It is astonishing that Vampyr is a new, full-priced video game being released in the year of our lord 2018, and not some obscure PlayStation 3 title that developed a cult following and sells for slightly more than you’d think on Amazon. I mean this—I promise—as a compliment. Everything about the game feels drawn from a different time: the ass-ugly graphics, the measured insistence upon “interesting conversation” as an end unto itself, and most especially the dense web of almost tabletop-game-like mechanics that define your time in its foggy, gas-lit London. The designers at Dontnod, who previously helmed the beloved time-travel adventure Life Is Strange, have created a uniquely ambitious RPG—although it’s ambitious in ways that entirely buck expectation. Whereas all modern design conventions demand shiny graphics and clean, satisfying combat, often at the expense of writing, Vampyr goes in the exact opposite direction. It’s a richly mechanical literary experiment of wildly malevolent intentions, but you’ll have to work to uncover its charms.
It presents just about the worst first impression imaginable, with not one but two voice-over monologues, one of which contains overwrought rhetorical questions such as “Is not glass but tortured sand?” From there, you are thrown into the shoes of some trenchcoat-clad Video Game Protagonist™, of course suffering from a bout of amnesia, of course tearing ass through some shoddily designed obstacle course full of faceless goons. You are taught how to fight, stab, level up, whatever. Quests are given to you; a boss is fought; you are a vampire. Things are not promising. But press on—another hour or so—and you eventually make your way to the Pembroke Hospital, a charming re-creation of the Resident Evil mansion, here overrun with patients suffering from an epidemic of the Spanish flu. It is in utter disarray. Piles of furniture are everywhere. Tents up front triage dying patients, and the hospital’s dapper administrator—creepily cognizant of and into the fact that you are a vampire—sets you up with a room in an unoccupied corner. It’s at this point the game lets down its guard, no longer trying to dazzle you with what can only loosely be described as “action,” and shows you its terrible true self.
The first loading screen hinted at it, introducing one of the game’s most novel ideas: You control the difficulty by choosing to feed or not. Want a challenge? Fine, be a “good” vampire and attempt to suppress your thirst. Hit a difficulty spike? Get out there and suck some blood. Each person you feast upon—in an elaborately designed ritual the game refers to as “embracing”—gives you a huge blast of experience points, which you can use to unlock new abilities and upgrade your various stats, turning combat into as much of a breeze as you want. But this variable difficulty is only one node in a latticework of systems that forms the game’s pitch-back heart. If you feed, you’re not chowing down on procedurally generated nobodies but one of the game’s many detailed characters, each of whom has their own backstory, richly populated dialogue tree, set of mysteries, side quests, relationships, and so on. Spread across four separate neighborhoods, there’s an almost Dickensian scope to the gnarled city, full of poets, prostitutes, gangsters, child molesters, and cowards. You can kill them all.
Almost every relationship is, in some way, antagonistic. People who know you’re a vampire are using you for their own ends, gradually hinting at and unveiling a broader context of inter-vampire political intrigue, full of sects and lineages and warring factions. Worse still are the people who merely think you’re a doctor. There’s a science-hating priest whose every dialogue choice ends in argument; you can respond to almost anything he says by telling him to fuck off. An ardent socialist hates you for your fancy clothes. A crook who you see murder a child hates you because you saw him murder a child. These characters don’t have friendships among themselves so much as conspiracies, and as you acquire information about them, you open up new dialogue options, which you always shout at them like Cole Phelps on tilt. In the game’s most depraved invention, building these relationships—and keeping the townspeople healthy by brewing up various medicines—actually makes them more lucrative to then feed upon. The people you get to know the best can be worth thousands of experience points, especially if kept in good health. To play the game is to fatten up your victims, gaining their trust and then murdering them.
And you will want to, because its flighty, insubstantial combat is not exactly a joy to experience. Dontnod isn’t known for its fisticuffs, and Vampyr’s surprisingly complicated combat is full of frustrations, whether it’s a punitive stamina bar, sluggish AI, or repetitive boss fights. But even this has its charms, with time. Vampyr’s most decidedly “gamelike” passages are some of its most anachronistic: long trips into brown sewers, brown-black warehouses, gray dock-yards, shit-colored apartment complexes. Scrawled across their walls is post-apocalyptic graffiti all telling you to “keep out” or “beware” or “enter at your own risk.” You slam the X button in corners to rifle through belongings; faceless thugs hop out from behind crates; loosely designed puzzles task you with pushing several buttons. All of it feels decidedly 2008, in both design and execution, and yet it congeals with those long, angry conversations to produce a wonderfully nasty, mean-spirited little aesthetic vision.
It is all unrelentingly bleak stuff, soundtracked by shrieking cellos, discordant choirs, the sound of a piano being disemboweled, and so on. One sub-quest tasks you with retrieving a quiet young man’s suicide note before his overbearing mother can discover it, and afterward, you can give it to him or tattle on him to his mother. Feeding on people can be blackly comic, too, as the choice of whether or not to kill this person and close off entire wings of the game’s narrative is balanced by a flashing reminder of exactly how many experience points doing so will yield. And if you do choose to suck a character dry, each death is made to feel as weighty as possible. The day after I feasted upon a particularly nutritious cannibal priest, I awakened to headlines mourning the death of a local hero. “The murderer did not only take a life,” the article read, “he extinguished hope in a part of town that desperately needed it.”
The game’s writing varies widely, but at its best, it’s gothic, pulpy stuff. Like the combat and world, it all becomes uniquely absorbing once Vampyr gets its mechanical hooks in you. Few role-playing games have the audacity of forcing you into a role quite like this, running around screaming at sinners and frauds and being driven to murder those who come to trust you. I haven’t beaten the game yet—it’s worth taking slowly, like the prestige television from which it clearly takes its inspiration. It’ll be interesting to see if it can make all of these titanic decisions feel purposeful; so many narratives of this sort result in preordained destinations or a sort of pieced-together consequentiality. If it can stick the landing, it’ll be the sort of game people puzzle over for years, an ambitious experiment that flies in the face of convention. Even if it doesn’t, though, it’s worth letting into your home.