Vampyr’s combat might not be good, but its world is full of intrigue and difficult decisions. As fledgling vampire Dr. Jonathan Reid learns more about his powers, the player also learns the ins and outs of being a vampire. Last night, a misunderstanding of game mechanics resulted in me killing someone by accident. It was horrible, but a great example of what the game does best.
Early in the game, Jonathan finds work at the Pembroke Hospital in London. This city is being ravaged by the Spanish Flu, all while vampires and other creatures lurk in alleyways. Jonathan has only just become a vampire, struggling to understand his powers and balance his thirst for blood with his calling as a doctor. Much of the early portion of the game is spent in Pembroke’s halls, learning about the residents and easing the maladies of patients with crafted medicines or helping them in sidequests.
Whenever you talk to someone in Vampyr, you have a few options distinct from your dialog tree. One of these options is to use Jonathan’s medical skills to diagnose the person he’s talking to. NPCs can have issues from anemia to migraine, and most of them get fatigued as days pass. The player can craft medicine to heal these maladies. It builds positive relationships with the characters and prevents the city district you’re in from falling into chaos if too many NPCs get sick or somehow die.
The player is also able to “mesmerize” NPCs. Each character has a mental threshold, and if Jonathan’s skill is high enough, he’s able to essentially hypnotize them, then lead them into secluded areas where he can drink their blood for experience points. Important characters and those in good health grant more XP but are hard to mesmerize, while characters of poor health or social status are easier to control but yield less experience. Experience points are used to unlock special vampiric abilities such as shooting blood spears or creating a shield. Vampyr’s combat is clunky and these abilities are essential to tackling combat challenges. Every drop of blood and every experience point helps. The game is keen to remind you that if you want more power, all you have to do is drink some blood.
When the game first introduces this feature, you’re encouraged to take a character into an alley. When you’re there, you can feed on them or let them go. I chose to let this particular character go; the game told me to lead him into an alley, not drink his blood. Later in the game, after a prompt popped up reminding me I could, I figured I would give drinking blood a go.
One of Pembroke’s patients is a World War One veteran named Thomas Elwood who had his face horribly scarred in the war and still suffers from intense, seemingly incurable pain. His mesmerize threshold is level one, the lowest possible score. He seemed a safe pick, unlikely to draw attention when I sucked his blood. Although the opening of the game has Jonathan accidentally feed on his sister and kill her, I thought I’d be able to stop whenever I wanted. This was how bloodsucking worked in Troika Games’ 2004 cult classic Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. You could drain as much blood as you wanted and could always cancel the action. I decided I would snack but not kill, assuming I would get only part of Thomas’ XP. I was wrong.
It turns out that once Jonathan begins to feed, he will drain every drop of blood from an NPC until they are nothing more than a cold, dry corpse. When he bit into Thomas’ neck, the veteran thrashed about until his limbs got heavy and he slowly sagged into lifelessness. Jonathan released his grip and dropped the body to the ground. This wasn’t what I planned at all. I was mortified.
At first, I was upset—I didn’t think the game’s recommendation to suck blood had prepared me for the consequences. But it also felt a perfect moment for a game about managing nascent vampire powers. Jonathan lives between two extremes, both of which are expressed mechanically. He can follow the path of science and healing, brewing medicine and healing the sick around him. He can also give in and embrace his darker impulses. The promise of more power is tempting, and it’s just as easy to decide who is expendable as it is to prioritize who receives medical attention. That push and pull between the two extremes captures his own internal struggle.
I can’t change what I’ve done. Vampyr only allows one save file per playthrough. There’s no way to create a backup save or reload to a previous point to undo a decision. Thomas is dead and is going to stay dead. But having walked the darker path and lost control, I can better see the value of the more human path. When Jonathan woke up the next day, the game informed me that most of Pembroke’s staff had grown fatigued. The district was one step closer to disarray. I can fix that and heal the troubled souls around me. After failing once, I don’t plan to fail again.