Vampyr tells a compelling story in an intriguing world, but the frustrating and frankly unnecessary combat sucks the life out of it.

A vampire doctor sounds like either a terrible career choice or a character from a cheesy Korean drama. But it is also the defining characteristic of the main protagonist of Vampyr, the new title from Life is Strange developer Dontnod Entertainment.

You are Jonathan Reid, a medical doctor and an expert in the field of blood transfusions. You are also a powerful vampire roaming the streets of London and feeding upon the innocent. Jonathan’s internal struggle between his desire to help people as a doctor and his thirst for human blood is the main driving force behind Vampyr.

It dictates the plot, the combat, the progression system – everything.

First, we have the setting itself – London of 1918, just after the Great War. The city is devastated by the Spanish Flu and is on the brink of collapse.

Combining vampires and one of history’s deadliest plagues works well and feels oddly natural. It just makes sense in the world game built. In general, the vampire angle is always refreshing, and the game uses it in some very clever ways.

Playing a newborn vampire in such a world, slowly pulling back the curtain on vampire society and how it influences human lives, is exciting. It reminded me of 2004’s Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, a fantastic vampire game and the benchmark of all vampire games since then.

Vampyr’s plot might not be as encompassing or as original as that of Bloodlines, but it progresses at a satisfying pace through plenty of excellently-delivered dialogue and engaging story missions.

However, most of what happens in the game is a little too familiar. You’ll continuously be one or two steps ahead of the game, so you can forget about big reveals or twists if that’s your sort of thing.

Yet, I did want to keep going, and I never got bored of the story or characters. Jonathan isn’t the most compelling protagonist in the world, but his personal story is one that you want to experience. It’s a slow-burning one, and you always see just enough of the big picture to want and push forward. After all, a story doesn’t have to be original to be well-told, and Vampyr manages to keep you invested all the way through.

Vampyr review - doctor

As a doctor, you can choose to help the citizens by providing them with cures, assisting them in various side missions and generally getting to know them. However, as a vampire, you will eventually need to feed on some of the people you meet.

Feeding on citizens gives you a tremendous XP boost. The healthier the individual and the more you know about them – the more XP they provide you; so even if you choose to help out of the kindness of your heart, seeing that delicious XP count hanging above a mortal’s head is always tempting.

And these people aren’t faceless, generic NPCs. Each person you meet has a name, a story, and a voice actor. They all feel important, so deciding which ones to spare and which ones to eat isn’t something you can decide on a whim.

If you’re like me, you don’t want to kill everyone, suck their blood and send London into oblivion. Plus, if you do that, then enemies become much more abundant and fighting them is a real chore. On the other hand, you need XP to improve Jonathan’s vampiric ability and be able to stand your ground against both rogue vampires and vampire hunters.

I absolutely love this inner struggle Vampyr forces you to go through every time you stop to chat someone on the streets. Tying the progression system directly to the wellbeing of London’s citizens is a brilliant move, and for me – the highlight of the game.

Vampyr review - bloodsucking leech

When you’re not talking to people or completing missions, you explore the city of London and get into fights with various factions. And this is where things start crumbling to dust.

Vampyr’s combat ranges between laughably easy and frustratingly difficult. Not difficult because the enemies are particularly clever or challenging, but because it is kind of messy.

Combat is a combination of the old attack-dodge-counterattack routine and vampiric powers. While the powers can be fun to use, none of them feels particularly powerful. But at least they add some flair to each fight and give you a pool of moves to draw from.

The problem starts when you need to rely on your physical attacks. That means getting close to your enemies, risking the dreaded camera angles and stun locks.

Sure, enemies at a higher level than you deal a lot of damage; that makes sense – it’s part of how the game encourages you to give in to your inner beast and munch on a few citizens. But controls aren’t tight enough, and the camera can’t really deal with fights in enclosed spaces. So when you do die, often it’s not because you failed to dodge in time, but more like you backed into a wall that was off-camera, and got trapped in a corner.

To make matters worse, when you die, you lose all your blood and all the healing items you used during the fight. Since healing items can only be crafted using special crafting tables, I felt particularly cheated every time it happened, especially in boss fights. It might be a small thing to get angry about, but healing items or gun ammunition can often be the difference between killing a boss or having to start the over again for the fifth time.

Vampyr review - combat

So combat can be really annoying, which would have been fine if you didn’t have to engage in it every dozen steps or so.

However, as you explore 1918’s London, you can’t help but stop every so often to kill a group of vampire hunters or an occasional feral vampire. And that can’t really be avoided if you don’t feel like wasting 10 minutes on pointless combat.

You see, Vampyr doesn’t have fast travel.

The map isn’t that big, but it is maze-like and getting around it takes way too much time. You eventually open shortcuts, but by then you pretty much had it with the city of London, and you just want to get on with the story as fast you can.

It’s not like you have anything interesting to look at while you run, sprint or whoosh through the mostly empty streets. Vampyr takes place mostly at night, and therefore its color palette doesn’t stray far from the blacks, grays, and browns. Oh, and red, of course. You can’t have a vampire game without blood red.

While the environments aren’t all that nice to look at, the character models are a step up. They are highly detailed, with scars, visible veins, and other distinguishing marks. You can also tell who’s who from a distance, which speaks volumes to the character design. I did stumble upon a few times when the models’ textures didn’t load all the way through, but when everything works properly, it looks good.

What works even better is the sound. The soundtrack has a haunting quality to it, which fits London’s foggy, plague-ridden streets. Voice acting is also pretty good if a bit distant at times, especially Jonathan Reid himself.

Vampyr review - environments

As a fan of vampire games, I was excited to play Vampyr. For the most part, I think my excitement was justified. The game delivers a lot of what I expected it to – a dark story about the strange unlife of a vampire.

Some truly inventive systems help you imagine what it’s like to be a vampire. They are fun to test and explore, even if the game doesn’t do something too interesting with them.

I ended up liking Vampyr, but at the same time couldn’t help thinking about the “game that could have been” if all its aspects worked better together. And it the frustrating combat wouldn’t have sucked all the fun out of it.

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