The best single-player gaming experiences play out like a great novel. They feature engaging characters, dynamic storytelling twists, and a narrative so immersive, you can’t wait to see what happens next. French developer DONTNOD Entertainment nailed this feat with LIFE IS STRANGE. LIS told such a compelling story of alienation, growing up, friendship, and loss that it quickly became one of my favorites of the current console generation. This summer, DONTNOD released their follow-up: VAMPYR.

At first, a game about vampires in gothic Edwardian London seems like it couldn’t be more different from LIFE IS STRANGE. And I’m not just referring to the setting. While LIS employed a slow, deliberate pace almost akin to a visual novel, DONTNOD’s VAMPYR features fast-paced combat and RPG level-up mechanics.

But after spending a little time with VAMPYR, I began to see the elements of DONTNOD’s storytelling at work. I met dozens of characters, each with gradually unveiled layers of complexity that make them far more captivating than the usual one-note RPG quest-givers. And then I had to decide whether or not to kill them. This dynamic of deciding the fate of the people you meet is at the heart of the VAMPYR storytelling experience.

DONTNOD Entertainment

DONTNOD’s VAMPYR Nails the Setting

DONTNOD chose its setting for a vampire game wisely. Set in 1918, you play as Dr. Jonathan Reid, returning home to London after the Great War only to find it ensnared in the horror of the Spanish Flu. As you might have guessed, there’s more to the disease than just a fever and coughing. Victims become wild with bloodlust and begin attacking anyone on sight and drinking their blood. Doctors are, of course, baffled. (Seriously, just once in a vampire story I’d like one of the characters to say, “Duh, these are obviously vampires.” One of the characters even has a signed copy of Bram Stoker’s DRACULA, so clearly the public knows what a vampire is. But I digress.)

Upon his arrival, Dr. Reid is quickly bitten by a mysterious entity and turned into a vampire. Given this newfound power, it’s up to you to choose what kind of vampire you’ll be. Employed as a doctor at a local hospital, you’ll interact with patients and treat them for a range of ailments while secretly investigating the vampire plague and the identity of your creator.

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Foggy London Town

Soon enough, your quest takes you beyond the hospital and into the heart of London, which I found to be a little underwhelming.

Billed as an “open world,” the world is not so much open as it is a series of twisting passageways that lead you to the four or five main neighborhood hubs. The atmosphere drips with gothic detail like darkness and fog, but in a way that feels claustrophobic. Compared to the huge, bustling London of ASSASSIN’S CREED SYNDICATE, the world here feels more like a small, lonely maze dotted with a few clusters of NPC’s. True, the game tries to hand-wave this away by blaming it on the epidemic. But still, I couldn’t help but wish for a more fully-realized environment.

“Take Responsibility for Your Actions”

But the draw of DONTNOD’s VAMPYR is the story. Entire books have been written about the difficulty in telling a linear story within a video game environment. There are numerous reasons for this, but I find one of the biggest obstacles to a good story to be the dreaded save scumming. In other words: if you don’t like the fallout from a mistake you’ve made, you can backtrack to a previous save and correct your actions. (Interestingly, the entire game mechanic of LIFE IS STRANGE revolves around this concept.) I admit that I am just as guilty as anyone else in doing it.

VAMPYR attempts to combat this with a frequent auto-save system. One of the initial loading screens implores that you “take responsibility for your actions.” The game auto-saves frequently enough that you cannot redo the choices you’ve made. I decided to fall in with the spirit of the game and let the cards fall where they may.

DONTNOD Entertainment

A Costly Mistake

I found my resolve tested early on.

[SPOILERS in 3… 2… 1]

I tracked down an errant nurse who I’d caught stealing valuable medical supplies from the hospital. When I confronted her, she revealed that she was using these supplies to provide care to the poor who couldn’t afford a hospital stay. Now, I had three choices in how to deal with her. One, I could force her to resign from her post. Two, I could “embrace” her (aka drink her blood), killing her and giving me a massive XP boost. (Note: more on this later). Or three, I could use my spooky mesmerism powers to make her forget all about her misdeeds.

I decided that the latter was the best course of action — and oh boy, was that the wrong call. I’m pretty sure that I straight-up broke her brain. She forgot not only her actions, but she somehow lost her entire identity. She soon went missing, and when I eventually found her, she had become a crazy mindless vampire monster who attacked me on sight. At this point, I had no choice but to kill her. Since she had been the pillar of her particular neighborhood, her death caused the entire district to fall into chaotic disarray for the remainder of the game, making it a more difficult area.

Now that was an action with consequence. My mistake not only affected the story but the gameplay as well. And there was no going back.

[End spoilers].

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To Suck or Not To Suck?

As I mentioned earlier, the heart of DONTNOD’s VAMPYR lies within its characters. The nurse story is just one example of someone who ends up being way more complex than they initially seem. Interestingly, the fate of each character affects the fate of others, often in ways that reveal themselves the more you get to know them.

Now, once you reach a “mesmerism” level that matches the character’s level, you can do what vampires do best. After you hypnotize them, you can then walk them to a secluded area and dig in, so to speak. Why would you choose to do this? Because you’ll gain a massive amount of XP that you can then use to upgrade your combat powers. And, rather cleverly, the XP they yield increases the more you get to know them and treat their various illnesses.

I’ve never experienced this kind of gameplay vs. story tension in a game before. It’s a really brilliant idea… on paper. The problem became evident once I realized that, well, the game just isn’t that hard. I wanted to see how far I could get without killing an NPC. The answer: the entire game. I was able to scrounge up enough XP from fighting the “normal” enemies and progressing through the story to build myself up to a respectable enough level to beat the final boss without killing a single interactive character. This ultimately makes the dilemma irrelevant and the concept falls apart.

Kind of a bummer.

DONTNOD Entertainment

A Good Start

And yet! DONTNOD’s VAMPYR impressed me enough with its commitment to story, atmosphere, lore, and concept that I would definitely recommend it as a kind of flawed but impressive experiment. DONTNOD really nailed the tough part. They created a very clever way to tell a story. If they create a sequel — which VAMPYR very much deserves — that fixes the gameplay issues and tightens the concept, they could have an absolute classic on their hands.

Promisingly, while I was prepping my article on DONTNOD’s VAMPYR, the studio announced a sequel to LIFE IS STRANGE coming out this September. I expect them to elevate their storytelling even further in that game. And if it’s successful, I think the possibility of a VAMPYR sequel becomes even stronger.

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DONTNOD is one of the most interesting story-driven game developers out there. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

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