Why Vampyr Is The Worst Game I’ve Ever Finished.

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 0.603% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I hated Vampyr. I mean, like actively loathed it.  I wound up beating the game on its hardest difficulty, despising every additional minute I spent with it, just to show it that I wasn’t quitting because I was bad at the game, I was quitting because it sucked.

But you know the worst part about Vampyr?  You could see the goodness bubbling underneath the surface.  With some additional experience on the developers’ part, this could have been a game I loved.  My hatred sprung from a visceral understanding that this roleplaying game with elaborately-scripted characters was meant for people like me, that I was in fact its target audience, and yet with every aspect it was distorting the things I wanted to adore about it into a tedious grindfest.

After all, I don’t hate most games.  I go, “Meh,” wander off after an hour or two.  This is a hobby.  Lots of games don’t do it for me.  Indifference is a sane reaction.

But Vampyr made big promises – you’re a British vampire during the influenza epidemic in World War I! Now, that’s a great setup.  And as a bloodthirsty vampire, you’ll get to know your victims intimately – each person in this disease-stricken London is a fully-fledged character, with hopes and dreams!  Should you decide to murder someone for the power in their blood, you’ll have to live with the fact that their death may affect the other people you have come to care about.

Yet the game will be difficult if you don’t feast.  You won’t get the XP you need unless you feed on someone.  Do you have what it takes to be a pacifist vampire?  And if not, who will you slaughter for your selfish gain?

Great setup.

Poor (m’haw) execution.

Because while the characters are well-written insofar as they go, they’re also really static.  Each character is about seven to ten spokes on a conversational hub, with some aspects of their conversation tree locked off until you discover secrets about them that make them open up.

They also never change over the course of the game.

So what actually happens when you get to the flu hospital after an hour or two is that you discover an exciting cast of doctors, nurses, and patients, and say “TELL ME MORE ABOUT YOUR CONDITION” about sixty times, and then run out of things to talk about for the rest of the game.  As the situation in London worsens, nobody has any new adventures or reactions or revelations – which means that if you’ve talked with them all early on, about twenty hours later they’re exactly the same, which highlights them as the mindless quest-givers that they are.

The only way to get them to open up after you’ve talked to everyone is to stumble across letters left in obscure areas of the map, at which point you can bring up another conversational spoke.  Which doesn’t feel like an adequate reward.  You’ve murdered your way across London, leaving a trail of dead bodies through plague-stricken apartments to find a ragged note in a locked safe, and all you get is four more sentences?

“But wait, Ferrett!” you say.  “I thought you were trying to be a pacifist vampire!  Aren’t you specifically not killing anyone?”  And that’s another problem with Vampyr – when they say “Don’t kill anyone,” what they mean is “Don’t kill any of the characters we have arbitrarily marked as having personalities.”  Because during the course of the game you’re obliged to kill about a thousand vampire hunters, who swarm out of the woodwork relentlessly, none of whom apparently had hopes or aspirations.  It’s fine to eviscerate these faceless goons by the bucketload, and in fact annihilating anonymous peasants is the only other way you can get XP, albeit trivial portions of it.

Which might be an interesting moral dilemma – okay, the people you can talk to are nice people, worthy of protection, and the vampire hunters are all bastards, right?

Well, no.  At least one of the named citizens you talk to is a serial killer.  One’s an unrepentant murderer.  Another is a landlord who’s extorting his renters for sex.  And keep in mind, the game specifically asks, “Do you have the moral courage to play the game on its hardest mode?  Can you the player starve yourself of the XP you’d get from eating fully-fledged citizens to achieve victory on the hardest mode?”

Yet the people you’re actually chastised for killing in-game are actually worse than these poor local boys who said, “Golly, these vampires murder people, I don’t want them in my neighborhood.  I’ll get out my shotgun.”  (And yes. You only get the good ending – the one where your character ends up happy – if you abstain from named murders.)

So basically, Vampyr participates in a weird colonialism, where it’s okay to kill seven hundred people as long as they’re no one you sat down for a drink with.

I would have adored this game if it had actually presented you with moral choices by not enforcing explicit outcomes!  It would have been a fascinating balance to make – “Gosh, the game is hard, and I need the XP, and nobody will miss this landlord.”  And you got to make your own judgments about who deserved life and death, and then saw the effects on the neighborhood as that death affected the people around them.

If the game hadn’t made a decision on what the good path was, I would have had to live with my own outcomes.

But no.  The story says that killing anyone – well, anyone named – is Bad, and you will be Punished for that decision as a Murderer.  Whereas I was a Good person, and got the Good ending where my vampire was happy, and only at the cost of filling up four morgues full of people whose main crime was thinking that a vampire might be a hazard to their home town.

The “moral” choice is worse than no choice at all.

And remember, the characters stop being characters after a set point in the story.  You exhaust their conversational options, and they turn into repeating squawkboxes.  After twenty hours, I tried to remember that they were supposed to be human beings, but there was nothing new to be done with them.  They didn’t want anything else, they didn’t react to the deteriorating conditions, there were no new quests they could give, they were just… there.

I’m told they do react if you start killing people, but remember, the game explicitly poses the challenge to you of whether you can play pacifist.  And if you take that unique choice, they’re boring.

I imagined a game, a better game, where the characters didn’t just wander endlessly through the same halls through the game.  Where new conversational trees unlocked as the game went on, where they said, “Gosh, the hospital has been invaded by an army of angry militia, I’m changing my attitude!”  And maybe they would need reassurance or help or had to be talked out of getting revenge.

But that was not this game.

And if the core gameplay loop was good, I could forgive it, but Vampyr oscillated between “crushingly difficult” and “tediously numb.”  You’ll run into the same five enemy sets throughout the game, and the same strategies work on most of them.  So you arm yourself with your weaponset and have the same dull battle a hundred times.

(Not to mention most of the best powers are static ones – more damage, more health, more healing – so levelling up largely feels unexciting.)

But for the boss combats, the camera is in tight – and the worst bosses spam the area with blooming area effects that you can’t see until you back into them, so you’re faced with the choice of “know where the boss is, or know where you’re retreating to.”  That turns a lot of boss combats into luck-based missions where you hope she doesn’t plant the exploding blood-roses behind you.

Which is also a weird reality-breaking issue, because there’s no save system in Vampyr – the game saves for you, and you can’t return to an earlier save if you regret eating that guy or making that decision.  That would be good, except the game also doesn’t acknowledge the save system – if you die, you reform out of a cloud of ashes and then go back to fight the boss with all your former inventory depleted.  Time has clearly passed, but the characters have not moved except for you.

This decision makes the world feel even more artificial.  The characters, as noted, have the same conversations with you throughout the game.  And after you’ve reformed, the bosses just stand there, stoically, waiting for you to arrive.  When you reform, the same damn ghouls – sorry, “Skals” – will be waiting in the same damn group in the same damn place.

It doesn’t feel like a living world.  It feels like a setpiece, and not a particularly good one.

And alas, the lead character’s a bit of snore, too.  It took me a while to realize that I was supposedly falling in love with the other lead female character – if there’s an opposite to chemistry, they have it – and I had no choice in that matter.

So the game wanted me to make Bold Decisions about Morality, yet shoehorned me into a singular plot where I got to make no significant choices.

Admittedly, that’s because I went for Pacifist run.  The game challenged me to git gud, and I got gud, and I beat it to prove that I wasn’t terrible at the game, the game was terrible.  And when I got to the end, there was another hour of exposition dump afterwards to explain things that could have been explained by dynamic characters in-game.

I don’t hate most games.  I get bored, and walk away.  But Vampyr was so close to what I wanted on literally every level that I felt the game designers wanted exactly what I wanted from a game – and then had no idea how to implement it competently.  There were ways to do this game so it would have become what they wanted.

But what I interfaced with was a game that consistently thwarted its own magnificent dreams.  I felt this game should have been better.  I was rooting for it, and watched it sabotage itself.  And now, alas, it’s returned to GameStop for credit, because I won’t be going back.

Later in  the week, I’ll talk about a game that was good: Prey.  My God, Prey was flawed, but what it executed well,it executed better than any other game out this generation.

More on that later.

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous Alex
    Aug 1, 2018

    (Apologies in advance if this double-posts, but I think I messed up the new website back-end the first time.)

    Glad to see you back, if only to say how awful that game was. I hope you enjoyed your donut, if you had one.

    -Alex

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