Vampyr by Dontnod is an intriguing RPG action game. You play as Dr. Jonathan Reid, an expert in blood transfusion techniques, who, ironically, is turned into a vampire, or, rather, an Ekon, upon his return from the frontlines of the First World War.
Set on investigating a strange epidemic similar to the Spanish Flu, he will wander the districts of 1918 London at night and encounter a number of more or less colorful characters, who offer a rich bouquet of blood that is yours to choose from or decline. That’s right, even though this is a vampire game, you do not have to kill any one of these humble (or not so humble) citizens. The blood of rats, vampire hunters and, indeed, lesser vampires, will sustain you, too.
And while you may not turn out a big bad impressive vampire with awesome powers that way, the game will also be a little more gentle with you. At least that’s what I read. I cannot tell you from experience, because, well, I could not resist temptation, after I accidentially drew first blood…
(Did I mention how much I loved the disclaimer that no rats were harmed during the making of this game?)
Climbing the skill tree
The skill tree consists of passive and aggressive combat skills, tactical skills, ultimate skills, health boosts and inventory boosts. Some are useful when fighting multiple enemies, others better suited for boss fights. Use of weapons costs stamina, so you have to adapt to your weapon of choice and/or upgrade its stats. My weapon of choice is a two-handed weapon, slow but effective, especially when it comes to stunning an enemy so I can suck on them and regain some health and stamina during combat, which is a boon for me. During my first serious boss fight I was unaware of that, but once I did realise the connection, I went back, found a nice cosy hideout and redistributed my xp points to boost stamina and health, which is how I came to beat Fergal, the Ascalon Club’s enforcer and executioner.
Using skills costs either stamina or blood points, some skills, once used, need some time before you can use them again. Once your blood reserve is spent, you will have to rely on basic skills like using your claw swipe or teleporting towards an enemy and either stun the enemy or inflict damage upon impact.
Each skill has to be unlocked using xp points and then evolved, which also costs xp points. A lot of them, actually. Some skills unlock other, more powerful skills once you have upgraded them to a certain degree.
Since my first playthrough was heavy on combat I boosted the aggressive skills and left the stealth skills untouched.
How to gain xp?
That’s an easy question to answer. You are a doctor and a vampire. So you get points for healing and assisting people during side quests as well as for each successfully defeated enemy, be it beast or man. Yet the easiest way for gaining xp points is mesmerising unsuspecting citizens and draining them of all their blood… The drawbacks: Your mesmerize level has to be equal or higher than that of your chosen victim and your victim will turn into a vampire herself or himself, creating loads of mini bosses you’ll have to face sooner or later. Some of them turn into Skals, some into Large Beasts and one or two will turn into Ekon like yourself.
As mentioned, killing citizens is not obligatory to progress the game. In the beginning, I tried to resist the siren call of the skill tree, I truly tried. Once I lost the second district, though, I threw caution out of the window and sucked the blood out of some random people (a former patient of Jonathan’s and her daughter plus a police officer) who happened to be the first ones I came across in a new district, because I had just survived a tough boss fight and knew the next one was coming up and therefore wanted to evolve and be prepared. I’m now pretty sure I’ll get one of the bad endings.
Jonathan’s inventory includes weapons, ranging from two-handed weapons like clubs or a scythe to sabers, machetes, knives, pistols and even shotguns, self-made medicines for diverse diseases and ailments and health and blood boosts for himself. You can upgrade the inventory to hold more syringes and more bullets. Also, Jonathan can trade trinkets he finds in abandoned houses or on his victims for goods used to either concoct medicine or upgrade his weapons. Some stuff can also be recycled and the components used for medicine or upgrades.
There are two sorts of enemies: vampiric creatures such as Skals in all variations, large beasts and Ekon. And then there are vampire hunters. Also, I think the combat system could be better, but, well, you get used to it.
These hunters come in different classes. There are fast rogues, tough brutes, ranged enemies and priests that can neutralise vampiric powers when hitting Jonathan with the glare of light (though I have no idea how they produce that). Hunters attack in numbers, so dodging is always a good idea. Take out the ranged enemies quickly and beware of the rogues if, like me, you are using a slow weapon.
Skals are the most common vampiric enemies. There are the basic ones that attack with claw and tooth and shy away from the light of lanterns. There are Skals with the added skill of being able to teleport and Skals that puke poison and teleport and/or explode in a cloud of poison upon death. They also mostly hunt in packs and, again, dodging is key. Some Skal bosses, being able to use a grotesquely long arm to inflict damage at a distance, have an additional edge.
Enforcers (I do not know what vampires like Feral are called)
When I first encountered Feral, the Askalon Club’s enforcer, I feared for poor Jonathan. And I did not expect to face him in a fight quite so soon, which was why I had to upgrade my Doctor before I could defeat him. There will be a couple more of those vampires, but they all were below my level. Now, enforcers deal quite a lot of damage if they grab you and drink from you. Also, Feral had the power to summon three phantom selves that can also inflict damage. Dodging them is tough, especially if you have not fully upgraded stamina. For if you are out of stamina, you cannot do anything at all, neither dodge nor fight.
The large beasts resemble werewolves and are both ferocious and tough and you had best avoid them if you are yet unsure of how the combat system works and how to dodge. For again, dodging is your friend when facing them. The good thing about them is that they are mostly loners, but later in the game there is an odd pair of a poisonous large beast and a Skal found near the Askalon Club.
Ekon, the kind of vampire that Jonathan himself is, are the peak of the vampiric race and well organized, if a little arrogant. Jonathan will have to face Ekon aplenty late in the game and some are tough, others are not. They all fight with a saber, have the power to teleport and some have additional powers that can inflict a lot of damage. There is also one Ekon boss fight that I thought pretty tough. Speaking of…
There are a number of boss fights and not one of the bosses will have the same skill set as another, which is great. Dealing with the bosses will alsoo prepare you for the ultimate fight against the Red Queen, since she possesses almost all of the skills encountered in those previous battles. So watch and learn…
Interacting with the citizens of London
In Vampyr, every district is centered around one person, who plays an important part within that specific micro-cosmos. And if this “pillar” is removed by Jonathan Reid (in some cases the reverse is also true), the district will literally fall apart.
(And its deceased citizens will be buried in the graveyard, as eternal reminder of your failure.)
Some of the citizens – the “pillars”, actually – are part of Jonathan’s investigation, others he will have to actively speak to when encountered in the street. They all have their own stories and relations to other characters in the district.
And you have to be careful what you do with the citizens you meet. There was this one guy in Whitechapel who was constantly bullying a merchant, so I decided to off him. Unfortunately, this guy had a son, and because I didn’t want the son to go after me, I killed him too. Imagine my surprise when I found out that not all had been what it seemed at first glance…
I like how the game does not shy away from serious topics either, such as the woes of immigrants, women’s rights or white (male) privilege. See, all members of the Ascalon Club are white men of status, as are almost all Ekon Jonathan encounters. One exception is the ancient 20-something Lady Elizabeth Ashbury, very obviously Jonathan’s love interest. They make a cute couple, somehow, her being the wise mentor and he the newborn, clueless initiate thrown into a strange, dark world.
Where is my conscience?
While speaking with citizens is crucial to the main story, you will be able to shape Jonathan’s character and, ultimately, the ending. You’ll get to choose if his reactions are analytical, pragmatic or emphatic, or even if he acts in a consistent manner. I remember that I reacted in a very pragmatic manner to a question posed to me by a man I was later sent to either turn into my progeny or kill (or heal, but I had not unlocked that option). Let’s just say that he was very surprised at what choice I made, since it was not consistent with that previous exchange.
Yes, I did succumb to the dark side and turned into a killer during the course of my first playthrough. I still try my best to keep the districts that are not yet lost stable by handing out medicines when and where needed.
I try. Hard. But I foresee a bitter ending for Dr. Jonathan Reid… As soon as I manage to defeat the Red Queen in the last and very challenging boss fight.
Until then, keep on playing!