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Vampyr review - a beautiful premise wasted in this bland action RPG

Red or dead.

Dontnod takes a thrillingly Gothic perspective on early 20th century London, but squanders it in a dreary and indecisive adventure.

Great Gothic horror is all about colour, or lack thereof. The black of night, the white of bone, the monochrome of a gloomy cobblestoned street illuminated dimly by a single paraffin lamp. When colour is used, it's to highlight scenes of the macabre and the morbid so beloved by penny dreadfuls - the yellowing of a lonely mouldering corpse, the fetid green bile of a plague victim, or a single bright glob of crimson gore. Where it should never exist is within the realms of beige.

Vampyr is an action RPG that attempts to get right back to the roots of great Gothic horror in a medium that is often criminally lacking. Jonathan Reid is a renowned doctor specialising in blood transfusions - what else? - and serves as a military doctor in the Great War before being attacked on a London street one night by an unknown assailant and transformed into a newborn vampire. Who his Maker is, no-one can say, but soon Reid is embroiled in a plot to find the source of the sickness and figure out why a bunch of secret mystical orders are suddenly making a reappearance.

The set-up is rushed through in an angst-ridden prologue that places you in the aftermath of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, which at its height claimed millions of lives. In the midst of all that, when bodies lined the streets and fear and chaos gripped the nation's capital, who'd notice the absence of a lonely Whitechapel shopkeeper, a vicious Dockland gang-leader, a friendly West End grave-robber? It's buffet season for the immortal undead, but as a man once sworn to do no harm, will you partake?

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Well, as Vampyr itself loudly claims in its opening seconds, "What is life but death pending?" Ouch. The writing can get rather embarrassing, with the game's intro springing clangers like "what is glass but tortured sand?" and "what is darkness but setting sun?" Every line is delivered with an earnestness that the basic facial animations often fail to sell. That's not entirely Vampyr's fault though - tortured navel-gazing goes hand-in-hand with the genre - and as a former doctor thrust into this vamp-eat-vamp world without any explanation, Reid has equal reasons to lash out in anger or to try and claw his way back to a normal life.

This is the game's central conceit - will you heal or will you hurt? Will you uphold your hippocratic oath or will you succumb to your bloodlust? Unfortunately, it never feels like the dramatic conflict the game makes it out to be. Essentially, NPCs grant a certain amount of XP when bitten, but you can maximise this boost before you bite by healing that NPC of any illnesses that may be sapping their strength, and by unlocking hints as to the complexity of their character, which apparently makes them taste all the sweeter. There's rarely any skill involved, save for rummaging through houses for letters and documents and exhausting all possible options on the dialogue wheel of that individual and those of anyone close to them, but sometimes, if you observe people while your vampire sense is active, you'll see them glow bright. Standing in a specific location marked on the ground while this happens will unlock a short cutscene in which you typically observe them doing something strange or illicit, which will in turn unlock another hint you can confront them with. Occasionally you can fail hints by picking the wrong dialogue response, but it's all a little bit moot unless you plan on 'embracing' (biting) that individual eventually anyway.

And therein lies the rub. Vampyr insists the fewer lives you take the harder it will be, so following the righteous path and not killing anyone (humans that you bite and kill in combat apparently don't count) is essentially playing the game on hard mode. And yet, there's never really any reward for doing this, save for a couple of appreciative mentions from specific NPCs and very hasty, blink-and-you-miss-it lip service during the ending cutscene. As someone who likes a challenge and who usually tries to attempt the virtuous route in narrative games, it's difficult not to feel short-changed, especially since it doesn't take long for the story to spiral away from the genuinely interesting lives of mortals trying to survive a very dark chapter in London's history to some over-the-top apocalyptic battle between three ancient warring factions.

That's the real disappointment with Vampyr - it doesn't say or do anything new with the genre (already sadly under-utilised in video games) or the interesting premise it sets up for itself. Instead it retreads old tropes with no flair or wit of its own. It borrows from the greats - and name-checks a fair few of them too - but these are all stories we've heard before. There's the tortured vampire reluctant to take a life, the family heartbreak, the secret orders pulling strings from the shadows, the mortal thralls waiting for their chance at immortality, the vampire hunters protecting the not-always-innocent civilians while resolutely refusing to acknowledge your remaining humanity - these are all very familiar stories to any fans of Gothic horror. There are a couple of NPC hints that lead to minor asides involving LGBT relationships, racism and female suffrage, but like every other side quest, these stories are never expanded upon or explored with anything more than a line or two of vaguely sympathetic dialogue, particularly if they aren't drawn to a conclusion involving a dark alley and some pointy teeth.

When you aren't chatting with or patching up potential snacks, you're fighting them. Basic combat consists of wielding either a two-handed weapon or favouring one in each hand - one melee weapon like a hacksaw or a sabre and one off-hand weapon such as a shotgun or a stake. Then you have your special abilities that must be unlocked over time, which range from defensive to offensive to passive; razor sharp claws that can damage enemies and give you a blood boost, blood barriers that can absorb damage, health regeneration, and ultimate attacks which include the ability to go full-on beast mode for a few seconds, striking out at any enemies in your vicinity.

The most important element of combat that Vampyr doesn't do a great job of teaching you about is Blood (separate to the blood you harvest in search of XP boosts), which acts a bit like vampiric mana. Off-hand weapons like the stake inflict an amount of stun damage to an enemy, shown as a gauge below their overall health. Stunning them completely will knock them to the ground, allowing you to bite them and replenish your Blood meter, which you can then use to pull off more special attacks. Battles therefore become a balance of alternating regular and special attacks, dodging, healing aggravated damage (that is, damage by fire or by holy relics that chip away your overall health bar and don't allow for gradual regeneration outside of battle) and biting enemies so you can refill your Blood meter and do it all again.

There's fun in finding the right rhythm, but all too often it can boil down to a frustrating war of attrition as you work through mobs of tanks, fire-wielders and long-range threats. Boss fights - particularly if you are playing virtuously and so are likely under-levelled - last far too long and test your patience long before they test your skill, with foes sporting bloated health bars and the same two or three lines of dialogue that they will repeat constantly until you're slowly losing the will to live. Vampires might have all the time in the world, but that doesn't mean the same can be expected of players.

It all comes off as a missed opportunity, and you feel that if Vampyr had focused solely on either combat or narrative design it could have done something truly interesting, and more importantly satisfying, with either of them, instead of stretching itself thin. As it stands it feels more like a Jack of all trades, and though it talks a big talk about the consequences of taking and sparing lives, it does seem to prioritise combat over story, especially since the former is an unavoidable fact of afterlife and the only reason for unlocking hints and taking lives for XP is to bulk up your arsenal of spooky skills with which you'll take even more lives, but the kind that don't actually matter in the grand scheme of the narrative.

Added to this, there's a general lack of polish that tends to stack up. The loading times are painfully long (run too quickly from one open area to another and the game will forcefully pause mid-action to load everything in) and bugs like framerate lag occasionally crop up in combat. In one instance my game crashed to the console, and in another a fairly monumental boss fight suffered from some serious audio stuttering throughout, until I quit the game completely and reloaded. These are issues that will no doubt be fixed in time, but it all suggests Vampyr could have done with a little longer in development to improve the initial experience for early adopters.

It's also unclear how much individual player choices actually matter. One sequence fairly early on involves Reid working with a nurse to try and save a man on the operating table, asking questions and making demands as he cuts the patient from root to stem and fought against his urge to take a bite, but despite loading and reloading and tackling the scenario from a variety of different angles, every one ended the same way.

It's not all doom and gloom though. There's a satisfaction in being able to craft medicines and tonics to heal your favourite civilians (though it is jarring not to have the 'formula' to cure a simple headache when your pockets are overflowing with codeine) and to monitor their reactions as events unfold around the neighbourhood, with relationships and social circles between NPCs evolving and entangling. The Pembroke Hospital, the first main hub of the game, offers up a delightful wealth of weirdos and ne'er-do-wells to investigate, some of which you end up feeling oddly protective over. And Vampyr knows its setting, too, bringing Victorian London's grimy backstreets to life beneath an appropriately maudlin soundtrack. It's a well-crafted world, small but perfectly formed, which makes it more of a pity your interactions there are so limited.

Pressing in the left stick on consoles triggers Jonathan Reid's Vampire Sense, which renders the world as he sees it, in black and white save for the liberal splashings of blood that line London's darkened streets, and the bright beating hearts of the everyday folk he has promised to protect. But had Vampyr taken time to fully flesh out all those moral grey areas for the rich narrative vein they presented, rather than treat them as a resource to prop up an unremarkable combat system, it could have been a pretty special game. As it is, even with lashings of the red stuff, Vampyr ends up decidedly beige.

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