An action RPG with a moral dilemma that lacks bite
Imagine, if you will, that you are a doctor who has become a vampire. Your Hippocratic Oath compels you to do no harm, but your thirst for blood makes you yearn to do just that by consuming human flesh. Forget the premise of John Dorian’s “Dr. Acula” from Scrubs, this is the setup in a post-war, flu-ridden London in Vampyr on Nintendo Switch.
Vampyr is a third-person, open-world adventure that is powered by a character-driven narrative, with dodge-and-strike combat opportunities littered throughout the environment. It was originally developed by Dontnod Entertainment and published by Focus Home Interactive, but this Switch version comes to us via Saber Interactive. In fact, one of this port’s best accomplishments is to simply get the open-world adventure of Vampyr running on Switch. It’s not the miraculous accomplishment that The Witcher III’s Switch iteration was, but it makes sense when you consider that Saber Interactive assisted on that game as well. Regardless, running a game of this scale on Switch is a marvel in itself.
For Dontnod Entertainment, Vampyr is a return to a game concept with the scale and combat of Remember Me, rather than the intimate adventure of Life Is Strange. Players assume the identity of Jonathan Reid, a doctor who has returned to London from the Great War in 1918, to discover that a pandemic is running rampant, all while he has awoken with vampiric abilities and urges. After being discovered by Dr. Edgar Swansea and recruited to maintain the appearance of medical practice at the local Pembroke Hospital, Jonathan must use the night to explore the town and discover the secrets of his vampire origins. Experience points allow you to flesh out a skill tree, and these points can be attained through mission completion or as a result of combat. However, the most experience-rich targets are the sixty characters who live in London’s four districts, each with their own stories and secrets to share. The well-acted web of relationships creates a believably inhabited world, which amplifies the overall narrative.
These characters are intended to be the main hook and moral dilemma of Vampyr, in the sense that fostering interpersonal relationships with these characters deepens the worldbuilding and storytelling in the game. However, this character growth also makes those individuals irresistible pools of experience points. Because Jonathan Reid is a vampire, he can choose to kill any of these characters to feast upon the points that their blood offers, but doing so has narrative consequences. Not only would these bitten characters cease to become quest-givers, but their personal arcs and their impacts on others are frozen, and as a result, the story can be directed to any of its four endings. This is Vampyr’s attempt at creating a compelling moral dilemma as a means of difficulty. If the combat is too difficult and the player needs to level up or attain a new ability on the skill tree, the experience points are there for Jonathan’s consumption, and so you make the choice of who must die to give the vampire life. Unfortunately, this means that the selected combat difficulty level at the start of the game, along with player factors such as combat competency and vampire roleplaying willingness, can render this dilemma moot. After all, if the combat doesn’t provide a challenge, does the vampire have to feast when he can get by on experience points from combat and missions?
Unfortunately, the act of playing Vampyr shows frayed edges, demonstrating that a strong narrative foundation with well-realized characters only goes so far. Conversations make use of an unusual camera angle, with a wheel of options that slowly drip-feeds exposition. Experimenting in the open world shows technical struggles and immersion-breaking animations, such as the destruction of crates and barrels. Worst of all, however, is a combat gameplay loop that is neither fun nor rewarding, leading to stale encounters and an increasingly dull experience. Using a variety of melee weapons, bites, and special powers, you can dispatch enemies by dodging and attacking effectively, especially during boss battles. I can’t describe the experience as smooth, though, especially when stealth is a haphazard experience with a questionable tutorial and enemy AI that can spot you around corners. When it comes to its gameplay, Vampyr seems like a textbook case of combat dragging down an intriguing narrative premise, creating an overall middling experience.
Ultimately, this leads us to the question of whether Vampyr is worth your time with its Switch version. The port appears to be faithful to the original 2018 game, so if you enjoyed your time with that, London is yours to explore on the go. But I would be hesitant to recommend this game to most people, especially to those who expect a Life Is Strange-like experience from Dontnod. That being said, if a stale combat experience wouldn’t distract you from a strong narrative or if you are especially fascinated by the vampire aesthetic and its attached dilemmas, Vampyr might just be worth sinking your teeth into on Nintendo Switch.