One of the more intriguing games I saw at E3 this year was Vampyr, a "semi-open world" action RPG from Dontnod, the developers of Life is Strange. But don't make the mistake of thinking that Vampyr is going to be full of teenage angst and heart-warming moments of friendship. So far it looks violent, grim, and captivating—despite the fact that I have some pretty big reservations on whether or not it can deliver on everything it promises to.
I was treated to a hands-off demo from one of the developers, which gave us a small tour of the story, combat, and how choices have consequences in Vampyr. Our tale surrounds Jonathan Reid, a doctor-turned-vampire who wrestles with the need to take life away as much as he wants to also preserve it. Like I'd expect from Dontnod, it's a ripe setup that I can only hope we get to cut into and chew over throughout the length of the main story. While vampires are about as cliche a fixture in fiction as zombies, I'm already in love with the moral tension of a doctor who is also a vampire.
But Vampyr isn't just about perching on rooftops and contemplating these deeper thoughts, it's also bloody violent. Early in the demo, a couple of vampire hunters think they can take on Jonathan—a gruesome mistake they won't live to regret. Combat in Vampyr is fairly typical for a third-person action game and is mostly composed of dodging attacks while landing blows. It's not as on-the-nose about when to do each like, say, Batman: Arkham City or Middle-Earth: Shadows of Mordor, but the same formula seems to be present. Jonathan's vampiric powers give his movements a vicious edge, and it was fun to watch him hack the hunters to death. Jonathan also has a few other tools at his disposal, like a gun for quick surprise shots, but he can also give enemies the classic vampire hug—a reassuring squeeze before sinking fangs into their flesh and bleeding them dry. What a way to go!
And just when I thought I had seen all the tricks this vampire had up his sleeve, Jonathan summoned tendrils of smoke that erupted from the ground to grab a hunter by each of his limbs and then impaled him on a smoke-spike. It was an excellent finisher, and I hope that there's more like it in the full game.
Once the combat wrapped up, the demo showed us a taste of the the other half of Vampyr like branching dialogue trees, RPG mechanics, and decisions that can have a noticeable impact on the world around you. Like Life is Strange, there's seemingly a big emphasis on story and interactions with non-hostile characters which includes being able to choose Jonathan's responses in conversations in order to shape his character.
Something I never expected was the depth of the open world that Jonathan inhabits. In between combat there'll be quests to complete, but each interaction you have with named characters begins to populate a file with trivia and facts about their life. Using information you gather either through talking or prying into citizen's private lives, Jonathan can then discover alternate ways to tackle objectives or open up new dialogue options.
Each district of London has their own residents, each with their own stories, secrets, and weaknesses to discover and leverage in pursuit of your goals. And, in true vampiric fashion, if you ever don't like someone you're free to "mesmerize" them, take them to a dark alley, and feast away. Despite the developer warning that unwarranted feeding has consequences, a kind of tension between wanting to be a powerful vampire but also not bleeding the city dry, it was hard to get a good sense of that progression in the demo we played.
In Vampyr, London is wracked with the Spanish Flu epidemic that cleaves through the populace with alarming speed. It's a grim backdrop to Jonathan's own personal conflict, but it also creates situations where he can essentially play the "good guy" and do what he can to aid the ailing Londoners. While we weren't shown anything specific, the Dontnod said Jonathan can craft medicine to heal citizens in addition to other methods of keeping London from falling into chaos.
Those actions specifically feed into a metric that measures the "health" of each district, which in turn is represented by look and feel of the district itself. It's here that I begin to feel a bit skeptical about whether this kind of system will have a meaningful impact on the game or if it's just a superfluous change in aesthetic. While the developers were heavy on their warnings that wanton feeding and killing would push the districts towards ruin and chaos, they also weren't able to back up those claims with anything meaningful. Their final warning came at the end of the demo with a brief glimpse of a burning wagon and some other clues that things were going south in a hurry, but none of it felt consequential.
I'm not saying that the system doesn't exist or is a bad idea, just that I got the sense that Vampyr is almost trying to do too much with its premise. Dontnod have proven themselves capable of weaving an engaging story with Life is Strange, but I am just a touch skeptical that they can translate that expertise to an open world action RPG that entwines decision and consequence so tangibly.
Hopefully Dontnod put all those fears to rest, because Vampyr's ambition is also alluring too. From what I saw, Dontnod strikes the right balance of atmosphere, leaving Vampyr with a feeling of weighted dread without falling into the pits of melodrama. Life is Strange was great, but it also was uneven—and I only hope that Vampyr's dour tone doesn't become a hindrance over the course of the story.
I probably sound a bit down on Vampyr when in fact I'm not. If anything, what I've seen is promising enough that, as cynical as it makes me sound, I can't help but worry that there's cracks hidden beneath the surface of what I saw. If Dontnod can tie everything together into a cohesive package, Vampyr could very well be the defacto vampire game for this generation. Hell, it even has the potential to unseat Vampire: The Masquerade—that broken, frustrating, yet amazing vampire RPG that still remains king after all these years (all thanks to mod support, I'd argue). Either way, we'll have to wait some time to know for sure. Vampyr is due out in 2017.