Review: Vampyr (Switch)

A dark adventure through the blurry, yet compelling streets of London.

By Andy Hoover. Posted 11/30/2019 22:00 Comment on this     ShareThis
The Final Grade
1-Up Mushroom for...
An appropriately dark and mature story supported by great characters and writing; clever melding of character interactions and RPG progression mechanics; fantastic soundtrack and voice acting
Poison Mushroom for...
Technical problems including framerate drops and annoying pauses to load; combat fails to evolve much over the course of the game; default difficulty doesn't really force players to make the toughest, most interesting decisions

Nintendo Switch has already played host to more than a few ambitious ports of bigger budget modern games designed for more powerful hardware- and many have been successful both in terms of sales and technical execution. Vampyr, from developer Dontnod, is yet another example, but that isn’t the only thing that makes the game notable. As a story-driven action RPG, the game shows so much more ambition and creativity when it comes to much more important areas.

You assume the role of Dr. Jonathan Reid, a surgeon and expert in blood transfusion returning to London in 1918 as WWI winds down and Spanish Influenza grips the city. But matters are made all the worse for the good doctor as he awakens in a mass grave for flu victims, hungry for blood and, quite tragically, he sinks his teeth into his own sister’s neck before he can even grasp what’s going on. After fleeing vampire hunters and encountering another, more ravenous, of his kind, he finally finds some semblance of safety with a fellow doctor familiar with this undead affliction. Reid agrees to work in his new ally’s struggling hospital in return for a safe space where he can become acclimated with his new situation and start to piece together who turned him into a vampire and why.

From here, you are settled into Vampyr’s compelling and creative rhythm. The story takes you across London’s open world with each district playing host to a dozen or so characters. Only a handful will truly be significant to the main story, but each is treated with a great deal of care. Everyone has an interesting backstory and layers of complexity informing their emotions and actions and conversing with them to uncover every little detail is an absolute pleasure. Of course, many characters are often interlinked with one another, meaning information gleaned from one individual can open up new dialogue options with another. Naturally, more than a few are also happy to give out the occasional sidequest, as well.

The real beauty of Vampyr’s design is how it integrates all of this conversation into the game’s progression system. Each section of the city has what is effectively a health meter based on the well-being of its inhabitants, and each citizen has a pool of potential experience points based on their status. Getting to know people and treating their illnesses with craftable medicine grows the amount of experience. Insignificant folks, like the local thug, will only ever be worth a little bit, but the most important individuals will be worth small fortunes. And all this experience can be yours by sucking them dry. You are a vampire after all.

Jonathan faces increasingly more powerful foes as the story progresses and he can upgrade his vampiric abilities and stats with experience. Of course, you gain quite a bit by completing objectives and defeating enemies, but sacrificing people to your lust for blood can easily supercharge your progression, making you much more powerful, much more quickly. However, there’s a catch! Taking out citizens, especially important ones like doctors and leaders, can quickly result in an area being plunged into chaos, with more beasts of the night roaming the streets. And don’t be surprised if the ending reflects how you choose to treat all those innocent lives.

While this system is quite clever at first, it runs into a bit of an issue thanks to the game’s combat. Mechanically, battling your foes works perfectly fine and is even decently fun. You can find and upgrade a number of primary and secondary weapons with varying statistics. Swords and cudgels make for good standard weapons, the stake is great for breaking down an enemy’s defense, and guns can be powerful but have very limited ammo. You also have a variety of vampiric attacks you can unlock that drain blood, which you can recoup in battle by biting foes whose guard you have broken through. Unlocking new moves requires a lot of experience, so whatever attacks you choose early on will likely have a big effect on your play style.

The only real issue here is how combat is ultimately rather easy and fails to evolve in meaningful ways over the game. Chomping down on all of your friends and investing in powerful moves will make fights go quicker, but it’s often easy to chip away at bigger baddies once you figure out the best way to dodge their attacks. Some strategy is required due to how your attacks and dodges drain a stamina bar, but it rarely feels limiting enough to be of great significance. Ultimately, the temptation of feasting upon the innocent is made less significant and more a matter of personal preference than a potentially necessary evil to overcome a greater threat.

Another noteworthy issue is perhaps more unique to the Switch version because it is, tragically, the visuals and performance. At times, Vampyr looks good, as the light glistens off London’s rain soaked streets or you make your way through a richly detailed room. However, when the environment becomes too busy, there’s definitely a noticeable drop in resolution and not all textures fare all that well. These problems are quite literally magnified when playing on a larger screen. Framerate can also take a hit, especially when moving the camera through larger areas. Thankfully, things tend to stay fairly smooth while in combat and most of these issues are alleviated to some extent when playing in handheld mode where the sense of atmosphere feels much more consistent.

Another strange issue is how the game seems to stream its content. London is technically an open world, however you’ll occasionally have the game come to a halt as a loading prompt appears on screen. Oddly enough, this seems to happen quite inconsistently, as sometimes you’ll cover a lot of ground without issue, while at other times it seems to pop up rather frequently. I dare say I’d prefer more of such loading screens if they happened in a more predictable manner.

Thankfully, the audio presentation is a rousing success. First, the voice acting throughout is fantastic with only a few small misses. Considering the time frame and setting, I was expecting more cartoony performances like something out of a bad Dickens adaptation, but it’s almost all very serious and well done. The music feels just about pitch perfect, with lots of droning strings creating a dark, depressing atmosphere throughout much of the game, with an occasional aggressive piano driving things when the action picks up. Altogether, the game is obviously going for a very oppressive and dour atmosphere, and the sound design is the game’s best tool for accomplishing this.

Despite the relative shortcomings created by its competent but uncompelling combat, Vampyr remains a fascinating game well worth experiencing. The core story is solid enough, but it’s supported by a cast of dozens of well written and voiced characters, and the game is quite smart to really construct its main focus around these interactions. One could likely blitz through the main missions fairly quickly, but most gamers will likely feel compelled to explore every line of dialogue and complete every side quest to immerse themselves in this well realized world. Unfortunately, the technical issues perhaps make the Switch a less ideal way to experience this adventure. Yet, this version still ultimately delivers the story and characters that really make the game worthwhile.

Nintendojo was provided a copy of this game for review by a third party, though that does not affect our recommendation. For every review, Nintendojo uses a standard criteria.

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