Dontnod’s first open-world game is more Dishonored than Dracula
Among the things we disliked about our first glimpse of Vampyr, Dontnod’s tale of occult predation in wartime London, was its combat – a graceless third-person mishmash of three-hit combos and pistol exchanges, peppered with crowdcontrol spells and teleport dashes. It was a shaky advert for a developer now wandering back into action-adventure territory after the success of episodic adventure Life Is Strange, but the addition of Teppei Takehana to Dontnod’s ranks goes some way towards addressing our misgivings. Hired as animation director in June 2016, he brings ten years of experience as an animator at Kojima Productions and Quantic Dream, whose games tread a similar line between motioncaptured plausibility and outright fantasy. While Dontnod doesn’t have any new combat footage to show during our visit to the studio’s Parisian HQ, Takehana’s matter-offactness is reassuring. “To make a responsive action game is really easy,” he notes. “To have a responsive action game that looks realistic is more difficult. This is our challenge.”
Another, more nebulous concern about Vampyr’s combat is that it will steal attention from the game’s most intriguing elements: the ornate ugliness of its disease-ridden open world, which evokes both the intricately meshed city of Thief and the charnelhouses of Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, and the way in which you’re obliged to prey upon that world. The game’s smoggy, gaslit hunk of London is home to around 60 fully fleshed-out civilian characters – from nurses and coppers to drunks and protection racketeers. As recent vampire recruit Dr Jonathan Reid, you’re under oath to aid these people, but drinking their blood bestows much more XP than you’ll gain by dining out on generic enemies such as vampire hunters armed with flame weapons, or your fellow undead.
It’s possible to complete the game without murdering any civilians, and refusing to feed doesn’t actively weaken you, though it’ll deny you access to the most exotic abilities. But this approach nonetheless charges the business of levelling with unusual import: in order to grow powerful you must erode the narrative foundations of the game, whittling down the cast, one by one, like a black-market surgeon harvesting organs. “If you want to act like Dexter and only kill the bad people, you can do that,” game director Philippe Moreau explains. “You can select the people you believe are no good for humanity, hunt them down and feed on them. It’s up to you, but what’s interesting is that you don’t really have a choice if you want to evolve. You need to feed on people on a regular basis. It’s a very different approach, because we’re not used to sacrificing NPCs, the people we talk to.” Vampyr’s principle choice, in other words, isn’t whether to be good, but how little you can be evil without progress grinding to a halt.
Feeding on civilians has a range of practical effects, both immediate – drain a shopkeeper and you may struggle to find upgrade materials for your trusty bonesaw and pistol – and long-term, as already-precarious communities unravel for want of a key support, shutting off certain possibilities while perhaps exposing others. Not all the characters are as crucial to society’s wellbeing as others, of course – one relatively ignoble example is Ichabod Drogmorton, a bewhiskered fop posing as a legendary vampire slayer – but there’s more to each than meets the eye. In Drogmorton’s case, you might undertake a few odd jobs for him, helping to distribute posters recounting his exploits, before deciding whether to make him your dinner. There’s always an element of calculation involved, because Reid can’t risk biting civilians in public – you’ll need to get each victim alone, which typically involves building trust by choosing the right responses in conversation, perhaps referring to a set of character bio screens that recall Frogware’s Sherlock Holmes series. If you have enough Willpower, an energy resource that compares to a Persuasion stat, you can also manipulate the subject’s mind to force them to tell the truth about something, or use hypnosis to lead your quarry away to a dark corner.
Vampirism has its downsides, naturally – you can only enter occupied buildings on invitation, for example, so breaking and entering isn’t an option. Narrative director Stéphane Beauverger has taken a pick-andmix approach to vampire lore, shifting the emphasis away from kooky B-movie transformations and towards the arts of persuasion and seduction. “We decided that our vampires have solid bodies, they can’t turn into fumes or bats, things like that,” he says. “The hero can see himself in a mirror. You can take a picture of him. Silver won’t do much damage to him.” Reid is no slouch as an infiltrator, however, able to warp through mid-air like Dishonored’s Corvo, and the environment is built to reward such feats of agility, extending from cellars and sewer mouths to rickety iron balconies and attics. The world will be largely closed off at the start of the game for the sake of tutoring players, with different areas becoming available as you develop your abilities and encounter – or devour – certain characters.
However you dispose of them, Vampyr’s assorted denizens seem deserving of contemplation. “The Great War is very important in terms of both scientific discoveries, but also social change – the birth of communism and feminism, the crumbling of the old British and French empires,” Beauverger says. “Some of our characters will be involved with all this on a personal level, and they’ll give you hints about how it was to be an Indian in London at the time, or a Chinese woman, or a Muslim, or a pauper who doesn’t have the right to enter some parts of the city.” It’s largely up to you when you choose to spill a civilian’s blood, so there’s the prospect of spending the entire story getting to know everybody on the map, painstakingly unearthing the threads that bind these lives together, before cutting a swathe through the populace in the final third.
We described Vampyr as a departure in E292, but in some ways this is more a work of consolidation for Dontnod, building on the studio’s proficiency with Epic’s Unreal Engine and tackling many of the same design questions as Life Is Strange and inaugural project Remember Me. The latter also saw players manipulating NPCs via arcane means while exploring modest urban playsets and cracking the odd skull, but it would’ve benefited by being less constrictive. In opting for a persistent, continuous environment, Vampyr is out to address this limitation even as its neighbourhood echoes the melancholy smalltown intimacy of Life Is Strange.
“None of us are saying, ‘If you like Life Is Strange, you’ll love Vampyr’ – we can’t say that,” Beauverger concedes. “But I certainly believe that somebody who appreciated the narrative aspect of Life Is Strange will find the same thing in Vampyr. The same tragedy, the same sadness. Vampires are sad creatures.”