The old adage of "don’t worry, I’m a doctor" doesn’t necessarily work when the doctor in question is liable to drink your blood. "I’m a walking hypocrisy," exclaims Vampyr’s suave leading man Jonathan Reid at multiple times throughout the game, and he’s not wrong. Controlling the primal instincts of a vampire proves to be instrumental in the best and worst aspects of Dontnod’s story-driven action RPG.
It's 1918 and Britain has emerged from the First World War victorious, but Dr. Jonathan Reid returns home to another bloody battlefield. Bodies line the streets of a post-war London hit by the Spanish influenza, while armed gangs patrol the streets, rivalling local vampires in their bloodthirst. Reid wakes up in an open burial mound as a vampire, and after inadvertently murdering his own sister he finds himself fending off virtually everyone in the city by whatever means necessary.
Combat is often a waiting game in Vampyr—you wait for an enemy to make their move, nimbly dodge around their outstretched weapon and strike down hard with whatever you have. There are vampiric abilities that Reid can master—should you wish to play the game that way—that range from summoning a demonic claw in his left hand, to vanishing out of existence and away from enemies for a short time. London is no place for a newly risen vampire; a maze of death and disease, its streets menaced by men and beasts.
Dr. Reid, confused and weak following his transformation into an undead bloodsucker, is rescued by the Pembroke Hospital and tasked with saving as many human lives as possible, despite his vampiric nature. Questionable employment practices by the hospital aside, this is where Vampyr excels. As seemingly the only doctor available within ten miles of the Thames, Reid is given ample motivation to heal those around him. You’re not presented with a list of patients and other NPCs at the outset of Vampyr—instead you’ll have to instigate medical enquiries yourself. This means scouring around London—from the Pembroke Hospital to the West End—for characters to check up on.
Sometimes in games you’re not quite sure why your character is bothering helping everyone that surrounds them, but in Vampyr it makes perfect sense: Reid is a doctor, and he's doing his job. There are four total districts in Vampyr's London, and Jonathan Reid is single-handedly tasked with keeping every resident in the four districts healthy. You’ll need to take whatever gear you can scavenge from around London and use it to craft medical supplies, before delivering the right cure to the corresponding citizen. If multiple citizens are left untreated, the safety status of a district can decline from 'healthy' or 'stable', tumbling down to 'serious' and even 'hostile'.
When a district in Vampyr turns hostile, the most horrific beasts come out of the shadows to prey on the citizens. The friendships you’ve created with those in the district will shatter, as will any side quests that pertained to them. Although it’s unfortunate that Vampyr can get impossibly difficult in a hostile district, it definitely contributes to a general feeling of unease throughout the game, as though you’re racing against time to help as many people as possible.
Excellent as Reid’s mission of saving London is, the four districts and their populations never really tie in to the main plot of the game, which coincidentally also revolves around saving London. In the role of an acclaimed surgeon, Vampyr pushes the narrative of halting the spread of the Spanish influenza, which should be all the motivation that Reid needs as a character, were he also not a vampire.
From helping every citizen he can with major and minor injuries alike at the outset of Vampyr, Dr. Reid’s battle against the influenza pandemic quickly transforms into a vampiric civil war. Although the safety of London and its citizens are constantly talked about as being a priority of the plot, the story remains entirely unaffected by the four districts, no matter their status.
As you’d probably expect from playing a wolf in sheep’s clothing, you’re presented with two main paths of action in Vampyr. You can either help the citizens with their ailments and heal the districts of sickness, creating a more stable environment throughout London, or you can let the vampiric beast within take over, feasting on any unfortunate characters who the doctor manages to mesmerize with all the charm and wit that a vampire can muster.
It’s a balancing act, and it’s not one that Vampyr entirely pulls off. While you can gain a meager amount of experience points hacking and slashing your way through animalistic vampires and humans alike on the streets of London, you can earn a larger XP payout through feasting on the blood of the innocent. This unfortunately means sacrificing sub characters to increase the combat prowess of Jonathan Reid, and this equates to a district's health decreasing due to the loss of a member of the community, which in turn steers said district down a more hostile path.
Combat isn’t exactly easy in Vampyr, with Reid ducking and dodging vicious attacks while fending off man and beast, and it’s only made harder by a level scaling issue. It feels like every enemy in Vampyr is always at least ten steps ahead of you, able to better Reid in strength and numbers whether they’re man or monster. It’s incredibly difficult not to succumb to the taste of innocent blood and immediately boost Reid’s character level, but when you sacrifice the innocent, you lure out more powerful monsters, making Reid’s life even more difficult.
Vampyr excels at pushing you into getting to know characters as not only patients, but people. Take for example the pair of Oswald and Newton, hanging around the docks with nothing better to do after coming back from the First World War. Oswald is cagey, and won’t outright reveal the depths of his trauma when approached by Dr. Reid. But head over to his friend Newton, and he’ll inform you all about the pain that his former war comrade faces, giving you new dialogue options and opportunities with Oswald. Although it’s often a game of pot luck as to which characters will give you details on the other, it’s still a system that works remarkably well for character building in Vampyr.
It’s entirely possible to 'mesmerize' and drain a character of all their blood from the second you meet them in Vampyr. But should you do this, you’re effectively cutting a character entirely out of the game, which can have drastic knock on effects like cancelling out a side quest entirely. When one of Vampyr’s key strengths is its cast of characters, it feels like you’re taking away a key part of the game in favor of providing more experience points to Reid.
For all the originality of uncovering details about characters through their social circles, and keeping districts healthy in the time of crisis, there’s something hindering progress. Vampyr skews towards making life challenging as a vampire in a post-war London. Although this gives us more of a grounded portrayal of Reid’s character, it makes the game frustrating and overwhelming at times. Vampyr is full of promising concepts, excellent character building, and lifelike communities, but ultimately Reid's bloodlust can't help but get in the way.
Vampyr unfortunately flounders after building some solid foundations in the opening hours. London feels like a city on a knife edge, and the citizens prove to be an inviting cast of creative characters. But Vampyr then lures you into sacrificing these characters, cutting out a key part of the game, all to have a hope of standing up to the horrors that await you in the shadows of London.