much to like about that description; as Jonathan Reid, a recently turned Ekon (which is the game’s term for vampire) who was a doctor, you embark on a journey to find out who turned you, why and how this new reality is connected with the flu epidemic that is destroying London. You will fight vampire hunters, challenging bosses, meet interesting characters, gain new abilities and shape London-and the narrative-with your decisions. In theory, Vampyr should be a ‘slam dunk’; unfortunately, reality is a bit more complicated than that.
Let’s start with the showstopper: The ‘embrace’ mechanic. As a doctor, who gave an oath to protect his patient, and a blood-thirsty vampire, who needs to blood in order to survive and control his hunger, your wants with your needs are in direct conflict; thus, the ‘embrace’ mechanic was born. You have to choose which morally-grey citizen to ‘embrace’ (which is the polite terminology for murder) in order to survive; when I say you have to, I mean that it is mildly recommended. This is the biggest issue of the game, beyond even the frustrating issues I’ll talk about later, because this is the mechanic that makes the game feel unique and fresh, yet it does not work as expected. The necessary components are there though: The characters are absolutely ‘grey’, meaning that no one is purely bad (although some are a bit more skewed towards bad) and no one is absolutely good (with a few exceptions again), which makes even considering the possibility of ‘embracing’ someone, a disturbing and anxious game of ‘pros and cons’. Furthermore, these characters are important to each other and their death will have consequences for their district and their affiliate characters, so it’s not only a game of who you kill, but ‘who will be affected by their death’ as well.
The problem is that, the ‘reward’ for ‘embracing’ someone is not worth it; you get a hefty amount of XP even from the lowest ‘level’ citizen, which is desirable as the world is populated with hunters and creatures higher level than you, and the few boss fights of the game are very challenging. However, each time you rest or time passes, the world is repopulated in positions where you cannot avoid the fights, thus you consistently get more XP and you don’t really need to ‘embrace’ (or at least I didn’t). In fairness to Dontnod though, I don’t know how much I would have liked the game if it forced me to kill citizens, every time I wanted to level up, so I appreciate the attempt to make the decision organic or feel like doing the right thing (not ‘embracing’ anyone) as a difficult choice, but it wasn’t really a choice for me.
A big part of that failure is the combat system; clearly inspired by Bloodborne, the action-RPG system of punishing difficulty mixed with vampire-themed skills and several types of enemies with unique resistances and abilities of their own should have been excellent. It is instead, quite repetitive and unsatisfactory; the weapons, both melee and ranged, feel weightless and lack the impact and ferocity to make the combat exciting, while the skills feel optional at best. That isn’t to say there isn’t depth or enjoyment to be found, but you have to search for it, which I did because I was starting to get bored with the combat and wanted to finish the game for the story.
There’s some quest names and descriptions visible, so for those squeamish to spoilers, watch with caution!
The biggest issue by far though, is the camera; too slow and firm for not using the lock-on feature, too buggy and finicky while the lock-on was on. For a game that mainly consists of combat encounters, that is not the best sign; however, after I started experimenting and leveling up my character-unlocking new skills and improving existing stats- my enjoyment rose and I was having fun, at the very least.
A very clear failure though, is the technical state of the game. Besides the very defined and appropriate art style of the game, everything else was in a rough state to say the least; constant loading screens in the open world sections of the game, poor visual quality of assets and models, game-breaking bugs, sound issues, UI not loading properly, poor animations and characters glitching in the geometry, are just some consistent issues I had during my playthrough. Speaking of the UI, I have a few very specific grievances to share: Firstly, the main menu UI looks terrible, reminding me of a placeholder rather than a finished product; secondly, the text is way too small to read, and I was surprised that there were no logs for the dialogues or notes for each character. Considering this is a game that took me more than 30 hours to complete, that is a surprising omission, alongside the omissions of not being able to track down specific characters and no new game plus mode.
On the other hand, the game is-unsurprisingly given the pedigree of the developers- an absolute success in the narrative department. The only reason I am disappointed in the ‘embrace’ system, is because the developers did such a good job on making each character the perfect shade of ‘morally grey’; not one character is simply evil, they all have a saving grace or a shimmer of hope that they are not lost and can still be reconciled. Likewise, no character is simply good; all have a shady past or bad decisions made with good intentions, and all of these layers and dimensions to these characters feel natural and organic, for the most part. This is the reason why the ‘embrace’ mechanic would have been awesome, as well as the reason the game is interesting as it is: The stories of these characters and the decisions you make, affecting the story and the districts, makes every error of judgment on your behalf feel terrible, and every correct decision feel terrible again, but at least you can comfort yourself thinking you made the right choice.
The plot is a bit predictable and ‘by the books’, when it comes to vampire-themed narratives, but I really like that it’s not afraid to get political or have a defined position in socio-political issues of today; it feels forced at times, but their exploration of the characters and their environment is more than worth that small misstep. Furthermore, some twists are easily predictable and some are more confusing and vague than what I hoped for, but a special shout-out to the level of detail the developers have added to their game should be given, as I literally stumbled on spoilers while exploring, read answers to questions that had not been asked yet and was prepared to answer them due to my curiosity, and noticed details that turned into something substantial and worth exploring without the game ever nudging me towards it. There were also environmental details that many similar games do not pursue like how the living environments for these characters, change their stories and how well they work within the fiction; you have the predictable poor and rich districts, as well as the working peoples and the middle class, but the developers added a bit more depth to them in ways I really liked.
For example, some characters are on a crusade to warn people about the supernatural creatures roaming at night, but the character in the rich district is not taken very seriously to say the least, while the docks’ character is embraced as a valuable member of a small community with his own weird quirk. The developers showed an amount of respect to the player’s intelligence and ingenuity that is rarely shown in modern video games and that is definitely praise-worthy. The one critique I have with the narrative, is one that keeps it from being excellent in my mind; while the entire intrigue and conflict of the narrative comes from a deeply personal dilemma of the protagonist (a doctor who has to kill to survive), it’s disappointing that the plot essentially boils down to another ‘save the world’ situation.
Lastly, there are some details and decisions that I want to briefly mention, which were praiseworthy, such as the mix of Sherlock Holmes-esque investigations and interrogations, with the over-the-top theatrics of the characters; there were a few funny moments that came from this, but more importantly it allowed the writers and the cast to be over-dramatic and naturally intense, which sold the stakes and the story, making it more enjoyable and endearing. Speaking of the writing and the cast, they were both excellent; the writing in the story and the collectables was very enjoyable, while the voice acting was really good and appropriately over-the-top and gloomy. Both have some exceptions, but overall I really loved what I read and heard in the game; including the music, which was appropriately gloomy, gothic, grim and melodramatic. I wish there was a more appropriate track for the combat encounters, but the general theme and its various spin-offs for the cutscenes and the exploration parts were excellent.
The end result of all these features and their particular execution is a ‘good-grey’ game; a game that is has more good parts than bad, with the good parts being more prominent and overcoming the game’s issues, but only barely and despite the shaky execution of some fundamental features for this type of game. Above all, I want Dontnod to have another crack at this type of game, due to the sheer possibilities their ‘embrace’ mechanic has and their ability to execute the most important part of that mechanic, which is the narrative.
Hopefully, the feedback from this game will give them the valuable tools they need to fix the game’s technical issues, combat and visuals, but most importantly, to find the correct balance and correct execution for their ‘embrace’ mechanic. Their unwillingness to force this mechanic on the player and their attempt to find organic ways that allow the player to do as they please and choose the style they want should be praised even if their execution was only good enough for a ‘good-grey’ standard.